Public Notice: Destroying Some to Save Others
City, Austin ISD look for similar changes in similar places
In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam conflict, journalist Peter Arnett filed a dispatch for the Associated Press that included the quotation, "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it," attributed to an anonymous U.S. major. The quote, albeit somewhat mangled with repetition, has since become a metaphor for destruction in the name of salvation. As both the city and the Austin Independent School District are poised to embark on similar paths with similar justifications, it's a timely phrase to ponder.
To be clear, in neither case will the entire town be destroyed. Both AISD's proposed school changes and the city's code rewrite appear set to spare the whiter, wealthier west side from any significant upheaval. But for some areas of Central and East Austin, proposed school closures and expected upzonings are hitting like a double whammy – witness the Ridgetop Elementary community, targeted for both school closure and transition area zoning.
Change is a fact of life, for sure, and most of us get that. But a few of the current proposals are so at odds with the stated goals of both the city and the district that we have to question their logic.
Let's take AISD first. Its School Changes 2019 document opens with a laundry list of admirable goals: address longstanding inequities and racial divisions, expand access to the magnet programs, extend school hours to support working families, strengthen our campus communities, etc. It's when you get down to some of the individual campus plans that the dissonance kicks in. The proposed closure of Webb Middle School, for example, would move kids into Dobie MS (a building with a lower facility rating per the last bond info) consolidating two extremely low-income student bodies and creating a severely overcrowded campus that would require another bond to address (contrary to district projections, Webb has nearly doubled its enrollment in recent years thanks to community support, while Dobie attracted another 150+ new students just this year alone).
Equally mystifying is the proposed closure of Maplewood Elementary, a fully enrolled campus with a diverse and active parent base. And the same is true for Pease Elementary, which draws a rainbow coalition of kids from all across Austin to attend "the neighborhood school for Downtown working parents," as one parent put it. All three campuses have worked hard to build strong communities and none are severely underenrolled – goals the district claims to support – yet somehow they've ended up on the chopping block.
Meanwhile over at the city, the maps and text of the code rewrite finally dropped last week, and folks living in transition areas are about to see some major changes: up to 10 units per lot with increases in impervious cover up to 60%, and zero on-site parking required. In my own neighborhood, Hyde Park, over a third of the land is proposed for rezoning, despite the neighborhood being repeatedly lauded by planners and consultants as already being exactly the kind of walkable complete community – replete with missing-middle housing – that we're supposed to be aspiring to under the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan. But rather than map these kinds of neighborhoods citywide, we seem on the verge of eviscerating the ones we have, and perhaps leaving the rest largely untouched.
Like many, I'd be a lot more enthusiastic about these proposed blanket upzonings if they came with a required affordability component, but the new text and maps confirm that they won't. So we'll get a few more units at astronomical prices, in exchange for tossing out decades of thoughtful planning that have made these areas so desirable in the first place. If the goal is just more units, price be damned, I'd hoped we'd see similar upzonings in every Council district (ideally, with additional zoning to compensate for areas with deed restrictions that limit construction to single homes). Instead, the new maps show wide swaths of largely unchanged zoning exactly where you'd expect it – wealthier, whiter neighborhoods west of Lamar and MoPac.
Various Council members have stressed at recent briefings that transition areas will only affect about 2% of Austin's land. Never mind that the 2% in question is already densely populated with folks who have built homes, lives, and communities there, and that the changes coming have the potential to upend 100% of their lives. (And no one has yet ventured a guess where the required 12 refuse carts per fourplex are going to go with a new minimum street frontage of 34 feet when all parking is now also being moved to the street.)
Sure, change is hard, but it'd be easier if these proposals actually aligned with the lofty goals the city and district are claiming, and if every Council and AISD trustee district shared the pain equally. Until then, I guess we're destroying some parts of the town to save others.