by Daryl Slusher
One of the paradoxes of current day Austin governance will be on vivid display at this Thursday’s virtual City Council meeting. That is that even as the Council crusades for racial and social justice — for example slashing the police department budget by up to a third — they also sit poised to forever change Austin’s historic East Side neighborhoods that have been home to generations of African American and Mexican Amerian families. If the Council approves these upzonings they will, in most cases, be doing so against the wishes of many, many long time residents of those neighborhoods.
The flurry of upzonings continues a dynamic previously examined by the Austin Independent in which the Council majority on the ongoing Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite maintain that by approving upzonings they are acting in the name of racial justice and housing affordability, even as residents of the East Side are broadly united against the changes the Council majority is promoting. The resistance sees many such upzonings as an existential threats to their neighborhoods and hard won home ownership in those neighborhoods. The Independent detailed this dynamic and the ever increasing opposition forces in a May 27 story.
The Council LDC majority consists of Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, and Council Members Natasha Harper Madison, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Greg Casar, Jimmy Flannigan, and Paige Ellis. The minority bloc voting no on the LDC rewrite was Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen and Alison Alter. The power of dissentig votes will be magnified on some of the Thursday cases which have valid petitions filed against them, meaning a super majority of nine votes is needed for approval.
The map above illustrates zoning cases on the August 27 Council agenda as well as the August 25 Planning Commission agenda. All are proposed increases in zoning intensity from traditional single family uses.
These upzonings mark a way that the Council’s extremely controversial Land Development Code rewrite can be at least partially implemented in individual pieces even as the LDC rewrite itself is on a lengthy hold while Council appeals a Court ruling that voided its first two votes in favor of the rewrite. The Judge in that case ruled that the Council violated state law by failing to properly notify property owners of massive upzonings of existing single family homes throughout the central city — including East Austin — and by denying protest rights to property owners. Under those protest rights, property owners of a subject property and property owners within close proximity can force a super majority vote of Council by signing petitions against the zoning change.
The Resistance Weighs In
The group Community Not Commodity (CNC), the broad coalition group that led the opposition to the LDC rewrite, maintains that the batch of zoning cases on Thursday’s agenda is a way for land speculators and developers, along with their Council allies, to make LDC style land use changes under cover of the Covid pandemic.
CNC said in a statement released Wednesday: “The gold rush is on in East Austin. This Thursday at Council, for-profit developers are pushing to massively and speculatively rezone numerous tracts in modest and low-income communities of color in East and Southeast Austin. They are hoping to pass these upzonings under the cover of Covid-19 while these communities and our City are struggling to survive a pandemic which disproportionately impacts people of color.”’
The CNC statement also points out that the proposed zoning changes are all within areas identified as most vulnerable to displacement in a UT study on gentrification, a study often cited by Council Members to decry displacement, “The City staff and most of the Council appear to support these rezonings, seemingly indifferent to the fact that these properties are located within the areas identified as vulnerable to displacement by the University of Texas uprooted study.”
In ordinary times, this cluster of zoning cases would draw a large and diverse crowd to City Hall, but in the current situation, all that testimony will have to be over the phone to Council Members gathered together on a screen, but otherwise at their own socially distanced locations.
Let’s take a quick look at individual cases. Among the proposed upzonings are properties virtually surrounding the historic Stonegate neighborhood where African American professionals built lives beginning in the mid-1960s as the Civil Rights Movement and Civil Rights Act changed many discriminatory laws, but as housing segregation persisted in Austin. In other words this was one of the few new neighborhoods in Austin where African American familites could buy new homes.
As described in that article, Stonegate is a small neighborhood immediately south of Martin Luther King Boulevard and just west of Webberville Road, near U.S. 183. At the time of its creation in the 1960s, Stonegate was one of the few neigbhorhoods where African Americans could purchase a new house. Many of the original families still live there. The neighborhood is also within one of the census tracts with the largest remaining percentages of African Americans in East Austin and one of the largest percentages of African American home ownership.
Andrea Petit grew up in the neighborhood and lives there today with her mother Catherine Petit, an original Stonegate resident. Andrea Petit told the Planning Commission, “I want you all to know that Stonegate residents, and the neighbors around, see significant value in the investments, the integrity, the long term viability of what we have built.” Petit was referring to the close knit, loving community Stonegate residents have built over six decades. Petit added that neighborhood residents support “zoning that accomodates more density,” but “also need something that is a good fit for the existing neighborhood, including enhancing, not diminishing the quality of life.”
Generations of Stonegate residents: Sam Austin III; his Mother the late Orvis Austin, also active in the neighborhood; Sam Austin IV; Andrea Petit; Andrea’s sister and Sam III’s wife Marcia Petit Austin; and Catherine Petit;
On one of the cases, the would be developers describe themselves as “opportunistic investors with an eye for the overlooked.” Another proposed development features an Austin Planning Commissioner as one of the lead developers. Petit addressed the opportunistic investor concept, saying, “Opportunistic investors have come to you (the Planning Commission) because they believe they see value that others don’t in our neighborhood. And, that value is found in upzoning the property without regard to how it impacts the community.”
Montopolis and Additional East Side Cases
Several of the cases are in the Montopolis neighborhood, amidst long standing single family homes where generations of families lived their lives and continue to do so today. Long time Montopolis resident and prominent community activist Susana Almanza (also a member of CNC) sent a statement with some background and history to the Independent.
Almanza wrote: “The Montopolis community is once again being besieged by profit-seeking real estate developers with little to no regard for the community’s fragile natural and cultural environment, or its iconic history.
Montopolis, also known as ‘Poverty Island’ has a per capita income of $16,226, a Median Family Income of $31,875, and a poverty rate of 33% according to 2018 American Community Survey data. Accordingly, we guard our existing SF-3 (single family) owned property jealously, as we are a community of families.
The Austin Human Rights Commission has declared gentrification to be a human rights violation. We call upon the Planning Commission and Austin City Council to reject this gentrifying upzoning in the name of racial justice and reconciliation. Montopolis has too much history and culture to be sliced up by the forces of unscrupulous real estate development in this fashion. The highest and best use of our land is protection, not speculation.”
After testimony from Almanza and other, the Planning Commission somewhat surprisingly recommended denial on some of the Montopolis cases. Though potentially influential, that vote guarantees nothing at the Council.
In addition to the Stonegate and Montopolis cases there are proposed upzonings in the Pecan Springs Neighborhood, a case in the 900 block of Shady Lane, in the Colony Park neighborhood along Loyola Lane, and on a large single family zoned tract in the Dove Springs neighborhood of Southeast Austin at 4400 Nuckols Crossing Drive.
The Montopolis, Shady Lane and Pecan Springs cases all have valid petitions, meaning they could be felled with three votes and the developer/speculators sent back to the drawing board.
For those wanting to tune in, the Council takes up zoning at 2 pm, although that time can be somewhat loose. More detail on the cases can be found by surfing around on the Council agenda website.
Some other Austin Independent stories related to East Austin land development issues
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