This is the second of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Leslie Pool on her candidacy and the issues identified in the AustinDistrict7.org candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:
* Top Priorities, Experience, Community Involvement
* Livability, Affordability and Housing
* Transportation, Open Space and Infrastructure
* Public Safety, Small Business, and City Budget
How do you define a neighborhood? What features make one successful?
It’s the sense of community. My neighbors – they make me feel welcome. Our neighborhood’s walkable. I actually liked as a single mom that there’s a certain amount of traffic on Shoal Creek. I knew that might build over the years, but that was ok with me, so I was clear-eyed about what the circumstances were. It was close enough to walk up to Burnet. At the time there wasn’t as much going on there. But it’s really a lovely place to go and shop. For me there’s a sense of community. Communities of interest as well. There’s a lot of diversity as far as age and viewpoints, but everybody pulls together. We’ll go across the street and help Norma [Pool’s neighbor] if she’s fallen. George at one point – I left my garage door open and he walked across the street …
So when you say communities of interest…
Communities of interest for me are people who have similar viewpoints, so that could be politically, it could be on city issues, it could just be how the neighborhood grows. Where we align in a thought process.
I know that my precinct tends to be very Democratic, but I didn’t pick my house for that reason.
And then features of a neighborhood, for me, it’s a sense of security, safety. I don’t feel like I really have to lock my doors, but I do. Will gets really concerned if I don’t. The kind of thing where if you happen to leave your keys in your car in the driveway, your car will still be there in the morning. I don’t actually test that.
There’s no vandalism. We all have eyes on the street. If a dog is loose on the listserv, you’ll know about it and people will help you find it. If you need a chiropractor, that sort of thing. We share news in our yards. Somebody’s out trimming, we’ll chat. It’s that sense of comradery that’s really for me what a neighborhood is. It’s not nosey, but you’re there to support them if they need something – a cup of sugar. Watering or feeding the cat when you’re out of town.
Is Downtown a Neighborhood?
It can be, absolutely. The kind of folks who choose to live Downtown are not necessarily who are going to live up with their families in Rosedale or Allandale. But that doesn’t mean that there’s any value judgement there. We need that activity downtown. It needs to be vibrant. We need to be vibrant. We need to have people on the streets.
I can remember when Downtown closed up at 5 PM on a Friday afternoon. Everybody just left. There wasn’t anything going on down there. I wasn’t used to that – I came from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia suburbs. There was stuff always going on in these larger cities. So I supported Kirk Watson’s vision for revitalizing downtown, which meant bringing more and different kinds of businesses to Congress Ave. It meant Great Streets, so that you felt like you were really walking on something beautiful. It meant having outdoor concerts.
It meant, and this was kind of pushing it but I think we’re getting there – the little restaurants and cafes can put their tables and chairs out on the street, so it’s like a café, kind of European that way. I like that. Royal Blue Grocery is kind of piloting. There was some controversy about the fact they were taking up parking. That’s a big issue Downtown of course. Parking. But they built a little deck. I don’t know if you’ve been down to Blue Star Grocery on Congress, about the 600 or 700 block, east side?
Is it near the convention center?
This is on Congress. I know they have one over on 4th and maybe Colorado. Where they built some condos and apartments. What Royal Blue does is they stock up to the ceiling – it’s a fairly small space. They have all kinds of cool stuff. They have food that they cook. They have kombucha, and wine, and beer. It’s like the little bodegas that you go into in New York City. They’re just fun. They have almost everything you need. Austin is kind of moving in that direction.
As far as neighborhoods downtown, absolutely. Part of me is like, when I retire someday, would I like to live in one of those high-rises, and not have a yard to worry about. We’re not anywhere near that – we’re probably 20-25 years out, and I don’t even know if we could afford it. But that’s something we would think about. You’re steps away from the cultural area, which is what they were trying to do with Seaholm as the anchor. Zach Scott was across the way, and there were changes going on with the Long Center. And the vision back in the 90s was to create this cultural center on both sides of the river down there around Lamar and 1st Street.
One of the more controversial votes by the current Council involved a proposal to regulate how businesses can offer single-family homes for short-term lease – in effect micro-hotels in residential neighborhoods. Many Austin residents oppose Commercial Short-Term Rentals (CSTRs) for fear that they will undermine the strong sense of local community that helps to make Austin so livable. Tourism and real estate groups, some homeowners, and especially the Austin-based company HomeAway, countered that some regulation is better than no regulation, but that restrictions shouldn’t undermine the economy. Council approved an ordinance that defines CSTRs, regulates them, and restricts their number in a given census tract to 3% of single family residences. Did they get it right? How would you have voted?
I haven’t asked for a review of how that’s working, but that would be the first thing I would say, is how is it working. I followed that controversy really carefully. I have friends – I have done AirBnB. In Portland we’ve stayed in a home that was definitely a short-term rental. We liked the fact that it was within walking distance of the Hawthorne District. I have a friend in Martin Hills who rents out her 2-1. I think she converted something in her backyard. So when ACL comes to town, she can make some money.
The hard fact about that is that it might be one of the few ways for some people to stay in their homes. By the same token, they can’t be unregulated. I kind of like the idea they’re limited to how many you can have in a neighborhood. I think that’s really neighborhood friendly. As long as everyone knows which house it is, it’s not a party house, it’s not a stealth dorm, and everybody has a sense of community and the eyes on the street, and the land lord owner is responsive. Even if they don’t live in town, if they have a management company that gets on it immediately, so that there isn’t a noise distraction or there’s noise on the street or there’s too many cars, or just anything that would be a problem long-term for neighbors. Everybody’s going to have a bunch of cars in front of their house at one point or another – there’s a funeral going on. So everybody’s over at that house. It’s not a party, it’s a funeral.
So as far as a lot of cars parked in a neighborhood street, that are there for a few hours on a Saturday night, that’s one thing. But if they’re there all the time, they’re parked on the lawn, which is against ordinances in Austin anyway, then that’s definitely a problem. So the City in its regulation needs to be very aware, and very immediately responsive if there are complaints that are filed. And then I would say, how has that first year gone.
Another controversial vote this last year involved approval of a local bar, Little Woodrow’s, on Burnet Rd. Rick Engel, the bar owner, said he was drawn to the changing demographics along Burnet, and that his bar would help to activate the corridor and still be family-friendly by sharing the site with a pizza restaurant. Opponents charged that the bar’s 2 AM weekend hours of operation, lack of sufficient parking, and proximity to an existing bar, would start to shape a SoCo-style bar district with serious livability impacts for adjacent residents. Council voted 4-3 to approve a conditional use permit, with restrictions including 1 AM weekend hours, noise restrictions, and a bigger parking requirement. How would you have voted?
The neighborhoods were so adamantly opposed to it, I would have sided with the neighborhoods.
They have a compromise as far as the time – 1 AM. I think the neighborhoods wanted it at midnight or eleven.
The neighborhood position was to oppose the permit.
They just didn’t want it. That was, as I understand, very difficult and very contentious for Council. I would have been in the minority on that one. But I would have voted with the 3 on that.
One of the proposals floated for the CodeNext zoning reform involves scrapping rules like the tree ordinance that protect mature trees on properties subject to redevelopment. Developers argue that rules like this hamstring their projects, hurt the economy and affordability. They want more flexible rules, in this case the option to replant trees of equivalent value at a different location. Many residents argue that large trees are priceless, and fear replacement trees will be somewhere other than where they are needed, in dense urban areas. Would you keep the tree ordinance or revise it?
I would make it stronger. I hate the fact that if you go in in the middle of the night, which has happened more times than you can count, and just bulldoze the trees, that it’s a slap on the wrist. It doesn’t cost anything for them to have done that. And it’s right – they are absolutely priceless.
I’m really emotional about this. The canopy is priceless. And we lost it in eleven, when the drought was so bad. I called 3-1-1 to see if they would send the water trucks around downtown to see if they would water the trees that are in concrete. I don’t know if they did. But we lost a whole lot of the canopy downtown.
They didn’t water them.
No. The arborist himself said they didn’t have sufficient staffing to go out and do the inventory that they wanted to do.
And it was during the recession…
I’m sorry – they could have gotten the boy scouts to do it. There are ways to do it. You can’t go and replant a mature live oak. I lost a live oak a year ago from canker, which is the result of them putting the sidewalks on Shoal Creek. I said when they were doing it – I’ve got this tree here that is already land locked. Be careful of the roots. Within 3 years I had to have it completely taken down. It was probably a 70 year old tree.
So for me it’s personal and emotional. I worked at the National Wildlife Federation for seven years. I actually know the trees, I understand why the ones that grow here do, and which ones shouldn’t. Like we really shouldn’t have magnolias, though they’re lovely. They’re a Houston tree – they’re not really meant for a semi-arid area. But those live oaks are a magnificent tree. And it physically hurts me to hear the stories about when, I think they did it down in Southwest Parkway, and the Y at Oak Hill. And of course they did it Downtown. And they knew they weren’t supposed to do it. And in the middle of the night, they go in with their bulldozers, and like “Ohhh, we didn’t know we were supposed to do that.”
How would you make Austin affordable?
Currently there is a lot of interest and energy around the tax reform issue. What has happened with that issue is that the conversation is now something that happens at the dinner table. And I don’t remember that ever being the case. Nobody really wanted to talk about taxes. It was death and taxes, nothing you could do about it. I feel a lot of energy around that issue, I feel a lot of hope. I’m not sanguine about it. I have worked at the legislature, and I know how difficult it is to affect any kind of change up there.
And you’re talking about property taxes and the state rules around that.
Because that’s the one that it’s narrowed down to. I see taxes in a larger context. Most of them are regressive. Sales tax is certainly regressive. Bob Bullock took the income tax off the table for everybody. And I was there when he did that. So I know what that was about. Taxes for me is a larger issue, but specifically it is the property appraisals, and then the taxes on that, and the perceived inequities, between what we as residential homeowners pay, versus the corporations.
So with that energy there, I fully expect there to be a lot of things happening at the capitol. It will be totally engrossed and follow that. If I were on the Council I would absolutely testify in support of change.
But I also know that as of today, I think it was the Association of Business, Kramer came out and was pushing back on why it isn’t all that it seems. They did an analysis in the last four weeks, and looked at what the real values for Texas folks and for Austin were saying, and then compared it against what they said they know about business appraisals. I don’t fully buy what they’re saying, but now we know what the other side is going to say about that issue.
Is that an issue where someone on Austin City Council can have much effect?
Elected officials have a lot of effect.
Even Austin City Council members, who the Legislature traditionally…
Austin bashing? It hasn’t been as bad in the last few sessions. When I was there in 2000-2003, that was when the changeover with Bush and then all of the, and then Perry came in as Lite Gov, and a lot of things changed there. So I was there for that sea change when Pete Laney retired. Since then the opposition, and frankly the tea party, has solidified. It’s really difficult to get anything to change.
Whether or not this succeeds, it’s still a useful action. People need to be raising their voices. They need to say what they feel. It has to be an organized effort. And yes, absolutely the local officials everywhere around the state have to come in and have their say. It’s not just Austin. It’s affecting everybody state-wide.
As far as affordability, that’s an effort that’s happening right now. It’ll take a while – probably won’t pass in the 84th session, but it might in the 85th. So it won’t affect affordability in the short-term.
Locally, and more short-term, there are things we can do with tiering fees – making them more progressive, rather than regressive. When I was on the water-waste water commission, the water fees were – you pay one fee for under 2,000 gallons a month, and one for over 2,000 gallons a month. It didn’t matter how much you used – you could use 5,000 gallons and you still paid just a little bit more. Water I’m told used to be free. It was unmetered and it was free here in Austin.
We don’t really pay very much for our water. That helps with affordability. I live in a household where we use less than 2,000 gallons a month. We have a really low water bill. Our energy costs are low too. I think our highest this month was $160 a month. But I know that we do things to make sure that that happens. There’s ways you can work within the existing structures.
But I also think the City has to be careful with how they price things so they don’t force people out. Keeping property taxes that people are paying now as flat as they can is a difficult – that’s hard for municipalities for a lot of reasons. We’re not getting help from the feds or the state that we used to get. That’s on purpose – they’re pushing it lower and lower until in the end it’s the local governments that are bearing the entire weight. And it’s right there, right in front of you, and you know that council member because you’re at the grocery store and the dry cleaners. You don’t see your congressman. That’s been going on for the last ten years at least, since Bush went. Because under Clinton we had a great economy – we had a surplus. There had never been a surplus in the budget. The deficit had never been gone in my lifetime. Then under Clinton it was. Then after Bush came in it went down in a hole.
So there’s some short-term things we can do – it’s not easy. It’ll be some tradeoffs. There was a time when I remember when we were in a recession. The City said we’re not going to pave any roads. The inventory of unpaved roads just ballooned. What do you do when you can’t not pave the roads and the sidewalks are all broken up, and you don’t have enough of them anyway, and there’s ADA and you’re failing on that.
So they got some federal money and were able to try to get back up to speed. Of course the water/waste-water system was failing because it was over 50 years old. That was happening in Rosedale, but elsewhere too because the pipes were really old. There’s basic infrastructure stuff that you can’t ignore.
For the Council in the short-term you have to be really cognizant of the fact that the revenues come from the people who live here. We need to remember that there are a lot of people who are struggling. As long as the work force is healthy, and we have a low unemployment rate, people have jobs, there’s a sense of hopefulness, they’re not scared and backed into a corner and lashing out, they’re willing to consider $5 more this quarter that I’m willing to pay for water. Ok, yeah, I’m willing to consider that. It’s a trade-off. There’s a lot of education that has to go into that. The City has to be very transparent in how they work, and explain why they’re doing what they’re doing. Of course before that you have to be very open to hearing the input from the people who live here.
So short and long-term, I think there’s some things that can be done short-term to ease – it’s going to be an upward progression though anyway because the land appraisals went up everywhere. In the long-term – are we going to really revisit the tax structure in this state? I don’t know. It’ll be fun to watch. It’ll be really frustrating to watch. If I can help with that in any way, I’ll absolutely put my energies towards that.
A prominent affordability goal of the CodeNext zoning rewrite is to expand middle-density zoning categories, like duplexes, four-plexes, eight-plexes. It has also been proposed to simplify building accessory housing on SF properties, like granny flats. Opponents argue that such housing tends to suffer maintenance problems, brings in short-duration residents uninvested in their communities, strains infrastructure, and adds more traffic to residential streets. Do you support or oppose such housing, and why?
Well one of the issues there with code compliance is that it’s set up on a complaint system. If you file a complaint, the code compliance people will come out and have a look at what’s going on, and maybe make some changes or write someone up. That seems inefficient and pretty ineffective.
Adding different price points [for different kinds of housing] is something I would support. The question is how deep into the neighborhoods do they go. Which neighborhoods would be interested in having more of that mix. I think above 183 it would be a different result than if you were talking about Allandale. Different neighborhoods have unique concerns about what is coming with CodeNext. There are certain things that they want and don’t want. There may be some neighborhoods that would support having the densification and the additional type of living units. And then on the flip side – it helps everyone if they’re maintained properly, not just the neighborhoods but the landlords are better off, the buildings are better off, if you live there you’re better off.
One of the things I was reading, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Congress of the New Urbanism, is a concept called pedsheds, the area that’s realistically within walking distance of say a transit stop. Burnet scores very high on their pedshed scale. It’s all kind of interrelated. You were talking about the concept of village centers. You have an assisted living center near North Loop and Burnet. It’s by the library, there’s some green space behind the library. That makes sense for transit. You place things where they’re walkable and the sidewalks are where you can use them – well paved and attractive. I just don’t have any real issue about putting various types of housing on the edges. I think that it’s up to the neighborhoods to be very clear in their preferences for how deep into the neighborhoods those go. The planning process has to be comprehensive to include the village center concept, the catchment areas, where things are, how close the transit stops are to places where people want to go. It’s an entire fabric of planning.
Austin is losing families. We have a feedback loop where childless households with more money and desire shape market demand, the market builds mostly 1-BR units that exclude families, the retail and services become less family-friendly, school quality suffers, and so fewer families try to enter that market.
Should we be zoning in a way that adds more family-friendly housing in areas that want to remain family-friendly, or should we zone for housing that best meets market demand?
I think that as a part of the planning process, the neighborhoods’ voice should be heard, and that would influence the zoning decisions.
For me it’s a bottom-up, where the neighborhoods say what they want. I know the real estate folks are giddy over the boom on Burnet, and that’s all about the money there, and bringing in more people. But we don’t want the schools to close. If you narrow down choices for living spaces to 1- or 2-BR apartments that cater to college students or young adults with no families, then when they do get a little bit over and they decide where they want to live, are there going to be homes in the interior of the neighborhoods to move just three streets in to live in Brentwood or Allandale, some of those neighborhoods, and can they afford to do that.
Those issues go to the property taxes, the affordability of services, whether we’re pricing people out of their homes, and keeping the new families from moving in. My vision is that these are helping neighborhoods, and they continue to renew. The people who live across the street from me who are elderly and original homeowners, when they eventually go to a nursing home, I hope even though it’s on Shoal Creek, which is high traffic, that the home will be priced so that a family with younger kids would be able to move in. There has to be a match up not only in the housing availability but the wages people are paid.