A New Council With New Energy Aims to Get City Hall Unstuck

Change is coming, but how much?

Council: (l-r) Natasha Harper-Madison, Leslie Pool, José Velásquez, Vanessa Fuentes, Paige Ellis, City Manager Spencer Cronk, Mayor Kirk Watson, City Attorney Ann Morgan, Zo Qadri, Mackenzie Kelly, Ryan Alter, Chito Vela, and (not pictured) Alison Alter (Photos by John Anderson)

When City Council convenes for its first meeting of 2023 on Jan. 26, its new members and new mayor will represent the biggest electoral shift the 10-1 Council has yet seen, bringing a new energy into City Hall. Incumbents and newcomers alike see this as an opportunity for a reset of relations between Council and the public on divisive issues like land use; between Council and troubled city agencies like the Austin Police Department; and between Council and City Manager Spencer Cronk, the person tasked with leading the thousands of employees who put Council policy visions into practice.

Will this energy reverberate throughout City Hall long enough to propel the new Council toward progress on issues that stymied its predecessors? We explored three policy areas – each of which will come to a critical decision point soon for the new Council – with as many members as we could; here's what we found.

Equity, Mobility, Density

On Feb. 23, Council is set to adopt an Equitable Transit-Oriented Development framework to guide the expected burst of infill development along the new corridors included in the Project Connect transit system plan. It will be the first vote the new Council takes on a major land use and housing policy document.

The ETOD process for the city kicked off with a unanimous Council vote on June 10, 2021, to adopt a resolution by Council Mem­ber Natasha Harper-Madison. Since then, planners with the city, Capital Metro, and the Austin Transit Partnership have worked with community volunteers to draft a vision plan that uses "equity as a guiding principle" to implement "context-sensitive strategies centered around affordability, increasing transit ridership, and displacement prevention." The votes Council takes on Feb. 23 will set in motion amendments to the Land Develop­ment Code to implement the ETOD plan, such as crafting new zoning overlays to apply to different types of station areas. These changes to land use policy will play a direct role in Project Connect's chances for success by improving the chances of securing sufficient federal funding to help pay for the transit overhaul, the price of which has ballooned since voters approved it in 2020.

This is not a guessing game. The Federal Transit Administration has already indicated that Project Connect will be highly competitive on other scoring criteria, such as its financial plan, integration with other mobility improvements (including I-35 reconstruction), and environmental benefits. They're less impressed with Austin's land use policies, particularly along the light rail Orange Line, and would like the city to do more to make sure federal money is not wasted bringing high-capacity transit to low-density suburban neighborhoods. The FTA has already provided Cap Metro with nearly $2 million in planning grants to get ETOD moving, so the stakes are high; Council's decisions in February on how far and how fast to go will signal to staff and the public alike whether the new Council has truly reset Austin's housing policy.

Harper-Madison, just reelected in Nov­em­ber, told us that housing is her No. 1 priority in her second term representing District 1, and that this is the most "pro-housing" Council ever. The ETOD vision is just one step along the path to creating a more affordable Austin, yet it is also a plan that could have generational impact. "The ETOD plan is going to be around for longer than any of us are actually willing to think about or anticipate," Harper-Madison told us, "because it is going to say something about just how much growth our city will incur."

Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison speaks during Austin City Council inauguration
“The ETOD plan is going to be around for longer than any of us are actually willing to think about or anticipate, because it is going to say something about just how much growth our city will incur.” – Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison

To that end, she hopes the city can achieve a number of ETOD goals. It needs to protect business owners, especially small businesses, in the city's transit corridors throughout the Project Connect construction period. It needs to create a planning environment that will allow for thoughtful development in parts of the city – like the northeastern part of District 1, around Colony Park – that won't see a huge impact from the first phase of Project Connect but will factor into future expansion phases. It needs to be pragmatic; getting land use right at this stage is critical because the city may not get a second chance.

Everyone we interviewed agreed the ETOD plan must create transit-supportive density in the Project Connect corridors, which is the only kind of new infill housing that some CMs and their constituents will support. But the ETOD debate will still inflame ongoing tensions in housing policy: How much should the city rely on changing base zoning to allow more units to be built by right, and how much should it instead offer through bonuses and incentives? How much new housing should be built in what affordable-housing pros call "high-opportunity areas" – places like West Austin that have a lot of working-class jobs, almost no workforce housing, and not much transit? Should land use changes be mapped comprehensively so they can apply to more parts of the city at once, or should ETODs be crafted as a series of individual small area plans?

José "Chito" Vela, who represents the District 4 seat in Northeast Austin formerly occupied by U.S. Rep. Greg Casar, articulated the most expansionist views on land use of any member we interviewed. He said ETOD plans should allow for more housing everywhere Project Connect goes, including in places like D4 where gentrification is already underway. "It's a false choice to suggest we have to choose between building more housing everywhere and protecting communities," he said. "Preventing displacement depends on building new housing." Vela wants to make sure that ETOD affordability requirements do not become "poison pills" that disincentivize overall housing production. "I am someone who would prefer more units overall, rather than fewer units with a greater share of them affordable."

Alison Alter, whose District 10 includes most of the city west of Lamar Boulevard from U.S. 183 to Southwest Parkway, takes the other side of Vela's proposition. "It's not a given that if you allow for more density around transit, that you're going to get the mobility shifts needed to support it," she said. "And it's certainly true that we won't get the affordable housing we need unless we build it from the get-go. I want to make sure that we don't just subsidize luxury apartments" occupied by car owners who rarely use transit. She is in the early stages of thinking through a "systems approach" to supporting Project Connect through planning, asking what kind of jobs and services will be needed around transit stations to make it more likely for people living there to choose not to use their cars.

But that kind of work takes time – time that the city may not have, which Alter acknowledged. "I am trying to figure out the right balance," she said, "between more context-sensitive planning and the urgency to act more quickly with our planning."

In South Austin, the new representative from District 5, Ryan Alter (no relation), is also thinking about supporting Project Connect more holistically. How can Austin's transit expansion connect parents to the schools their children attend, seniors to the grocery stores they frequent, and employees to the jobs they work at? "My hope is that we can establish objective criteria around these goals to inform our planning decisions," Alter said, "because the ETOD plan needs to touch on factors that affect transit outside of housing." But, he added, "it also needs to produce a lot of housing."

“I am someone who would prefer more units overall, rather than fewer units with a greater share of them affordable.” – Council Member Chito Vela

And Alter thinks his district, and the city at large, is ready for that. "I don't see housing as a burden, I see it as an opportunity," he told us. "I am hearing that from my constituents, and I think it is true of all of Austin, too."

There's a broad awareness on Council that the clock is already ticking. "We have to move fast with our station-area planning so that housing can come online quicker," CM Vanessa Fuentes told us. She's especially concerned about moving quickly, because her Southeast Austin district has so far not seen the same type and rate of gentrification as the other three Eastside districts. "It would take us more time than we have if we approach ETOD planning from too granular a level."

District 7 CM Leslie Pool, the last remaining member of the first 10-1 Council elected in 2014, has long advocated for a slower, more deliberate approach to land use planning – an approach she says has borne fruit in her North Austin district. She cites a city-owned parcel on Ryan Drive near the MetroRail Red Line's Crestview Station, one of the few existing TODs in Austin. "When I was first elected, people living near Ryan Drive wanted it to only be used for parkland." Last year, Council approved a proposal to develop it with the kind of multifamily density that ETOD is supposed to encourage. "It took a while to get the community excited," she says. "These things take a while."

Alison Alter's general skepticism about building more market-rate housing, and Pool's preference for slow and steady planning, are definitely minority views on the new Council. New CMs Zohaib "Zo" Qadri and José Velásquez were both unavailable for interviews before our deadline, but both campaigned on broadly increasing Austin's housing supply. In response to emailed questions, Qadri wrote that the ETOD plan was an opportunity to "maximize our transit investments by enabling as many as possible to live, work, and play along our new light rail and bus lines." D6 CM Mackenzie Kelly declined an interview and did not respond to emailed questions, but she has generally voted in favor of easing land use restrictions, although she's not sold on permanent supportive housing designed to help people exit homelessness.

Mayor Kirk Watson, who has a reputation as an effective consensus builder, will be tasked with bringing these diverging perspectives together. In our interview, Watson was clear on two points: Voters gave their nod to housing expansion when they approved Project Connect, and he does not intend to let the quest for consensus impede progress.

Mayor Kirk Watson speaks during Austin City Council inauguration at City Hall Jan. 6

When 58.5% of voters approved Project Connect in 2020, they not only voted for a once-in-a-generation transit investment, Watson told us, "they also voted on a transformation" of our housing ecosystem. "The rail system can't work without having the appropriate density supporting it," he said, "and I don't think voters voted to have a system that was going to fail." The mayor is hopeful that debate around the ETOD plan will serve as an early opportunity for the new Council to demonstrate how it can move past its political stalemate on land use that's resulted in fairly timid responses to what he has consistently dubbed an emergency. "We've got to be thoughtful, we've got to be precise, and we have to be empathetic," he said. "But we don't necessarily have to be patient."

Watching the Detectives

The new Council appears to be aligned on what it wants out of the new contract with the Austin Police Association: Stronger civilian oversight of APD is the top priority.

Finding areas of agreement on officer pay and benefits is important because in theory that's what will most directly impact APD's recruitment and retention as it, like all other government agencies, struggles with staffing shortfalls. But all CMs we spoke to agree those issues are secondary to creating a robust, transparent system of police accountability. (Kelly will likely be the one vote in opposition.)

For the time being, the only differences between CMs on oversight regard its structure. It should stand apart from the police contract (and not need to be renegotiated every four years) to the greatest extent allowed under state law, but Pool and Alison Alter voiced particular concern over doing that in a legally sound way, as the APA is almost certain to sue if an oversight system they dislike is codified in city ordinance. "We have to find a way of doing oversight the way we want that can stand up to legal scrutiny," Pool said. "If it goes to the courts and the new system gets thrown out, the community would be placed in a bad situation."

The current contract expired in Septem­ber but was extended through March 31 to allow the "meet and confer" talks to play out. Last we reported at the end of 2022, the two sides were in a standoff regarding oversight, with talks resuming this week, Jan. 18. There is near-universal agreement among CMs that Council should approve a one-year extension of the existing contract and take more time to work out differences on oversight. That would also allow voters to weigh in, as the May 6 municipal election will likely include two ballot measures related to civilian oversight of APD.

The first of these citizen initiatives was placed on the ballot after a petition campaign run by the progressive advocacy group Equity Action and is designed to reduce the APA's ability to call the shots on how civilian oversight works with APD's own investigations of officer misconduct. The second ordinance, which has almost certainly also qualified for the ballot but has yet to be certified, is a weaker version of the first, backed by APA and law enforcement boosters and circulated by canvassers who used deceptive tactics to blur the distinction between the two ordinances.

Those tactics have left a bad taste in the mouth of most CMs, who say another of their goals with the contract is to improve the now-terrible relationship between APA and Council. Supporting a petition campaign that was run deceptively makes that healing harder to accomplish. "The city has a complicated relationship with APA," CM Paige Ellis said, "and it was always going to be difficult to strike the right balance between oversight and wages."

Ellis, reelected in November to her Dis­trict 8 seat representing Southwest Austin, recalled her own interaction with one of the canvassers who pitched her on the weakened ordinance. "These kinds of underhanded tactics just make it harder to navigate those challenges." Like her colleagues, Ellis hopes that the negotiation process can be salvaged as an opportunity to help improve relations between APA, rank-and-file officers, and Council, but that can't happen if APA and its supporters behave unethically. "We need to be talking with each other openly because that's the only way of passing good policy," she said.

Change Starts at the Top?

The entire city organization is short-staffed, and morale is low among its employees. Our question was straightforward: Is there a will among CMs to replace City Manager Spencer Cronk? At times over the past two years, the bad things that have happened to the city – police violence, hobbled response to emergencies, boil water notices out of the blue – seemed to produce a fragile majority among CMs to look for a new leader of the city bureaucracy. That commitment has mostly evaporated.

Partly, the "reset" vibe at City Hall is extending to Cronk as well; the five new CMs (including Watson) want a chance to work with the guy before deciding if new leadership is warranted. Incumbent CMs are hopeful that new faces and ideas on Council, coupled with early signs that indicate staffing shortages could be improving, could allow for warmer relations with the city manager. But the CM who has probably been the most critical, most publicly, of Cronk's performance – Alison Alter – is not convinced there's much change.

“We won’t get the affordable housing we need unless we build it from the get-go. I want to make sure that we don’t just subsidize luxury apartments” occupied by car owners who rarely use transit. – Council Member Alison Alter

"The vacancies we are experiencing did not happen by magic," Alter told us. "They were not addressed by leadership, at various stages, as swiftly [and] with the focus and attention that they deserved." Alter declined to comment on whether or not Cronk should be fired, but at Council's Dec. 8 meeting, as CMs prepared to give Cronk his first raise of his five-year tenure, she spoke up. "I've had deep concerns with the manager's performance for over two years," she said, highlighting staffing crises at the 911 call center, delayed and inconsistent enforcement of the public camping ban, and the millions of dollars in legal settlements the city has opted to offer to survivors of APD violence. These shortcomings have contributed to a culture that for "too many feels toxic, unsupported, and unaccountable."

But finding a new city manager would take at least a year, if not longer (it took about 18 months to conduct the national search that brought Cronk in from Minne­a­polis). During that time, work at City Hall on some important issues could grind to a halt, and whoever was put in place as the interim city manager could be reluctant to push forward with big, bold change – exactly what the new Council promised voters it would deliver, especially Watson, who has to stand for reelection in two years.

If there's no will among CMs to replace Cronk, there is broad acceptance that the city has organizational and leadership problems that need attention, as can be seen by the city's many vacant positions, not all of which can be blamed on stagnant public­-sector wages and benefits. Responses provided by employees in the city's 2021 workforce survey (the most recent year available) shed a light on their perception of the city's executives.

When asked if they would recommend the city as a good place to work, 73% of respondents answered favorably, but a breakout section on "leadership and organizational culture" paints a more nuanced picture. Only a bare majority (50.9%) of respondents feel their department is managed well. A plurality of respondents (37%) feel that change is not managed well by the city. Only 45% feel safe "to challenge the way things are done in my department." A city spokesperson said the results could be a response to "unique stresses" the entire city workforce has faced over the past two years, which prompted the largest across-the-board pay raises for employees in two decades. "We value our employees and are committed to addressing staff concerns," the spokesperson said.

These results are concerning to a Council that needs city employees, especially during a staffing crisis, to not stifle their efforts to innovate and be resilient and responsive. "I'm very concerned about staffing problems hampering our ability to accomplish goals," Watson told us. "In our council-manager form of government, neither side can be successful if we are not working together in concert." Council needs to send direct, clear messages to staff on goals, Watson said, adding that housing in particular is an area where staff has gotten mixed messages on how far and fast to go.

Reflecting on her own Council onboarding process in 2021, Fuentes explained how the energy on Council already feels different, and how that might reverberate throughout City Hall. "When I was elected, Council was still reeling from the trauma caused by the second attempt at revising the LDC," which was eventually thrown out in court. "I don't feel that at all with this new group. With the LDC, I am getting the sense that this group is done with acting hesitantly. Council has not led strongly enough on housing, but I feel we are ready to do that, and I think that will inspire staff to respond with ambitious plans."

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