If the long time battle over the City of Austin’s Land Development Code were a television series, May 16, 2024 would be a season ending episode and possibly the end of the series. It would now be that period where fans are left to wonder whether there will be an additional season. 

Of course the Austin Land Development Code (LDC) saga is not a television show, although you can stream hours and hours of it if you want. It is instead a very real life drama affecting virtually every property and every person in the city; not to mention the tens of thousands yet to move here, whom much of this plan is meant to accomodate. 

Exactly what the impacts of HOME will be cannot yet be known, but it is very clear which side won and which side lost on May 16; and also when HOME Part 1 passed on December 7, 2023. The 9-2 vote to pass HOME 2 (Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly voting no) is really no surprise. It’s the same vote breakdown as on HOME 1 in December. (The accompanying gutting of compatability standards passed on the same 9-2 vote. Alter voted for ETODs (Equitable Transit Oriented Districts) although she abstained on the actual rezoning for ETODs because her house is within one. Kelly voted no on ETODs.)

Another reason that the May 16 outcome was no surprise is that most of the current Council Members were clear during their campaigns that they supported policies like HOME, although the specific HOME initiative was not on the table until Council Member Leslie Pool introduced it in July of last year. In doing so Pool abandoned years of opposing similar policies.

One way of looking at it is that Pool not only switched sides when she launched the HOME initiative, but she also provided the crucial ninth vote. That meant a three-fourths super majority, the number of votes needed to override valid petitions and rezone property owners’ property against their will.  

The major votes on Land Development Code issues on the previous Councils — when Steve Adler was Mayor — were seven to four with Alter, Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen and Pool voting no. Tovo and Kitchen were replaced by Zo Qadri and Ryan Alter respectively. So that was a two vote gain for the New Urbanist forces (then three when Pool switched sides). But, the New Urbanists also lost Steve Adler’s vote. So that brings us to another way of looking at who provided the ninth vote. That would be the role of Adler’s replacement, Kirk Watson.   

Virtually no one thought Kirk Watson would be a no vote on LDC issues. Instead a lot of people thought he might seek to broker a compromise in the very long running LDC battle. One reason many people thought Watson would seek a compromise is that during Watson’s earlier stint as Mayor he repeatedly used his negotiating skills to broker peace agreements between long warring factions. These peace agreements often led to leaps forward in policy. 

Another reason people got that idea was because Watson repeatedly promised during his 2022 campaign to move beyond an approach of “winners and losers.” 

For example, here’s Watson in a November 30, 2022 interview with Community Impact, during his closely fought mayoral runoff with Celia Israel: “I have a demonstrated history of bringing people together to get positive, progressive things done for our community. I don’t believe in ‘all or nothing’ politics, where there are always winners and losers, and every policy choice must be binary. As a public servant, my goal has always been to bring diverse interests together to build consensus and take action to solve problems. That will remain my goal if elected in November.”

“I have a demonstrated history of bringing people together to get positive, progressive things done for our community. I don’t believe in ‘all or nothing’ politics, where there are always winners and losers, and every policy choice must be binary. As a public servant, my goal has always been to bring diverse interests together to build consensus and take action to solve problems. That will remain my goal if elected in November.”

Kirk watson during his 2022 campaign for mayor

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson

When it came to the HOME initiative, and related matters, Watson didn’t forge a single compromise, or give any appearance that he was trying to do so. He didn’t “bring diverse interests together,” and didn’t even attempt “to build consensus.” Despite some 30 hours of public testimony, with numerous speakers pleading for a middle course, or at least a compromise, Watson never offered anything of the sort. He also never even explained his reasoning from the dais. 

Instead the clear winners were the ideologically driven, self-named YIMBY’s (Yes In My Backyard) and the clear losers were those who have long fought to protect Austin’s neighborhoods like the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) and the allied group Community Not Commodity. 

As I have mentioned before, several key members of the ANC wrote old fashioned “neighborhood letters” in favor of Watson as he struggled in the mayoral runoff with Celia Israel. The writers did not believe that Watson would be an ally with them all the way down the line. Instead they were counting on his history of bringing everyone to the table and brokering compromises; just as he was promising to do at the time, like in the campaign interview quoted above.

It wasn’t just the ANC letter writers taking this approach to the mayoral election. For instance, another person making similar points was former Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, a legendary advocate for Austin’s neighborhoods and environment, and also known for being able to broker compromises. Like me, Goodman was on the City Council the whole time Watson was Mayor the first time. (She preceded me by three years and we both left the Council the same day in June 2005.)  Goodman recalls that she told numerous people during the campaign that they might not agree with all of Watson’s policies, but that he would bring all interests to the table. Goodman now regrets telling people that. 

Also, and Watson had to know this, the ANC and Community Not Commodity were not in a strong negotiating position, with a Council super majority favoring policies they opposed. So they almost certainly would have been open to compromise. Watson, however, did not even try to broker a compromise with those opposing HOME. Instead he just ran the train over them. By the way, that train reference isn’t just a metaphor. 

The Link Between HOME and Project Connect

The May 16 hearing made very clear that the unrelenting fast track schedule for HOME was driven, at least in large part, by the deadline for Austin’s applications for federal funds for Project Connect; the primary component of which is the light rail system approved by voters in November 2020. As mentioned in earlier stories, there have been serious cost overruns with that project and its planned length has been cut by more than half as a result.

Some folks raised concerns that the grant application was driving the HOME schedule. I also pointed out that a need for massive upzoning and transformation of single family neighborhoods was not something that elected officials and other leaders of the Project Connect campaign stressed, or even mentioned, during the 2020 campaign. I did not give the grant application deadline considerable attention. The role of the grant deadline is much more clear now.

A lot of that clarity is due to a question from Planning Commissioner Grayson Cox at the April 23 Planning Commission meeting. (Cox is an appointee of Alison Alter.) In a previous article we reported that Cox, also at the April 23 Planning Commission meeting, raised questions about whether citizens of average means would be able to take advantage of the development entitlements granted by HOME and was told by staff, “we don’t know.”

Planning Commissioner Grayson Cox, Screenshot from Planning Commission broadcast

At that same meeting Cox said that it seems to him that the Commission engages in “more public engagement” on smaller issues, like “neighborhood parks,” than on the massively impactful HOME initiative. “I feel like the process has been really truncated,” he said. Cox then asked, “can staff help us understand the scheduling issue.” 

After a short delay, Planning Department Director Lauren Middleton-Pratt strode to the podium. Cox asked, “Is there any reason we can’t postpone this and push back the Council consideration dates?” He added, pointedly, “What I’m hearing is that this is all grant driven, is that correct? We’re just trying to pursue FTA (Federal Transit Administration) grants and that’s why we’re under such a truncated public engagement process with all of this?”

Middleton-Pratt forthrightly replied, “So, that is a large portion of it.” She then turned slightly to look back at the Council Chamber, then said, “I don’t believe Project Connect is here this evening, but a large portion of what’s driving the timeline is the FTA grant.”

“That is a large portion of it. . . a large portion of what’s driving the [HOME] timeline is the FTA grant.”

Lauren Middleton-Pratt, Director Austin Planning Department

At this point I want to divert slightly to note that the news that Middleton-Pratt gave this straight ahead answer to the Planning Commission came from a new local publication, the Austin Free Press.

Headlined, “Fast lane: Invoking mass-transit grant, city accelerates HOME development code changes” and written by Kit O’Connell, the Austin Free Press broke the story that City staff had acknowledged the tie between the FTA deadline and the Council’s rushed transformation of zoning for the entire City. The article then went on to report the views of both sides in the matter; in the tradition of old timey objective journalism. This kind of reporting is something Austin desperately needs. So congratulations to the Austin Free Press. I hope they keep this up.

The connection to the FTA deadline became more and more unassailable, and undenied, during the May 16 hearing at Council. Multiple speakers on both sides maintained that the HOME policies were linked to the FTA deadline. No one on the dais contradicted any of those assertions.

Among those stressing the ties of HOME to the federal grant application was Bill McCamley, Director of Transit Forward. “These items are critical for the application to the federal government,” McCamley told the Council. I’ve spoken with the FTA. I’ve spoken with the folks over at the Transit Partnership. They know this package is critical, because the FTA, a quarter of their metrics that they will start next month using to evaluate our plan revolves around more density because they know more density, more folks that live near more bus and train stops, mean more people will use transit and help the city meet its goals. So this specific item, along with the other package you’re considering today, are very critical.”

Also, the name of HOME has even been changed in a way that seems to reflect the link to transit. Originally HOME stood for “Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment.” Somewhere along the line that was quietly changed to “Home Options for Mobility and Equity.” Go figure.

There were a number of other newsworthy aspects of the 15 hours of citizen testimony and the nearly three hours of Council deliberation the following day. We will cover some of those in the days ahead.

This article was updated for a correction. In the final paragraph I originally wrote that public testimony at the May 16 hearing lasted for 13 hours. That was a miscount on my part. Actually there were 15 hours of testimony, from 10 AM on May 16 until 1 AM on May 17. That does not include the almost three hours of Council deliberation later on May 17, beginning at 11 AM.


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