Cracking the land development code in the central city

Downtown is less a policy ‘puzzle’ than a political ‘house of mirrors’

Photo by Carlos Alfonso on Unsplash

The mayor of ever-so-hip and fast-growing Austin likes to refer to its booming downtown of skyscraping condos and big tech offices, with residents the likes of Google or Facebook, as a “puzzle.” For Mayor Steve Adler, a city center at odds with most Big Oil-dipped stereotypes of Texas is the sum of its intertwined interests and projects — from tech incubators to festival venues to the redress of homelessness.

Like a puzzle of Lego toys, resolving the complexity is just a matter of putting the pieces together.

But a better metaphor might be a mirror. For looming debates on land use and the city’s downtown refract back all the successes, failures and contradictions of a century of urban planning. Downtown Austin is the land use hall of mirrors. As with the distortions at a mirrored amusement parlor, much in Austin is not as it seems.

One can count the ways.

Austin prides itself as being the most liberal city in Texas. Its long-standing contrast with the rest of the state traces to many things. But the deepest roots of the city’s out-of-step persona are to be found in the settlement of Central Texas by Germans, Czechs and Poles, many part of Europe’s “freethinker” movement of atheists and agnostics who fled the counter-revolutions in Europe after a wave of uprisings for democracy in 1848. Austin and its environs were pro-Union during the Civil War, as was Gov. Sam Houston who was effectively deposed and held under house arrest for the war’s duration. More recently, Austin has been home to such progressive icons as the late journalist Molly Ivins, the late civil rights leader Barbara Jordan and the populist politician and author Jim Hightower. Its liberal colors are solid and deep.

But Austin is also the most racially segregated city in all of Texas, and one becoming more so almost by the day.

Environmentalism is the political ideology of Austin, and its ideologues invariably point first to the “natural” spring in the center of the city feeding a three-acre swimming oasis hailed as the “crown jewel” of green Austin. And Barton Springs, where onetime resident Robert Redford learned to swim as a child, is a place of great beauty. Except that the “natural” pool was created in 1916 when the city dammed a spring and framed the result with concrete around a space the size of two football fields. So much for untrammeled habitat.

This was only the beginning. The environmentalist catchphrase from Native American Chief Seattle, “Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints,” aligns poorly with the green history of Austin. For over the next half century, civic and state leaders dammed the river bisecting the city in a half dozen more places, creating the waterscape with billions of federal dollars that now defines greater Austin. The city’s “nature” allows paddlers to enjoy their lunch hour downtown on pristine Lady Bird Lake, framed by jogging trails and named for the Presidential First Lady who championed the wild spaces of Texas. The nature also allows – just one dam up on Lake Austin — the wealthy including celebrities such as actor Matthew McConaughey or retired world No. 1 tennis star Andy Roddick to enjoy waterfront mansions. It’s the closest you can get in Texas to Malibu-style living – just that it’s all in an environment that is almost entirely manufactured. Five more lakes upstream on the Colorado River (no relation to another river further west by that name), provide power generation, boating, swimming, more than a dozen resorts and more collective shoreline than the entire Gulf coast of Texas. That lake system also provides 100 percent of Austin’s drinking water.

Austin is viewed as one of the world’s healthiest cities. The jogging path around Lady Bird Lake gets 2.6 million visits a year. There are hundreds of miles of bike paths within the city limits. A count of vegan restaurants in 2017 found 25 such eateries. A tally of yoga centers and classes would number in the hundreds. At least this is the reality that endures in West Austin.

On the East Side as it’s known, demarcated by the I-35 freeway built in 1962, the predominantly black and brown residents die on average 19 years earlier than than those on the West Side. There, non-Hispanic whites comprise from 73 percent to 92 percent of the population depending on census tract. That huge disparity in life expectancy was published late last year by the Episcopal Health Foundation with data from the Centers for Disease Control.

And Austin is cheap. If you’re relocating, as many are, from California’s gilded Silicon Valley or the East Coast’s Boston-Washington corridor: “The good news for relocating families is that the Austin area still ranks among the most affordable large metropolitan cities in which to live, work, play and do business,” trumpets the latest issue of the Austin Relocation Guide, a publication founded in 2002.

Unless you’re working or modest middle class. Particularly so if you’re in the path of the downtown developmental orbit. As with gentrifying neighborhoods in many cities, a walk down the central street in the traditionally black neighborhood is a study in contrasts: A Baptist Church next to a low-income clinic next to weathered barber shop next to a sleek and stylish new gym with mid-morning aerobics underway. Nearby, the old Hillside Drugstore, a local institution for six decades, has become the “Hillside Farmacy,” a trendy new restaurant with oyster happy hours and Sunday brunches. A scroll through the pages of any realtor tells a similar story. A one bedroom, one-bathroom home of 1,100 square feet on Haskell Street, in the center of Austin’s long-established Latino neighborhood, had a total assessed value of $157,702 in 2010. Unimproved, it’s now priced for sale at $600,000 as its advertisement gushes: “fabulous opportunity… one mile from downtown… and walking distance to highly rated restaurants, bakeries, bars and shops.”

Austin’s population grew 20.4 percent from 2000 to 2010 while its black population declined by 5.4 percent, according to a 2014 study by the University of Texas at Austin. That data reflects the fact that among America’s large, fast-growing cities, Austin is alone with its shrinking minority population. Among the report’s conclusions: “These patterns do not square with Austin’s reputation as a ‘tolerant’ city, one celebrated for its progressivism, cultural dynamism and emphasis on sustainability.”

But still, Austin can take a bow

All of this is not to suggest that Austinites should not take a deep civic bow for decades of pioneering and innovation. In addition to the creation of a sprawling, man-made urban garden, they have made Austin an emerging world city that often invites comparison with emerging, sophisticated “peers” such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Pune, Medellin or Singapore and Dubai. Austin’s burgeoning technology sector birthed Dell Computer some 35 years ago and is now home to Apples’ second campus, a billion-dollar project on the city’s northern edge. Among homegrown start-ups is the retailer Whole Foods, sold to Amazon for $14 billion in 2017 but still headquartered here. The University of Texas at Austin, a lead protagonist in the city’s transformation from provincial capital, ranks in the top 10 nationally and its most recent Nobel Laureate – John Goodenough – was so honored last year for his work on the battery technology providing hope in the face of climate change. And who hasn’t heard of South by Southwest, or SXSW, the famed music and technology festival that draws participants each spring from 102 countries? Or Austin City Limits, best known as ACL, a music festival held over two weekends each fall?

One measure of the success of this remarkable innovation is the surge of newcomers arriving to call Austin “home.” As Texas author Richard Parker has put it, “Austin is the soul of Texas’ sixth migration,” a reference to the newcomers’ hell-for-leather transformation of the “Texas Triangle” of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, with Austin at the center. A majority-minority megaregion – one of 11 such conurbations in North America – the “Triangle’s” skyrocketing population of in-bound migration is forecast to reach 20 million within a decade. It is dragging the state’s politics to the left while birthing an economy that, were Austin’s new megaregion a nation state, would be the world’s 17th largest by GDP. Spurring the growth is Dallas’ finance-focused corporate sector, Houston’s global dominance in energy, the growing manufacturing sector of San Antonio, and Austin at the center as the city of governance, high tech and culture.

“Still the smallest of the big cities of Texas, Austin is the most interesting city, for its culture, its easily accessible and sprawling greenbelts, creeks and impoundments on the Colorado River, as well as its well-chronicled quirks,” wrote Parker in the 2014 book ‘Lone Star Nation’. “But what also makes Austin interesting is its growth and whether that growth will sustain – or demolish – the city’s fabled culture of acceptance, creativity and playfulness.”

But after the bow, a new moment of reflection

Against that self-confident backdrop, Austin is taking a deep look into the civic mirror created by a perfect storm of local real estate politics on the southeastern edge of the city’s sparkling downtown. Late last year, factions in the city skirmished over a plan to revamp the downtown Austin Convention Center at a cost of $1.2 billion. The fact it will be paid for by out-of-towners through an increased tax on hotel rooms muted the concerns over cost. But despite the plan’s effective approval in a low-turnout election, the debate over the center’s centrifugal force of gentrification is hardly resolved.

For the larger battle is over plans to wire together two distinct entertainment districts on either side of the existing convention hall and tether the downtown to an envisioned, if ill-defined, “innovation district” between the north side of downtown and the south side of the university. The innovation district, aiming to incubate new life sciences technologies and firms, faces planning and regulatory hurdles but a centerpiece flagship, a $160 million, 17-story tower, is already rising. Completion is expected in 2022.

All of this would be connected by new walkways and bike paths integrated with the bordering Waller Creek which is being made ready for its own picturesque redevelopment. It is all part of a general mobilization on the part of the city’s leadership around the aspiration that downtown can become a fiscal engine for the city. Property taxes now account for roughly 44 percent of the city’s $1 billion general fund. Downtown, the Central Business District, or CBD as it’s more commonly called, now provides 9 percent of the city’s property tax revenue. This is more than double the share relative to the rest of the city in 2000 when it was 4.2 percent. By this logic, the city’s leadership has argued, the downtown values can effectively slow the increasing burden on the rest of Austin where it has grown at a still hefty rate of about half the pace of downtown.

The least responsive form of taxation

To be sure, property taxes are the bane of cities most everywhere. As the late urban theorist Jane Jacobs argued in her influential writing on cities, national governments generally take the most remunerative taxes, like income taxes based on the ability to pay, or those directly tied to economic expansion like sales taxes, for themselves. Property tax, “responsive neither to ability to pay nor to economic expansion, is typically permitted to cities,” she wrote in 2004. Yes, Austin does get some 22 percent of its general fund revenue from its 2 percent share of a sales taxes set at 8.25 percent overall. And exceptions to the property tax dependency exist in California and at the municipal level in cities including New York and Philadelphia. But most cities’ hands are tied, as are Austin’s. So the reasoning of an effective cross-town subsidy from a rich center of the city to everyone else on the periphery has its appeal.

Critics of this line of argument decry the logic and note the real estate lobby’s widely acknowledged control of the majority on the all-Democrat council of 10 members and the mayor. They argue the effect of exploding downtown property values is driving value inflation and ultimately rapid gentrification. Activists in the adjacent Latino and African-American neighborhoods, perched on the eastern edge of this envisioned new development, operate with that very different logic. They hope for an arrest in that ceaseless gentrification that’s synonymous with rising land values – and with East Austin. The area is already home to the second most rapidly gentrifying zip code, 78721, in America. An area that was 8 percent white two decades ago is now more than a third so as thousands of black and Latino families have been forced to leave.

Watching all of this, Austin’s local media is unusually vibrant by comparison with many American cities. The legacy daily, the American-Statesman, is like many newspapers a mere shadow of what it was two decades ago. But the city has two of the strongest PBS and NPR news affiliates in the nation, a still-independent alternative weekly, and several donor-backed and feisty news websites including the state politics-focused Texas Tribune. Austin-themed magazines abound as well. These journalists have tracked the unfolding debate and implications through a comprehensive plan dubbed “Imagine Austin” through six amendments since 2012, a score of studies and task force reports, a now-shelved $8 million revision of zoning codes and a further study of the project area this year by the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. A new ordinance allowing the city’s homeless to camp on most city streets, however, has dominated local headlines and overshadowed the downtown plan.

But it is now heating up again as the city weighs a controversial new “Land Development Code.” Running to a legally dense,1,300 pages, that plan would among other things, increase the densities allowed new development in well-established areas of the city.

Where the debate will end, or if it will end, is unclear. What is clear, however, is that it will remain an ongoing wrangle as complex as any house of mirrors. And guaranteed is that virtually all its multiple panes will refract the skirmish back on the fight for the fate of a rapidly transforming downtown.

Editor’s note: This article is edited and adapted from a monograph published in the November 2019 Downtown Issue of Urbānitūs.

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