Austin At Large: Let Me Make Things Clear
Yes, we need to move ahead quickly – but not recklessly – with a new land code
I got some constructive feedback on my last column from readers: "His position on the Land Development Code rewrite is unclear" and "He needs to be more specific" and "This does not strike me as his best writing." (Dude, it never is. My best is always yet to come.) Let me break it down for you.
Yes, I support the LDC Revision; it is long, long overdue. The changes it proposes are ones that 1) are already happening all over Austin, but piecemeal and with much wasted time and energy spent on meaningless conflict and procedural theatre, and 2) more closely align the code with how Austin was built out in the first place. We've been talking about the deficiencies of the current Title 25 code since at least the mid-Nineties; if we had been able since then to allow graceful incremental increases in density and more walkable mixed-use development in our urban nodes, centers, and corridors without making every such plan and project into a battle and a spectacle and a slippery slope, we'd be a lot better off now as a city.
My Long-ago Fingerprints
As a writer here back in the day, when the Chronicle helped to shape and empower both of the political camps – urbanists and neighborhoods – now engaged in debate, and then as a consultant and active citizen who worked on multiple plans and projects that inform today's LDC conversation, and now back here again, my fingerprints are all over this thing, as are those of thousands of other Austinites. And I do think that official Austin has, for a decade, handled this whole thing clumsily, and that the ongoing strong and sustained backlash from both urbanists and preservationists is unsurprising. No one person (e.g., Steve Adler) is responsible for that; it's been a decade (going back to the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan) of missing the mark, of overpromising transformations that an LDC rewrite can't deliver and of neglecting to appreciate those impacts that it can have that people straight-up don't want. But those missteps do not minimize the need for a new code; if anything, they've made it more acute by prolonging the process.
No, the LDC doesn't need more time and more input; it needs to be adopted and then tuned and calibrated over time through practice and ongoing small-area planning. You don't have to take my word for it. A majority of the city, through its elected representatives and decisive results at the ballot box reflecting a coalition of interests now empowered by a 10-1 Council, wants to move forward. As righteously aggrieved as LDC opponents claim to be, dragging this process out and watering the code down performatively is a sign of disrespect to the people of Austin, not the reverse.
Life After the Backlash
Having said all that, I know almost everyone on the Council pretty well (I haven't yet gotten to know Alison Alter) and would call them friends, of varying degrees of closeness, who are all genuinely representing their districts and approaching the LDC with serious intent. I've actually known Ann Kitchen, Leslie Pool, and Kathie Tovo much longer than the others (except for Pio Renteria) because we all came up together, as it were, in Austin policy and politics, working over the same issues in the Nineties and thereafter.
I've supported and aligned and collaborated with them to improve health care (Kitchen), civic engagement (Pool), and social services (Tovo) even though they all know I disagree with their position on land use – and even worked hard to keep Tovo from being reelected in 2014, when she was up against my friend and comrade Chris Riley, the first full-blooded urbanist to serve on Council. Tovo won that battle, but Riley appears to have won the war.
That was a huge backlash cycle because of 10-1 – we had 80-odd people running for Council, mostly against City Hall. On that same ballot was the doomed Project Connect (v.1) rail transit plan, opposed by all but a few of those candidates. Riley, as a Capital Metro board member, was pretty much chained to Project Connect; Tovo had electoral incentives to soften her support for transit. She did not.
Could she (or Kitchen, Pool, or Alter) do so this year, as payback for their LDC defeats, when a new, larger, more expensive Project Connect (v.2) transit plan is expected to be on the November ballot? My gut feeling is that a 2020 rail bond is already going to fare rather weakly among the voters whose LDC skepticism and fear are still echoing in Council chambers, for whom it is still and will always be a backlash cycle. But also that those voters will be, or at least could be, thoroughly drowned out by a majority that supports both a revised LDC and the transit that goes with it, in what may be the highest-turnout election of our lifetimes.
But Austin politics, and especially its elections, are fecund environments for noisy disenchantment, which is already the background music for the 2020 election cycle, from the White House on down to Austin's streets. Yes, it's time to move forward with both a new LDC and, hopefully, a transit plan that meets Austin's grievous and costly need for mobility. But moving ahead quickly is not the same as moving ahead recklessly, in a way that invites future backlash and disappointment as Austin continues to change faster than our politics can move.