Point Austin: In Search of a Plan, Not a Master Plan
Council divisions taking shape on CodeNEXT
The CodeNEXT proxy war has broken out on the City Council dais. On Monday, Ora Houston held a press conference to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1928 Master Plan, followed by a proclamation for the occasion at today's (March 22) Council meeting. In itself, it was a historical acknowledgment of Austin's racist past, the formal enactment of racial segregation. But Houston's gesture carries a contemporary message. Citing George Santayana's bromide, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," Houston explicitly identifies the Master Plan with current rewriting-in-progress of the city's land use code.
"As proposed," she wrote in a recent op-ed, "CodeNEXT will accelerate, amplify, and increase the displacement of individuals and the transfer of their residences and land. The major impact of both plans is the same: minorities and the less affluent lose their property and homes today and their opportunity to build wealth for tomorrow." Drawing a racial line in the land-use sand will further polarize a debate that has dragged on, in part, because people on both sides of the code have largely been talking past each other. It's unlikely to get better before Council hearings, tentatively scheduled for the end of May.
Houston's declaration is the second such Council salvo, as in early February, Delia Garza, Pio Renteria, Greg Casar, and Jimmy Flannigan posted an op-ed on Medium that essentially makes the exact opposite argument about the ccode. They note that the current land use code was adopted in 1984, when Austin was about 40% of its current size. They insist that if the city is to achieve an "equitable and sustainable" future, the code needs to be revised with that goal foremost in mind.
Garza et al. do not explicitly mention race, but they note: "In 2018 we still have laws that include segregation-era concepts. And study after study has shown that our [current] rules are making our city more segregated and more unsustainable."
Houston is the only African-American council member; Garza, Renteria, and Casar are the other minority members, and Flannigan indirectly represents LGBT Austinites, who endure some of the same housing problems as racial minorities. It might seem odd that these minority representatives (in what is now a majority-minority city) are becoming spokespeople for opposing positions on the potential discriminatory (or anti-discriminatory) effects of CodeNEXT, but they in fact mirror a similar polarization in the public debate. Opponents are insisting the code revision will, in Houston's words, "accelerate" discrimination; supporters of the revision argue, as these CMs do, "Encouraging a diverse mix of housing across the city ... begins to bridge the gaps – not just between haves and have-nots but between homes and grocery stores and museums and bus lines and jobs."
The split is reflected on the dais. Houston generally votes with the land-use conservatives (as distinct from social or ideological conservatives): Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter. The others (Ann Kitchen, Ellen Troxclair) are usually somewhere in the middle (on land use), and Mayor Steve Adler dearly desires a revised code that enacts his "Austin Bargain" – more housing, narrowly located – but he is also devoted to consensus that might be very difficult to find on this subject.
After years of drafts, reviews, arguments, and money, it appears increasingly likely that we're going to end up with a code – a process as much as a product – that doesn't differ much from what we already have. There will be plenty of fingers pointed on all sides, no matter what happens, with more racial recriminations likely. Not a happy prospect. Council will continue to waste many hours of public energy, arguing over individual zoning cases, buried in "conditional overlays" and the like, in an ad hoc, incoherent system that tries to apply 30 years of urban change a single tract at a time.
Stop All Change
There's also this cockamamie anti-CodeNEXT petition drive, intended to stop all changes in the land-use code for a couple more years, until the petitioners can elect an imaginary slate of candidates that will do their bidding – which is apparently, do nothing. Since the petition is drafted so badly (to override all ordinances and even the City Charter), it might never make the ballot. But why stop at land use, and not the entire Code of Ordinances? Do absolutely nothing until we elect a Council that represents only our views.
Comically, the leading petition promoters are literally the same folks who insisted only 10-1 districting would save us from at-large election tyranny, in which Westside homeowners dominated at the polls and were thereby able to work their political will. Now that they've decided to kill CodeNEXT, they're perfectly happy to hand that crucial decision back to Westside homeowners, and the hell with the rest of us. And they've already earnestly polarized the debate along racial lines, in the apparent hope that nothing will be done to help anybody, and Austin will continue to race headlong to greater unaffordability and inequality.