Public weighs in, Austin City Council calls for civility as land code rewrite discussions progress

Austin City Hall

Austin City Hall

Nearly a month after City Manager Spencer Cronk laid out his plan for the new land code rewrite process, asking City Council members to first parse out five of what he considered to be the most polarizing policy questions, Austinites had their first chance to weigh in since council members killed the previous rewrite attempt last summer.

Earlier in the week, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, admittedly already growing frustrated with the process, lambasted the view that City Council needed to hear much more from the public before moving forward with what she called “incredibly hard” decisions. The Southeast Austin representative said she’d be “very surprised” if she and her colleagues hear anything different from what has been said since land code rewrite conversations began around 2012.

“I will listen, but … I’m ready to make the necessary changes,” Garza said April 9. “It’s going to be incredibly difficult, but we have to do it. And I’m ready.”

After 90 minutes of public testimony that stretched past 9:30 p.m. at the April 11 City Council meeting, Garza’s assumption was correct; the public voices sang a familiar motif—verses warning of affordability and displacement concerns related to upzoning existing neighborhoods, choruses calling for greater housing supply and housing types, and speakers advocating for responsible environmental stewardship.

Garza, leaning on her experience from sitting through similar public comments sessions since she took office in 2015, concluded there was more overlap than the divisive rhetoric often used in these land use discussions might lead one to believe.

“Everyone is really saying the same thing; we want to live in this great city, regardless of whether we were born here or are new here, and be able to walk to things and enjoy our community,” Garza said. “Regardless of what side we think we’re on here, know that we’re all just really wanting the best for our community, and that is the thing we have in common in our motivation.”

District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen said the community needed to move away from thinking of land use in terms of trade-offs.

“Sometimes it’s tempting to think in terms of affordability versus density, but we’re talking about both; we need both,” Kitchen said. “It’s going to take all of us to really think through how we can get done what we’re saying we want to get done. It’s not an easy task.”

The public testimony followed a April 9 work session where each City Council member outlined their own visions for the land development code rewrite. Austin City Council will take up the issue again at its April 23 and 25 meetings as they aim to answer the five policy questions posed by Cronk.

Mayor Steve Adler, who said he wants to cast an initial vote on a new land code by the end of October, invited the community to come down and weigh in at the April 25 meeting.
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