Austin at Large: Battle Lines Being (Re)drawn
The imperfect ways we try to describe what’s at stake when neighborhoods change
We recently got a letter from one of our old Hyde Park friends, taking us to task for our framing of Austin's contemporary land use wars as "urbanist" vs. "preservationist," since in real life one can be one, both, or neither of those things. Believe me, Karen (her real name), we don't like it that much either; we continue to struggle with how to describe this signal frontier of local politics, and I wish we could still just say that so-and-so supported or opposed CodeNEXT. Since the Chronicle writes about a lot of stuff that doesn't get covered in other outlets, in Austin or elsewhere, we have to settle on our own house style and language that people will understand.
It would be simpler to default to calling the two sides here "developers" and "neighborhoods," but we don't. That framing is intended by its crafters to place the greedy-velopers on blast and hold the love-thy-neighbors beyond reproach, and I do not need to tell you this is not really how the cultural and socioeconomic signifiers of these battles line up in real life in this constantly changing city. But we have other old friends who write us letters policing our language whenever we use "neighborhood" as a stand-in for "aging central-city homeowners," regardless of what we say about them, since everyone, of every age and class, lives in a neighborhood of some sort, even urbanists. Why can't they be forces for good?
Defending the Perimeter
Organizing at the street and block level could be a springboard for doing more good work than most Austin neighborhood associations either can or want to do as civic actors. The fact that NAs in Texas, and especially cities like Austin, have a de facto and almost ironclad veto over other people's property rights makes it hard for anything else to rise to the top of the mission statement, even if the NA officers would love to be planting community gardens or teaching poor kids how to swim instead. Because to be a NIMBY – defensive of one's stuff and turf, with a boundless emotional investment in avoiding a catastrophized outcome even when it will make no real difference to their lives – is human nature, and in Texas the law is also on your side.
For example, look at all of my own neighbors on the Eastside who showed up at Council last week to cry and hiss about bars on East 12th Street. (They had a valid petition and everything.) You may be thinking, "But there are already bars on 12th Street." Yes, for decades, without much incident for the last 20 years or so (it was admittedly rougher back in the day). Some other properties on East 12th might also become bars down the line, maybe 20 years from now, if their owners negotiate the not-at-all-painless process of a conditional-use permit, at which point these same people can come back and complain about that.
But literally for months, the NAs have been whipping people into fits with visions of East 12th becoming another Rainey Street within weeks, and wrecking all of Central East's newly gentrified splendor. This silliness nearly scuttled efforts to clean up and modernize the plans controlling 11th and 12th streets that have been underway for eight years (initiated when I was chair of the city Urban Renewal Board, years before I came back to the Chronicle).
The Generations to Come
Those plans themselves are much older, more than 20 years, so it's been a few generations since neighbors came together because they wanted things in the neighborhood to change. The project's basic purpose of developing publicly owned property (acquired from its original, mostly Black occupants during urban renewal) along the corridors is only partly accomplished, and the mid-1990s visions of restoring the area's shine as the historic commercial heart of Black Austin feel remote. That's despite the powerful waves of gentrification that washed over every other part of East Austin during this time. It's pretty depressing.
But if we can't work out the issues that stand in the way of community vitality and placemaking at this scale of "small area planning" – a buzzword favored by the people we call preservationists – we will likely not be able to do so for an entire city that, unlike East 12th, is not content to simply hang out and wait and not change while we argue. We can and should throw some weight and cash behind creating not just small area plans, but their implementation structures and the "community development" required to make these neighborhoods about more than just real estate, and the future of Austin about more than just how it uses land. Or, more properly stated, to make fulfilling the equitable potential of all Austinites the purpose of the city's land use regulations, which can be informed by social work and capacity building and peer support and political organizing and much else besides the language of law and real estate. If that were our goal and we could attain it, we wouldn't need words to describe the sides of the land use wars, for there would only be one side.