City Council and Staff Push and Pull Over Campsites and Transit Oriented Development

OK, how about here?

Mayor Pro-Tem Natasha Harper-Madison (photo by John Anderson)

After pushback from City Council and the community at large against a "preliminary list" of city-owned sites that could serve as sanctioned campgrounds for people experiencing homelessness, city staff has asked for more input and direction from Council before recommending any other locations.

That was at Tuesday's (June 1) work session, at which staff was due to show its progress (on the expedited timeline imposed by Council) at finding places for the unhoused to go once enforcement of the Proposition B camping ban begins in earnest in August. Based on feedback from Council members, and in anticipation of Gov. Greg Abbott signing House Bill 1925, which will ban public camping statewide – including on any parkland – as of Sept. 1, Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey and Parks and Recreation Director Kimberly McNeeley reported the initial list of 45 locations has been whittled down to two. Just one of those would be a likely candidate, McNeeley said, and even it would require remediation before it could be used.

The report garnered an exasperated response from Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who last week criticized publication of the list of sites with little context and no time for CMs to prepare for questions. "It's pretty clear we don't have the clear line of communication with the City Manager's office that we should," Harper-Madison said. City Manager Spencer Cronk acknowledged that "lessons were learned" from rollout of the list, but he pointed out that Council's May 6 resolution gave staff just two weeks and no real guidance as to what sites would be acceptable.

On their own, staff considered a few basic criteria – availability for use for two years; 2 acres per 50 people to be living there; and access to public transportation, services, and income opportunities. Staff wants more guidance on some of the factors cited by CMs as they rejected locations on the list, such as the acceptable level of wildfire risk if mitigation efforts are put in place, or the distance a site can be from existing utility service without incurring unsustainable costs to provide electricity and bathroom facilities.

With clear guidelines about site requirements and funding levels by June 10, Grey said, her office can provide a more useful list of sites and services, and at least one site could be opened in August. That assumes the property, likely privately owned, would not need to be rezoned; that the owner could reach agreeable terms with the city; and nearby property owners would not file a lawsuit over the neighboring property's proposed use.

In the interim, Grey asked Council to allocate $4.7 million of anticipated American Rescue Plan Act funding to bolster short-term solutions to homelessness. Most of that, $4.2 million, is to open a "bridge shelter" to provide lodging, meals, and services to 400 people experiencing homelessness for one year; if funding and a contract with a service provider to operate the facility is approved in June, the facility could open its doors to guests by July 15. The remaining $500,000 would go toward "capacity building at existing service providers to help them scale up operations to meet the needs of people working to exit homelessness."

“It’s pretty clear we don’t have the clear line of communication with the City Manager’s office that we should.” – Mayor Pro-Tem Natasha Harper-Madison

Meanwhile, in business this week, Council will consider a resolution directing staff on how to prepare for forthcoming updates to the city's Transit Oriented Development (TOD) policy, in partnership with Capital Metro. The transit agency was awarded a $900,000 grant by the Federal Transit Administration to conduct a TOD planning study along Project Connect's proposed Blue Line (from Downtown to the airport along East Riverside) and the 12-mile northern segment of the Orange Line (from the North Lamar Transit Center to Republic Square).

Austin has designated TOD zones now, intended to encourage compact, walkable density around transit stations, but since adoption in 2005 the policy has borne little fruit, supporting modestly dense infill projects at the Crestview, MLK, and Saltillo stations along the MetroRail commuter line. The update – branded eTOD, to emphasize the push to create an equitable policy tool – hopes to change that.

Capital Metro is collaborating with the city's Housing and Planning and Transportation departments and the Equity Office on the eTOD study, which will produce plans for areas around Orange and Blue Line stations, including recommended rezonings, multimodal mobility connections, and land trusts to help preserve or create existing affordable housing. The resolution Council considers this week, introduced by Harper-Madison, previews the work city staff could do to implement the eTOD study.

Those tasks could include purchasing existing affordable housing or land for new housing, to mitigate gentrification and displacement (the purpose of a $300 million fund created along with Project Connect); eliminating parking minimums or imposing parking maximums near stations; and upzoning transit corridors to speed up the infill development along them that is, in theory, a consensus goal shared by the full Council. Thursday's vote won't establish any of these concepts as policy, and CapMetro does not expect to make its eTOD recommendations until the spring of 2022.

But even as a preliminary statement of intent, Harper-Madison's resolution has already awakened the primal instincts of those who have fought so long over the city's land-use policies. Leading up to the vote, CM Ann Kitchen proposed amendments to the resolution, one of which reiterates the mandate – included in the Project Connect "contract with voters" – for "neighborhood-level planning" for station areas, where applicable, when deploying anti-displacement funds.

Kitchen explained this is intended to empower communities facing gentrification, but Harper-Madison and allies fear that it could be used by the interests of neighborhoods that have long held sway at City Hall. In a response to Kitchen, Harper-Madison wrote that the "desire to telescope the planning process down to the neighborhood-level" could result in inequitable outcomes. "Neighborhood power structures are largely dominated by single-family homeowners who are generally older and wealthier than the median resident of our majority-renter city," Harper-Madison wrote, and creating a public engagement method that favors those structures could "reinforce economic segregation and perpetuate the feedback loop of institutionalized poverty."

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