There’s a new acronym in town. It’s ETOD, which stands for Equitable Transit-Oriented Development. The City recently released a 184 page report titled the “Equitable Transit-Oriented Development Policy Plan.” ETODs are something of a blueprint, or zoning map, intended to guide development around the stations for Austin’s light rail system; the system approved by Austin voters in November 2020. At the same time it is supposed to dramatically increase “equity” in Austin. For instance, language in the ETOD Policy Plan reports that it features “roughly 30 goals centered on many important aspects of equitable development, including housing affordability, racial equity, cultural preservation, anti-displacement, density, neighborhood connectivity, urban design, and placemaking.”
The Plan is built on the principle that: ”Race is the primary predictor of outcomes, and it is time to recognize, understand and address racism at its various levels: personal, institutional, structural and systematic.”
Council Member Natasha Harper Madison also stressed the centrality of race to ETODs in opening remarks on March 2, when City staff made a presentation on the ETOD plan to a joint session of the Council Housing and Mobility Committees. Harper Madison said the ETOD process is about “a conversation around equity and around transit and around reconciliation of systems infrastructure that is historically racist, historically rooted in Jim Crow era redline racism.” Harper Madison further explained, “this equitable transit oriented development is intended to address the wrongs of the past.”
From an initial reading of the report it appears that the primary method of addressing the racial wrongs of the past will be increasing density around rail stops, and also around bus stops on Capital Metro’s rapid bus lines. Capital Metro is a partner with the City on the rail system, as well as the ETOD plan. Also a partner is the Austin Transit Partnership, a new entity created to lead the building of the rail system.
The idea of increasing density around rail stops is not a surprise, although the exact nature of that would — under any circumstances — almost certainly be the subject of discussion, and likely dispute. The inclusion of bus stops, however, takes things to an entirely different level. The planned rail system, at full build out, anticipates around 30 stations. On March 21, however, the Austin Transit Partnership is expected to announce cutbacks in the initial scope of the proposed routes. Undeterred by the potential shriknage of the planned system, the City staff, and potentially the new Council, are adding the rapid bus stops. According to the ETOD Policy Plan, that will result in “roughly a hundred future stations.” (All the bus stops and the rail stops are considered “stations” in the ETOD Plan.)
Since all “stations” are intended to be ETODs this means “roughly a hundred” ETODs. That is important because the City plans to draw circles a mile in diameter around ETOD “stations” — a half mile in all directions from “stations” — to form what could be called ETOD districts; although the City prefers the term “station area.” In these districts the City plans to change land development rules, upzone single family properties, and change the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan to make it consistent with the new rules.
In two public presentations made since the draft ETOD Policy Plan was released, City staffers have only shown maps highlighting the location of each “station (as in the map at the top of this page).” An online map available on the City website, however, allows one to expand the view and see what areas will be included in the mile wide ETOD circles, as shown in the map below.
As one can see from the map(s), huge portions of Austin are included within the circles. (Screen shots of different sections of the City are broken down into four maps and included further down. To manipulate the circles yourself and take advantage of interactive features, click here — although I recommend reading the rest of the ETOD news in this article first. The draft ETOD Policy Plan itself can be read here.)
It’s not clear exactly what the City government intends to happen in the station areas, although it will involve higher density and the elimination of at least some single family homes. For instance the ETOD Policy Plan says that one “success metric” will be the “Number of multi-unit developments built on lots that were previously zoned as singlefamily (sic) only.” One envisioned approach to achieve this is to “legalize the development of soft density” in areas currently zoned single family. Staff defines “soft density” as “townhomes, duplexes, and triplexes” and “fourplexes.” (Duplexes are currently permitted in some single family areas.) Such housing would theoretically be more affordable than single family homes. The ETOD Policy Plan does not make clear if “soft density” is intended to cover the entire ETOD district or just areas closer to the station.
If you’re thinking that this approach sounds a lot like CodeNext and the failed LDC rewrite, you’re not wrong and we’ll address that briefly in a bit, but we don’t have space for much detail on that in this article.
Based on discussions at the March 2 Committee meeting, “soft density,” in “roughly a hundred” mile-wide ETOD districts, is not going to be enough for some Council Members; very possibly a majority. For instance, after staff mentioned “soft density,” Council Member Chito Vela said, “I don’t see that as appropriate for the E T O D (City officials seem to prefer spelling it out to using the acronym).” Soft density, he continued, “does not seem to be as ambitious as we would need.” That would be more appropriate for “suburban” areas, he added. Vela included his own neighborhood — between Cameron and Berkman, just south of US 290 — in what he termed “suburban” areas.
Vela then invoked the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) in the West Campus area as Austin’s best success at providing affordable housing. Then, referring to the mile-wide ETOD districts throughout the City, Vela enthused, “What do we want these areas to look like? I want them to look like West Campus.” (Years ago, I was one leader in initiating the discussions that led to the UNO Overlay and it has indeed succeeded in providing affordable housing. This might not be the best model for the entire City, however, because, among other reasons: it is housing that primarily serves students rather than families; because a lot of Austinites may not want “roughly 100” circles in the City a mile in diameter to be modeled on West Campus; and because the City has yet to demonstrate that this is the path to racial justice. But, we don’t have time to go into all that today.)
City staff is asking the Council to “accept” the ETOD report at its March 9 meeting. This would result in the Council “initiating” the process of changing the Land Development Code and amending the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan. But, in her ETOD presentation, the lead City staffer on the project offered assurances that an affirmative vote would not result in “actually creating or changing anybody’s zoning right away.”
South Austin ETODs Maps
“Turning Down the Volume” on Certain Citizens
ETODs are obviously a big deal. If you haven’t heard of them it might be because you haven’t been paying close attention, or it could be because there has been scant reporting on them so far — including in this publication. On the other hand you may not have heard about ETODs because you are among the group of people on whom the City was, in their words, “turning down the volume on” during the ETOD process.
In a section of the Policy Plan titled “ETOD Engagement Approach” the report explains that providing more input opportunities for “under-represented” people required “turning down the volume on voices that traditionally have dominated public engagement forums.”
The whole paragraph 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.”
I am pretty confident that very few residents of Austin would object to increasing the participation of any of the folks, or type of folks, listed in the “turning up the volume” section of the above paragraph. What’s harder to understand is why the volume of other residents needed to be turned down. That sure seems like the City staff believes that the input of such folks, whoever they might be, is less important than that of others. Or it means that members of City government, and Capital Metro, just don’t value the views of these people and don’t want to hear what they have to say — not as loud as others anyway.
Those are my initial reactions, but what seems appropriate is for representatives of the City — who not only wrote those words, but carried out a year-plus long engagement process incorporating that approach — to explain what they mean; and who they mean. I think I have an idea what they meant, but it seems better to give them a chance to explain it.
So, last Wednesday morning I sent the City Housing and Planning Department a few questions related to the above passage. I asked: “whose voices were/are included in those the City sought to turn ‘down the volume on;” How was the volume “turned down?” And, why does the City believe that the volume of certain voices should be ‘turned down’ and how was this determined?
I asked for a reply back by the close of business on Friday. I added that I understood if they couldn’t answer all the questions by then, but said I would appreciate getting what answers they could provide by Friday.
The Department Director responded almost immediately and said they could get me some answers by Friday and the rest by next (this) week. That, however, was the last word I heard from the City. I didn’t get any answers on Friday, nor since.
I know they are busy, but these don’t seem like very hard questions. I mean the staff must know who they chose to turn “down the volume” on. And, since they knew who they were “turning the down volume on,” then it should be easy for these professional staff to describe who or what groups they mean. They certainly were capable of describing the groups of people whose participation they wanted to increase.
But, since we heard nothing back, we’ll leave it there for now and hope that the City responds soon. I’ll let folks know.
The City of Austin Discovers A Potential Breakthrough for Humanity
I hope readers will agree that the information I have imparted so far in this article is interesting and worth knowing. I think that is the case, but nonetheless I may have committed a journalistic sin.
That’s because I’m afraid that I buried the lead. Sure, the City may have been a little less than totally forthright by not showing the full size of the ETODs on what they presented publicly. And, they were really busy, so we have to wait to see later how they respond about “turning down the volume” on certain folks. But, there is some good news people.
The City of Austin and Capital Metro have found a way to “secure affordability” and a way of “ensuring affordability” in and around the ETODs. Hallelujah.
How are they going to do this?
It’s through something called “sensitive development.” The City staff working on ETODs — along with their partners at Capital Metro and all the consultants who worked on the ETOD Policy Plan — are so excited about the concept that they used the term “sensitive development” 70 times within the ETOD Policy Plan. The only problem is that not a single one of those 70 uses of the term includes a definition.
Instead, as the staff goes through the “typologies” for the various “stations,” they promise that they will either: “Secure affordability with sensitive development (26 mentions in the Policy Plan);” “Enhance protection for low-income households and communities of color while ensuring affordability through sensitive development (20 mentions);” or “support sensitive development (24 mentions).”
Readers may have noticed that, in the City’s telling, “sensitive development” also appears to be a way to “enhance protection for low-income households and communities of color;” or is at least connected to that. So the City of Austin may have discovered a way to both “secure affordability” while at the same time enhancing “protection for low-income households and communities of color.”
That would be truly good news. And, for people like me, who have been involved in these sort of issues for a long, long time, it makes one wonder, “why didn’t we think of that?”
But, we can’t know what we failed to think of until the City provides a definition and explains at least a little bit on how this will work. So, I asked a few questions about those things too — along with my questions about “turning down the volume.” I mean I’m excited about the potential of “sensitive development,” but I think it’s necessary to get the answers to those questions.
That way we can hopefully be assured that the ETOD team didn’t just frame the subject with a lot of forceful language about race, and then use an undefined buzz phrase 70 times to explain how they will achieve the noble goals they list.
I mean, certainly a team of City of Austin and Capital Metro staff and their consultants would not be so cavalier, or so sloppy, on an issue of such historically tragic proportions; and on something that, in the present day, would change the zoning and land use regulations for tens of thousands of Austin residents and homeowners — including members of “Austin’s BIPOC community, lowincome (sic) earners, people with disabilities, non-English speakers, transit users and elderly residents.”
But, the City hasn’t been able to respond to any of those questions yet either. So once again, I’ll wait a while longer to hear from them before I speculate on what they might mean.
Yes, let’s be patient even though it’s not like the City only has one or two people to answer these questions. The “Acknowledgements” section of the ETOD Policy Plan notes the work of “City of Austin, CapMetro, and Austin Transit Partnership staff who reviewed drafts of the policy tools and contributed key information on local context and implementation considerations.” The report also thanked “especially the Community Advisory Committee working group members (chaired by Awais Azhar, a Ph.D. Student in Community and Regional Planning at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture) and Community Connectors who put in countless hours engaging their networks and advising staff over the course of a year.”
Plus, “We [the ETOD team] could not have completed the ETOD Policy Plan without the hard work of our consultant team, including HR&A Advisors, Nelson\Nygaard, Perkins&Will, Asakura Robinson, Cultural Strategies, and Movitas Mobility.”
As, I noted earlier it would be a real shame if all these folks participated in a plan that promised it could bring racial equity and affordability, but they were only using buzz phrases without bothering to explain, or even define, what they meant.
An Amazing, Perhaps Miraculous, Confluence
In closing, there’s still one more amazing, and almost miraculous, aspect of the ETOD Policy Plan. I’m afraid that I buried the lead on this one too and I particularly appreciate any readers who have made it this far. Hopefully, this news will be worth it.
As we have seen the ETOD team worked hard to increase the participation of “Austin’s BIPOC community, lowincome (sic) earners, people with disabilities, non-English speakers, transit users and elderly residents.”
The amazing result I’m referring to here is that this collection of folks appears to have come to the exact same conclusions, and recommended the same approach, favored by: the staff at the City Housing and Planning Department; the previous Mayor and Council majority that directed staff to launch the plan; developers that want to be turned loose on existing single family areas; and potentially a majority of the new Council.
Perhaps we will learn more about how that occurred when we get answers to our questions back from the City.
Since those answers aren’t available yet, I will close with a quote from Mayor Kirk Watson, made while he was campaigning last year to win the office again, 25 years after he first won it. Speaking of the Land Development Code and related issues like affordability Watson said at a KUT candidate forum, “We’re going to have to change the Land Development Code.” He added that it can’t be done with an “all or nothing” approach. He said that’s the way the City had been doing it and “ended up pretty much with nothing.”
Watson concluded, “It’s going to take a while to do it, whether you want it to or not, because trust has been breached with the process we’ve had over the last ten years.”
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