Election Gets Personal in Oak Hill
As the May 13 election looms, the debate over Propositions 1 and 2 has turned into a mud-wrestling match for all involved (minus, sadly, the bikinis) with environmentalists and progressives deeply divided over the so-called Open Government and Clean Water amendments. The campaign has featured insults, whispers, and personal attacks galore and that's all before you get to Oak Hill, where things are really personal.
In Oak Hill, the suburban community many Austinites know only as the traffic-clogged tangle of strip malls standing between them and the Hill Country, it's not personal because of the kind of political jousting that kicks up dust storms downtown. Rather, it's personal because Prop. 2 will shape the way the area develops at a time when the community is trying to decide for itself what sort of neighborhood it wants to be. "If Proposition 2 passes, we can hang up our [neighborhood] planning process," said Bruce Perrin, president of the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods.
In case you have yet to experience it for yourself, neighborhood planning is an official city process allowing neighborhoods (or at least the small-but-obsessive contingent of zoning freaks and code junkies who show up at meetings) to craft a vision for their own streets. In Oak Hill, where neighborhood planning is just getting off the ground, it's clear the residents want change. According to a survey that kicked off the process, the top priorities for the roughly 600 people who responded included more parks (54% of respondents), more restaurants and entertainment (48%), more sidewalks and bike lanes (42%), and improved public transportation (35%). Other areas that more than one-third of respondents felt needed improvement were the amount of environmental protection, the current patterns of development, and the perennial grassroots gripe of people letting their properties get run down.
Topping the list of things needing improvement, however, is traffic congestion. The Texas Department of Transportation has proposed solving this problem with a massive, tolled flyover slicing the Y, the commercial heart of Oak Hill surrounding the intersection of highways 290 and 71, into self-contained chunks with glorious views of concrete and smog. The residents have other plans, motivated partly by simple opposition to tolls, but partly by a much different vision for the Y. In particular, some of Oak Hill's most outspoken zoning junkies are pushing for a total redevelopment of the Y into a "town center" that could address many of the residents' concerns. They propose replacing the strip malls with a New Urbanist wonderland of vertically stacked housing atop first-floor retail space bustling with new places to eat, drink, and be merry. They say it should be connected to nearby neighborhoods with bike and pedestrian routes, and to downtown with express bus routes.
What does all this have to do with Prop. 2? Some say nothing the ordinance does not prohibit development in the watershed; it only limits the way the city may participate in the effort. Redevelopment cheerleaders like Perrin disagree. One element of the proposed amendment, which prohibits the city from entering agreements with the effect of "subsidizing private development" in the watershed, would cut the city off from the tools such as tax-financing schemes or affordability subsidies it uses to entice developers to build more cheaper or more environmental housing. This is fine with Colin Clark of Save Our Springs Alliance. He doesn't disagree that the area, now at virtually 100% impervious cover, should be reshaped into something nicer some day. But when the future of so much of the Hill Country remains unsettled, he argues that now is not the time to draw more residents to the area to fill up those stacks of apartments and condos, and to make it easier for people to live even further outside Austin.
"If you define 'town center' as something that provides neighborhood services, it might be [a] great way to benefit existing residents and water quality in the Barton Springs watershed," said Clark. "If you define it as a magnet for additional development, we get back into the problem of never-ending sprawl into the Hill Country."
Redevelopment plans aside, other Oak Hill residents take issue with a provision that says the city must "prioritize" infrastructure investments outside the watershed. "In other words, we'll be at the bottom of the feeding trough," said Carol Cespedes, president of the Windmill Run Neighborhood Association and a self-described environmentalist. She proudly voted for the original SOS Ordinance, but opposes Proposition 2, arguing that penalizing southwest residents is counterproductive to the goal of preserving the environment and slowing sprawl. "The thing that must be done in preserving these areas is to get the energetic cooperation of people who live there, and provide them a way to live lightly on the land, to minimize the pollution and the distances traveled," she said.
Oak Hill resident Becky Halpin, on the other hand, will be voting for Prop. 2. "I think it's more important to keep water clean than develop out here," Halpin said. "It would be nice to have everything out here in terms of goods and services, but not at the expense of the water." And