Great night for urbanists in Austin


Neighborhood preservationists lost big last night. Urbanists won big.

Mayor: Adler had overwhelming advantages, but Morrison didn’t even clear 20%. That shows a pretty strong disconnect between the narrative from some quarters of City Hall about “the community” being up in arms about CodeNEXT and soccer stadiums. Morrison was badly outraised and didn’t manage to get on TV. But she still raised at least $134,000 and she didn’t even double the score of Gus Pena, a guy who didn’t even file a campaign finance report. The funny thing is, this race absolutely could have been competitive five years ago, when Council races took place in May and nobody under 70 votes.

Prop J: 

When Linda Curtis turned in the 30,000 signatures to put CodeNEXT on the ballot, preservationists claimed a mandate to block CodeNEXT and then to support a ballot proposition requiring voter approval for any future land development code rewrite. With a friendly ruling from a judge allowing them to put the legally-dubious prop on the ballot, the preservationists felt vindicated and had the wind at their back. The mayor and a handful of CMs launched a late campaign against the proposition, urging voters not to “Trump Austin.” It worked. Prop J went down: 48-52. This is a huge victory for Adler and anybody who wants to move toward a denser, more transit-oriented city. Most voters are hardly outraged by CodeNEXT and would likely support or be indifferent if Council aggressively pursued another go at land use reform.

District 1: 

This district was already poised to be at least somewhat of a loss for preservationists. Although Vince Harding was endorsed by Ora Houston, Nelson Linder and others aligned with the anti-CodeNEXT campaign, he generally struck an urbanist-curious tone during the campaign. It seemed clear that he was not going to be quite as resistant to change as the incumbent.

However, Salazar and Harper-Madison were two candidates who had clear track records of supporting increased housing and transit. The fact that they’re in a runoff is a dream come true for urbanists and a nightmare for preservationists. This probably means that a Greg Casar, Delia Garza, Pio Renteria and Jimmy Flannigan can add a fifth member of their urbanist group.

Their victory is all the more impressive because they were vastly outraised. One week out from Election Day, Harding had raised about $80k, while Harper-Madison raised $31k and Salazar raised $17k.

District 3

Another humbling result for preservationists. Pio Renteria finishes 26 points ahead of his sister, Susana Almanza. James Valadez, the candidate that the ANC crowd initially backed before Almanza came into the race, got 7% of the vote. Again, the narrative that the east side was “up in arms” about CodeNEXT clashes violently with reality.

This race isn’t over though. Runoffs are weird and Renteria’s team shouldn’t slack on getting their voters out. Runoffs are low turnout affairs and the electorate looks nothing like the general election electorate. Granted, Renteria prevailed against Almanza four years ago in a runoff.

District 8

Wow. I heard insiders saying in the last few weeks that they thought Paige Ellis had a good shot of making the runoff, but nevertheless impressed when I saw the results. District 8 didn’t feature as explicit a conversation about development. Bobby Levinski did not fly the preservationist flag, but it was clear given his participation in Community Not Commodity and the campaign to put CodeNET on the ballot that he was not a guy urbanists wanted anywhere near the dais. A lot of citywide preservationists gave him money. Rich DePalma was a land use moderate who urbanists hoped to unite behind to keep Levinski off the dais.

Ellis initially flew under the radar because she wasn’t tied to City Hall like DePalma and Levinski. Similar to Salazar, she also didn’t raise much money. Like Salazar, she carried a key distinction in a crowded field of candidates. Salazar was the only Hispanic candidate in a district that is plurality-Latino. Ellis was the only female candidate in a district that is (presumably) 51% female.

By all accounts, Ellis seems even more urbanist-inclined than DePalma. Her responses on questionnaires about land use suggest she’s friendly to density and her background is in environmentalism.

Again, I don’t think Ellis has this in the bag. If Democrats are still hungover from all the partying last night on Dec. 4, she could have a problem. But she’s definitely the favorite. If Frank Ward wins, that’s basically a wash, since he’ll be replacing Ellen Troxclair, who typically supported land use liberalization but like most Republicans, thought public transit was stupid.

District 9

This is the only bright spot for preservationists. Kathie Tovo won reelection handily over Danielle Skidmore. However, the race hardly hinged on land use alone. Tovo is an extremely competent and likable Council member. People like her and many, such as the Austin Chronicle, do not perceive her as a hardcore neighborhood preservationist.

Prop A: Oh, forgot about this. $250 million housing bond. Earlier this year Greg Casar et al dismissed concerns that voters wouldn’t approve such a big bond and said we should just go for it. No kidding. Now it’s up to Council to spend the money wisely.

In conclusion: 

Barring freak runoff outcomes in District 3 and District 8, City Council will be a more urbanist body come January. In all likelihood, there will be six members of Council who are aggressive proponents of increasing housing and investing in public transit, walkability etc. In addition, Mr. Swing Vote, Steve Adler, will feel much freer to advance an aggressive housing and transportation agenda. And if he doesn’t push for it himself, he’ll probably be fine going along with it now that Prop J is in the trash and he just won reelection by 40 points. He really could tee CodeNEXT up again. You wouldn’t call it that, of course. is updated 3-5 times a day with reporting and insight on city politics and policy. Bookmark it and visit regularly!  

4 thoughts on “Great night for urbanists in Austin

  1. I’m really excited about what happened, and also really sleepy. Please help me figure out what it all means.

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