Austin City Council – Newly sworn in Districts 2, 4, 6, 7 & 10 drew two year terms and 1, 3, 5, 8 & 9 drew 4 year terms.
Below is a short-hand account of the KLRU District 7 City Council interview with run-off candidates Jeb Boyt and Leslie Pool, conducted by KUT’s Jennifer Stayton.
The interview will be broadcast Thursday at 8 PM, and can be seen online at this link:
Most of the responses won’t be new to people who have followed the election. The last question is probably the most interesting – what would the candidate most like to achieve in office. Boyt – pedestrian/bicycle/transit improvements in North Burnet Gateway. Pool – parks, pools, libraries in the north part of the district.
4:15 – Stayton. Hypothetical – pressure on Council to increase public safety budget due to needs in two of the 10 Council districts. Your district has not been affected, but you’re being asked by neighborhood groups to increase funding for evening patrols. 1) How would you work with APD to determine which districts get more officers. 2) If other districts got more coverage, how would you communicate the bad news back to constituents.
Pool – Work for constable’s office, have insight. Talk to APD about employment schedules, how officers are integrated into communities, distribution and hot spots. If you don’t have enough boots on the ground, District 7 has great crime watch programs.
Boyt – Would look at APD’s recommendation, see what the gap is in budget vs needs. Have heard concerns, especially during major events, when coverage is limited. Work with APD, especially sector commands, to make sure full coverage. Communicate transparently to constituents.
7:52 – Stayton – Delivery of bad news – in general, what skills would you bring.
Boyt – Have experience delivering news to clients they don’t want to hear, something not possible. In political context, make sure to reach out to most invested stakeholders, make sure they can ask questions.
Pool – Rare to have a one-off situation. Have big events on regular basis. For an ACL or SXSW, have conversations in advance. If police have to shift elsewhere, arrange for neighborhood patrols, eyes on the street. Key is communication, planning, communicating what to expect. EMS or fire first responders would still be available.
9:38 – Stayton – lots of people don’t vote. Why should non-voter care what happens at City Hall?
Pool –Find points of engagement through conversation. Start dialogue – something like street lights, find out what they need. Get buy-in. Buy-in shapes investment in community, interest in voting.
Boyt – Some people are not happy and not voting. Some express surprise when meeting candidate at their door. Outreach a key aspect of 10-1 system. People don’t even know what City, Council does. Basic services that City provides. Engage them in that conversation.
13:05 – Stayton. So bigger picture, what is role of City Council.
Boyt – Council does budget. Beyond that, Council is voice of people. Representative body that gets together, makes decisions on operation of city budget, providing of services, infrastructure, health, safety, welfare of Austin. It’s where we have the conversations and actually make it happen.
Pool – Budget sets priorities. Council leads City to improvements in services, reaching vulnerable communities. Repair infrastructure, water supply, manage growth so as not to outstrip infrastructure.
13:54 – Stayton. What did you learn from your opponent?
Pool – All seven are so smart, so gracious in giving of knowledge. Learned a lot about people running with, against. Learned to speak succinctly in a minute. Impressed with quality of the dialogue among the candidates.
Boyt – Overall commitment among eight candidates – all care about Austin, the challenges on affordability and transportation. Everyone came from different perspective, brought different communities into conversation.
17:29 – Stayton. District 7 has large socioeconomic divide. Low income families moving to Pflugerville. District also struggles with traffic. Neither issue unique to D7. How would you work with other council members.
Boyt – One of the big challenges – working with other Council members. So many of the issues, votes are citywide matters, concerns. Social equity questions, affordability, good jobs, Safe Routes to Schools, libraries. Some of those things should find consensus across districts. Tougher challenge, libraries, parks where we have to spend money in just one place. Horse trading.
Pool – District Council members are going to be the main voices representing the needs of their districts to rest of Council. Will need to sell, persuade ideas. Look at priorities – take library as example. Two libraries needing repairs, money only for one. Hope there will be consensus to look at city as a whole, while we support what our districts need individually. Prioritization process – get something done that District 7 needs, while helping District 4 with something they need. Vulnerable communities – a key element of what the City does. A concern for the entire community – access to safe housing, education, health. Supports our economic development.
20:56 – Stayton – Rush hour, heading south in car. If stuck in car with three other people, who would those people be, what would you talk about?
Pool – Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, and – who’s a good woman comic? [Boyt – Sarah Silverman] Yes – Sarah Silverman.
Stayton – Would you talk city issues, or would you have them tell jokes?
Pool – I think both things would happen. Totally love Larry David’s wry sense of humor. Not sure who’d be driving. [laughter]
Boyt – Normally have KUT on in the car. [smiles] But in that context, would want to have a conversation about transportation, challenges of getting around. In that regard, the mayor, County judge – Sarah Eckhardt, and Linda Watson, CapMetro chair. “So this is what it’s like on the streets.”
23:00 Stayton – Final question. At end of your term, what is biggest mark you’d like to leave on district.
Boyt – North Burnet Gateway area from ACC campus to Gateway area, greatly improve pedestrian and bicycle, transit connectivity.
Pool – Improve access to parks, pools and libraries, especially north of Burnet Gateway, from Balcones Woods to I35. Desperately need additional green space, city services.
Editor’s note. AustinDistrict7.org’s editorial board, consisting of neighborhood leaders from throughout the new District 7, met at the start of October to discuss a candidate endorsement, but decided not to endorse. Instead, the site has offered each candidate the opportunity to submit an endorsement by local supporters. Here is one from Austin District 7 Board Member Kernan Hornburg, explaining why he supports Melissa Zone for the District 7 City Council position.
By Kernan Hornburg, Austin District 7 Editorial Board Member
I’m strongly backing Melissa Zone as the only Democratic candidate that will support neighborhoods’ interests over developers because she owes nothing to the political power brokers and developers’ lobbyists. She didn’t seek money from developers and the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA), but Paver, Boyt & Pool did. In fact, Melissa Zone is the only major candidate who did not accept developer money and will not be beholden to them when elected to Council.
This year, together with many other neighborhood leaders from here in District 7, I served on the editorial board of AustinDistrict7.org. We considered a possible endorsement, but ultimately decided not to endorse, however one thing was clear; we want a candidate that’s responsive to the neighborhoods’ and not developer interests.
After personally meeting all the candidates (besides Wittle & Ingraham), just the two of us face to face, it’s clear that we have some great folks running and I like them all personally, but not all are ready to serve.
It’s important to note that in Austin local politics there are long time paid power player consultants working hard behind the scenes. 10-1 was meant to change that. However, if you follow the money you will see that the players are very much still working for certain candidates behind the scenes.
If I can see it from here, I hope you can see it from where you sit now. I’m not a paid consultant. I’m a born and raised Austinite who’s trying to make it clear that you can either vote for the same establishment candidates that have served other’s interests since the late 80’s or vote for the candidate that will be there for you, that candidate is Melissa Zone.
Melissa has 20 years of professional experience in urban planning, public policy, land use, and transportation. Melissa works for Travis County in transportation and water resource planning. Melissa believes that we must rethink how we deal with growth. A council member who actually understands land development codes and regulations will be a great asset. Her expertise here will enable her to ensure that the CodeNEXT rewrite continues to protect the vision set forth in our neighborhood plans. Melissa believes that growth needs to pay for growth. She knows that giving unnecessary incentives to developers raises property taxes for all of us. We need people on city council who will speak for us.
Oh, and I’m not alone;
““Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) is proud to endorse Melissa Zone. I am supporting Melissa because she is the most neighborhood-friendly candidate in District 7. She is the only candidate in District 7 who will hit the ground ‘running’ and she will serve the needs of District 7 well. I have no doubt about her qualifications and her breadth of knowledge regarding all of the aspects of what it takes to be a Council Member. Melissa is not a political “insider”- how refreshing! She is a gutsy person who takes the preservation of neighborhood values very seriously with experience. We need this type of person on the City Council.”” – Mary Ingle, ANC President
“We were trying to investigate how impervious coverage would affect our property with the new watershed rules. We tried numerous attempts at the city to find answers to no avail. Melissa helped us navigate City Hall and thanks to her help we were able to finally get the answers we needed.” – Sandy Schiller, Riethmeyer’s Auto Repair
“Melissa’s been a key leader helping the Crestview Neighborhood Association in an ongoing effort to get parkland for our neighborhood. Melissa works relentlessly to fight for the little guys that oftentimes don’t have a voice.” – Kat Correa, Crestview representative and long-time neighborhood activist
“I support Melissa Zone because she understands that the city exists to serve citizens and not developers, and that policy decisions need to reflect the values and needs of actual residents, not multinational corporations or chain stores. Several of the contenders for District 7’s seat are experienced and competent, and others have solid empathy for average citizens, but I have found that Melissa Zone is the rare candidate that combines both those virtues, so I don’t have to choose. I want a councilmember who believes that public policy can help us shape a city and future that we want, not just the future that generates growth for its own sake. I want a councilmember that understands that supporting local businesses and local retail is far more valuable than handouts to international corporations who neither understand, value nor support our city. If you listen closely to many of the other candidates, their “solutions” revolve around “build more” without apparently realizing that “build more” is the very source of many of our problems, creating bland sprawl and congested roads. “Build Smart” is a better philosophy than “Build More” and Melissa Zone is the one candidate that seems to know the difference.” – Javier Bonafont, Founder and former President of Walnut Crossing Neighborhood Association
“Melissa was instrumental in assisting our efforts to stop approval of a cut-through from a high-traffic road through our quiet neighborhood. Melissa helped our coalition of several homeowners associations focus on pragmatic solutions, enlightening us on the workings of local government and making sure we were doing the right things. Melissa’s expertise and encouragement were very much appreciated by everyone involved and helped galvanize our efforts to drive a workable solution to growth in our neighborhood.” – Jack Newton, neighbor in northwest Austin
“Transportation messes are about to consume us, and it’s because we haven’t done enough planning for exploding growth. Melissa’s been a professional urban planner for 20 years. We need her expertise on City Council.“ – Rollie Sidla, Harris Ridge HOA Treasurer and long-time neighborhood activist
“Melissa Zone, who lives in Crestview, is the candidate who’s first concern is for us – the citizens and residents of District 7. She’s extremely knowledgeable on the process it takes to get things done through the city bureaucracy and is a strong voice for neighborhoods. Melissa is a planner and has been working on issues such as traffic, water, density, etc.; She knows the monetary value of issues and whether they are a long range benefit or not. – Donna Beth McCormick, Allandale Resident since 1962 and two time President of Allandale Neighborhood Association.
Melissa Zone is Endorsed By:
Austin Neighborhoods Council, Austin Police Association PAC, Better Austin Today PAC, Central Texas Building and Construction Trades Council, IBEW Local Union 520, Stonewall Democrats of Austin & Workers Defense Action Fund.
Learn more at:
Editor’s note. AustinDistrict7.org’s editorial board, consisting of neighborhood leaders from throughout the new District 7, met at the start of October to discuss a candidate endorsement, but decided not to endorse. Instead, the site has offered each candidate the opportunity to submit an endorsement by local supporters. The following endorsement was submitted by Richard Baccus from Walnut Creek/Eubank Acres and includes statements from several other people.
I spent quite a bit of time researching the candidates because I wanted to get it right. There are many good candidates in this race, but it’s one thing to talk about change; it’s another to actually do it. Ed English is a man of integrity, honor, and service. He is the only District 7 candidate who took large scale action to make historic change happen as a leader of the victorious Austinites for Geographic Representation movement, known as 10-1.
In 2012, we saw tens of thousands of Austinites come together, united for a worthy common cause. The new 10-1 system’s mission is to transform the City Council into a representative body that will be more centered on the neighborhoods where we live, creating greater levels of accountability and transparency in our local government.
In that role, Ed has consistently taken the lead. He was a leading voice against the current rail bond, citing it’s “upside down priorities” and unaffordability, while his opponents sat silent. His depth of knowledge on a vast number of community issues is impressive and his positions thoughtful, balanced, and fair.
Ed is politically independent, and this isn’t a stepping stone for a political career for him; he is a servant leader who wants to work for his community, taking no money from special interests.
As a leader, Ed was the first candidate to come out in favor of a 20% Homestead Tax Exemption. Despite critics attempting to dismiss his idea; now most candidates across the city are supporting this idea as their own.
Ed has consistently been against corporate giveaways that increase traffic, pressure environmental resources, and leave the burden on the taxpayer. Ed is a leader who has actually put a foot forward in getting our neighborhoods a voice, and making those who spend our taxes more accountable.
Ed English is the only candidate in District 7 who scored an “A” on ChangeAustin.org’s questionnaire. ChangeAustin.org is an advocate for sustainable growth and affordability. Ed, a middle class retired businessman and veteran, first hand understands the importance of protecting homeowners from being taxed out of their homes.
Even though the Austin American-Statesman has endorsed the rail bond package and a District 7 candidate that supports it as well, they still singled Ed English out as an honorable mention saying they were “impressed.” What’s impressive is his stand against a rail package that costs too much and does too little.
Ed is not endorsed by the pro rail bond Sierra Club.
Ed is not endorsed by the pro rail bond Austin Chronicle
Ed is not endorsed by the pro rail bond Austin American-Statesman.
Ed is not endorsed by the pro rail bond Laura Morrison who sits on the current Council.
Ed is not endorsed by the insiders that have grown Austin irresponsibly being led by special interests instead of leading them. The result? Worse traffic and higher taxes.
Ed has not sat on bond commissions that have indebted the city and touted that as reform experience.
Ed is endorsed by real community leaders and all those who work with him in effecting real change and reform in our city. Unlike other candidates that use terms like “lifelong resident” to soften the truth about residency. Ed and his wife Robyn plainly say that they own their home of 31 years in Austin. Ed has served his country, owned his own small business, and now is actively serving his community. Candidate or not, he will always be fighting for our voice, our taxes, and our quality of life.
Here is what just a few community movers have to say about Ed:
“I heard Ed English at a candidate forum. I was so impressed by his knowledge of the issues facing our fast-growing city, and his common sense approach to proposed solutions, I found myself wishing he was running for Mayor. I was impressed enough to donate to his campaign even though he is not in my district. Good people with a sane, fiscally responsible approach to managing our city NEED to be on the Austin Council. I would encourage you to listen to what he has to say and if possible support him with a donation and some time.”
“Ed was a tireless grassroots leader for 10-1. His efforts mobilized neighbors throughout North and Central Austin to spread the message. The people of District 7 voted to give themselves a voice at City Hall and Ed English would be outstanding as that voice.”
–Peck Young, consultant to Austinites for Geographic Representation
“I met Ed during the 10-1 movement for geographic representation. One of the first things I noticed about him was his ability to work with people. He actively listens and is able to build consensus with folks from all parts of town, with all different perspectives. He worked hard because he knows that ALL of our neighborhoods and communities deserve to be truly represented at City Hall. As an outspoken leader, he understands that effective leadership begins as a ‘bottom up’ approach. He knows that those who live in this city working, raising a family, maintaining a home, going to school, paying bills, and property taxes, or the myriad of other tasks related to daily Austin life are best positioned to identify those things that are in need of change.”
–Bruce Todd (former Mayor)
“Ed English is the most qualified candidate in the District 7 election. His experience with Austin’s new 10 – 1 will be valuable to the citizens of Austin. He is a dedicated public servant. I am honored to support him to represent my District 7.”
– Dolores Ortega Carter
This is why I’m supporting Ed English in his run for my district where I own a home, operate a small business, and raise my family. There is a difference in talking about change, and actually changing something. That difference is Ed English.
Richard Baccus Walnut Creek Eubank Acres
For more information, visit http://edenglishaustindistrict7.org/
Editor’s note. AustinDistrict7.org’s editorial board, consisting of neighborhood leaders from throughout the new District 7, met at the start of October to discuss a candidate endorsement, but decided not to endorse. Instead, the site has offered each candidate the opportunity to submit an endorsement by local supporters. In this piece, District 7 resident and recent parent Chris Lippincott explains his support for Jimmy Paver.
My wife and I are both 20-year residents of Austin. We bought our first home together in Crestview in 2005, and like you, we have seen big changes (good and bad) in our community. Now that we are raising a daughter here, my attention to city politics has evolved to expect more elected officials as they make decisions not just for me but for the city where our kids will become young women and men.
Jimmy Paver is the only candidate with over a decade of experience in public policy and leading a small, family-owned business. His years working for Democrats Lloyd Doggett and Mark Strama weren’t spent grabbing coffee. They were spent developing complex renewable energy bills and leading constituent services for 600,000 Texans, including many of our District 7 neighbors. For the past five years, Jimmy has served as the Planning and Community Outreach Director for Stepping Stone Schools, a small business started by his mother when his family moved to Crestview in 1979.
Families are the backbone of this community. As a lifelong resident and a new father, Jimmy is in a unique position to understand the challenges we face daily in a fast-growing city. Jimmy and his wife Anetta plan to raise their son Max here in District 7 – where he can enjoy a quality education and a healthy environment –things that I want for my own daughter and all of the children in our community.
Jimmy’s experience and roots here give him the perspective we need representing District 7 at City Hall. Jimmy will involve us in decisions that affect our community, and he will partner with other members of the new Council to solve our city’s toughest challenges.
In our first election under the new 10-1 City Council plan, we are fortunate to have a long slate of candidates who want to represent District 7. All of these candidates, our neighbors, love Austin and want to do a good job for us. I am supporting Jimmy because he stands above the rest (and not just because he’s 6’5”).
I’m voting for Jimmy Paver because he is the only competitive candidate who:
- Has worked both for state and federal government AND for a family-owned small business
- Is not beholden to the old guard that created the problems that we are trying to address
- Works in education and has a child who will be educated in Austin
- Has experience providing constituent services for District 7 residents
When you make your decision to vote for a City Council candidate, take a good look at the experience he/she touts. Some of the candidates tout careers in state or county government that helped create our current traffic problems and policy log jams. Is that whom we can trust to plan for our future?
People who simply say “government should be run like a business” do not understand the role of either government or business in a community. Jimmy Paver has education and business experience along with an impressive record of federal and state legislative service. He knows that efficiency and sensible budgeting along with a commitment to servings the citizens of District 7 will be critical to serving as our representative at City Hall.
We have the opportunity to send someone downtown to work for us. Jimmy Paver is a lifelong Austinite and new dad who wants the best for our city. He’s our neighbor. When we elect Jimmy, we’ll get a successful small businessman and a tested public servant who won’t bring along the bad habits that put Austin’s mobility and affordability at risk.
I hope you will join me in backing Jimmy. Together, we can preserve Austin’s future.
See more at www.jimmypaverforaustin.com
Editor’s note. AustinDistrict7.org’s editorial board, consisting of neighborhood leaders from throughout the new District 7, met at the start of October to discuss a candidate endorsement, but decided not to endorse. Instead, the site has offered each candidate the opportunity to submit an endorsement by local supporters. Here is one from Allandale residents Giselle and Chad Williams, explaining why they support Leslie Pool for the District 7 City Council position.
By Giselle and Chad Williams, District 7 neighbors
Leslie has the experience and values we need on City Council. She has over three decades of civic activism and professional experience serving the public’s interest. Leslie has spent hundreds of volunteer hours serving Austin. She chaired the Town Lake Advisory Group to protect what is now Lady Bird Lake, and served on Austin’s Water/Wastewater, Arts, and Telecommunications Commissions.
Along the way Leslie also raised a family. Her daughter, Emily, went to AISD schools and graduated from Anderson High in 2006. Leslie understands the challenges that families and all of us face. That is why she has been a champion for property tax reform. Too much of the property tax burden has been placed on Austin families, and Leslie will fight to make corporations pay their fair share of taxes.
Leslie was a leader in getting legislation passed that requires the state to work with neighborhoods whenever state-owned land is leased or sold for private development. This legislation was passed through the efforts of the Bull Creek Road Coalition, an affiliation of seven neighborhoods, which Leslie helped found and convene in 2012.
Leslie will fight for all North Austin neighborhoods. City Council has been more concerned with big developer deals and corporate giveaways than serving the residents of North Austin. The council provided $3.8 million in fee waivers for a luxury downtown hotel and nearly $700,000 in incentives for a private corporation. Yet neighbors in North Austin had to raise funds by themselves to provide seating areas at Walnut Creek Pool. Leslie will fight to change this history of short-changing residents and make sure North Austin gets the funding and attention it deserves.
This is why Leslie Pool has been endorsed by the Austin Chronicle, the Austin Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, and many other endorsing organizations. Here’s a round-up of what community leaders have to say about Leslie:
“Leslie Pool was a leader in getting state legislation passed that requires the state to work with neighborhoods when leasing state land for commercial development. She will continue to be a strong champion for neighborhoods on city council.” – Hon. Laura Morrison
“Leslie Pool understands that affordability is not just a buzzword that politicians can use freely without any real intent to do anything about it. Vote for Leslie Pool if you want to bring real, meaningful affordability policies to City Hall.” – Bill Oakey, AustinAffordability.com
“Leslie Pool has advocated for women’s rights for decades. She also
understands what it is like to raise a family in Austin. And she did this while not only working full time but while serving on numerous city boards and commissions. We need someone with Leslie’s dedication and understanding on City Council.” – Linda Young, President, National Women’s Political Caucus
“Leslie Pool will be a leader on city council for property tax reform. Her experience and her leadership make her the most qualified person in the race.” – Hon. Brigid Shea
“Leslie has been a strong leader on the environment for decades. We need her commitment and vision on the council to protect Austin’s quality of life.” – Roy Waley, Conservation Chair, Austin Sierra Club
“Leslie Pool was there at the beginning of our struggle, on the ground fighting to save Barton Springs.” – Mary Arnold, Former Vice Chair, Save Our Springs Coalition
“Leslie worked extraordinarily well with both Republicans and Democrats in the Texas Legislature to successfully bring a voice to neighbors in state land projects. I am impressed with Leslie’s ability to listen well, and then build toward consensus. She has just the coalition-building talents needed to be a powerful influence on the new City Council and serve District 7 very well.” – Sara Speights, Chair, Legislative Committee, Bull Creek Road Coalition
“My mom is awesome. She was there for me day in and day out. She was also always fighting for some cause or trying to help someone. My mom taught me the importance of civic engagement.” – Emily Pool
Go here for more: LesliePoolforAustin.com
Neighbors on Havelock Dr showing support in District 7
Our group, ‘No PUD, Not Now, Not Ever,’ has been organized to protect the NorthWest Austin community and schools by stopping PUD re-zoning and encourage responsible commercial development within conventional zoning standards. We collaborate with others to preserve the unique enclave of Austin’s Northwest Hills neighborhood and surrounding community. Contact information on our group is provided below. We wanted to pass on this article from former City of Austin planner Jim Duncan, regarding the proposed Austin Oaks PUD at the southwest corner of Spicewood Springs and Mopac. We think it sums up the main arguments against the PUD. Our only quibble would be to state more clearly that the City should not allow any form of PUD on the site.
No PUD, Not Now, Not Ever
Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014
By James Duncan – Special to the American-Statesman
To follow the plan or not to follow the plan, that is the question.
Several of our local neighborhoods are again under siege by an out-of-town real estate speculator who looks at Austin more as a commodity than a community. This time the neighborhoods are Northwest Hills, Westover Hills, Allandale and North Shoal Creek, and the proposed project is the Austin Oaks PUD.
The PUD applicant wants to convert an idyllic 40-year-old low-rise, low-density, tree-covered neighborhood office park into a high-rise, high-density regional commercial center that would feature the tallest buildings between the UT Tower and Waco and dump 20,000 new vehicle trips onto eight already failing nearby intersections. Such a proposed project clearly does not belong in an established Austin neighborhood. It belongs downtown or at the Domain.
The proposed project went before our City Council in late June for a pre-hearing and, while Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison indicated considerable concern, surprisingly no staff or council member noted that it was in direct conflict with Imagine Austin, our new comprehensive plan (which clearly designates the property as a low intensity neighborhood center and not a high intensity regional center.) Nor did anyone note that its approval would be an obvious violation of Article X of our City Charter, which mandates that all new development be in compliance with our adopted plan. Adding insult to injury, everyone seemed oblivious to the fact that approval of the project would also be a blatant affront to the 18,000 Austinites who just spent three years and $4 million laboring over Imagine Austin.
As various neighborhoods gear up to oppose the Austin Oaks PUD, I caution them not to get caught up in the Austin “Zoning Game,” which can best be described in three phases. First is the application phase, where developers almost always ask for twice what they really want so that their allies in City Hall can look good by cutting the request in half.
Second is the misdirection phase, where the developer cleverly diverts discussion about the proposed project, again with a little help from his council allies, from the most important and relevant issues of use, density and height to the less important and irrelevant site planning issues, such as curb cuts, sidewalks and bikeways.
And third and finally is the barter phase, where the developer offers a lot of nice-sounding amenities like two-star (out of five) buildings, street improvements and affordable housing contributions in exchange for the rezoning. In the end everything is designed to make the public feel like the proposed project is a “must have” economic stimulus for the city.
The bottom line is that no matter how great the Austin Oaks PUD is made to sound as it goes through the approval process, it should not be approved in any form or fashion. It should be summarily rejected. When it comes to development approvals, Austin needs to stop playing “let’s make a deal” and start following proper planning and zoning principles.
It is acknowledged that cities and their neighborhoods are organic and change over time. It is also acknowledged that existing properties like Austin Oaks will redevelop and change as well. As current homeowners who want to remain in their neighborhoods become empty nesters and then senior citizens, their housing and retailing needs also change. As new young families arrive, their needs are often quite different from previous residents.
Imagine Austin acknowledges those changes and provides guidance for how neighborhoods and neighborhood centers can meet those needs — and Austin Oaks is well-positioned to help in those efforts. It just needs to be done within the framework of good planning and reasonable and compatible zoning. Current residents and businesses in all four of the affected neighborhoods are “entitled” to nothing less.
Duncan is a former Austin planning director and current member of the CodeNext committee.
Web Site: http://nopud.weebly.com/
All eight candidates running for Austin’s Council District 7 seat pledged to respect existing neighborhood plans during upcoming planning of the Burnet and Anderson transit corridors, at a forum for the lower half of the district held on Friday. Much of the forum was spent discussing aspects of the process, which revealed at least one jaw-dropping surprise and several platform inconsistencies.
As at other forums [covered here], the citywide topic of affordability was explored. Also, several candidates polished their anti-establishment credentials, condemning bait-and-switch tactics in City planning efforts.
Crestview Neighborhood Association hosted the Lower District 7 Neighborhoods Forum, attended by about 225 people. The event was sponsored by Crestview, Wooten, Brentwood, North Shoal Creek, and Allandale neighborhood associations. The forum was taped and the main part is available here.
Affordability – Two or Three Camps
Affordability was the first question posed, and candidates provided a number of policy options to address it. By this point in the campaign, candidates have borrowed heavily from each other and are proposing a lot of the same things. But candidates vary in what they emphasize.
Ed English, Jimmy Paver, and Zack Ingraham have spent relatively more time on budget cuts or audits, while Melissa Zone and Jeb Boyt have pushed things like commercial property sale disclosures that would ensure commercial property owners pay their fair share of taxes. Boyt has remained consistent in pushing for new development to get housing costs down. Zone has called for developers to pay more of the cost of public infrastructure that supports their projects, especially in suburban areas.
Leslie Pool, who earlier in the campaign had focused heavily on lobbying the state for reform of the commercial property tax rules, raised several additional tools on Friday, including cost control. “I’d work to keep our bond indebtedness down. This needs to be balanced between getting projects done that we need in the district and the city, with keeping our tax burden as light as possible.”
The Gathering Storm: Burnet Rd Land Use Planning
Four of the questions at this forum explored candidates’ positions on urban planning and transportation in the context of the upcoming Burnet and Anderson corridor plans.
Candidates described their vision and tactics for the Burnet and Anderson corridors, summarized in the two info boxes below (click on box to expand).
Boyt said Burnet and Anderson need both connectivity and new housing, but that connectivity needs to be addressed first. “The connections are the big problems – we’ve got long blocks along Anderson with no connections.” He offered an example – someone living near Lucy Reed school in Allandale. “Say they want to go get some Indian food at Tarka [near Anderson]. That’s only a 2-300 yard walk. But to get there they have to go all the way over to Shoal Creek, or all the way back over to Burnet Rd. This is how we get traffic.”
Paver took the opposite tack, arguing for more compact arrangement of land use into transit hubs. “There is too much scattershot vertical mixed use along Burnet Rd, along Anderson, on Lamar.” He said the City should work to direct growth away from neighborhoods, with a focus on compatibility and transit ridership. “We need to find transportation options for people, by grouping them together. If we can be sophisticated enough to move [new residents] into a particular area… then we provide them with routes that actually move them around the city.” Paver called out specific projects he would oppose – the Austin Oaks PUD and the upzoning of the Korean Presbyterian church on Justin.
English, speaking specifically of the Burnet-Anderson intersection, proposed new intersection designs to greatly increase the flow of cars through the intersection. But at the same time, “it’s a commercial intersection, and there’s ample opportunities there to turn that into a [transit] hub,” one with convenient services, including municipal services, that keep people off the road.
Pool described her vision for Burnet as “an active corridor, with a lot of interesting shops.” But that shouldn’t result in sound, traffic or parking impacts on adjacent neighborhoods. “I see Burnet and Anderson as very active, lively areas. Any development would be compatible with established neighborhoods, stepping down to the neighbors behind them.”
Zone was careful to preface her response by recognizing the priority of residents to define their own vision. But she expressed concerns about current growth. “My vision is what you want, and we’re going to make sure that it’s at a human scale. Right now we’re starting to get development that’s right up on the roads, and it’s very high. And we’re about to get a ton of that. We don’t want that – we want air circulation, wonderful streets that are walkable – you can bike and families can enjoy it.”
Pete Salazar stuck to the practical – short-term investment in sidewalks. “I know some people from the School for the Blind. They’re waiting, and I offer to assist because there’s a giant crack there.”
A Surprise, and Some Inconsistencies
All candidates unanimously endorse existing neighborhood plans, though some candidates were harder or softer in that support. Darryl Wittle clarified that neighborhood plans should be respected “as the starting point” for upcoming corridor planning. But he said that any Council member will need to back his or her voting constituency.
The surprise of the evening was urbanist Boyt’s doubts around the upcoming Burnet corridor planning process. He vented frustration with staff’s poor explanation of the planning process, and asked, “Do we need a corridor plan process at all?”
That question is surprising because it would effectively preclude new duplexes, fourplexes and eight-plexes that have been a key plank of Boyt’s platform. Existing neighborhood plans don’t have much of this affordable “missing middle” housing. But they have been a constant topic from city planners as part of CodeNext and the upcoming Burnet corridor planning process.
The candidates’ strong support for existing neighborhood plans creates paradoxes for almost all the candidates in terms of their policy remarks.
What’s confusing is that most existing neighborhood plans, which for Burnet Rd describe zoning along the east side from 45th to 183, reinforce exactly the scattershot zoning of large apartments that several candidates say they oppose. The graphic below compares recent changes and their impacts for the Brentwood side of Burnet.
The candidates’ inconsistencies on corridor planning partly reflect inconsistencies from neighborhood activists and city planners themselves. At least three distinct visions for Burnet have been floated, described here.
Some people support the neighborhood plan approach to corridors, where big apartments are right on the corridor, backed directly by single-family or duplex housing. This approach achieves higher density – a key City goal – while still preserving core single-family neighborhoods – a neighborhood goal.
Others dismiss this pattern as “scattershot” or “tubular VMU.” The main disadvantage is congestion: more apartments are located at the extreme edge of rapid transit service areas, with fewer pedestrian amenities. Car trips for new residents remain fairly high, resulting in traffic congestion. Despite good intentions, the “activization” of the corridor in this fashion does result in more sound, traffic and parking impacts on adjacent residential areas.
Several candidates support adding family-friendly housing, but also support the existing land use. English and Pool described existing zoning as “fairly good.” The current residential zoning on Burnet results in development that effectively excludes families. Informal reports from growth areas off Burnet south of Koenig already suggest a migration of families from Clay Ave., presumably due to expected traffic and parking issues, and the shift towards late-evening bars or restaurants.
Still another conflict involves proposals for intersections, like English’s proposal to optimize car flow through the Burnet-Anderson intersection, while also making that intersection a walkable, transit-oriented hub. It’s pretty much one or the other – you can optimize for cars, or for pedestrians and cyclists. Doing so for both, i.e. by using pedestrian tunnels or bridges, would be very expensive. City staff in the past has rejected such solutions in the Burnet area.
Lack of Trust in Planning, City Hall
Lack of trust is the real driver behind neighborhood intransigence to consider new changes to corridors. This was another question raised at the forum, and every candidate but Wittle agreed with the urgent need to improve trust in order for planning to be successful.
Zone argued for introducing “participatory planning” that connects local feedback to outcomes. English suggested a point system to ensure fair influence from among different stakeholders.
Pool recounted the frustration of serving on citizen advisory committees at City Hall, only to be locked out of information loops by staff.
Paver in his opening remarks joked about a friend’s recent encounter with a one-legged grackle, begging for food. “The guy gives the grackle a chip. The grackle immediately drops its second leg.”
“That is how we feel in this area of town – duped by the city, in ways big and small.”
This is the last of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Ed English on his candidacy and the issues identified in the AustinDistrict7.org candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:
Residents in far north and northeast Austin have complained repeatedly about insufficient police resources. Crime in northeast Austin is like whack-a-mole, shifting from area to area in response to where police resources are currently focused. Yet police/fire/EMS is expensive, taking up 62% of the City’s operational budget. Any answers on these challenges?
I would support adding additional officers to the staff on a limited extent. Some people don’t support it, I do.
We’re blessed in the sense that Austin, given its size and make-up, has a fairly low crime rate. Now that’s citywide. We do have crime – everybody’s ultimately affected by additional bumps in their insurance rates and things like that. But at its most personal level, crime’s in your backyard, it’s in your driveway, it’s someone stealing your laptop from your car at Target. Crime for most people – it’s a very personal thing. And we have areas of the city that have issues. Certainly District 7 does in the north central, northeast. I think we need to address that.
We currently have an officer-to-citizen ratio that’s reasonable, let’s put it that way. It’s not quite in alignment with other cities. I understand that – we have more residents per officer than some of the other cities, but they have bigger crime rates. It’s a trade-off.
One of the costs that seems out of line to me is the amount of overtime that we pay our officers. Our officers are well paid, their current contract runs through 2017. Their pay rate is established for some time to come. But what does flex, and flex significantly, is what they have to spend in overtime. What I would like to see, and I don’t think it would take very long or be very extensive, is an analysis of how many officers we could add, if we were to dramatically reduce overtime – use the savings from overtime to pay for additional officers, and then put policies in place to make sure that workloads are sufficiently distributed with these additional officers that we don’t return to a situation where we’re paying officers overtime, all the time. I think we could add officers without adding more cost to the city.
A lot of land in District 7 subject to development or redevelopment is on flood plains subject to flash floods, or in areas subject to wildfires. Some suburban communities have only one or two evacuation routes in the event of a disaster. Climate trends could make these risks worse. But taking away property owner entitlements is always tricky. What tools, including land use requirements, should be considered?
I’m generally in favor of significant restrictions on building in flood-prone areas. Over several decades, and it’s not anyone’s fault, we had other priorities, we looked the other way, let a development go into a 50- or 100-year flood plain. It’s not right on the creek, we have bigger fish to fry. And then when we have something like the floods last Halloween, that lack of planning, those decisions come back to bite us big. It just doesn’t seem like in the past we’ve learned very much from those lessons, because we repeat the same mistakes. And then when the disaster happens, we say, “Why didn’t we do something long ago?” You’ve got to take the long-term view that the disasters when they come are so horrific and so expensive, the risk of loss of life can be so high, that you have to look at the consequences of the lack of restrictions.
We need to get out of the business of buying out homes in areas that were flooded. That’s the situation we’re facing right now with Onion Creek. It’s a very unhappy situation. I don’t know that there’s an all-right answer to that. I appreciate the terrible circumstances some of those homeowners are in, but I also understand the view of other people of, “Why should I pay for that expense for poor decisions made by people long ago?”
I was encouraged that the City did move forward with about $300,000 for a series of test wildfire sensors that they’re going to install. It’s a one to two year pilot project that, if it works, if it offers enough of an early alert beyond what we’d get with someone just calling it in… I’m financially a little frugal, but I think this was one of those cases where an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure.
I have a letter from the owner of Dan’s Hamburgers, a local small business, describing the pain and expense of doing a simple remodeling. Other small business people have complained about sky-rocketing utility rates or other forms of red tape. What are the top 3 things City Council can do to help small business?
I have run a small business, but not from a brick-and-mortars location. I would like to see us protect the small businesses here. And I’m not anti-big-box stores, I’m not anti-conglomerates. But I think we do what we can to encourage small businesses to both start here and stay here and flourish here.
At the top of the list is stream-lining the permitting process. I’ve heard complaints about a lot of things from small businesses, but nothing comes close to that. If the businesses had any need within recent years to do remodeling, expansions, opening up a second location, permitting is usually their chief complaint. And that process needs to be completely revisited and streamlined. Sadly, in a city that considers itself a techie town, so much of that process now is still manual. It’s amazing to me that other cities that surround us in the suburbs – have a large portion of their permitting process online. A lot of it is done by the time you get there. You’re in and out in an hour. It couldn’t be further from that here in Austin.
The way they’ve broken down the tiered structure for electrical rates, for a lot of small businesses, it’s double or triple what it was just a short time ago. For a small business, that’s a significant impact on their bottom line.
I’ll take a very recent example, which is unfolding, is this new concept of a transportation corridor adjacent to a neighborhood plan. You were at that meeting [a staff presentation on the Burnet Rd corridor plan process]. I think one of the things that jumped out, and I commend the gentleman – he made an incredibly valid point – where are the small business people? Why were they not encouraged to be part of this process? Where was the outreach to them? He made several points that you’d be hard pressed to argue with – you’re talking about changing a plan for a business corridor that would potentially, again it’s in the early phases, have a dramatic impact on small, long-term, family-oriented businesses that are along Burnet Rd. That type of oversight in soliciting impact at this early stage, we’ve seen those kinds of things before. It’s unfortunate that there was a classic case of one man in a room full of people standing up and pointing out the obvious – the incredibly obvious.
As that plan develops, if it goes forward, and it looks like it will, I think that a very core part of developing that transportation, and I call it transportation slash business corridor, is to look what you can do, as far as the provisions, code, regulations, to keep those businesses there. And not just there, but make sure they have an opportunity to flourish – that you don’t set something up that’s unreasonably restrictive. Those businesses add a lot of character to the neighborhoods.
9/21 – In summary, I would like to see the permitting process revised and streamlined, a review of the utility rate tier structure to restore a reasonable expense level on small businesses and the inclusion of small businesses in the decision making processes that will be part of CodeNext and/or any future corridor plans to ensure they are not significantly adversely affected.
So by unreasonably restrictive, what do you mean, what would be an example for a small mom or pop business along Burnet?
Parking’s always an issue, so let’s pick that as a topic. A lot of those businesses, a fair percentage, have fairly limited parking. They may have 2-3 employee spots in the back, enough for 4 customers up front. I would hate to see anything that would further reduce their parking.
Sign ordinances, that’s another issue. That’s more of an issue in some cities than it is here. I think on a corridor you want to make it look nice, make it a place people want to travel through, especially on mass transit. “Hey, this is a nice neighborhood – I might want to live here, I might want to shop here.” But at the same point, and I have seen this as I’ve traveled so much over the years, there can be overreach – you can only have a sign on your building and it has to be… if we’ve lived with the signs that those businesses have up to this point, and life hasn’t ended as we know it, then let’s don’t do something like, your sign is now one foot too wide, it doesn’t meet our beautification standards.
Local economist Brian Kelsey recently described Austin’s business incentives policies as wildly successful, contributing to a soft landing after the 2008 recession and robust growth since. Other commentators claim the policies favor big business and fuel gentrification. According to the City Budget, Austin has allocated about $43 million for FY 2014 in business development and incentives. Some of this goes to support local music and cultural assets, and to create blue collar jobs. Most of the $13.2 million in economic development funding targets a few strategic sectors: clean energy, biotech, digital media and wireless. Does Austin have the right economic development strategy?
Yes and no. You’re talking about a city, the eleventh largest city in the United States. There’s no one-size-fits-all here. The current and recent past approach worked at meeting the goals, the general direction of the city for a period of time.
But for me, and I think a lot of people, we need to revisit how we use incentives, when we use incentives, for what reason. Incentives that are used with the only justification that if we don’t offer them, they’ll go somewhere else, for me, that day is over. If that’s the only reason we offer an incentive, and they won’t come here anyway, fine – find another place to make your nest.
I am not totally against incentives. But I believe they should be used extremely sparingly. The core justification for an incentive package should be that it meets a need that’s currently not being met. If we are going to entice an employer to come here, it needs to offer something that we currently don’t have, or have enough of.
This is a favorite subject of mine, because I believe when we use those incentives sparingly, we put into them a few very key provisions. One, that the employers be geographically dispersed. That goes a long way toward keeping our traffic situation from getting worse. You place the location that’s as close as possible to the talent base, so again travel time is reduced. I also believe, and the mayor got put on the spot at an ANC meeting about two months ago. He was asked, “Do you believe that incentives have been sufficiently targeted to bring jobs to Austin that target more middle income people – $40-50k people, who might have a high school education, or an associate. Don’t necessarily have a master’s in software engineering. And his answer was no. And I would agree with him. I’d like to see an incentive here to accomplish, for instance, we bring an employer, we offer a reasonable incentive with measurable benchmarks. We put that employer in northeast Austin. That employer is of a nature that will offer employment to a section of Austin that badly needs it.
Fedex is opening a facility in Pflugerville, that meet a lot of the criteria. Why wasn’t that facility opened on our side of the city limits? To me that’s the fish that got away. Their truck traffic’s going to use 130, it won’t be on I35. It’s well located, drawing from a skill set that lives nearby.
Now the location is pretty close to where you would want it anyway. The big issue is that we lost the tax base…
That’s it. And it’s a great example of an incentive package that meets all the criteria I’d like to see.
I’d also like part of the incentive, where doable, to include an education package. Let’s say it is a technology job, but it’s primarily an assembly job, where you can have a large employer, but not a large group of employees, who just need enough education to qualify to take the position. I’d like to see incentives where possible include a training program for the employers and employees who live close, who are close to meeting the requirements anyway.
Assuming you were able to implement your policy goals, what structural changes could one expect in the City budget? Where would spending increase or decrease?
9/21 – One place to begin looking for opportunities to either increase or decrease spending is to start with a zero based budgeting process. This need not be done every year, but should be done on a periodic basis. Simply put, every department would need to justify all expenses, not simply carry an expense over from one year to the next without some explanation as to why it is necessary.
In addition, an outside audit with an eye toward finding wasteful, duplicate or uncoordinated spending (where the advantage of volume purchasing is lost) would, I believe, pinpoint areas where savings could be made and spending reduced. We also need to ask serious questions as to why so many unfilled city positions are being budgeted for each year. This money ends up being used for other purposes. As a city we need to be more transparent about where taxpayer dollars are actually being spent and properly budget for those expenditures up front.
Reducing the number of unfilled positions budgeted for offers some significant saving opportunities. These saving could be, where justified, used to increase or pay for spending in areas like restoring library hours, adding more paramedics and the like (these specific expenditure increases have recently been approved).
What I’m hearing from you is that you’re looking for ways to cut taxes and utility rates, to bring down the burden of living in Austin.
You would modestly increase police, but you would find off-setting mechanisms to cover that.
Transportation is a really big expensive thing, that would increase. If you’re cutting livability, and increasing transportation, keeping police about the same, you mentioned increasing revenue, but as you’re adding housing, you’re also having to add infrastructure to support that. That sounds like a wash. It’s an unfair question, but what other changes would you expect on the budget? How would you keep it in balance?
And again, things are very fluid because we have a rapidly growing city. By the time the next budget process and work sessions come along, we’ll be in a different environment. You listen to the community, you find out where you think their priorities are, where they’d like to see increased spending. At the same time you have to ask the tough questions – if you had to cut spending, where would you cut it. That generally brings out a lot of unhappiness.
A lot of governmental agencies have this mindset that we have a guaranteed source of income. If we need more, we can just raise taxes, add fees. In private industry and personal life, that option’s not open. We look at what we can afford, and then we decide what we can buy. That’s a general focus of mine, that’s a general mindset of mine.
But businesses can also borrow to expand their business. If you’re a growing business..
To a point. Borrowing has its limits. Borrowing is part of operating the city government. It’s also part of running a business. Businesses don’t have a well that they can go to, until the well doesn’t want to pay anymore, at some point, bond agencies – you have a credit rating as a business, just like you do as a city. At some point in time, the banks say no, you have to start paying those bills. And your sources of new revenue are somewhat limited.
Sometimes, with a governmental mindset, you don’t see that. And I believe a lot of people in Austin would concur, that this tax well out there, the population is just an unending stream of revenue – we can just ask for more and more and more, and they’ll keep paying it. If ever there was a time when the city was being smacked about the head, that there is a pain threshold that people do not want you to cross, I firmly believe we’ve reached that.
I’m real happy that the city is doing some cross-coordination with the other taxing entities and working on an affordability index. I think that’s a first step in the right direction.
I think an initial target early on, is to freeze the budget in place. You have certain contractual obligations with the police, the fire fighters, EMS. There’s certain contractual obligations that require to spend more than the year before. You start from the base that, why does any department need any more than it needed the year before. It’s putting a level of justification on a department for its expenditures that hasn’t been there in the past. It’s not a fun process for city departments, department heads, to do a from scratch justification…
Any department is going to always have a list of rationales for why they want to spend money, and most of them are legitimate. At some point it’s going to come down to your subjective prioritization…
Absolutely. They all have things they want, that they need…
9/21 – Budgeting is always a combination of hard data on what revenues are available and the subjective judgment of those deciding on how it is to be allocated. That subjective judgment must always be rooted in an open and transparent citizen input process. From there, the members of the City Council must, with a sense of fairness, compromise, balance and fiscal responsibility, make the calls on which departments will get what.
And not just ‘they’. There are constituents, you say 80,000 people in the district, any one 10,000 of those people are bound to be supporting something.
You’ve gotta make some tough decisions. And that’s where I think we’re headed. One escape valve we have is that we have new revenues coming in. We are blessed that we can look at some property relief, by virtue of the fact that we do have new streams of revenue moving in here every day. That’s a blessing – it’s very difficult to cut spending when your revenues are declining at the same time. It’s one misfortune takes care of the other. We’re fortunate here in that we can level some things out, maybe in one budget year, and still cover the costs that we’re contractually required to. Because we do have new streams of revenue coming in. Growth has its challenges, but revenue coming in, we’ll take some of that. I think initially the target would be to limit the growth, if possible even freeze the growth, in departmental budgets where we’re not contractually obligated to increase spending.
Austin has more employees that are paid $100,000 or more than any other city in Texas. That’s not on a percentage, that’s absolute numbers. That’s more than Dallas, San Antonio, Ft Worth. What’s wrong with that picture?
If you open their budget document, they have this visual and vision statement, “To be the best managed city in the country.” Well, that’s a subjective judgement. But something that’s not as subjective, is, we can be the most overmanaged city in the country. If you look at the ratio of managers to staff, it’s extraordinarily lopsided.
Austin Energy is an example – it’s top heavy, extremely well paid, an inordinately large number of executives and department heads for the number of employees that they’re managing. This would not be popular with city staff, but I would not be opposed to doing a couple of things – 1) an outside, independent, top-to-bottom forensic audit of the city’s expenditures over a five to ten year period, to see where we’ve wasted money, duplication, maybe even fraud. I’m making no accusation there.
And I would also be willing to look at restructuring the city departments to look for more efficient employer-manager ratios. There have been presentations made to City Council, publications that I’ve read, about how lopsided we are here in Austin with the manager-to-employee ratio. There’s a lot of money to be saved, not just in salaries, but in benefits, pensions. We’ve actually hired additional staffing because of the requirements imposed for having a civil service environment here. We ought to take a look at making some hard decisions about restructuring our city’s employment, and taking some of the top heavy folks off the rolls, or maybe we use attrition so that we’re not laying people off. But when the $100,000-plusters leave, we don’t replace them, we reorganize responsibilities.
Personally I think the City wastes an incredible amount of money. A simple example – you go to other cities – they’re replacing a small section of pavement that’s cracked. They will find other projects similar to that, that require the same crews, the same cement, the same trucks. And they will do a series of projects that are in close proximity. I don’t see that in Austin. They travel to one extreme end of town, patch a piece of pavement, they’re done. Little things like that that save an enormous amount of money when they’re repeated hundreds of times. The streetlight program. I do believe there was some merit to replacing our street lights with new LEDs, for reducing light pollution. That’s nice. But Austin Energy spent about $20 million (don’t quote me on the numbers) to replace every street light bulb with new bulbs. That’s the bulb, plus the labor cost. A reporter actually got the public relations officer and asked him, how much do these lights save? They save about half a million a year. Do some basic math – it’ll take 40 years to recoup the investment. The stunned look on his face. Ask yourself – in 40 years, will there not be a better technology available that saves even more money? I think there will be.
To get back to your core question, it’s a matter of making some tough choices. Trying to control the budget. I’ve got cost savings out the wazzoo.
This is the third of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Ed English on his candidacy and the issues identified in the AustinDistrict7.org candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:
The interview took place on May 24. Since then, Mr. English has met with numerous stakeholders and refined his positions. He asked to provide updates to his original responses where appropriate. These are in italics below.
What are the top 3 steps needed to improve North Austin’s mobility?
Traffic is a huge huge problem. Like most of the major issues, there’s no silver bullet. We’re going to have to kill this giant with a thousand cuts.
I’m a big proponent of believing that every tool that’s available to us needs to be considered for any particular project. That includes rail, that includes buses, that includes bikes, that include walkability, that includes road improvements, high occupancy lanes.
Now having spoken in broad terms, I like buses. I do think that the flexibility that they offer is really almost unmatched by other options. If it’s not working here, you move the bus stop down the road, you move it over a couple of blocks.
I would like to see wherever possible, and I’ve said this before – roads are not a dirty word for me. As you get closer to the core city, the opportunity for road improvements is limited, because you just don’t have the right of way. But has you move out of the core, you can add additional lanes, you can improve and add exit ramps from freeways.
I sat in a wonderfully informative discussion about changing the basic design of intersections to improve traffic flow. I think there’s a lot to explore there so that your time at lights is extremely minimal. So there’s a whole host of little things you can do, but I really think that we have to consider every option. Where we can put bike lanes in, put bike lanes. Where we can add sidewalks, add sidewalks. Where we can effectively upgrade our bus service, that has to be an option.
In 2010, staff recommended to open the N Lamar-Morrow Street intersection north of Crestview Station to west-bound traffic. This proposal pitted residents in Highland neighborhood who wanted better east-west connectivity against residents in Crestview who feared a torrent of traffic down their residential street. The Council subcommittee reviewing the proposal voted 3-0 to open Morrow. Did they get it right?
I guess ‘right’ is which neighborhood you live in. [laughter]
Maybe I can offer some perspective from someone who doesn’t live in either one. This is unfortunately one of those cases where there’s not much of a happy medium. I’m not a traffic engineer, but it seemed like it was either all or nothing – open it or don’t.
Honestly, if I were judge and jury, I think probably the weight of the evidence came down in favor of Crestview. I thought they made the case for the potential additional traffic. Again, maybe it’s a little bias of keeping neighborhoods as quiet as possible, and I tend to lean that way, that tends to be my default position, is protection of the neighborhoods.
But don’t let me misguide you, I’m not anti-growth, and I’m not anti-density, I just believe it needs to be very controlled and structured, well thought through. But if I were sitting there and voting, I would have favored the Crestview position.
The bigger picture issue is region-wide, we have lousy east-west connectivity in this area. How do you tackle that?
Given the fact that anything you do on a significant basis is going to be an incredible battle between those who are most affected by it, I mean years ago when I first moved here there was more than one push that didn’t get anywhere with putting an east-west freeway along Koenig Ln. There was a lot of resistance from the neighborhoods – I understand that.
Frankly, I would like to where possible, and I don’t know that you could do it on Koenig, maybe Anderson Ln has more options because it’s a bigger thoroughfare, maybe you have opportunities to purchase additional right of way. I would like to see an east-west, and again I’m just going to reference the north part of town, the south side has their own issues. I would like to see one or two corridors where we did everything we possibly could to improve movement of traffic along there.
That could be additional widening of the roads, that’s not an inexpensive proposition; there would be a lot of resistance to that, particularly along Koenig. It would have a bigger impact on the neighborhoods, they’re closer to the road than Anderson Ln, because the commercial properties [on Anderson] have more depth, you have maybe some more room to work with there.
But what are you proposing?
Right now I’m just talking about road improvements. There are other options. Anderson Ln, because of its additional width, you have some better options as far as adding bike lanes. You could also look at the options to improve some mass transit from one to the other.
You would actually acquire additional right of way?
I think you’d have to put that in front of the public and see what their reaction to it is. I’d be very sensitive to their input. I don’t know how much available right of way there is…
There’s not much on Anderson
I don’t think there’s much left. You could at least explore that option. It may go nowhere. But it would be worthy of taking a look. To be perfectly honest with you, without doing research, I’m not afraid to say, that’s something I don’t have a definite answer for. I think it’s smart sometimes to say, “I don’t know that there’s been sufficient research.” I’m specifically addressing your question of east-west.
As you go north, maybe Braker – you have many more options there. Without some public input on that and research, I’ve never been afraid to say, I don’t know if I can give you a specific answer on that.
9/18: After having time to consider the question of east/west connectivity at greater length there are several options that would appear worthy of research. Among those options would be bus pull over lanes, better traffic light synchronization and potentially a restriping to narrower the lanes in order to add an additional lane in each direction.
I saw just how effective that could be while living in Houston during its early 80’s boom. There have also been some very interesting designs for intersections developed that offer the potential for vastly improved flow through intersections. All of these possibilities are only stop gap measures. The better long term solution is to reduce the volume of traffic on our east/west routes by offering better public transportation. The transit hub concept that could be used on Burnet Road would also be applicable to east/west thoroughfares.
Last year, a ProjectConnect advisory board voted 14-1 to approve a first rail line up San Jacinto and Red River to Highland Mall. Many rail advocates and several neighborhoods in North Austin argue that Guadalupe/N Lamar is a more logical choice based on current ridership. Others worry a rail line will accelerate development in suburban areas not yet supported by good pedestrian infrastructure, exacerbating mid-term congestion. There is also the wider debate about whether rail is a $1.4 billion gamble that trends like robot-cars will render obsolete, or a long overdue first step towards a more sustainable urban transportation system. Where do you come down on urban rail, and on the best route for an initial rail line?
I’m not anti-rail, I’m not pro-rail. I’m a ‘let’s do smart rail.’
I believe rail has a place in the bigger picture. I’m one of those rail advocates who says, it needs to be considered as part of any answer to the congestion problem. The current alignment being proposed, I have concerns about it.
My unscientific poll of the district, I’ve asked at least 100 people, if it’s built, what do you see it designed to accomplish. Almost everyone will give you the same answer – “Reduce congestion.” They want to see cars off the road. They want to see it make it easier to get from point A to point B, whether they’re using the rail or driving.
If you accept that, then you look at where will you be able to accomplish that goal the best. I’ve heard from Scott Morris and other people, I’ve seen their numbers. It’s very convincing. You have to factor in a lot of things, like the cost of the system, potential ridership, not the least of which is, how much are we going to have to subsidize over the long haul. Because almost all public transportation loses money.
That’s true for highways and roads too.
It is, it is. Almost any public transportation system, even a road, someone ends up having to pay for the cost of it because it doesn’t make enough money to pay for itself. So that’s a huge consideration, especially in a city where the taxpayers feel incredibly fatigued. So I think some key questions are – how much traffic will it take off the road? How much revenue will it generate? What’s the upfront cost? Are you going over the river, or not?
I applaud the city’s efforts to look at rail as an option. I even think the E Riverside to UT portion has a lot going for it. Where I and a lot of others tend to part company with the proposed alignment is north of UT. At the northern end of the route it seems like we lose sight of the priority of taking traffic off the road. The priority for the northern end of the route seems to be, how much development can we build along it. I think people with some justification have gotten cynical. Over the last couple of decades, projects are sometimes built for developers rather than for the public. A lot of people just don’t see the ridership on the northern end of it justifying it. They see it as an opportunity more for development than for taking cars off the road.
One of the corridors that was used to justify that route was I35. A reasonable question that people ask is whether people coming down I35 from Round Rock or Georgetown would really get off of I35, when they’ve already made it to Highland Mall, to park, to get on a train to cover the remaining distance of going downtown. A lot of people see that as far-fetched. A lot of the development that they say will use this northern end, that would be concentrated around the ACC Highland Mall campus, if you see how rapidly that would have to be developed to reach their estimated ridership numbers, even as fast as Austin is growing, this projected development seems completely out of sync with reality.
I personally think there’s a better option with Guadalupe/Lamar. If you’re looking at the same kind of numbers that they’re looking at, cost, ridership, it seems to make more sense. Not that it’s perfect. Those who argue against Guadalupe/Lamar will tell you you’re going to lose car lanes. People in cars will face far worse traffic problems than they have to face now. That’s a good valid argument for why Guadalupe/Lamar may not be a terribly good choice.
But bottom line, we need to look at that as an option. Whichever option you pick, one of those corridors, or some people are proposing something closer to Mopac, which seems kind of far fetched to me. Whatever route we pick is going to make some people unhappy. I personally, if forced to make a decision, think that Guadalupe/Lamar would be a better option. But a bad rail decision is worse than no rail decision. A lot of people have verbalized this to the Central Corridor Advisory Group. A bad decision is really dooming the system’s future. If it’s in the wrong place and the ridership’s not there, if it’s like the Red Line and the costs are way over projection – people are fearful of that because that’s been the story in the past.
As a future council member, I will live with whatever the voters make. I’m really sincere about this. If the voters pass it, one of the things I will consider an absolute charge, this project is going to go down the way the voters passed it. I will do everything in my power to see it on budget, on time, what the voters expect.
Two years ago, a developer sought a variance to build a 4-story apartment block at the Ross property at 8100 Burnet. The developer argued that the project puts mixed use housing on a transit corridor, contributing to the Imagine Austin goal of compact and connected. Opponents argued that the project would put too much density at a location a quarter mile from the nearest rapid transit station, and the project’s “easy in-and-out” design that wraps apartments around a parking garage core would just encourage more driving. Council supported the upzoning on first reading. How would you have voted?
Just to show you I’m open minded, for me reviewing that, I came down on the side of the developers. Personally I thought what they proposed – it’s an appropriate location. I saw a lot more positive than negative. As far as bus stops, bus stops can be moved. I rarely ever see that as an objection. A bus stop’s five blocks down the street – well we move the bus stop. I thought that was an appropriate project in the right location.
9/18: The proposal to develop transit hubs along Burnet that would potentially include some measure of park space would reduce the number of possible locations for bus stops. With that a given limitation and the likelihood that a transit hub would be located close to the intersection of Burnet and Anderson, some distance from the location of the proposed project, the desirability of having a 4 story apartment building at 8100 Burnet drops considerably. That particular site has a lot of potential for use in adding housing, but the size and scope of something built there along with the projected increased traffic in the area would have to be carefully evaluated before deciding what is appropriate.
What are your priorities for the environment and open space?
I’d really like to see additional efforts made, and I’m going to speak specifically to our district – the major creekways, Walnut Creek, Shoal Creek, that we do what we can to make sure they’re properly maintained, that they’re utilized where appropriate for foot traffic, for bike traffic, that they’re maintained as the beautiful pieces of nature that they are. Where we can better utilize them for public use, fine. I think part of that is making sure that we do what we can to manage them as sources of floods, where we can improve drainage, increase pervious cover so there’s not as much run-off.
Parks space across the city is unevenly distributed. I don’t think that was anything evil-minded, it’s just the way things worked out over time through a lack of long-term planning. We might have to be a little compromising here. I’d like to see the City partner with neighborhoods to build little pocket parks. There’s little vacant pieces of land here and there that adjoin commercial property in some cases, that has older buildings on it or that’s been abandoned. There are opportunities for the city to buy small parcels of land and use it for little pocket parks.
Good lord, we found enough money on relatively short notice to buy a golf course on the southwest corner of town. If we can do that, there’s no reason why neighborhoods like Crestview, which have waited a long time for their little piece of earth, there’s no reason why that couldn’t be done at a nominal cost. Not through grand projects. I’m not sure that’s not cost prohibitive unless you’re out on the edge of the city where the land’s available at a reasonable cost.
But I think there’s opportunity for little pocket parks, small little pieces of open space strategically placed. Our district needs it because we’re woefully short of that, given the distribution of park space. We don’t have our share. And I think we could rectify that.
Parks Department describes much of North Austin as an ‘open space desert’. The average open space in Austin’s urban core is 5% – in some North Austin neighborhoods it’s under 1%. With existing mechanisms, North Burnet Gateway will end up with about a third to a half the open space of Downtown Austin. The City of Austin allocated a paltry $4 million for urban land acquisition in the 2012 bond package. Yet getting new open space, and getting it where it’s most useful near transit, is expensive and getting more so with each passing day. Should Austin be spending a lot on open space in really expensive places?
And just to give you an example, you’re talking about parcels along commercial corridors. We looked at a parcel adjacent to where the new Farmer’s Market VMU is going in. We were trying to get a small pocket park to support that transit-oriented area. There was an underutilized piece of land. Talked to the property owner – they wanted $3.2 million for a 1 acre piece of land. $3.2 million. That’s not cheap.
No that’s not cheap.
So the question is whether Austin should be buying public space in transit-oriented places where the land is really expensive.
Again, you have to define what is a lot. Given the fact there’s a fairly widespread movement to make Austin more affordable, and that goes back to what is the city spending, affordability covers a lot of areas, but a big aspect is what is the city spending that people pay for through their taxes. I realize that the acquisition of park space is not quick, it’s not easy, and it’s usually not cheap. You look for, and sometimes they may be hard to find, it’s not something where you say “we’re going to acquire five properties within this one-square mile area within the next year” – I don’t think you can set those kinds of timelines because it’s not realistic.
You have to keep your eyes open, have the neighborhoods watching out. I’ll give you a small example – occasionally code enforcement will condemn a property and demolish it. There are instances, in District 7 as well, where you have habitual problems with property maintenance, drug hangouts, abandoned homes, the city has the mechanisms in place to take ownership of those properties. That’s just one option.
There are restrictions on what they can do, but those restrictions can be changed. It might just be a couple of lots, but it could be larger than that. Where there are distressed owners who’ve abandoned property, I’m for cutting a deal. The City has more negotiating power than it realizes. And all too often we take the value of a property at first offer. Talk to them, work a deal. You have to use a little creativity to see what you can do without getting into an expensive proposition.
9/18: As an example of those opportunities that sometimes are within reach, we as a city can look at combining some of the city’s service and maintenance facilities and converting the then vacant property to small parks. For time to time there may be opportunities to repurpose land used by Austin Energy, AISD, or perhaps the State of Texas.
In a 10-1 universe, west Austin’s council members can be expected to resist spending, and urban council members will use Imagine Austin to justify funding that supports the city’s compact-and-connected goals. There’s a risk that infrastructure projects for suburban north Austin will continue to languish. What arguments will be effective in winning capital investment for suburban improvements?
I’ll answer that in the spirit of 10-1. I think that example is a good example for why 10-1 should work. We have 10 districts. Council members coming from 10 different parts of the city. I think you’re going to see a sea change in how decisions like that are made. Those who live outside of the city core – they will outnumber the core. I don’t want that to sound confrontational, but I think by virtue of the fact that you have council members who come from every area of the city, and the fact that one vote on the council accomplishes nothing – it takes 6 votes to pass anything, I think you’re going to have a sense of cooperation from those Council members whose districts are largely suburban.
I think you’re going to find a much more sympathetic viewpoint to ensuring capital projects are more evenly distributed. I think that is a classic question of why 10-1 was wanted in the first place. Please understand – I am not anti-Downtown. I was joking, someone was telling me the other day, who lives downtown, “Well if you’re elected, you’re going to vote against everything downtown-oriented, aren’t you?” And I said, “Not most of it.” It’s just my objective to see capital projects and improvements more evenly disbursed throughout the city. I won’t be alone.