by Daryl Slusher

Austin’s Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite is a very difficult bear to wrestle down and explain. It weighs in at well over 1,000 pages, comes with tons of jargon that make an already complex and mind numbing subject harder to understand, and features harsh rhetoric flying back and forth that makes it tempting for citizens to avoid and let others figure it out. 

It’s worth paying attention though because the result will affect every Austin resident as long as each of us lives, or lives here. And, it will literally shape our City from the point it passes onward. The date the LDC passes will arrive very soon if the Council majority continues on its current path. Barring a much broader popular uprising and/or some sort of dramatic change of heart by members of the Council majority a new Code will pass in late March or early April. The Council has posted meetings for a third and final reading vote on March 31 with a meeting also scheduled for April 1 — in case they don’t get to a final vote the day before.

Understandably, the public and Council have mostly focused on the citywide rezoning aspect of the rewrite, in particular “transition zones.” The rezoning, of virtually every property in the City is being done with no written notice to property owners and denial of petition protest rights normally available in individual zoning cases. Making it all even more frustrating and confusing, actual zoning categorizations are changed — adding another layer of complexity when trying to figure out what the rewrite does to individual properties. 

The LDC rewrite, however, also includes a slew of critical Code and policy changes that have gotten little scrutiny. Those lesser noticed items include changes to parkland dedication policies and protection of trees. Even the actual redevelopment code itself has received limited discussion. Grabbing most of the attention is one aspect of the citywide rezoning; that is “transition zones.” In areas designated “transition zones,” large swaths of existing neighborhoods — almost all in the central city — are upzoned to allow four to six housing units per lot, with eight to 10 possible if developers choose to take advantage of affordable housing bonuses (and can fit that many units on the lot).

Simultaneously, the rewrite would make it possible for developers in transition zones to avoid regulations requiring them to provide on-site parking places and height up to 40 feet would be allowed next to existing homes. (Staff has discussed lowering these slightly). These zones are generally located on streets next to “corridors,” i.e., main streets. (Transition zones are somewhat reduced in newly produced maps, but are still proposed in large parts of many central city neighborhoods). Residents fear, among other things: the impact on their quality of life from imposing  40-foot multifamily structures suddenly rising next door; cars constantly lining both sides of streets due to the elimination of onsite parking requirements; and potentially soaring property taxes that could drive them from their homes. To find out how your property is rezoned visit the City LDC website and view the proposed zoning map.)

Despite the extremely serious and dramatic nature of the LDC issue, it remains a very difficult one on which to get folks to focus. So the Austin Independent, in the interest of trying to get more people to pay attention,has decided to frame the issue — at least for this particular article — in a concept that all Americans understand, a television series. Hopefully this approach will better inform you if you decide to join in this civic debate. 

A Mixture of Television Styles

This show is something of a hybrid between Parks and Recreation, a local version of C-SPAN, and Game of Thrones — with some reality show, audience participation components thrown in as well. Let’s call it Austin LDC. So here we go. 

In the spirit of binge watching, the Austin Independent will post numerous installments, or episodes at least  through the rest of March. As noted above, Austin LDC features some reality show elements, in that viewers can potentially affect the outcome by communicating with the characters — most importantly with members of the Austin City Council. If enough folks don’t manage to persuade the Mayor and Council majority to either slow down, change course, or negotiate a compromise by March 31 this show could end up like Game of Thrones; a lot of people won’t like the ending, but they won’t be able to do anything about it.

So let’s begin with an overview of the show.

Austin LDC, The Setting

The setting is Austin, Texas in 2020, a city that has grown exponentially since the late 1970s — as have surrounding areas which have transformed from rural to suburban communities with tens of thousands driving into Austin to work each weekday. For example the population was 251,808 in 1970. By 1990 it was 465,622, by the turn of the century 639,185, and now an estimated 986,499.

Once, Austin’s economy relied on state government and the University of Texas, but has long since become a major high tech center. Like numerous other cities, Austin has a considerable number of people making really good salaries, while tens of thousands of others labor in low paying service industry jobs: restaurants, bars, retail, and so on. Also, tens of thousands of others toil in jobs that usually pay somewhat more than the service industry, but still at wages that make it difficult to afford housing in booming Austin; think teachers, nurses, medical office staff and administrative workers in various other offices. 

Also, as in many other American cities, housing prices have increased far more than wages, in a decades-long pattern. The combination of low wages and high housing prices leaves many people with no choice but to move to surrounding communities and far-flung suburbs outside of Austin — from which they have to join the multitudes on the highways creeping into Austin every morning. This cruel phenomena falls particularly hard on the young who face huge obstacles in obtaining the American Dream that was more available to most of their parents and ancestors.

A very important aspect of Austin LDC is that the City Council majority is attributing many of these problems to Austin’s Land Development Code when they actually result from national problems like distribution of wealth, low wages and the housing crisis. Yes, the Council should do everything in its power to address these problems locally, but is the Council majority blaming too much on the current Land Development Code and thus expecting too much in return — while unnecessarily disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of Austin citizens? This includes disrupting, and potentially destabilizing, the biggest investment of citizens’ lives — their homes. A future episode of Austin LDC will explore this question. 

The Cast of Characters

With the setting now somewhat established, let’s introduce some of the characters, or really groups of characters.  

Urbanists. Urbanists, many of them young, believe very strongly in high density city living with businesses and other services located within walking distance of residences, even mixed in with residences. They also believe in the necessity of efficient, readily available mass transit. Urbanists despise sprawl and want development to be much less oriented around the automobile than has been the post-World War II pattern in the United States. Urbanists see apartments and condos as vastly preferable to single-family housing so as to accommodate more people on less land with less sprawl. Additionally, urbanists support a broader range of housing types than just single-family homes or large apartment complexes, often called “missing middle,” one of the jargon terms referenced so often in LDC discussions. The city’s Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint defines “missing middle” as including “bungalow courts, side by side duplexes, stacked duplexes, triplex, fourplex, live/work and small multiplexes.” Missing middle is seen as a housing solution for service industry workers, teachers, and many others who work in lower-paying jobs and face serious financial obstacles in finding housing.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler at February 13, 2020 Council meeting
Austin Mayor Steve Adler

A key element in our story is that in recent years many urbanists, at least in Austin, have hardened in their views toward single family neighborhoods and often tend to oppose even the existence of such neighborhoods. For just one instance, a leading urbanist in a Facebook post said of a plan to preserve single family housing in a central Austin neighborhood: “Any plan that calls out preserving the least affordable and least sustainable form of living as a top priority is a fail from the start.”

While local urbanists labored in the proverbial political wilderness for many years they have now broken through and won a majority on the City Council. Their coalition predictably includes varied development interests including the Real Estate Council of Austin, but also non-developer activists who believe strongly in urbanist principles. That includes some local environmental groups and prominent local environmentalists and a number of outspoken University of Texas students.

City Council Majority. The Mayor and members of the Council are the stars of Austin LDC, the ones with the power to determine the outcome. The Council is divided, but a clear and very united majority supports the Land Development Code changes and the citywide rezoning. They maintain that the LDC rewrite will usher in a host of positive changes including advances in racial and social justice along with more affordable housing. 

Adding to the drama, some members of the Council majority are hungry for higher office. One, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, the first Latina ever to serve on the Austin City Council, is running for County Attorney, while carrying out her Council duties including ardent advocacy for the LDC rewrite. Another, Council Member Greg Casar, a young champion of progressive causes, is pondering a run for State Senate in an upcoming special election to replace the legendary Senator Kirk Watson, a former Austin Mayor who is leaving Austin for an important academic post at the University of Houston. 

The other members of the Council majority are: Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Sabino Renteria, Jimmy Flanagan, Natasha Harper Madison, and Paige Ellis. Another important phenomena is that, with the exception of Renteria and Harper Madison, the Mayor Pro Tem and Council Members in the majority have few if any transition zones in their districts.

City Council Minority. The voting minority on the LDC consists of Council Members Kathie Tovo; Leslie Pool; Ann Kitchen; and Allison Alter. They are the Council Members most aligned with Austin’s neighborhood leadership and the four who represent the districts getting hit hardest by the LDC rezonings — in particular transition zones. Many of their efforts to amend the LDC proposal have been rejected by the majority in consistent seven to four votes. 

Opposition: Community Not Commodity/Austin Neighborhoods Council/affiliated groups/“preservationists”/NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard). These groups are not all the same, but there is considerable overlap among them. They generally oppose the LDC rewrite and they — and many who came before them — have opposed many other development-oriented initiatives in the past. Among their ranks, however, or at least allies in this battle, are Austin citizens who have supported many of the concepts advocated by urbanists — like mass transit and increased central city density — but believe the LDC rewrite goes way too far. The incessant opposition and accompanying tactics can be very frustrating to LDC backers, sometimes even to fellow members of the opposition . At the same time, however, it is groups and individuals like the LDC opposition whose dogged resistance and insistence on some neighborhood and environmental standards over the decades of exponential growth has been essential in preserving Austin as a great place to live. 

The East Side Opposition. Austin’s historically predominately minority neighborhoods are located in East Austin where a 1928 plan forced African American and Mexican American people to move. After that African Americans and Mexican Americans built strong neighborhoods and communities in East Austin, with many Mexican American communities eventually also extending into South Austin. In recent years those neighborhoods have been subject to gentrification and many long time residents have moved out, or been forced out through property tax increases. 

Although the Council majority touts the LDC rewrite as fostering more racial and social equity, numerous important community groups and individuals see it as accelerating gentrification and displacement and threatening the ultimate demise of communities they and their  forebears built. Several East Austin based groups, and individuals, have allied with Community Not Commodity.

So far this opposition has had little, if any, effect on the Council majority.

Central city homeowners not normally intently focused on City development issues

Many of the LDC opponents described above are central city homeowners, as likely are some urbanists too. In this category, however, we refer to the less politically active homeowners who infrequently, if ever, attend City Council meetings (that is before the LDC). They likely follow the news and most vote regularly, but many such homeowners did not see the Land Development Code coming — at least not straight at them. Many were perplexed to suddenly be considered part of the problem. After all, single-family homeowners in the central city didn’t join the sprawl. They didn’t gentrify the Eastside. They helped build or maintain healthy neighborhoods that allowed Austin to develop without the kind of central-city urban decay that happened across America. They went about their lives, only to now stand accused of selfishly persisting in an archaic, dying way of life and blocking opportunities for younger and/or less prosperous folks to enjoy life like they have. 

Another aspect of the tragidrama is that Austin’s central city is a core voting base that regularly turns out large margins for progressive causes and progressive candidates. Central city voters tend to support social service spending, higher taxes on the rich, and would almost certainly support an increase in the minimum wage if it were possible for cities to do that in Texas. Nonetheless, the avowedly progressive Council majority is targeting the very way of life of citizens in these central city neighborhoods.

Lurking in the shadows: developers? The exact role of developers in the LDC is one of the mysteries of the show. Developers of course come in a variety of forms: large and small; public spirited and not so much; developers of single family subdivisions; apartment developers; developers of towering skyscrapers; residential infill developers; affordable housing developers; and the people who cold-call constantly trying to get people to sell them their homes.

It is clear that many developers will benefit greatly from the LDC rewrite. First they will get an easier-to-use LDC that will allow them to move through the approval process much more quickly; that’s the stated plan anyway. Second, they get increased entitlements all over town, including at least two residential units on thousands of lots where currently only one is allowed. Plus, in transition zones, developers would get much more than that; any single-family lot they manage to purchase would feature entitlements increased to four to six housing units.

Another Austin LDC mystery is whether the Council majority actually believes their Code can deliver what they promise, or whether they are just one of the most pro-developer Councils Austin has ever had — and are just using the equity arguments to disguise that.

City Staff. City staff play important support roles in Austin LDC as their primary role is to develop and carry out Council policies. Ocasionally, a City staffer will get a bigger part, like the troublesome City Demographer who will guest star in a future episode. 

City staffers ready to answer Council questions at February 13, 2020 Council Meeting

The Citizens of Austin. Remember, all citizens of Austin can participate in LDC Austin by contacting the Mayor and Council Members and weighing in on the LDC rewrite. Also, the Council is scheduled to take public comment on Tuesday March 24 beginning at 4 PM and on Saturday March 28 beginning at 9 AM. Stay tuned for more details. 

The Austin Independent, a publication of The Austin Independent, LLC

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