With the adoption of a new form of representation for Austin City Council, the city is preparing for the shift to 10 council members and a new mayor.
The lines have been drawn. Now that borders of the new Austin City Council districts have been defined, the city is poised to see its governance and representation shift to 10 regionally elected council members.
"I really think we have to look at the new system with the understanding that it is a change, but it is a change with challenges and opportunities," said Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole, who spoke Jan. 14 at a Real Estate Council of Austin luncheon.
In November 2012, Austin voters approved changing council representation from six council members and a mayor, all elected at-large, to 10 council members elected from single-member districts with a mayor elected at-large, known as 10-1.
Following this vote, the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission set out to divide the city into districts. On Nov. 25, 2013, the ICRC released the final version of the district map and set the stage for a new Austin City Council.
Because the terms of several council members as well as the mayor expires, many new council members will be voted in after the Nov. 4 election.
The switch to single-member districts has prompted many questions, including how new council members will work together. The move to the 10-1 system puts a lot of pressure on the city's new mayor, said Terrell Blodgett, public affairs professor at The University of Texas and another speaker at the Jan. 14 RECA luncheon.
"I think the election, a little less than a year from now, will be the most critical election this city has faced, probably ever," Blodgett said.
Neighborhood associations and other community organizations are assessing what the new boundaries mean for them and looking at possible partnerships to ensure important issues are addressed.
Barry Lewis, Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association board member, said his organization is satisfied with the way the boundaries were drawn, though they are not perfect.
"We really don't have a problem with the final map," Lewis said. "We think it could have been better, but I'm sure everybody thinks that."
DANA would have preferred District 9 to have a southern border near Barton Springs Road and Riverside Drive instead of reaching farther south to include neighborhoods such as Bouldin Creek, he said. Lewis said the downtown association nevertheless intends on reaching out to the other neighborhoods in District 9 to help address all concerns throughout the district.
"Downtown is the economic engine that propels the city of Austin," Lewis said. "It's the area with a greater density of jobs and a greater density of population. I think it's important, not only to the 9th district but all 10 districts, that the downtown area be economically healthy and properly served."
Specific issues important to downtown include public safety, the impact of special events and planning for increased density, he said.
On the east side of Austin, neighborhoods are also looking at potential partnerships, even across district lines. Ken Johnson, chairman of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team, said he thinks the 10-1 system will spur collaboration.
"The neighborhood boundaries don't necessarily have to stop at the middle of the alley," Johnson said.
The East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Area is part of District 3. Some of the key issues for the area and surrounding neighborhoods include development, I-35 improvements and the Land Development Code rewrite, Johnson said.
In his experience, Johnson said City Council has been responsive to concerns, and he is curious to see if the new governance will change the amount of attention given to the East Cesar Chavez area.
"It will be interesting to see if we get more attention from our district council person and less from the [other council members], or if it's still equal," Johnson said.
David Mintz, president of the Allandale Neighborhood Association, which is in District 7, said his association is also pleased with the final draft of the single-member districts.
"I think it does put us together with other neighborhoods that share a lot of common issues and concerns," Mintz said.
Some of the neighborhoods paired with Allandale include North Shoal Creek, Brentwood and Crestview.
Mintz pointed to a couple of the major issues that could come up in District 7, including development around major arterials such as Burnet Road and North Lamar Boulevard. Many of their concerns may be similar to those in District 4, which shares North Lamar Boulevard as a border with District 7, said Mintz, who sees an opportunity for the two districts to work together.
"I know there's a lot of interest from our neighborhoods and a lot of other neighborhoods that we'll try to work together on the issues that affect our neighborhoods," Mintz said.
Physical changes at City Hall
The city's division into districts and a new composition of the council are not the only changes happening because of the governance change. Austin City Hall has to undergo some major construction to accommodate an expanded council.
"It's not a small impact," said Eric Stockton, building services officer with the city of Austin.
The budget for City Hall renovations is $2.5 million. This money will fund alterations to the council chambers, executive session room, technology upgrades and four additional council offices on the west side of the building.
Because construction on this scale could displace employees, the city has leased space at Silicon Labs for a total of $384,285 per year plus expenses. Stockton said city staffers are considering moving the city auditor's office to this space. Early cost estimates to make the leased space suitable for the city auditor's office range between $350,000 and $450,000.
Departments that will stay at City Hall include the city clerk's office, mayor and council member offices, the city manager's office, the Financial Services Department, the Law Department and the Economic Development Department.
Stockton said he is confident that the final product will preserve the character of City Hall.
"Because it's City Hall, there's a lot of underlying currents in the theme and the concept of the building such as openness and access to government," Stockton said. "It's a flagship facility for the city and so forth, and all of those features need to be maintained."
City Hall construction is expected to be finished by the end of September.