Public Notice: Top 10 Stories of 2021
Some top topics on the community news front
Here are my top 10 "Public Notice" stories of the year: Not necessarily the top news stories – you'll find those starting here – but selected for their importance to local residents, and/or an element of public input into the political process. They're listed more or less chronologically by when I wrote about them, although they're all still ongoing stories.
Feb. 12: "Conserve What?" The historic Hancock Golf Course has been a perennial money-loser for the Parks and Recreation Department's Golf Division, and they've tried to make changes before. Just before the pandemic, PARD floated a redevelopment plan that met with such public resistance that it spawned not one but two conservancies: the Hancock Conservancy trying to turn the course into a public park, and the Hancock Golf Conservancy trying to fundraise to keep it afloat as a golf course. A flurry of public meetings and social media organizing grew somewhat heated, but ironically, the course's finances flourished during the pandemic, and PARD signaled that if it stayed that way going forward, they'd be happy to keep running it as is. Meanwhile, all sides seemed to agree that there are some ecological improvements that are needed at the site, so if those fundraising efforts are still ongoing, there could be consensus on how it could be used.
May 21: "Home Prices Still High" This was an actual headline, from the department of Old News. It was a topic that I noted "I seem to have been writing about a lot recently," as housing prices skyrocketed during COVID. They've leveled off a bit since then, but clearly, this remains an existential threat to the city's soul. And despite no shortage of public discussion, no one has a solution, because free market, capitalism, Texas. But we keep trying.
July 30: "To Comply, or to No-Comply" After an emotional 2½-hour hearing at the city's Historic Landmark Commission, Austin Community College agreed (for now) not to demolish a storefront on 12th Street that houses No-Comply Skateshop, a fixture in the local skateboarding community. ACC's Districtwide Campus Master Plan involves developing the entire block west of the Rio Grande campus, all the way to the city's rec center and skate park, so the demo request will likely come back, and the question of the building's historical status remains open. But in the meantime, No-Comply has a new lease, and a promise of ACC's help in finding a new home.
Sept. 3: "What Have They Done to Our Park?" My scathing review of the Disneyfied new Waterloo Park – "What's left isn't a park, but more like a park museum, where visitors can walk by and see what looks like a park on the other side of the barriers" – was by far my most-read and most-commented-on column of the year. That may say something about the internet, or about my column, but mostly it's that people love to argue about a negative hot take.
Aug. 6: "Trade-Offs and Throughput" A spirited protest and lawsuit by Oak Hill neighbors, the Fix290 Coalition, Save Barton Creek Association, and others, seeking to downsize the Texas Department of Transportation's massive rebuild of the Y in Oak Hill, earned a court order halting tree removal – but only for a month, before TxDOT got to move ahead with their plan because they're TxDOT. Speaking of which...
Sept. 10: "Condemning the Chronicle?" Noting that there'd been "some chatter on social media about the Chronicle building being in the construction footprint of the I-35 highway expansion," I went on to outline TxDOT's Capital Express Central plan to rebuild I-35 through Central Austin, and the condemnation process for the owners and tenants of about 150 other properties up and down the corridor. That's a side of the civic engagement process no one wants to become more familiar with.
Oct. 1: "The City's Day in Court" Well, that day in court was actually Nov. 17 – oral hearings on the CodeNext lawsuit, which were essentially nonconclusive, as we still await the 14th Court of Appeals' ruling on whether or not the city violated property owners' rights to notice and appeal in its effort to rewrite the Land Development Code. Regardless, events have now largely overtaken that doomed rewrite process, in the form of a new transit plan and some sensible interim moves by a reconfigured and somewhat depoliticized Council. But the LDC rewrite is still needed; let's hope it doesn't go off the rails yet again.
Oct. 15: "Rewilding Zilker Park" Just before PARD unveiled Zilker Park Vision Plan design concepts, the Save Our Springs Alliance and Zilker Neighborhood Association released their own vision plan, "Rewilding Zilker Park," for returning more of the park to a natural state through reforestation, reduced parking and mowing, plus remediation to transform the former Butler Landfill near MoPac from a caliche parking lot back into a riverside forest. As I noted then, "While everyone loves this crown jewel of the parks system, there are lots of different ideas about how that jewel should be polished." To be continued.
Dec. 3: "Boards and Commissions in Revolt" It's hard to believe that there is any topic on which all 40-plus members of Austin's main land use commissions – Planning, Zoning and Platting, and the Board of Adjustment – could agree on unanimously. But a plan by city staff to move their meetings out of City Hall and into the new Permitting and Development Center behind Highland has indeed united them to formally request to stay at City Hall – for safety reasons, but primarily because of access and convenience. While it's hard to imagine that city staff wouldn't want to encourage a robust public discussion of land use issues, that's indeed the impression some have gotten. City Council's Audit and Finance Committee is mulling the matter as we go to press Dec. 15.
Dec. 10: "Cars Off Guadalupe?" The Project Connect planning team has just rolled out their plans for the three thorniest parts of the proposed transit system: the Drag on Guadalupe, the Downtown tunnel, and the crossings over Lady Bird Lake. And none of the three are simple, of course. This column focused on Guadalupe, where the headline news is the strong likelihood that cars may no longer be allowed on the Drag. But controversy simmers as well over whether to allow buses on the proposed new rail bridge over the lake, and whether to make Fourth Street a pedestrian mall for the six-block length where it has a rail tunnel and underground concourse below it. This discussion, too, will continue well into the new year and beyond.