The Austin Chronicle

City Council Gets a Breather Before LDC Frenzy

The dais faces a marathon of meetings covering everything from the land use code to APD racism

By Austin Sanders, November 29, 2019, News

City Council will take a break this week, spending its Thursday, Nov. 28, eating turkey and stuffing instead of meeting, while reflecting on how thankful they are for the privilege of doing the work to craft a new Land Development Code.

Let's hope they get some rest this week, because next week will be a frenzy: Dec. 3 and 4, Council will meet for work sessions to further discuss the LDC, including a supplemental report issued by staff on Tues­day, Nov. 26. Thursday, Dec. 5, will be a regular meeting that will serve as a reprieve from the LDC bonanza, before that work resumes at a public hearing on Saturday, Dec. 7, culminating in the first-reading vote on the draft LDC on Monday, Dec. 9.

The LDC debate among Council members continues to focus on Transition Zones; specifically where they should be placed on the map, and how deep they should go. As a reminder, TZs are meant to serve as increasingly dense stepping stones between established neighborhoods and higher-density transit corridors. For Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and her allies representing the East­ern Crescent, concern over TZs has primarily focused on the short-term increase in development pressure that upzoning could bring to areas vulnerable to gentrification.

Staff responded to this concern with two changes to the zoning map that, in effect, reduce the scale of upzoning in those areas identified as vulnerable to gentrification in the UT "Uprooted" study, while increasing allowed density in parts of the city considered "high opportunity areas," as measured by the 360Index. To ensure the decrease in TZs in vulnerable areas does not greatly reduce the city's ability to hit its adopted housing capacity goals, these modifications in high opportunity areas will allow for the development of more missing middle housing along roadways within the city's Transit Priority Network.

Garza has asked colleagues to consider an "equity overlay" that she hopes will go beyond reducing upzoning in some areas while increasing it elsewhere. "As I was looking and analyzing how different tools are used throughout our Land Develop­ment Code," Garza wrote on the Council message board Friday, Nov. 22, "I don't believe we have a tool that more specifically addresses equity and the displacement of our most vulnerable populations."

Her proposed overlay, Garza wrote, would combat the city's history of "inequitable land development patterns" created under the current LDC that are "inextricably tied to our history of segregation." Specific census tracts identified in "Uprooted" would be used to define the boundaries of the overlay, which would discourage redevelopment of existing multifamily housing units that are already affordable at market rates, and increase on-site affordable housing requirements – addressing skepticism of the new code's ability to meet housing goals if it continues to allow developers to pay fees to the city instead of creating affordable units in their projects.

In Other City Business ...

Council's 115-Item agenda for Dec. 5 includes a sweeping resolution aimed at uncovering and addressing any bias pervading the Austin Police Department. If approved, the resolution brought by Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison would put a freeze on new police academy classes until an audit of the hiring process and training materials for new cadets is completed, no later than June 1, 2020. New cadet classes would begin again in September.

During this hiring freeze, City Manager Spencer Cronk would hire an outside team to undertake a "comprehensive, multi-pronged investigation" to uncover any potential "bigotry and discrimination" that impacts the "protocols, practices, and behaviors" of Austin police officers. The investigation would result in recommendations for reform delivered to Council no later than Dec. 7, 2020. Harper-Madison's resolution directs Cronk to prioritize recommendations in the following areas: how closely APD is adhering to state and federal law regulating fair employment practices; an analysis of use-of-force incidents from June through November of this year; data on every interaction with the public over the same time period, looking for disparities among demographic groups; complaints and disciplinary actions taken against officers accused of bias; and complaints of bias against officers and leadership that did not result in disciplinary action.

The freeze is already receiving pushback from the Austin Police Association, which insists the department is understaffed by 170 officers. At a press conference addressing the allegations that former Assistant Chief Justin Newsom regularly used racist language, APA president Ken Casaday said the suggestion of a hiring freeze was "demoralizing" to the police force, and "any stoppage most likely will cause irreparable harm to our department which could take years to recover from." But activists counter that the freeze is needed until the community can be assured that any bias in the force is addressed, and that APD's hiring and training ensures future officers are better equipped to handle interactions with Austin's minority communities.

Elsewhere on the agenda, Council could begin the process to rename Metz Rec­re­a­tion Center to the Rodolfo "Rudy" Mendez Recrea­tion Center. Metz was a captain in the Con­fed­er­ate army; Mendez is a native East Austin­ite who founded the Ballet East Dance Company.

In zoning, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt will ask to have a portion of the site of the new civil and family courthouse at 1700 Guadalupe rezoned from downtown mixed use to public use. Also up for final readings is 600 Industrial Boulevard, a site near South Congress in Dis­trict 3 where rezoning will allow for residential uses. The case was approved unanimously on first reading, with a requirement that a traffic impact analysis be conducted, and that buildings be restricted to 85 feet in height. If given final approval, the development could include 400 multifamily residences, 12,850 square feet of retail, and a 5,326-square-foot brewery at the site.

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