Is CodeNEXT changing what it means to be a liberal?


Ever since I started covering City Hall three years ago, I’ve heard from urbanists who have grumbled that Austin’s liberal establishment is in fact illiberal due to their support for exclusionary zoning policies that lead to sprawl, car dependency, inflated property values and economic/racial segregation.

However, until recently I didn’t hear these views expressed publicly, at least not forcefully enough to cause discomfort within the liberal ecosystem. As much as urbanists described their conflict with preservationists as the key dividing line in city politics, I generally saw those on Council who were friendlier to the urbanist position get along quite well with their preservationist brethren, bonding over their shared support for other liberal positions: social service spending, police accountability, renewable energy mandates and, perhaps above all else, disdain for Greg Abbott and Donald Trump. There were a few controversial zoning cases but they didn’t seem to lead to hard feelings.

CodeNEXT has changed that. While the anti-developer/pro-preservation sentiment emanating from a certain segment of the liberal community, is not new, what is new is the negative reaction that it is garnering from a big chunk of the progressive community.

For starters, the four CMs who have staked out a pro-density position on CodeNEXT have made it clear that they believe that current zoning policies are exclusionary and elitist. Of those four, I’d say Greg Casar is the only one who hasn’t either ridiculed or lashed out at the opposition in even harsher terms.

Back when I was covering the Planning Commission in 2015-16, there was clearly a division, but now the meetings frequently feature denunciations of NIMBYism and economic segregation from Angela De Hoyos Hart, Greg Anderson, Conor Kenny and Jeffrey Thompson.

So far the mayor has been holding his fire. His people, both on and off the record, far less so.

This is how Jim Wick, the mayor’s campaign manager, reacted to news that (indicted) Attorney General Ken Paxton was siding with preservationists in their lawsuit against the city Planning Commission:

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Among the people who “liked” that post: Council Member Pio Renteria, a mayoral aide, two City Council aides, three Planning Commissioners (including Tom Nuckols, who tends to lean preservationist but is not anti-CodeNEXT), the editor-in-chief of the Chronicle, the executive director of Annie’s List …

And here are a couple comments, from Urbanist Poppa Bear Eric Goff and the recently-departed Adler aide, Jason Stanford:

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Also notable is the shift in tone from the media. Chronicle Publisher Nick Barbaro is still in the preservationist camp, but none of his reporters are. It’s a credit to Barbaro as a publisher that his staff feels so comfortable expressing views that conflict with those of their boss. Michael King called Mary Ingle the ANC’s “chief NIMBYist,” and while Sarah Marloff has played it pretty straight in her reporting, but she regularly expresses frustration with preservationists on the old Twitter machine. The other reporters at City Hall also play it straight in their articles but they all are far more sympathetic to the pro-housing camp than the neighborhood camp.

I feel like I’m witnessing an awakening among a certain segment of Austin progressives that will have a lasting impact on city politics, similar to the big changes brought a generation ago by those who now dominate the preservationist camp: David Butts, Bill Bunch, Brigid Shea, Jackie Goodman etc. Those folks were dyed-in-the-wool liberals and environmentalists who were frustrated to see what was supposedly a liberal city run by a bunch of old-school conservative Democrats and business interests. They took down the establishment and transformed city politics permanently by shifting power to neighborhood associations.

Now, the urbanist camp views the liberals of yore as conservatives who aren’t willing to do what is needed to advance economic and environmental justice in the 21st century. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long-term, but in the short-term, things  could get really nasty.

3 thoughts on “Is CodeNEXT changing what it means to be a liberal?

  1. Referring to neighborhood protectionists as “the neighborhood camp” is disenfranchising to neighborhood residents and advocates who favor inclusion and improvement, as explained here.

    Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods director, Kathy Nyland, said it well: “So I was considered a neighborhood person. Excuse my naiveté, but aren’t we all neighborhood people? Apparently not.”

    Reserving the term “neighborhood camp” to refer to the subset of people who have protectionist and conservative views when it comes to neighborhoods makes you complicit in misleading rhetoric that furthers the cause of exclusionists. It is similar to referring to an anti-gay religious activist as “pro family”. You should edit this article to use a more accurate term.

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