A new day for ZAP?

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Over the last couple years, the Zoning and Platting Commission has become what city staff and developers describe as a bad joke. If you want to see why anti-development forces are so adamant about keeping land use professionals off land use commissions, head on over to a ZAP meeting. I wouldn’t be surprised if lobbyists have begun charging extra if their clients’ cases go through ZAP instead of Planning Commission.*

Site plans that should take about 30 seconds to approve instead generate hour-long debates, postponements etc. Commissioners torture staff with lengthy questions that somebody with a rudimentary knowledge of the code would never ask.

Just as bad as ZAP’s incompetence, at least from City Council’s perspective, is its ideological bent. The commission’s development politics do not align with Council’s urbanist-curious majority, which was only strengthened by the election of Paige Ellis and Natasha Harper-Madison (particularly the latter).

As I explained last summer, after ZAP concluded its analysis of CodeNEXT with a one-page resolution saying that CodeNEXT sucked, the commission’s anti-development politics is mostly the result of three Council members appointing commissioners who do not represent their own beliefs.

  • Ann Kitchen appointed David King, the hyperactive Austin Neighborhoods Council activist who lives in Zilker, likely as an olive branch to ANC as she tried to avoid a reelection challenge
  • Delia Garza appointed Ana Aguirre, who is an engaged neighborhood activist in District 2 mostly focused on flooding.
  • Pio Renteria appointed Dustin Breithaupt. I have no insight on this one.

2019 could bring big changes to ZAP. Could.

King and Breithaupt’s terms are up in February. Will Kitchen and Renteria appoint new commissioners who will better-represent their own beliefs? I have to believe Renteria will, at least if it’s brought to his attention. However, Kitchen is always thinking strategically, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she keeps King or appoints a similarly preservationist-minded person from her district.

One person who is definitely gone is Betsy Greenberg, who was Ora Houston’s appointee to the commission. Harper-Madison will presumably replace her with an urbanist.

ZAP’s situation is not simply the result of an overrepresentation of anti-development commissioners. It’s also due to the fact that the development-friendly commissioners are very quiet and allow the preservationists to guide the conversation and set the narrative. Sunil Lavani, a developer who Troxclair appointed, rarely speaks up. We’ll see if he sticks around (his term is up in February too).

Hence, there was hardly any pushback last month when a neighborhood association rep said that the neighborhood didn’t want more renters. That’s in stark contrast to the Planning Commission, which has several vociferous housing advocates who put the case for housing/density in moral terms every meeting.

Now, ZAP and Planning Commission are mostly advisory bodies that simply pass recommendations along to Council. However, if Council can’t count on the recommendations of its land use commissions, then that creates a lot more work for Council and staff. If Council members are serious about creating housing and ending meetings before midnight, they may want to begin taking their ZAP appointments more seriously.

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