The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Driving the “Austin Bargain”

Mayor Adler’s dream of a compromise on housing supply

By Michael King, February 3, 2017, News

Wednesday morning, I received a solicitation from those earnest progs at Credo (my mobile phone company), urging me to petition Mayor Steve Adler to "take a public stand against Donald Trump's xenophobic agenda, and do everything in [his] power to ... protect immigrants and refugees." The Credo folks are obviously petitioning a lot of mayors, and no doubt didn't attend Adler's State of the City speech last week, so they missed his full-throated support of Sheriff Sally Hernan­dez's policy of tempered cooperation with immigration authorities, and his impromptu welcoming of immigrants and refugees in the wake of the Trump regime's arbitrary ban against Muslims. Adler and the City Council have also supported other measures to defend refugees – although the ultimate outcome of those efforts here and elsewhere, in light of federal and state opposition, remains very much in doubt.

In retrospect, that may have been the easiest part of Adler's speech. While Austin is not unanimous in its defense of immigrants, there's a considerable consensus (reflected not only from the mayor's approving City Hall audience, but among most city and county officials) that border walls and Muslim bans are not the way to go. But on an entirely different, local subject – residential land use – Austinites remain divided as ever. I suspect if you questioned that same audience of local movers and shakers, you'd get at least a couple dozen opinions on how best to address Austin's practical and political logjam over the Land Use Code, about to endure a yearlong public battle royal under the CodeNEXT banner.

Undaunted, and despite a lingering, audibly heavy cold, the mayor was characteristically and sunnily optimistic about the possibilities of moving forward on land use and housing affordability. He urged his audience to approach the Code "on the same team," and to commit simultaneously to "protect our neighborhoods" while enabling "the increased housing supply we need to make Austin more affordable." Adler deemed his proposed compromise the "Austin Bargain": "an agreement that protects all of us from our worst fears so the community as a whole can achieve the best possible outcome."

The Fight Goes On

Who can oppose a bargain? Years ago, a small record company – Amazing Records – adopted the sardonic slogan, "If It's a Hit, It's Amazing!" and we can only hope that Adler's "Austin Bargain" doesn't slowly become quite the same joke. As the mayor summarized it, on one side we'll all agree "not to force density in the middle of neighborhoods," and on the other, we'll allow "the housing supply we need ... along our major corridors ... and our major activity centers like the area around the Domain, Mueller, and Downtown."

That's been the mayor's consistent pitch since his 2014 campaign – that we can add all the housing supply we need on the mixed margins of "neighborhoods" (a term designating by default only street-after-street of detached, single-family housing, obliquely excluding any other form of multi­family domiciles). Late last year, the mayor insisted to me that not only was that additional supply achievable – his speech called for "at least 135,000 new housing units over the next decade" – but that in meetings with opposing stakeholders (he mentioned the Austin Neighborhoods Council and the Real Estate Council), he believed a similar inclination is in the air, and that cooler heads will eventually prevail. Saturday night, he reiterated, "There's no rule that says we have to keep having the same planning and zoning fights over and over again" (then joked that in fact there might be such a rule buried somewhere in the current Code).

Approved With Conditions

One can only hope he's right. The consultants who presented the first draft of CodeNEXT to Council at Tuesday's work session sounded similar notes, welcoming "constructive criticism," but hoping the coming public discussion wouldn't devolve into nitpicking dismissal. Yet the draft remains big and complex, it's undeniably difficult to comprehend as a whole, and council members immediately began quibbling over one detail or another: The bugaboo of "conditional overlays" for every disputed parcel seems unlikely to disappear.

This column is written in advance of Wednesday's public rollout, where we'll begin to learn whether the various interest groups – homeowners, renters, developers, builders, urbanists, officials, etc. – can in fact learn to play well together in the city's various sandboxes. The mayor warned against "false narratives" that look for blame instead of solutions, and hoped that the CodeNEXT draft would be treated as one – subject to consensus-based revisions – rather than an immediate battlefield among competing conceptions of the ideal cityscape.

"Or will we listen to those voices that try to avoid consensus," Adler asked, "by talking up and even creating conflicts?" Those folks, on all sides, are already getting warmed up, brandishing their Twitter feeds, and making the national immigration debate look like a walk in an Austin park, next to our suspicions of and antagonisms to those newcomers who just moved in down the block. Best of luck to Mayor Adler and his would-be bargain.

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