OK, we’re going to talk about ETODs again, that is Equitable Transit Oriented Developments. Readers may recall that when we last discussed ETODs, right before Spring Break and SXSW, the City Council was about to take up City staff’s recommendation to “accept” the Draft ETOD Policy Plan (cover photo at top). Also, the Independent had submitted questions about ETODs to staff and staff did not answer the questions before publication.
Since then the Council accepted the ETOD Policy Plan and staff got back to us on our questions. So this segment will cover those two topics.
Meanwhile the Rail Project on Which ETODs Are Based Gets Scaled Back
Additionally — in a related, late-breaking development — the Austin Transit Partnership (ATP) on March 21 announced five drastically scaled back options for initial rail lines. ATP is the group created by the City of Austin and Capital Metro to oversee the rail project approved by voters in November 2020. The scaled down routes are an acknowledgement of the spiraling price tag which has gone from the $7.1 billion cost that was advertised to voters to an estimated $11.6 billion now. All five options are apparently intended to fit within the original budget. Each option eliminates — to some degree — the elevated, underground and grade-separated rail lines envisioned in the plan presented to voters.
“The days of overpromising are over,” said Greg Canally, Executive Director of ATP.
The furthest north any of the five options go is the North Lamar Transit Center, which is near the intersection of North Lamar and US 183. Two of the other four options have a northern terminus of 29th Street. Another ends at 38th Street and a fifth at the University of Texas.
In the South, three of the five options eliminate the South Congress line entirely, with two others having the South Congress line go to Oltorf. The line to the airport is scaled back to end at Yellow Jacket Lane (one stop east of Montopolis) on three of the options, and at Pleasant Valley Road on another. One option has the line going all the way to the airport, as originally planned; but that option sacrifices the South Congress line entirely and ends the northern line at 29th Street. ATP is seeking public input during a six-week period with a decision to follow.
Canally is clearly trying not to overpromise, but that impulse has not necessarily taken hold at the City of Austin. The ETOD Plan that the Council “accepted” on March 9 features ETODs along envisioned rail lines from South Congress and Slaughter Lane to Howard Lane in the north; and additionally a line from downtown all the way to the airport. As noted in our original story, the City’s ETOD Plan also includes multiple rapid bus stops. The Council took the ETOD vote knowing that the cutbacks were going to be announced on March 21. (For more details on the ATP options see this report from the Austin Monitor.) Now, let’s return to our main story.
The City Responds Regarding “Turning Down the Volume” on Some of its Citizens
The Council discussed ETODs at their Tuesday March 7 work session, then passed the ETOD item on Thursday March 9. There was public input on March 9, but almost no Council discussion. Most of the discussion at the work session revolved around the Mayor and some Council Members drawing assurances from staff that the requested acceptance of the report would not automatically change any land use policies, and would be just the beginning of the ETOD process. The acceptance vote does, however, free the staff to “initiate” Land Development Code changes and amendments to the City comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin. Staff will bring changes or amendments to Council for approval; how soon is unclear. (If you haven’t seen our original ETOD story I recommend taking a look because, among other reasons, chances are that ETODs are coming to your neighborhood. And you can learn more about what the circles mean in the map posted further down.)
Also on March 7 the Director of the City’s Housing and Planning Department, Rosie Truelove, contacted the Independent, and offered an interview with her and three other Department staff via Microsoft Teams, to answer our questions. The interview occurred that afternoon. I want to thank Director Truelove and members of her team for taking the time to answer the questions and for their voluntarily expressed willingness to be available for questions in the future.
The first questions, in both the ones submitted in writing and during the interview, concerned the assertion in the ETOD Policy Plan that the City had been intentionally “turning down the volume on voices that traditionally have dominated public engagement forums.” The full paragraph in question reads like this: “We implemented a range of strategies to hear from the community members that have historically been under-represented and disproportionately impacted by racism, disinvestment, and gentrification in Austin. Critical to our engagement strategy was turning up the volume on voices from Austin’s BIPOC community, lowincome (sic) earners, people with disabilities, non-English speakers, transit users and elderly residents. To do this, it meant (1) coming up with targeted methods for reaching those key communities that may be outside of the traditional methods and (2) turning down the volume on voices that traditionally have dominated public engagement forums.”
The Independent’s questions on this topic had to do with: “whose voices were/are included in those the City sought to turn ‘down the volume on;’” how was the volume “turned down” during the more than a year long process; why does the City believe that the volume of certain voices should be “turned down” and how was this determined?
The responsibility for answering fell to Housing and Planning Program Manager Stevie Greathouse. She began by saying: “I think the one thing that we want to be clear on is that that was an unfortunate turn of phrase and that the City would never try to turn down voices. We did kind of scrub through the document after you raised that question and it shows up in kind of one paragraph that slipped through the editors, if you will. I want to apologize for that turn of phrase, unfortunate turn of phrase. We have definitely through this process tried to elevate voices and I think it is a fair characterization of the process that we have had.”
This will likely be the first time that anyone reads or hears that the City apologized for saying it was “turning down the volume” on still unspecified local citizens. That’s because nothing was said about that by staff, the Mayor or Council at any of the Council meetings on the topic; and there has not been any other press coverage (please correct me if I’m wrong). Two speakers did bring it up at the March 9 Council meeting. That drew no comments from anyone on the dais.
I guess it’s appropriate that Greathouse apologized to readers of the Independent for a City report having made such a statement. An apology was not, however, what I was seeking with my questions. Media apologies have gotten a little too ritualized for me. Instead I was trying to find out who the City meant to turn down the volume on, why, and how they went about it. I don’t know much more about that now than I did when I asked the questions.
Greathouse provided roughly the same answer, as above, to each of those questions, that it just “slipped through.” When asked if there was any thinking that went into determining who to turn down volume on, she did add, “I would never characterize it, and I don’t think the team as a whole would characterize it, as turning down voices. That text was unfortunate text that never should have made it into the report.”
I then asked, diverting from the original questions, does the fact that such language “slipped through” reflect an attitude of the ETOD team, or among certain individuals on the ETOD team, that they believe the input of some citizens is less valuable or less worthy than others; or that they don’t want to hear the input of certain, unspecified citizens?
“I wouldn’t even speculate on that,” responded Greathouse, refusing to answer. She did offer that the staff looked at “the demographics” of people who turned out to the “initial round of workshops” on the subject and found that participants “tended to be older, whiter, wealthier Austinites.” So, Greathouse continued, the staff subsequently worked to “elevate” other voices.
Now, the Meaning of “Sensitive Development”
Well, let’s move on to my second set of questions. Those questions had to do with the meaning, and the application, of the term “sensitive development.” That term appeared 70 times in the ETOD Policy Plan, but was never defined.
It seems important to nail down a definition because the term “sensitive development” is central to the ETOD plan and serves as something of a panacea. Practicing “sensitive development” will, depending on the individual ETOD:
— “secure affordability (26 mentions in the ETOD Policy Plan);” or
— “Enhance protection for low-income households and communities of color while ensuring affordability (20 mentions).”
Then there are 24 additional mentions of the term that simply call for plan implementors to “support sensitive development.”
So what does “sensitive development” mean?
Greathouse once again got to be the one to answer: “I would say it’s broadly defined as kind of based on what the intentionality of the Policy Plan is and the tool kits that we are recommending be brought to bear to create what the plan has kind of described as sensitive development. It’s development that supports our transit goals, that supports our place making goals, while also supporting our City goals around preventing displacement and connecting folks to opportunity.”
I then asked “how is this different than what’s been done before?”
“I think the set of tools, and being used in combination with one another,” replied Greathouse.
Well, I hope those answers clear up any confusion among citizens about ETODs.
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