Ready for another fight with Ken Paxton?

Ken Paxton & his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton.

The city of Austin just may have to end up fighting Ken Paxton in court over the Planning Commission.

Natasha Harper-Madison said today that she plans to appoint Patrick Howard, executive director of Travis County Housing Authority, to the commission.

Somebody who works professionally in housing policy is exactly the kind of person we want on the Planning Commission. But our city charter says that two-thirds of the Planning Commission members must be “lay members who are not connected with real estate and land development.” And our indicted attorney general, who is currently suing the city over the Planning Commission membership, is of the opinion that the following do not qualify as lay members: a retired real estate agent, a guy who works for Habitat for Humanity, or a land use attorney for Travis County.

So my guess is that Paxton will not be any more generous in his interpretation of Howard’s work.

Harper-Madison’s pick makes it much harder for Council to get down below the 1/3 limit and avoid a legal battle with Paxton. I previously suggested that they could below the limit if they got the AG (or a court) to agree that Patricia Seeger, the retired realtor, does not count as an industry insider and if Paige Ellis replaces Jim Schissler (who was appointed by her predecessor, Ellen Troxclair) with somebody with no real estate links.

However, an aide to Ellis tells me that Ellis has not decided yet whether she will stick with Schissler, who supported Ellis’ campaign.

Harper-Madison was pretty adamant about nominating Howard, who she noted would be the only black member of the commission.

There are probably other members of Council who would be happy to fight Paxton in court on the matter. It’s an opportunity not just to stick it to Paxton, but to Fred Lewis & Bill Aleshire, the anti-development gadflies who took the case to Paxton. After the whupping that those two and the rest of the neighborhood establishment took in the November election (Prop J, Prop K, Laura Morrison, Susana Almanza), there are likely a few Council members who are not interested in negotiating with them.

Even Adler, whose instinct is to compromise, may relish the opportunity to take on the two groups that have tried to screw him over: state Republicans & local neighborhood preservationists.

I’m not a legal expert, but my guess is that there are a range of ways to interpret the charter provision. Indeed, urbanists have eagerly pointed out that any homeowner is “connected with real estate and land development.” There may even be some judges who rule that the provision is too vague to enforce.

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The end of the road warriors

Council members displaying their enthusiasm for various transportation metrics with a show of fingers (1 = bad, 5=good)

City Council met last Thursday at the new Central Library to talk about transportation. Specifically, they were providing final feedback to city staff on the “mobility” chapter of Strategic Direction 2023, a comprehensive vision document that is supposed to guide city policy for the next several years.

The actual conversation was not that enlightening. What I found noteworthy, however, was the absence of any anti-transit or anti-bike voices in the room. For the first time since the 10-1 Council was seated four years ago, there is not one member of Council who thinks that cars are the #1 priority or that bikes are for sissies.

It was only two years ago that District 6 was represented by Don Zimmerman, who ridiculed bike lanes in his campaign ad and once told me that we could get rid of the current bus system by simply providing people vouchers to use Uber. Zimmerman has since been replaced by Jimmy Flannigan, who is a a staunch supporter of bringing high-capacity transit to Austin and of crafting a transit-oriented land development code.

She was not nearly as extreme as Zimmerman, but Ellen Troxclair in District 8 was also a regular opponent of investing in alternatives to car-based transportation. Although she did urge Cap Metro to preserve bus routes in her district, Troxclair regularly framed city investment in bike/transit infrastructure as a slap in the face to the car-driving majority. Troxclair has now been replaced by Paige Ellis, who is an enthusiastic proponent of both the big picture on transit and plugged into the small, incremental steps that need to be taken to make the city more transit-oriented. At the Thursday meeting she talked about the importance of extending trail connections etc in Southwest Austin.

Ora Houston in District 1 was not anti-transit but was utterly disengaged from the issue and would likely have opposed any major transit investment that might raise property taxes. And she regularly dismissed bike infrastructure as a superfluous hipster amenity. In contrast, her replacement, Natasha Harper-Madison, is a huge fan of bikes and public transit.

I think if the current Council had been in office three years ago, we might have seen a very different transportation bond. You may recall that Greg Casar and Leslie Pool offered an alternative bond that was more multi-modal.

First, the Mayor’s plan. He wants $100 million put towards regional mobility projects – this includes work on suburban highways. But, Council Member Greg Casar wants no local bond money put towards these projects…

…Those local projects include initiatives like the city’s Sidewalk and Bicycle Master Plans (more on that here) and the city’s Vision Zero plan for traffic safety (more on that here.)

While Mayor Adler’s plan puts $120 million aside for projects like these, Casar wants more – he’s saying $220 million.

There are other numbers, of course, but an easy way to sum up the differences is this: Adler’s plan is more car-focused than Casar’s. The Mayor says his plan represents a consensus – serving both those wanting MoPac to be more efficient and those who want more bike lanes.

I guess I can’t be sure, but I think the mayor’s tune would be different today. Adler will still be inclined to be the moderate or compromiser in the room, and there will certainly be differences of opinion, but the terms of the compromise have changed because there are now three additional pro-multi modal votes on Council.

What remains to be seen is whether the pro-transit consensus on Council lines up with public opinion. There are obviously still plenty of transit-haters in Austin. If you read the Letters To The Editor of local publications you’d think Austin was made up of nothing but them. But alas, I believe the once-proud road warriors have begun to wane. Their forces are in decline, increasingly overwhelmed by millennials who are strangely unoffended by the absence of parking lots in front of every bar.

The youth participation next year should be absolutely off the charts with Trump on the ballot, so I think it would be the perfect year for Austin to go big on an ambitious transit bond and bike/pedestrian bond.

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A few cool parks projects for Council

The city of Austin will become a slightly nicer place as a result of a few items on the Council agenda this week.

First, Council will approve an additional $2 million for the Alliance Children’s Garden, the long-awaited play area planned for Butler Park. That brings the total project cost to up to $6 million. City staff explains:

The Alliance Children’s Garden is comprised of four garden spaces, each with a unique focus on play that reflects Austin’s culture. The goal is to create an inclusive, multigenerational play venue that is comfortable, inviting, imaginative, engaging and visually striking.

…SpawGlass will begin construction on a limited scope of work in February 2019 including existing tree relocation, demolition and grading. The largest scope of the project construction will be expected to begin late spring 2019 and will include all retaining and feature walls, sidewalks, play surfacing, and play elements. The Liz Carpenter Fountain will be renovated by the Parks and Recreation Department.

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Second, the city will buy a small lot in Northeast Austin (University Hills neighborhood) for $185,000 to provide connectivity between an existing neighborhood and a new subdivision and apartment complex that is getting built on some undeveloped land nearby. Furthermore:

The 2018 Little Walnut Creek Master Plan calls for a pedestrian bridge in this area to connect with the larger Little Walnut Creek Greenbelt. This lot will assure access to the larger greenbelt and eventually tie into the existing Waller Creek Greenbelt Trail providing a modest neighborhood amenity.

The Parks & Recreation Department will fund this proposed acquisition through parkland dedication funds and 2006 Bond Funds.

These are the kinds of easy, cheap decisions that can make an area much friendlier to bikes and pedestrians. Sadly, we lacked the foresight to make them in neighborhoods that were built 30-40 years ago.

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The final item that caught my attention is the acquisition of 7 acres of land for $100,000 (?!) in Southeast Austin.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department offered the City of Austin an option to purchase 7.13 acres of land. The proposed 7.13-acre acquisition will provide public parkland in a park deficient area with a high population density. Its location will provide excellent public access to parkland. The Parks & Recreation Department would fund this proposed acquisition through parkland dedication funds.

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These are the little steps that the city has to constantly keep taking in order to make Austin more livable.

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Food trucks out, density in

On Bluebonnet Ln, just east of S. Lamar, is this really cool property that until recently had an abandoned house. The scenery looked almost tropical. Like a home built by a French colonist in Vietnam. I’ve never been to Vietnam and I don’t know anything about architecture, but that’s just what came to mind for me.

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It’s right next to this giant parking lot on S. Lamar that until recently was the home of several food trucks.

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Anyway, the house is no more. Somebody is fixing to turn it and the parking lot into a big mixed-use development. It looks like Kirk Rudy of Endeavor Partners is leading the development and Richard Suttle, one of City Hall’s top lobbyists, is shepherding the project through the zoning process.

In the short-term I’m definitely bummed about the loss of the food trucks and even a little bit sad to see the house go. But these lots are the low-hanging fruit in Austin’s pursuit of greater housing supply. It’s right next to two frequent bus lines: the 803 & 300. You can take either of those buses down to Central Market or Target at Westgate and you can take the 300 over to HEB on S. Congress & Oltorf.

And of course, hopefully the next development will include some retail that will help make the surrounding area even more walkable.

So far it doesn’t look like the South Lamar Neighborhood Association is throwing too big of a fuss. It requested a postponement at the last Planning Commission meeting to ask for assurances on the following:

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I don’t feel too strongly about any of these. I’m happy to see the 20% parking reduction. I only wish it were greater. There’s a private restrictive covenant on the property barring all kinds of uses that people usually don’t like: pawn shops, car repair, funeral homes … I don’t know why everybody is so opposed to funeral parlors. I, for one, want to be laid to rest in a walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood.

Although the restrictive covenant requires the property to abide by compatibility standards, I think the demolition of that house might have put the project in the clear on height. I don’t think there’s a single-family home within 500 feet that would limit its height. But we’ll see …

Troxclair misleads on city budget

Ellen Troxclair, fresh into her position at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, is peddling misinformation about the city budget in a column for the Texas Tribune:

If we take the difference between the 2.5 percent revenue limit and the tax rate the city of Austin adopted this year, it’s in the ballpark of $22 million. That’s $22 million of “lost revenue” — a drop in the bucket in a $4 billion budget. In fact, this represents about 0.5 percent of the annual budget.

Please do not believe the false panic about not having enough money for public safety budgets and filling potholes.

Local governments can and should look to cut things, like contracts of $775,000 to clean a single public toilet over five years, or to tighten up oversight of programs like the matched savings account, which hands out $4,000 per person if you simply say you’ll start a business, and to re-evaluate Austin’s $165 million solar contract, at a time when the cost of other energy sources is dropping (just ask neighboring Georgetown how that’s working out).

Just like a similarly misleading column published about Austin in the Wall Street Journal a couple months ago, Troxclair neglects to mention that the great majority of that $4 billion budget has nothing to do with property taxes. It’s mostly the city-owned utilities –– Austin Energy, Austin Water, Austin Resource Recovery –– which are of course funded by user fees, not property taxes. Take a look at the city budget:

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The city general fund is roughly $1 billion, or just under a quarter of the overall budget. And even the general fund isn’t entirely funded by property taxes, which only account for 16 percent of overall city revenue:

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Similar to her tenure on Council, Troxclair doesn’t really offer helpful suggestions for how Council can significantly cut general fund spending. The only big spending item she highlights –– the solar contract –– again has nothing to do with property taxes. That contract was for Austin Energy.

And of course, let’s look at what property taxes are funding. Police, fire, EMS & the court system account for 70.9% of spending. Exactly the things that conservatives say we need to boost spending for, not cut.

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It’s entirely appropriate for the Texas Tribune to publish columns in favor of Abbott’s tax plan, but it should not allow itself to be used as a vehicle for intentional misinformation. That’s what this is.

Council moves on child care

The other day I mentioned that City Council might not respond as expected to the city auditor’s investigation alleging “abuse of city resources” by Joya Hayes, the city’s HR director.

The Statesman and the Monitor have both reported on an investigation of Joya Hayes, the city of Austin HR director, for “abuse of city resources” by asking subordinates to transport her kids to daycare or to look after them during Council meetings.

Hayes is not denying all of the allegations. Instead, in a comment that is likely to resonate with many members of Austin’s majority-female Council, she said, “the findings of this report establish an unrealistic expectation that prevents any reasonable parent from serving in executive level positions that require work before and after normal business hours, 7 days a week, year-round.”

As soon as I saw this story I figured there would at least be a few Council members who would be sympathetic to Hayes. Meanwhile, a source suggests there are some on Council who are furious about the report and that the auditor’s office should brace for a major backlash.

Well now we have a message from the mayor on the Council message board announcing three different items for Council discussion that were ostensibly prompted by the Hayes investigation.

Here’s the first thing: “We’re working on a draft item from council that would point to providing greater discretion in determining under what circumstances it would be appropriate for one city employee to assist another in ways that might not be appropriate in all circumstances.”

And the second thing: “…we’re also looking to propose an ordinance that would give the City Manager, rather than the Ethics Commission as currently provided, the responsibility for determining whether action should be taken against certain non-civil service employees for whom the Auditor has issued an investigation report alleging a breach of ethics…”

And the third thing: “Finally, there could be more that we can and should do as a City to support an even more collaborative and supportive culture, including helping to provide a family-friendly work environment.” He goes on to highlight the budget amendment that would have funded a pilot program to provide child supervision during certain city meetings.

Funny how some obscure budget amendment that slipped through the cracks last year is now on the front-burner. It just goes to show how quickly a sequence of events can shift priorities.

Couple other things to consider:

There’s a big difference between one city employee looking after a colleague’s kids in an emergency and an employee feeling pressured to do so by their boss. The auditor’s report alleges that employees

There’s also a crucial distinction between the child care challenges faced by your average city staffer and those faced by a department head. Joya Hayes, for instance, has a salary of $169,000 a year. She can probably afford to pay a baby-sitter if she needs to be at Council late at night.

Finally, the mayor may be inclined to go after the auditor’s office because of how it went after Frank Rodriguez, one of his top aides. Just something to consider…

Manchaca neighbors: Protect our home values

I’ve mentioned before that the most common complaint you hear about home values at City Hall is that they won’t stop going up. Neighbors in affluent or gentrifying areas say they’re worried about commercial or new residential properties raising property values, increasing property taxes and pricing them out of the neighborhood.

However, you do occasionally hear the traditional NIMBY complaint about a development harming home values. I caught a glimpse of that in reviewing the comments submitted by neighbors in opposition to a zoning change sought on the corner of M(en/an)chaca and Inverness. The property owner wants to have a single-family lot rezoned to “Limited Office.”

LO generally allows professional offices, small medical office, daycare, religious assembly, group home and, gasp, residential treatment centers. It definitely does not allow strip clubs. The owner tells staff that he found a prospective tenant interested in putting an insurance office there.

Anyway, the neighbors are worried about the impact this may have on “quality of life” and home values.

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If this case was in front of the Zoning and Platting Commission, there would be no chance of the requested zoning getting recommended. Neighbors are against it, nuff said. It will be interesting to see what Planning Commission does.

Yes, we do need more housing but part of creating a walkable/transit-oriented city is not relying on office parks off the highway for all of our commerce. That’s especially important for daily amenities, such as grocery stores, but having any kind of employer mixed in with residential neighborhoods makes it easier for workers to walk, bike or take transit to work.

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Child care at City Hall?

The Statesman and the Monitor have both reported on an investigation of Joya Hayes, the city of Austin HR director, for “abuse of city resources” by asking subordinates to transport her kids to daycare or to look after them during Council meetings.

Hayes is not denying all of the allegations. Instead, in a comment that is likely to resonate with many members of Austin’s majority-female Council, she said, “the findings of this report establish an unrealistic expectation that prevents any reasonable parent from serving in executive level positions that require work before and after normal business hours, 7 days a week, year-round.”

As soon as I saw this story I figured there would at least be a few Council members who would be sympathetic to Hayes. Meanwhile, a source suggests there are some on Council who are furious about the report and that the auditor’s office should brace for a major backlash.

This offers an opportunity for Council to reopen the conversation it began a few years ago about providing on-site child care during city meetings.

In November of 2016, Council passed a resolution instructing city staff to explore options for proving free child supervision during “community meetings,” such as neighborhood planning meetings, workshops, and other roughly 350 events that city departments will hold throughout the city in a given year.

City staff did some research and basically said that it would be tough logistically for a number of reasons. However, the estimated cost was not that high: $84k-$112k. In the last budget cycle Kathie Tovo wrote a budget amendment that proposed $100,000 to fund a pilot program, but it never made it into the final budget.

This previous conversation has focused largely on providing child supervision for citizens taking part in community meetings. That was similarly what Natasha Harper-Madison emphasized when she talked about her hope of providing on-site child care at City Hall.

But what the Hayes situation highlights is how the city may be failing as an employer to provide its employees with accessible child care. And keep in mind, most of the city employees who are required to spend long hours at Council meetings or boards and commission meetings do not make anywhere near as much money as Hayes and they do not have subordinates they can call upon for help.

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Austin’s missing sidewalks

Here’s a look at the sidewalks we got (barely visible green) and the ones we don’t got (orange). Screen Shot 2019-02-10 at 12.44.30 AM.png

This map is included in the draft of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, the long-range transportation vision that City Council is poised to approve in the coming months.

What’s most striking about the map is how it shows that a lack of sidewalks is an issue in nearly every area of the city, rich and poor, north, south, east, west.

Here’s a closeup of tony West Austin neighborhoods on both sides of MoPac, many of which lack sidewalks.

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Here is a glimpse of East Austin.

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Here’s my neck of the woods in South Central Austin.

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However, not all absent sidewalks are created equal. The city has put a big emphasis on addressing missing sidewalks on the east side. Here’s a look at the priority matrix from the 2016 Sidewalk Master Plan.

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The more likely that residents of an area are to be transit-dependent, the more important sidewalks are in their neighborhood. Sidewalks are a key part of facilitating transit. Making the trip to the bus stop as safe and as comfortable as possible is key.

The city’s ten-year plan calls for adding a whopping 97 miles of sidewalks to East Austin’s District 1, compared to just 5 miles in the far northwest burbs of District 6 and 14 miles to the wealthy West Austin neighborhoods in District 10. Despite this, former CM Ora Houston accidentally voted to give away a bunch of her district’s sidewalk money at the behest of former D10 CM Sheri Gallo back in 2016.

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The cost of land in Montopolis

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The old Montopolis Negro School at 500 Montopolis Drive, via Google Streetview.

The city of Austin is engaged in a legal battle with developer Austin Stowell over a one-acre piece of property in Montopolis. It’s trying to seize the land by eminent domain in order to preserve an old structure on the property that was formerly the Montopolis Negro School, one of multiple “rural Negro schools” that once existed in Travis County during the Jim Crow era. Some Council members have said they believe the structure should become a museum.

The city last year offered Stowell $362,000 for the parcel. He appealed and a Special Commissioners Hearing raised the offer to $464,000. He says he’s going to take the case to court now.

Interestingly, just yesterday City Council endorsed an application for a Low Income Housing Tax Credit project on a property just behind Stowell’s parcel. The backup information shows that the developer acquired that two-acre lot for $2 million. Stowell’s lot is about half the size, so it stands to reason that he could probably get about half that price on the market.

That seems like a pretty compelling piece of evidence to submit in court. But even if the city wins in court, it’s hard to see this ending up well for city taxpayers.

You may recall that the Parks Department has estimated the cost of the necessary renovations at $5.7 million. That’s an astronomical cost that I find almost impossible to believe, but if we’re going to be spending that kind of money on a museum, we better make sure it’s a museum that as many people as possible will visit.

Museums should be located in places that are already experiencing a lot of foot traffic. Our HOT dollars could have much greater impact if we built upon the existing investments in African American history in E. 11th/12th St. area, such as the George Washington Carver Museum and the African American Cultural and Heritage Facility.

We can preserve the building –– the developer has offered to do that –– without dedicating any city resources. And then we can devote our very limited funds to museums and cultural facilities that will impact as many people as possible.

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