Point Austin: Austin's Ruination
If you lived here ... you'd be complaining about newcomers
The annual institutional mantra at the Chronicle, where we double the workload (but not the staff) in March, is "SXSW is not for you." Nevertheless, I generally manage to squeeze in a couple of concerts and a few films (put Jessica Edwards' biopic of Mavis Staples, Mavis!, high on your must-see list), and until my knees refuse, I wander through the Convention Center and down Sixth Street a few times just to surf the wave of humanity.
The Festivals are inevitably a greater burden on our cultural editors than on News, where we seldom get involved directly unless something bad happens – as last year's Red River disaster, reported on-the-spot by Jordan Smith ("The Aftermath," March 21, 2014), and reconsidered last week by Chase Hoffberger ("What Now for SXSW?" March 13). Since it's a sister company, we have an empathetic stake in SXSW's success, but most of us are onlookers like everybody else. I live near but not in Downtown, and it's relatively easy for me to avoid all the fuss if I choose to do so – so I find puzzling the venom directed at SX from some local political quarters. The reflexive denunciation of "fee waivers" – less than $1 million of the city's co-sponsoring costs for an event that generates hundreds of millions in business activity and many millions in city revenue – strikes me as simply absurd.
But it's undeniable that event tourism places burdens on Austin residents and city infrastructure, and both city officials and SXSW managers have collaborated more closely this year in trying to make certain that the Festival and its piggy-backing events don't get out of hand, or overwhelm the city's permanent charms. The buzz article on the subject this week is by Kriston Capps of CityLab (The Atlantic): "Here's What's Really Ruining Austin (and It's Not SXSW)." Austinites won't be surprised by Capps' culprit: uncontrolled and unmanaged growth.
Facing the Change
Like a lot of home folks, Capps (who has Texas roots) blames for our current predicament insufficient residential density coupled with an inadequate mass transit system: "For residents of a small town that's turned big city practically over night, the problem is that living in Austin is like dealing with Southby every day." I'd quarrel with that "overnight" – Austin's exponential growth is hardly a recent phenomenon, and our inability to manage it seems as much a consequence of persistent public denial as a lack of potential solutions. He quotes local advocacy group AURA's Jace Deloney on the eternal necessity to reform the city's land development code "to address the many parking and density regulations that adversely affect transit performance."
I wish I could say I'm optimistic that CodeNEXT will magically transform Austin's ingrained planning policies from reflexively resisting change – with little success – to better enabling progressive development, or – as Capps puts it more bluntly – "a visionary platform to build dense housing while denying residents the subsidized parking they're used to – and following up with real transit alternatives." Mayor Steve Adler likes to insist that voters who approved and then peopled the new 10-1 Council were demanding "change" – alas, the "change" many of those voters were demanding was for everything in Austin to stop changing.
The More Things Change ...
That's not going to happen, of course, and when new arrivals keep coming but the city (or its established neighborhoods/homeowners) reflexively resists the varieties of infill development that could accommodate those newcomers, land prices soar, sprawl overflows, traffic congeals, and gentrification spills into the neighborhoods of least resistance (i.e., land cost). In the wake of the still-not-finalized Zucker Report, the Planning and Development Review Department is once again under the hot lights, City Manager Marc Ott announced a major reorganization, and the usual pike-and-pitchfork brigade is calling for Ott's head – as they were calling for Toby Futrell's head a decade ago, and for those of her predecessors before her.
I took a quick look back at the Chronicle's former City Editor Mike Clark-Madison's reportage on this subject, and as Yogi liked to say, "It's déjà vu all over again." In 2000, here was MCM on PDRD's predecessor (Development Review and Inspection Department): "The staff is overworked, turnover is rampant, morale is low, the automated systems don't work well, turnaround times are long, and the city's new policy initiatives are falling through the cracks," ("Totally PC," Oct. 6, 2000). And there he was again, three years later: "But development review has been a civic crisis at least since I started covering Austin politics. ... And City Hall has been making loud commitments to fix the development review process that entire time, with a lack of success almost Platonic in its consistency and completeness," ("Austin @ Large," Sept. 5, 2003).
I may have to subcontract to MCM the next column on this subject, since he has all the templates. Just be certain that ridding Austin of the Curse of Marc Ott will hardly be a magic wand. Better to point the wand at ourselves, and our deeply contradictory attitudes toward change.