City Council is probably one vote shy of major land-use reform

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As I watch the debate surrounding CodeNEXT, the one thing that’s clear is that things would likely be very different if Sheri Gallo had held onto her seat in 2016. If Gallo were still on the dais, there would likely be a majority on Council willing to support major changes to land use policy in this city.

As is stands now, there are probably only five Council members who are interested in supporting a code that will significantly upzone land throughout the urban core to provide more density: Greg Casar, Delia Garza, Pio Renteria, Jimmy Flannigan and Ellen Troxclair.

In case you’re not caught up, Casar, Garza, Renteria and Flannigan have formed a quartet of land use reformers, nicknamed the Blazier Four in honor of the location where they announced their commitment to “fixing the current land use code to create a more equitable, sustainable city for all Austinites.” All of them are ideologically committed to encouraging denser development for economic justice and environmental reasons.

Troxclair, Council’s lone Republican, does not appear to have very strong feelings about how, if at all, the city should guide growth, but she’s not a fan of regulations.

Things get a lot tougher for urbanists after that. Adler has generally voted with the more density-inclined crowd, but he makes it clear that it’s a very, very painful decision. There’s also his patented “Austin Bargain,” a deal he struck with himself to allow more housing along major corridors but not “force density in the middle of neighborhoods.” Finally, there’s the fact that the only person challenging Adler for re-election is Laura Morrison, whose main case against him is that he’s too pro-growth.

The other moderate on the dais is Ann Kitchen, although she leans more towards the neighborhood associations than Adler. Although Kitchen does not generally espouse an anti-development or anti-density philosophy, she is close with the neighborhood groups in her district and generally supports their position when they don’t like a development. She voted against liberalizing Accessory Dwelling Units (or granny flats), for instance. It’s hard to imagine her supporting a major overhaul that is decried by neighborhood groups as the end of Austin as we know it.

Finally, there are the four most solid votes against major upzoning: Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool, Ora Houston and Alison Alter.

If Alter hadn’t beat Gallo in that runoff back in December 2016, things would be very different indeed. Gallo would very likely be the sixth vote in favor of major land use changes. Instead, my guess is that CodeNEXT will either flounder entirely or amount to a compromise that neither side is particularly jazzed about.

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