Rebooted City Council Gets a New Chance to Fix Austin
10-1, take two
When the brand-new 10-1 Austin City Council took office in 2015 with a grand vision of hope and change, it didn't anticipate how the next four years would actually play out. Efforts to quickly move the needle on hot-button city issues stalled out amid simmering discontent with then-City Manager Marc Ott, and then in the power vacuum created by his 2016 departure. As vacancies in the city's executive corps stacked up, the CodeNEXT land use code rewrite – inherited from the prior at-large Council – began to fragment, and relations between City Hall and the Austin Police Association soured to the point that Council opted to reject and renegotiate the union's contract.
Much of City Manager Spencer Cronk's first year in office, besides getting to know his new city (after coming from Minneapolis) and finding suitable digs, has been spent righting the ship. The police union and the city came to a new agreement Council could approve. Cronk has reorganized his shop, hired two new assistant city managers (to oversee development, health and human services, and parks and culture), and is currently looking for another pair (for mobility and public safety). He'll then hire a new deputy city manager to replace the retiring Elaine Hart, the longtime city chief financial officer who spent 16 months as interim city manager before Cronk was chosen. When Council finally scrapped CodeNEXT in August 2018, Cronk was assigned the task of figuring out how to proceed with factions of the city so at odds on the subject.
Cronk's also carrying out a revamp of how Council goes about its budgeting, and has been a public face of the city's response to the March bombings and the October Aquapocalypse. So the rookie city manager, who'll mark his first full year on the job next month, has had a crash course in adjustment. "I'm looking to build on that in 2019 and really take some of those key lessons about how to bring people together – like we did for the police contract – and see how that can be leveraged for other big challenges that we're tackling, whether it's the land development code or how we address some of the affordability and mobility challenges our city is facing," Cronk said.
It's a good thing he's got his bearings, because the upcoming year, which formally began with Monday's swearing-in of both new (Paige Ellis and Natasha Harper-Madison) and returning (Mayor Steve Adler, Ann Kitchen, Pio Renteria, Kathie Tovo) council members, isn't likely to prove any lighter a load. He'll earn the pay raise Council gave him at the end of last year as he reinvents CodeNEXT, spends the money voters approved in the 2018 and 2016 bonds, implements the long-gestating Austin Strategic Mobility Plan in conjunction with Capital Metro's Project Connect, and tackles the homelessness crisis facing every corner of the city. And he'll have to play an impartial role in Council's fight over whether or not to expand the Austin Convention Center.
Moving Toward A Mandate
Cronk's bosses on the dais spent the break reckoning with the meaning of the November election results, which has fractured the preservationist bloc that coalesced around many decisions on land use, as well as big-ticket harbingers of change like Austin's nascent deal to bring Major League Soccer to town.
District 2 Council Member Delia Garza, who on Monday was chosen by her colleagues to succeed Tovo as mayor pro tem (the first Latina to hold that honor), told me, "I think this is an opportunity to really move the needle on how we manage growth and do it in a progressive way. I think this City Council will be one of the most progressive in terms of understanding the need to plan and manage our growth, and that we're no longer a little college town. ... We're a big city, and if we don't plan for that, we're hurting our most vulnerable."
For his part, Adler has been open about viewing his landslide re-election victory as a mandate. "I think the center of the Council has moved, not so much in a partisan kind of way, but just in terms of philosophy and perspective about what it's going to take to preserve what's special about the city," Adler said.
"I think the new council members lean away from the status quo and into making change," the mayor continued. "I hope I'm reading that correctly, because that's encouraging. On the campaign trail, there were voices that argued more for the status quo and against change, and most of those voices did not do well in the election. I think people indicated they want us to actually be doing stuff."
The passing of the mostly symbolic mayor pro tem torch from Tovo (in many ways the mayor's ideological antithesis) to Garza can't help but reflect the shift that Adler sees. While Tovo withheld judgment on the views of her returning and new colleagues, she noted to me that previous incarnations of Council – for instance, the 1997 "Green Machine" under then-Mayor Kirk Watson – have been plenty progressive. "I think Austin has had very progressive Councils, and this certainly will be one," she said. "I would not agree with an assessment that one perspective is 'progressive' on land use versus 'non-progressive.' Some would characterize various positions as very pro-development, which doesn't tend to be aligned with progressive issues."
At Monday night's inauguration, Ellis and Harper-Madison each gave a preview of how they might approach the upcoming term. Ellis kept it extremely light in her prepared remarks, which included an apparent olive branch to supporters of the prior District 8 regime under right-winger Ellen Troxclair. "As your Council member, I will be a representative for everyone in Southwest Austin," she said. Harper-Madison was much more animated, making the audience laugh more than once as she promised to focus on constituent services, workforce development, food access, and the mobility crisis. "I'm a rookie at this," she said. "But that means two things: It means I have a lot to learn, but it also means I have absolutely nothing to lose."
CodeNEXT: The Speed of Trust
The mettle of these two new CMs will be tested as Council warily reapproaches the smoking pile of embers that was supposed to be our new, modern, simple, efficient, and inclusive land development code. Cronk and his office have spent time since the implosion of CodeNEXT looking at possible paths forward, but he emphasized the "healing" the community needs to go through before we can restart the dialogue. "I think it's important to make some key policy decisions or directions early on in the new year, but we can only move at the speed of trust," he said.
There's pretty general agreement that doing nothing about the city's nearly 40-year-old land use code isn't an option. It seems to many that breaking the process up into pieces – something that was advocated before, during, and after the six-year CodeNEXT rewrite effort – would be a natural move. "I'm still open to [discussing] how much we want to take on and how quickly we want to take that on," Cronk said, "but I know this will only be successful if we do those first two things: [That we make sure] there is some healing, and that we start building trust back into our community."
Adler remains hopeful that some of CodeNEXT can be salvaged. "There's a lot of work that's already done, and the issues that are difficult are pretty clearly identified given the process we've been through."
There'll be two new voices weighing in on those issues, with Ellis and Harper-Madison replacing Ellen Troxclair and Ora Houston, neither of whom did much to move CodeNEXT forward. While the new CMs' positions haven't yet been tested, Garza said, "They really do have an understanding of the need for different housing types, and the need for efficient public transit, and they understand that we're growing and if we don't plan for it, it hurts our environment and pushes our minority and low-income families out."
More Mobility, More Problems
Adjacent to the land use overhaul, local transportation planners aim to chart a course that allows traffic-choked Central Texas to contemplate long-stalled efforts to improve mobility. Capital Metro continues to engage the community around its latest Project Connect vision, which it hopes will lead to a plan for high-capacity transit (maybe rail, maybe something else) being put to the voters in 2020. At the same time, the city is asking for feedback on its latest Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, updating the inaugural version adopted in 2014, which touches every street in the city and comprises initiatives on corridor planning, smart mobility, safe and complete streets, active transportation, and much else. "They're all interrelated, and we need to continue the work and work collaboratively with our Cap Metro partners," Cronk said. "It will only be successful if we both are leaning into addressing these challenges and getting buy-in from not only the policymakers but the public on how to address some of the transportation challenges that we have."
As vice chair of the Capital Metro board, Garza (who serves on that eight-member body with her colleagues Renteria and Kitchen) often encounters the misconception by many in the public that the transit agency is a city department and therefore directly under Council's thumb. "I totally understand that misconception, but they aren't," she said. "So it's necessary for the two entities to coordinate, [including] with our land planning and where we put density and why it's important to put it on corridors – because without that density, we can't have a successful public transit agency."
Garza said she looks forward to the impending discussions on mass transit options, when both Council members and Cap Metro board members have all the information they need to begin making decisions – say, between light rail and autonomous buses. "As of right now, I want the improvements we can get as quickly as possible, because we need to improve our public transit desperately."
A Million Here, A Million There
These conversations about mobility services and infrastructure are taking place on top of an unprecedented avalanche of public investment, also being managed by the new city manager and his Council bosses. Voters approved $925 million in bond-funded capital spending in November, including a $250 million cash injection to address the city's affordable housing shortage. "I'm putting a laser focus on ensuring that we can implement those [bond programs] well, and prove to the taxpayers that this was the right vote for that time," Cronk said.
That's on top of the $720 million mobility bond voters OK'd in 2016, which is being implemented over eight years and has already produced miles of new sidewalks and improvements at some of the city's most dangerous intersections. The implementation process – one of the key political concerns confronted by Adler as he stumped for the measure and urged Austin to "go big" – has thus far exceeded the mayor's expectations, and he hopes that same process, especially its real-time project tracker, can serve as a model for the 2018 bond. "That said, this next year is going to be a real critical year," he said. "Because now this year we have to decide exactly what corridor work we do with that $450 million piece." The Corridor Program actually accounts for $482 million of the 2016 bond, to be invested in planning, designing, and building improvements in nine corridors. The first of those projects are expected to go out for bid in 2019.
Downtown Crisis And Opportunity
During budget discussions for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, it was clear that homelessness throughout Austin, not just in its urban core, is rising higher and higher on the public's list of priorities. Council approved the Austin Action Plan to End Homelessness, spearheaded by Adler and Tovo, in April; it'll be the new Council's job to execute on that plan, which involves a number of partnerships with nonprofit service providers and the private sector. Adler points to funding within the $250 million housing bond as one component of that plan, plus funds generated within the Waller Creek Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone to fund permanent supportive housing. (City staff proposed a $30 million investment plan in December for that Waller Creek money – on top of the $110 million Council agreed to back in May to help construct the creek parks system.) "We have a lot of things that are aligning for us as a community to move forward on this," Adler said.
Tovo highlighted the upcoming service changes at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, for which the city is seeking a new nonprofit operator that could take the reins as early as April. This "housing first" relaunch, while ultimately aimed at improving services citywide, will mean the facility serves fewer individuals at that location. Tovo said one of Council's challenges as a result will be finding other options for emergency shelter beds throughout the city.
The Waller Creek TIRZ is fueled by increasing property values Downtown, especially near the Austin Convention Center (e.g., the Fairmont Hotel). Convention Center staff has complained it's too small to accommodate booking requests, and last year, Council established a Tourism Commission that spent most of its time fighting about how the now-plateauing flow of hotel occupancy tax dollars is divided among the folks legally allowed to get them (everybody wants more than they're currently getting), and whether to leverage that cash to fund an expansion. Adler and Tovo had an awkward clash of headlines after the elections when he said he took his trouncing of Laura Morrison, in part, as a sign that voters are with him on that subject. When asked about that pronouncement, Tovo disagreed, saying the expansion is still a controversial issue both on the dais and within the city.
Adler hopes that the study Council commissioned in April from the University of Texas School of Architecture will come back with results in the coming months and answer some of the basic factual questions. "I also hope they are going to come back with some design solutions or proposals that will be the convention center of the future, kind of like what the [Central] Library was when we opened that up," he said. "So I think some of the Council members have expressed some reservations, some of those were based on kind of disputed facts, and hopefully we'll resolve those."
Tovo is also looking forward to the results of the UTSOA study, noting that it wasn't commissioned to make an up-or-down recommendation on the expansion itself, but simply to answer the questions Council members have been bickering about. Regardless, she emphasized that the study – whatever it contains – will only help her make a decision, and won't dictate it.