Point Austin: Changing of the Guard
The mayor and the next City Council will have plenty to do
Last Thursday's City Council meeting – the final regular meeting of 2016 – began with informal farewells to two departing council members, part of 2014's first 10-1 class. Mayor Steve Adler paid tribute to District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman, crediting his "consistent and strong" advocacy for a viewpoint "that frankly had not been on this Council before" (at least, not since those heady days before desegregation). Adler also thanked D10's Sheri Gallo for her service, which he described as "a bridge between differing views" on the dais, and he obliquely referred to her occasional role as a swing vote – a "fulcrum," he put it – on difficult debates that sometimes left her taking heat for positions silently shared by other CMs.
Gallo responded by paying emotional tributes to staff and to each of her colleagues, distinguishing each by some personal detail. Zimmerman thanked his colleagues, and credited "the hand of Providence" for placing him in office, for arranging for a re-election campaign in a presidential year, and for his November loss. Providence has indeed been busy.
Zimmerman will be succeeded in January by Jimmy Flannigan, Gallo by Alison Alter. Flannigan defeated Zimmerman handily after narrowly losing to him in 2014, and Alter pounded Gallo in a run-off that the incumbent had entered only two percentage points from a majority.
Zimmerman's defeat is readily explained by his polarizing tenure – although his policy positions reflected the most conservative elements of his district, his irascible treatment of city staff and his condescension to his colleagues (and often to citizens) produced a voting backlash. Gallo's defeat is less easily explained. She was a professional and effective council member, but she got caught in the whiplash over the two big PUDs – the Grove and Austin Oaks – and in the November of the Trump Ascension, there was no room in Austin for even a moderate Republican.
New Fault Lines
It won't be clear for some months what the changeover will mean for Council going forward. Flannigan has been an energetic, relentless campaigner, a voice for northwest infrastructure, and on social issues will certainly be voting with Council progressives more often than his predecessor. Alter may also be to the left of Gallo on social spending – although her similar support for the homestead exemption is likely to teach her very quickly that the city budget will not stretch as readily as Council rookies like to believe.
The real question for the 2017 Council – often separating "progressives" from "progressives" – will be land use, and how to make policy about land use. Alter owes her victory in large part to her opposition to the Grove – she remains miffed that Council didn't wait for her inauguration for final consideration – and she will likely become an ally to Council's "neighborhood-defense" wing: currently Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo.
In his campaign, Flannigan has supported increasing the housing supply as the most effective way to bring down housing costs, particularly for renters. If he holds to that position, he's a more natural ally to "more housing" promoters: Delia Garza, Pio Renteria, Greg Casar, and the remaining free marketeer, Ellen Troxclair. It will be interesting to see if this nearly equal but precarious balance plays out in debates over specific projects, as well as the yearlong marathon that will be CodeNEXT.
Getting to Yes
If that's indeed how the pattern develops, it should put Mayor Adler in the catbird seat, as the agenda-setter and the logical swing vote on most of these growth and development questions. The mayor was audibly pleased by the compromise result of the lengthy Grove controversy, and he's simultaneously promoted increased housing supply while insisting that the Council can protect the "character" of the city's traditional single-family neighborhoods. Earlier this week, he told me that he believes the CodeNEXT process can produce a housing supply "number" reflecting what would be required to finally generate downward pressure on Austin's housing costs, and that it can be accomplished primarily along "the corridors" and in "city centers" that are central to his just-approved mobility plan.
Moreover, Adler said believes he can bring together the "traditional neighborhood" defenders with those folks agitating for greater and faster supply – which include not only real estate interests, but many folks who have been priced out of the Austin market – and get them all to collaborate on a citywide plan that accommodates scale, supply, and price. "When the new code is mapped," said the mayor, "people will see how it can be done." The alternative, he said, is to let growth overwhelm Austin, destroying any hope of affordability and exacerbating regional economic inequality.
"I'm trying to fashion a social compact," Adler told me. "If we don't do anything, everybody loses. ... What do we have to lose, other than the spirit and soul of the city?" That's quite an ambitious project to present to next year's City Council.