Three weeks ago, my colleague Mike Clark-Madison quoted new urbanist leader Doug Farr as saying that when it comes to land use, "change happens at the pace of trust." Last week in this very column (which is not generally considered urbanist fare), I opined that the path forward toward a land development code rewrite "begins by taking a step back and rebuilding community trust on all sides." And in this week's News feature previewing the new City Council, City Manager Spencer Cronk opines that "we can only move at the speed of trust" in fixing our growth and development issues. Coincidence? Not likely. And I have a feeling it's a theme that we're going to be hearing a lot more of in coming months, though it may take a while to really produce results.
So it was discouraging, if not surprising, to hear other city leaders taking a more combative tone at the first City Council meeting of the new year and pushing the narrative that, with the NIMBY bloc in retreat after the November election, the way toward more enlightened policies is now clear and obvious. It's likely that they actually believe that; it has been convenient to couch the argument over the past couple of years as being between those who were for CodeNEXT and those who were in favor of the status quo, but that was never really the case. The most vocal CodeNEXT opponents were also the people pushing for the most radical solutions to our land use problems and housing affordability woes (see "People's Housing Justice," April 13, 2018), and the way to a more effective Land Development Code has never seemed clear to anyone who has actually worked on the issue.
But for the past two years, at least, the "neighborhood" side of Council and its supporters have primarily been a party in opposition (rightly, as it turned out, because the product that was being peddled was clearly a lousy one, as everyone now admits). So their real challenge now is to become a party in favor of something. And that something will have to embrace change, and growth, and the principles laid out in the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan that include creating "a mix of housing types and land uses, affordable housing, and transportation options" in neighborhoods "across Austin." That's a goal that's not going to sit well with some of the core constituency, who really don't want renters and multifamily buildings in their neighborhoods. But it's one they're going to have to embrace, or risk losing further credibility, and further electoral defeats.
The "urbanist" side has an inverse problem. Thus far, they've been able to press their argument as being anti-NIMBY: "If it weren't for the obstructionists on the other side, we could fix all our problems." Well, now that Mayor Adler has his electoral "mandate" (see "Rebooted City Council Gets a New Chance to Fix Austin," Jan. 11) and the balance of power on Council has shifted off center, the pressure will be on them to create a process, and then a product, that actually works. And that product will have to embrace the principles laid out in the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, including the first line of its mission statement: "One of Austin's foundations is its safe, well-maintained, stable, and attractive neighborhoods and places whose character and history are preserved." That's a goal that's not going to sit well with some of the core constituency, who really don't want historical preservation, or any sort of limit on development, in any neighborhood. But it's one they're going to have to embrace, or risk losing the fragile consensus they've managed to gain, by failing to gain the trust they need in order to govern.
Because "we can only move at the speed of trust," and if that is our measuring stick, the level of trust is not very high. As I noted immediately after the November election, "the fact that the 'anti-CodeNEXT' Proposition J ran 28 points better than [Laura] Morrison, despite its questionable provenance and legality, should at least give everyone pause." That's 48% of the populace who voted for Prop J for no other reason than that they do not trust City Council (or city staff) to properly regulate land use. And that's a lot of mistrust to be addressed.
The Austin Strategic Mobility Plan: January 13 is the last day to submit comments on the draft policies and maps for the "new citywide transportation plan," intended to guide transportation planning for the foreseeable future. See www.austintexas.gov/asmp.
Faces of Austin: The city's Cultural Arts Division is seeking short film submissions for its 2019 program, to be screened as part of a Community Screening at the SXSW Film Festival, and shown on the city's website and ATXN TV channel. All films selected get a cash award. Submit by Friday, Jan. 11, 5pm, at www.austintexas.gov/facesofaustin.
Copyright © 2019 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.