Public Notice: The Battle Is Joined
Land use policy will define the November Council election
When it comes to City Hall politics, there's land use, and then there's everything else. That "everything else" – the business of running a $4 billion enterprise and answering to nearly a million stakeholders – is a handful, to be sure. But on most of the major issues – equity, social justice, health and human services, the environment, civil rights – there's an overwhelming liberal majority on City Council, and there has been for decades. Under the district system, fiscal and social conservatives in the Western suburbs may always have a minority voice on the dais, but even that could be in danger this year, with Ellen Troxclair's retirement in D8. And while all the other council members may jockey for microphone time to champion their favorite causes, in reality, there's not a hair's breadth of difference between them on most policy goals. Nor will any of the serious challengers in the November election be able to break away from the pack based on any of the issues that define politics in the rest of the world: Everyone here is committed to equity, inclusion, a social safety net, and environmental protection.
Then there's land use.
Whenever we start talking about zoning changes – let alone a full code rewrite like the late unlamented CodeNEXT – the fault lines shift, the alliances crumble, the language coarsens, and even the definition of which side is truly representing liberal values is up for bitter debate. Suddenly, the formerly harmonious dais and populace seems to find itself split – to hear their opponents tell it – between the developers' lackeys trying to pave over the Austin we love, vs. the wealthy racists trying to preserve their estates and perpetuate Jim Crow. And it's precisely because the current Council has remained so fractured on CodeNEXT, that they never delivered the policy direction that might've led to a better result.
Mayor Steve Adler was almost frantic in trying to force CodeNEXT through the process before this coming election season; when it became obvious that would be hugely unpopular, he more or less single-handedly pulled the plug. That move was met with near universal relief ("Zap," Aug. 10), but ironically, it has put the focus back onto land use as the defining issue for November. As I put it two weeks ago, "CodeNEXT must die. But then what?"
In at least three Council races, plus the mayor's own, that question has become the central issue for November. CodeNEXT is indeed dead, but the issues it was trying to address, and the problems it faced in addressing them, haven't gone away, nor can they again be shunted off to staff and consultants to make the hard decisions that by right and by law, must be made by City Council. And how the next Council restarts the process, and addresses the hard underlying questions and problems with the current code and its application, will indeed largely shape the physical form this city takes for the next two generations.
Mayor Adler dearly wanted to have the issue settled, or else put off until after this election cycle. Instead, it appears it'll be front and center, and debated openly in various forums for the next 10 weeks or so. There are stark differences between him and Laura Morrison, between Kathie Tovo and Danielle Skidmore, between Pio Renteria and Susana Almanza, and between the candidates vying for the seats being vacated by Troxclair and Ora Houston. And it may be that the heat of a political campaign is not the best place to forge constructive compromises on complex issues with subtle nuances – but that's where we are. Given what's at stake in this discussion, voters deserve to know how the candidates plan to plot a course forward.
It seems naive to wish for a productive discussion to ensue over the next 10 weeks, but I do.
• Planned Parenthood's Austin Annual Dinner, Saturday, Sept. 29 at the Hyatt Regency, will feature Cecile Richards. Tickets start at $400; sponsorships start at $4,000, online at www.ppgreatertx.org/AustinDinner.
• Tribune Fest has released the full schedule for this year's event, taking place Sept. 27-29 at various locations Downtown; see festival.texastribune.org for more info.
• Mexic-Arte Museum's fourth annual Catrina Ball will be Oct. 13 at the Fairmont Austin Ballroom, 101 Red River. See more info at www.mexic-artemuseumevents.org.
• Austin Green Awards call for entries for 2018 – taking nominations for buildings and sites, including landscapes and infrastructure, in the five-county Central Texas region, recognizing "outstanding accomplishments in the broad arena of sustainable design and innovation" – is open through Sept. 10 at www.atxgreenawards.org; the awards will be held on Oct. 24 at The Sunset Room in Downtown Austin.