Point Austin: Up or Out?

Debates over open space and neighborhoods are the discourse of community

Point Austin
I don't want to steal too much of Dunbar's thunder (see "Beside the Point"), but I do need to begin by eating a little bonded crow. Last week I reported that the City Council had apparently decided not to boost the bond proposals for open space and affordable housing, and later that day I was proven wrong. We can all applaud the council's change of heart (and presumably, endorse their action at the polls in November).

Also, because I miscalculated the initial package, I misunderstood the whole effect of the council's revisions, which were literally to boost the funding for aquifer-protection open space (now at $50 million) beyond both the city -staff recommendation ($30 million) and even that of the citizens' bond committee ($44 million). With park land (balloted separately) at $20 million, that brings the total now proposed for land acquisition to $70 million. Not bad, although the committee's (and the mayor's) earnest but late-entry yearning for some SH 130 corridor lands appears to have bitten the dust, at least temporarily.

I owe my new math to a helpful note from environmental advocate Mike Blizzard – one of many people working out front and behind the scenes to persuade council to bite this particular bullet. That group would include most of the usual environmental suspects, most prominently the nonprofits specifically attempting to arrange acquisition of undeveloped lands over the aquifer: the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, the Hill Country Conservancy. The HCC's George Cofer told me that in recent weeks and advocates had worked hard to persuade council members that "this is a good investment, not only in itself, but because it can be leveraged for additional grant money." Cofer points both to foundations and the federal government as having "available pots of money," generally based on challenge grants. "They want to know that the locals are putting up their own funds," Cofer said.

Presuming the bonds pass – not a certain thing, but most of the public buzz has been supportive – the city has identified roughly 7,500 acres of land for possible acquisition, including both large undeveloped tracts and "connector pieces" between already acquired properties. "There are plenty of willing sellers," said Cofer, adding that the tracts available are generally well-known among those working on these projects. With the bond-election campaign moving forward, he expects serious conversations to begin about particular tracts, perhaps with options to buy beginning to be put in place over the next few months, giving the voters specific ideas of what can be bought with the bond money.

Cofer congratulated the council on the strategy of stretching the package out to seven years to allow the additional funding at a lower tax rate. "They figured out how to make it bigger without having to choose between affordable housing, open space, and all the other needs," he said, and pointed toward the campaign. "We got good news, and now we've got a lot of work to do."

Open Questions

If we're not going to build over the aquifer (or sprawl into the Hill Country), then where are we going to grow? That was one subtext of the most heated discussion in last week's council meeting, which unfortunately took place mostly between midnight and 3:30am. (On that subject, isn't it about time the council finds a way to break down these marathons into more reasonable meeting schedules, potentially available to ordinary working people?) The unspoken question was: Up or out? – that is, can we diminish sprawl and increase population density in the central city without overwhelming traditional neighborhoods with mammoth, poorly designed eyesores intended to cram the most dollars-per-square-foot into the smallest available space?

Dozens of people stayed on into the night for a debate that has still only begun; although the size-limiting McMansion ordinance passed on its first two readings, the third is yet to come (June 22), and it will now be October before the final provisions take effect. Had everybody stayed, counted the mayor, there would have been 10 hours of testimony: "We have 379 citizens signed up – 146 folks against, 226 people for, and seven people from Switzerland." For the most part, even at the late hour, everybody was reasonably polite, and Laura Morrison of the city's task force (and the Austin Neighborhoods Council) delivered a virtually unprecedented announcement: the ordinance supporters would voluntarily limit themselves to a total of 45 minutes. (When they concluded, the mayor wryly guessed an ulterior motive: "I think they're probably the smarter group because there's 20 minutes left until last call.")

As the discussion began, Morrison said of the ordinance, "It didn't reflect anybody's individual preferences [on the task force] ... but all the supporters felt like it was something that they could live with." That seemed accurate, initially, but then supporters of the "minority report" – primarily builders or architects who fear the new rules will unnecessarily restrict larger homes or duplex alternatives, or stifle design innovation – began to take potshots at matters seemingly resolved by compromise, like the proposed limits on "floor-to-area" ratios and building heights (linked in the ordinance to setbacks). In response, several elderly residents took angry aim at last week's Home Builders Association ads portraying unidentified older property owners as the particular losers under the ordinance. "The truth is," said one, "restrictions on one property constitute protections for the next property. ... My home is my nest egg, too."

The question remains whether the ordinance will, as intended, protect the property values and character of whole neighborhoods by limiting construction excesses on particular lots, or instead become a retreat to impractical and burdensome, one-size-fits-all bungalow nostalgia? Frankly, the jury's still out, and you're a member. "What that process did," said one participant, "was make me, as a homeowner doing renovation, think about my neighbors, think about my community." That was the subject of the wee-hour debate, now in regular rotation on Channel 6 (and resuming over the summer), and I recommend it as food for thought for anyone who intends to live in an Austin neighborhood for longer than a cup of coffee. It's at least as entertaining as the average World Cup match, and a whole lot closer to home. end story

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Austin City Council, city council, bond election, Mike Blizzard, George Cofer, Hill Country Conservancy, McMansion ordinance, Laura Morrison

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