Public Notice: Amid All the Closings, an Opening?

Land Development Code not back to square one

Public Notice: Amid All the Closings, an Opening?

There’s a scene at the beginning of the brilliant Swedish black comedy Force Majeure (oddly remade recently in the U.S. as Downhill) where people are sitting on the deck of a ski lodge and they see an avalanche form, tiny off in the distance. It’s a novelty – ooh, look! – and people stop and gawk excitedly as it grows larger and larger, and they start to wonder – it couldn’t reach here, surely! – then realize it could, then freeze, then panic, and in the space of less than 15 seconds from start to finish, less time than it’s taking you to read this sentence, they’re all under a blanket of white.

It’s been a crazy week or two. And now we’re all covered under six feet of snow, even though it’s 90 degrees outside.

There’s been one other piece of major news that’s not about the coronavirus, though, that just missed getting into last week’s issue by about five minutes: Late on March 18, District Judge Jan Soifer ruled for the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city’s process for the Land Development Code rewrite, regarding giving notice to affected citizens and allowing protest rights. The ruling had two major parts: First, citizens have protest rights, and it takes a Council supermajority (9-2) to override them. Second, Soifer voided Council’s votes to pass the current LDC draft on first and second reading, because the city didn’t properly notify citizens about them.

You can read about the ruling, and some initial reactions, in Austin Sanders’ story from the following day. But what’s been notable since then is how little anyone’s had to say on the subject. It’s a measure of how completely the COVID-19 avalanche has taken all the oxygen out of the city that the LDC rewrite, which just two weeks ago tonight was being fast-tracked because it couldn’t possibly wait another day, has now totally fallen off the table. On March 12, a week after the avalanche had already engulfed SXSW, Mayor Adler was still posting an updated schedule for final LDC hearings, which were to be heading for a final vote this coming week. Within days, those were canceled, and the rewrite’s most gung-ho supporter on the Council was telling Community Impact about the LDC rewrite: “Really, who gives a flying F right now?”

Still, it’s strange to me how completely the Council majority’s urgency about the LDC seems to have evaporated, in the wake of an adverse court ruling that threatens to mandate something that should have been a prerequisite in the first place: that the LDC should be something that is passed by general consensus, rather than by a series of hotly contested 7-4 or 6-5 votes. Indeed, I would argue that the code rewrite remains just as urgent as ever and that, as I’ve been suggesting in this column for at least five years, we could reach such a consensus in a relatively short time if we just DO SOME FUCKING PLANNING.

The mayor and Council have all done outstanding work, working together, in addressing the current crisis. And adapting to shelter-at-home requirements has hit them as hard as or harder than most anyone. But come on, folks. You can walk and chew gum at the same time; the code rewrite is still an urgent matter. Most importantly, there is full consensus on 98% of the code provisions – including much-needed environmental improvements and, yes, a lot of new multifamily and missing middle opportunities – and the thorny 2% (primarily mapping) can be mopped up later when consensus solutions can be forged, as should have been the process from the start. And that’s where Judge Soifer’s ruling puts pressure back onto the Council minority – last seen promising to return to the third reading with an alternative path to a more collaborative planning and mapping process that could lead to better outcomes for both individual neighborhoods and the city as a whole. If those solutions are out there (as I believe they are), this is the time to bring them into play.

So when the dust clears, maybe we’ll find out we’re not as bad off as we thought we were, even if it does take a judge’s ruling (and an avalanche) to get Council members to play nice together.

City Council will hold a virtual meeting today, Thursday, March 26, at 2pm (watch on ATXN), with a largely consent agenda, including new direction to the city manager for virus-related aid to various segments of the population. One other highlight: Item 82 will designate the Lavada Durst (“Dr. Hepcat”) House at 1906 E. 21st as a Historic Landmark.

The rest of this issue and website are full of info about how people and organizations are adapting to our strange new world, but here’s one more, from a place you might think would be among those least able to adapt to the lockdown: “The YMCA of Austin home page,, has been reconfigured to serve as a one-stop resource with streaming exercise classes, information and classes tailored for seniors, activities for kids and families, kids’ educational resources, spiritual & emotional support, nutrition resources and tips, links to community information as well as ways people can volunteer and give back.”

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