Betty Baker Rules

Love her or fear her, Austin's land-use queen shapes the city her own way

Betty Baker
Betty Baker (Photo By Jana Birchum)

She is a tiny, 71-year-old woman who has survived two heart attacks and a history of anemia-related illnesses, and her fading vision has taken in more hospital rooms than many of us visit in a lifetime. Why, then, is Betty Baker still the most feared official in city government?

The short answer is that Baker's reputation, built on a 30-year career of crafting the city's planning and development process, is much, much larger than the woman herself. The former city staffer, a lifelong Austinite who rose steadily through the ranks from stenographer to senior planner, has in the last decade been a leader of first the Planning Commission and now the Zoning and Platting Commission, which she's chaired since its 2001 inception. In that strategic role she is loathed as much as she is admired for her expertise in land use and historic preservation.

Baker's experience and savvy in navigating difficult planning decisions has won her praise from people in all corners of the community. But many of those same people – environmentalists and central-city planning advocates, in particular – complain that she too often interprets planning regulations in ways that favor development over protection, property over community. Others raise a larger question that may not be laid solely at Baker's door: How is it that in a city flamboyantly dedicated in theory to neighborhood and environmental preservation, so many individual planning decisions come down in favor of asphalt and poured concrete?

Winning Through Intimidation

On a personal level, Baker is an enigmatic Iron Lady who loves to gamble, evidenced visibly by the sheer number of cigarettes and sodas she puts away in a day. She also gambles literally – from bingo on Ben White to slot machines in Vegas. "I love all games: dominoes, checkers, chess, bingo. There's probably not a game that I wouldn't play. But you don't have to list all my vices," she tells a reporter, before adding with a self-effacing jab: "I'm also pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, I stutter, and I can't see."

Despite her frailties, in her role as ZAP chair Baker cuts an intimidating figure on the dais. Her weapons include a withering glare, baleful even through trifocal lenses; a measured, gravel-voiced diction; and a quick wit. Over the years she has reduced inexperienced neighborhood representatives to tears, humiliated staff, and – despite her pro-development votes more often than not – occasionally angered developers by piling on conditions like setbacks, buffer zones, and square-footage reductions. "You might get your GR [General Retail] zoning, but you may not be able to do garage shops or pawn shops," said developer lawyer Richard Suttle. "You think, well, is that a vote for me or is that a vote for sound planning?"

Indeed, while most observers agree that Baker votes to give developers most of what they ask for – and usually gets a majority of the ZAP to agree – another complaint is that her decision-making often seems capricious, based on gut instinct rather than fact. As former Planning Commissioner Robin Cravey, an environmental and neighborhood activist, recalls, "Her votes were kind of idiosyncratic, depending on who it was or how she felt about a case." Where Baker was more consistent, he added, was in her nonchalance toward the big picture. "Betty has a very thorough understanding of the Land [Development] Code, and she loves getting into the details of cases," he said. "But she is not so interested in long-range planning, and I think that contributed to the split."

The "split" in this case was a decision the City Council made in August 2001 to divide the Planning Commission, at the time chaired by Baker, into two entities, with the ZAP taking on the zoning responsibilities more suited to Baker's interests, and the PC setting off on a Smart Growth journey toward better planning. Legally, the two commissions have identical roles to play in the city's development review process. But philosophically, the PC and Baker's ZAP are dramatically different, and it's no secret which one the developers prefer.

Fighting the Devil

Baker takes quite seriously her role as a defender of the city's best interests, as she defines them. In one recent zoning case, she defied both a neighborhood group and the developer – and the rest of her commission, for that matter – when she voted against a high-density condo development, based in large part on which side of the street the project would sit. In this instance it was the southwest corner of Martin Luther King and West Avenue, in the Judges Hill neighborhood. Despite an agreement reached between the NA and the developer, Baker was not convinced that the project, even with the support of its neighbors, would be a suitable match for the area. As she explained a couple of days later in her office, "I think there's no better place in this city for high density than the [University of Texas] area, but my concept of the UT area is north of MLK. As long as there are viable neighborhoods south of MLK, which there are, I cannot support that precedent, and I voted against it. And I was the minority vote."

On other matters, Baker has also been known to take personally a commissioner's opposing viewpoint, as she did during last summer's long, hot debate on a number of historic zoning cases. In one emotionally wrought case, she tore into ZAP Commissioner John-Michael Cortez for questioning whether the commission should be second-guessing the recommendations of the Historic Landmark Commission and Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, specifically on a home in Pemberton Heights recommended for H-zoning against the owner's wishes. The owner, citing prohibitive expenses associated with the home's upkeep, had sought a demolition permit to level the home and rebuild on the existing property, an unpopular decision with many neighbors. Cortez agreed with the HLC and Sadowsky's findings that the house (built by Dewitt C. Greer, the "father of the Texas highway system") met the criteria for historic designation. But Baker and a majority of the ZAP sided with the homeowner.

So Cortez took his position a step further, arguing that a vote for protecting the house would be a vote for safeguarding the historic fabric of the neighborhood. In doing so he suggested that others on the commission might not care as much about preserving the character of a community. Baker was quick to take very visible umbrage; as a city staffer, she had essentially crafted the city's historic preservation program and had single-handedly navigated most of Austin's 400 landmarked structures through that process. Baker angrily told Cortez, "I don't think anyone in this room ... has invested more time and more effort for historic preservation than I."

Sarah Crocker
Sarah Crocker (Photo By Jana Birchum)

In the end, the City Council sided with the owner and Baker, and the controversy over this and other historic zoning cases prompted the council to appoint a task force to review the city's process. Baker, to no one's surprise, chaired the task force, which wrapped up its findings and recommendations this week (see "New Rules for Old Buildings," below).

The clash with Cortez summed up, for many observers, both what's right and what's wrong about Betty Baker. She clearly knows more about Austin and its planning process than do most, but she's often unwilling to acknowledge that opposing points of view – as, in this case, both Cortez and the HLC – are entitled to the consideration they should get in a public development process. But the Greer House and other cases also illustrate Baker's strongly held belief that the city has gotten too generous with historic zoning, eliminating millions of dollars from the property-tax rolls and distorting the city's preservation program into a tool to protect neighborhoods rather than individual structures. This is also what many City Council members believe, and thus the mandate of her task force.

The chair's immovable stances on what are so often emotionally charged issues have given Baker her reputation for running meetings with an iron hand. "It's unfortunate that people see her as this one-dimensional, autocratic woman," said longtime friend and developer lobbyist Sarah Crocker. Baker can understand how one might arrive at such an opinion. "If I think I'm right," she said, "I will fight and argue with anyone. If I know I'm right, I will fight the devil. And in many instances and on many occasions, I know I'm right. Therefore, I'm very – I guess I would say – opinionated. I'm very unbending if I know I'm right. I've been one vote on an 8-to-1 vote more than once on the commission, but I've voted the way I thought was right."

And have there been times when Baker knew she was right but in fact was proven wrong?

"Rarely," she says. "More often than I'd like to admit, I've been proven right." She does acknowledge that she is sometimes too quick to form opinions of people, and later learns she had erred in her judgment. "I think it [my mistakes] would deal more with people and situations like that, more than land-use issues. I try very hard to be right, but sometimes being right is not necessarily fair. And maybe that's where being an autocrat comes in. But ... I've always tried to be fair."

Pro and Con

Baker's undeniable self-esteem is reinforced by her friends and admirers and, since 1997, by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman's continued reappointment of Baker every two years to the PC and then the ZAP (her current term expires in June). But not everyone appreciates Baker's reign as land-use queen, one reason she was frankly apprehensive about seeing this article in print. Her wariness is not unfounded. The Chronicle has not been particularly kind to Baker – City Editor Mike Clark-Madison concluded in print recently that it's time for her to go, and Baker is quick to point that out. She reluctantly agreed to an interview, given on a cool, breezy afternoon in January, at her office of the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, where she is the director of Heritage Marketing and the Visitor Centers. Baker transferred there from the planning department in 1994, when the CVB was still under city control. The bureau was privatized a year and a half later, thus making Baker eligible for appointment to the city Planning Commission, which Goodman promptly made happen. Her lengthy tenure, first on the PC and then on ZAP, has prompted questions about term limits for members of city boards and commissions (several of whom have put in far more years than Baker's seven). Even more charitable observers have privately allowed that perhaps the venerable but imposing chairwoman should take her leave. But Baker says she's not ready to go anywhere. "I would like to stay as long as I'm an asset, as long as I'm contributing," she said.

Greeting me in her office, Baker – again noting her personal uneasiness with the Chronicle – joked that she wished she had wall-to-wall mirrors, "so I can see who's behind me with a knife." Guarding against an ambush, she asked an assistant to sit in on the interview, and when the first watcher's shift ended, ZAP member Melissa Whaley "happened" to stop by – and stayed for the remainder of the interview.

Still, while many agree with Clark-Madison's assessment of Baker as the "bossy, imperious" chair of ZAP, whose members are either "Betty Baker's friends [or] Betty Baker's victims," there are others who rush to Baker's defense. "If you don't know her, then of course you're going to see Betty as a very abrupt, blunt-talking woman who can cut you off at the knees," said her friend Sarah Crocker. "But nobody feels more passionately about her work, about Austin, than Betty. You will never see another Betty Baker come up through the ranks."

Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who has spent the last couple of years cultivating a friendship with Baker, describes her as "more bark than bite." Since getting to know each other, the two Bettys have taken trips together, to casinos from Nevada to Louisiana, where Baker plays slots while Dunkerley hits the poker table. "We have a lot in common," Dunkerley explains. "We're both old, and we both have great-grandchildren that we adore."

Indeed, there is another side to Baker that few people see outside the meeting room. Her passion for Austin runs as deep as her roots in the town, where a young girl named Betty Gower grew up, the middle of three children (the youngest died in infancy). Her father was a heavy-equipment operator who drove the bulldozer that carved the 19th Street hill down to Lamar. Her mother was a homemaker who sometimes brought in extra cash by checking groceries down at the Big Bear Food Store on South Congress, between Riverside and Barton Springs Road. Baker's interest in the past was formed at an early age. Her grandfather, who ran a small grocery store and gas station on South Congress, entertained her with stories about Austin's colorful history.

Baker graduated from high school but skipped college, got married, moved to Houston, had a daughter, got divorced, and moved back to Austin – South Austin, of course – to raise her daughter. A single mother, Baker took a job in August 1974 as a stenographer in the city's planning department. Before long, she was doing the work of a planner and serving as the staff liaison to the Historic Landmark Commission. When a planning position opened up, she applied, but was turned down for lack of a college degree. She asked for a transfer to another department. "Would she train the new hire before leaving?" she was asked. "Uh, no," came the response. The position was reposted – this time as a planning technician – and the job went to Baker. That experience would change Baker forever. "It made me more determined," she said. "I was determined to do the job better than anybody else." Within a year, she was promoted to city planner.

Zapping and Planning

Until 2001, the Planning Commission was a lively and contentious panel, whose members, current and former, have included some of Austin's most forcefully dynamic citizens – Baker, of course, and Mayor Pro Tem Goodman; environmental doyenne Mary Arnold; Eastside activists like the Rev. Sterling Lands and Susana Almanza; and New Urbanist architect Ben Heimsath. The city's neighborhood/enviro interests have also been well represented by Jean Mather, Robin Cravey, Niyanta Spelman, and Dave Sullivan, who first introduced the idea of dividing the Planning Commission into two voting bodies.

Niyanta Spelman
Niyanta Spelman (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Today, the ZAP consists of Baker and a group of relatively unknown, less experienced commissioners, save for Keith Jackson, a developer-friendly sort who moved with Baker from the Planning Commission to the new group. The commissioners seldom buck Baker, and those who do, like Cortez, risk subjecting themselves to the chair's wrath.

Nearly three years into this dual arrangement, Sullivan is now advocating merging the commissions back into a single entity. He explained that the city's planning dynamics are vastly different now than when he promoted the plan. Then, the economy was booming, thousands of cases were slogging through the system at a glacial pace, and no actual planning decisions were being made. "We could have an agenda on which there were hundreds and hundreds of cases that we would approve with no discussion, and then we'd come to a quarter lot in a neighborhood to be considered for office zoning, and we would spend three or four hours haggling over that. Here we were approving cases involving hundreds of acres, millions of dollars – with no discussion. It frustrated me that we weren't doing comprehensive, strategic planning; we were just adjudicating disputes."

Goodman, the council's Land Development Code virtuoso, liked the concept laid out by Sullivan and led the charge on council to separate the PC and ZAP duties. But Baker – Goodman's own appointee – strongly opposed the idea, as did others, and she even testified against the proposal at a council hearing. "That either took an awful lot of guts or an awful lot of stupidity," Baker recalled of her opposition. In the end, the council took the plunge, adding another chapter to the city's soul-searching mission to define and harness a planning and development process that actually works.

Today, with the boom a memory, both commissions meet only twice a month and can usually rip through their agendas in a couple of hours. And there is a perceived disconnect between the urbanist vision for the city that the PC articulates, and the on-the-ground decisions that the ZAP hands down on individual project proposals. Baker agrees that under current circumstances, one commission could easily handle the caseload by meeting once a week. The question is, would the council consider that action before ZAP is due for a sunset review in 2005?

And what happens to Baker if and when ZAP gets zapped?

Theory vs. Practice

As it stands now, the two commissions have distinct personalities. The Planning Commission members are much more neighborhood and environmentally friendly, while ZAP essentially, as Sullivan noted, adjudicates disputes – and they frequently side with the applicant who wants to build a structure or tear it down. In one contentious recent instance, when the council asked the PC and ZAP to review and consider the settlement agreement between the city and Lowe's Home Centers, the commissions offered opposite recommendations: The PC, siding with environmentalists and the city of Sunset Valley, determined that putting a Lowe's big-box store in the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer would endanger the groundwater that feeds the beloved Barton Springs; ZAP was equally predictable and followed Baker's lead in finding the Lowe's proposal environmentally sound, save for one dissenting commissioner: Cortez.

Niyanta Spelman, a Livable City board member active in Hyde Park neighborhood issues, served with Baker before moving to the revamped Planning Commission. She says she prefers the easy exchange of ideas on the current PC to Baker's domineering style of running meetings. "She's so good at managing the internal politics of the commission that she gets a working majority to go along with her," Spelman said. "But you don't get a fair and objective discussion. With Betty as chair, it's not a balanced commission, and I think in some instances the developers have had too much influence."

The most frequently cited example of this influence is Baker's extracurricular social activities with Suttle and Crocker – the two developer lobbyists the chairwoman is most often seen with at Bennigan's, the post-meeting hangout for Baker and a couple of other ZAP members. Baker takes issue with the notion that she has social relationships with lobbyists, but does acknowledge a friendship with Crocker, whom she says she "practically babysat" when the younger woman was learning to navigate the zoning process in the Eighties. But friendship does not stand in the way of business, Baker said. "We've had some very ugly disagreements, and they hurt sometimes," she said of her friend. "But [with lobbyists] I do not commit to a vote on anything. If we know how we're going to vote before we get there, then public hearings would be a farce."

But the critical question, of course, is not about friendships, but about whether those relationships established over time eventually erode the independence of commission decisions that affect citizens who don't have the benefit of similar connections – especially since Baker seems to trust her instincts so much in making her decisions and in pressing them so forcefully.

The "balance" that Spelman describes may have dissipated with the departure of Baker's counterpart, Jean Mather, a strong neighborhood and environmental voice, who, for whatever reason, did not get the council's appointment to ZAP, although Baker in fact lobbied for Mather's placement on the commission. "I think we made some good recommendations [with Mather on the commission]," Spelman continued. "They represented different points of view; every week both [Baker and Mather] read the packet thoroughly, and both knew a lot from years on the commission, and they balanced each other. Now that balance seems to be missing."

Indeed, Mather pointed out, "She and I are both as opinionated as can be – in opposite directions. When she first came on the commission, I thought, 'Oh, Lord, the evil forces have won.' But as I worked with her over the years, I really came to like and admire her." That said, Mather added, "I don't think I voted with her more than half a dozen times. On the important issues, we usually disagreed." With Mather on board, the commission's votes were less lopsided on the more critical issues, with each of the two opposing women enjoying her share of "victories."

While Baker today has the command of a somewhat cowed commission less experienced with ZAP issues, she seems to miss the days of freewheeling dissension. Like Mather, former Commissioner Cravey and current PCer Sullivan were able to disagree with Baker without becoming her "victims." Spelman and, more recently, Cortez could fall into the "victim" category. Cortez cheerfully attended his final ZAP meeting two weeks ago and will fill a vacancy on the PC, for which he says he is more suited. One other Baker "victim" not only declined to be interviewed for this story, but had someone from his office call to decline on his behalf. There are developers who become casualties, as well. One in particular kindly begged off from being interviewed for this story. "Can you just leave me out of this, please?" he asked. "I'm scared to death of her."

Baker says she prefers angering people on both sides of the aisle, and that her intimidating reputation in fact demonstrates that she's an equal-opportunity offender. That was perhaps more true when she was a city staffer. "Developers always thought I was neighborhood-oriented and the neighborhoods thought I was developer-oriented. We had a case in Hyde Park [regarding Hyde Park Baptist Church's attempts to level the Woodburn House], and when it was over, I ended up in the hospital – but not for that reason – and I received flowers from both the neighborhood association and the church. I thought that was somewhat ironic, that both warring parties sent flowers to me." (See "Saving Woody," above.)

Baker reflects nostalgically on her days with the old Planning Commission gang, drawing comparisons with the current, perhaps less passionate, ZAP membership. "I don't know if there's a particular crusader on the current commission, one that's totally environmentally oriented, as was Jean [Mather], as was Robin Cravey, as was Dave Sullivan. They were very focused that way. And I agreed and disagreed [with them]. And I think perhaps the best friend to have is one with whom you can disagree and still be friends."

What Hath Baker Wrought?

There are any number of Austin streets that Baker can drive down while pointing out a development, a historic structure, or a vacant lot that she had a hand in when the case was wending its way through the city process. Her work on the historic zoning of the Moonlight Towers led her to a 98-year-old woman named Annie Hill, who remembered the day the city hauled the moonlight tower over on an ox cart and erected the wrought-iron pillar just beyond her property on Nueces Street. At West Lynn and Sixth, Baker can recount the battle to save what was then the very dilapidated Sheeks-Robertson House, whose deceased owner's will had ordered the property be sold and the money donated to two churches and two orphanages. Baker worked feverishly to come up with a plan that would satisfy both sides. The house was placed on the auction block and sold to the highest bidder willing to restore the structure for historic zoning. The plan worked, but Baker's 'round-the-clock effort to save the house landed her in the hospital for a few days. There are hundreds of other similar landmarks, each bearing Baker's invisible signature.

As a city staffer, Baker worked diligently to save historic structures and went to bat for neighborhood after neighborhood. She recalls, "I have done a lot of things behind the scenes that as a city employee I couldn't do publicly. I helped neighborhoods arrange to picket, to demonstrate, to get petitions – the whole nine yards. You can't be an effective staff member if you're not willing to cross the yellow line."

Yet to many current observers of city politics, it appears that somewhere along the way Baker veered in another direction. Her detractors say that as the City Council's most powerful appointee, Baker seems less and less willing to cross the yellow line. Her votes are interpreted as against historic preservation, against neighborhoods, and, as some venture to say, against Austin. Baker strongly disagrees, and indeed is deeply wounded by these assertions. "If I have a cause for this city – if I have to raise the flag – obviously it would be for preservation; and ironically it's almost illogical that [people] would think that I was trying to sink that ship when I helped launch that ship, and certainly kept it afloat."

Baker stopped herself, remembering that this story would eventually see print. "I'd sure hate to be crucified after having cooperated in building the cross." end story

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