I know it’s a popular sport to joke about the passionate level of civic engagement at Austin City Hall, especially when ideas get bandied between advisory groups for months on end and City Council meetings run till 3 a.m.
But we should cheer for the smart, inquisitive people who make the time to attend public meetings, read up on various proposals and ask tough questions, especially when taxpayer dollars are on the line. They make our city better.
I was disappointed Thursday evening when Precourt Sports Ventures lobbyist Richard Suttle, speaking to a roomful of people at the Central Library about the possibility of bringing a Major League Soccer franchise to Austin, drew an unfortunate analogy to the city’s reputation for civic engagement.
“Now, there are some folks that have questions,” Suttle continued. “And in Austin, I tell the story that if we decide we’re going to give out $100 bills on Congress Avenue on Saturday for free, no strings attached, the Anti-$100 Bill Coalition will be formed by tomorrow, and we’ll have discussions on what that would look like.”
Some folks in the crowd chuckled. A few people booed. One woman yelled out, “That’s very unfair.” I shared her sentiment.
I’d love to see Austin have its own MLS team, and I see the tremendous potential for it to bring different parts of the city together. But residents are right to ask serious questions about the financial cost to the city, the impact of traffic and parking on the neighbors, and the tradeoffs other cities have experienced when a pro sports team comes to town.
These residents shouldn’t be likened to naysayers who can’t even see the good when it’s raining Benjamins.
Suttle told the crowd, and later emphasized to me, that wasn’t his intention.
“All I mean by that is that we have a robust city where we like to talk about stuff, and that’s a healthy thing, because we always end up with a better solution when we have everybody in the room, everybody talking,” he told the crowd.
He told me the “Anti-$100 Bill Coalition” was “meant to be the most absurd example” of community feedback, not a commentary on the soccer stadium critics.
In fact, Suttle said he left the meeting with a to-do list based on the concerns residents raised Thursday evening.
“I heard loud and clear that the neighbors that live within a mile of the place, a mile east on Braker (Lane), are concerned about people parking in their neighborhood and walking to the stadium,” Suttle told me. “What that means is I’ve got to go find the model on how they solved that in the neighborhoods near Zilker Park for ACL.” Additionally, Suttle said he recognizes Precourt needs to provide a specific plan for parking. The current site plan has only 1,000 parking spaces for a stadium that will seat 20,000.
He also took note of concerns one resident raised about drainage and water quality, as the McKalla tract is near the headwaters of Little Walnut Creek. One speaker wanted to see more details on the perks for youth soccer; another wanted to see Tejano music incorporated into events at the site; another suggested the deal include a clear cap on the city’s financial contributions to the venture. All duly noted, Suttle said.
The most recurring criticism I heard Thursday evening, though, is that Precourt wouldn’t pay property taxes on the stadium, which would be built by the franchise and then given to the city. One estimate puts the unpaid property taxes at $5 million in the stadium’s first year, including roughly $2.7 million for Austin schools, $1 million for the city of Austin, nearly $850,000 for Travis County, almost $250,000 for Central Health and about $230,000 for Austin Community College.
Kind of the opposite of handing out free $100 bills to the public.
Precourt is still negotiating other financial terms with the city, with the goal of bringing a proposed deal to the City Council Aug. 9.
But a word of advice: Listen to your critics. Use their concerns to make your proposal better for Austin. And leave the absurd analogies at home.
That’s because plastic bags didn’t entirely go away. Remember, Austin’s ordinance only barred stores from providing those wispy, single-use plastic bags, but H-E-B lawfully provides thicker, reusable plastic bags for sale. Did residents simply replace one kind of plastic bag with another, and send the same amount of plastic into the trash?
Let’s look at the numbers.
Our recent editorial noted the bag ban led to Austinites using nearly 200 million fewer disposable plastic bags a year. But that same editorial also pointed out the weight of single-use plastic bags kept out of the landfill was nearly offset by the 23 tons of the thicker, reusable plastic bags arriving each year at the city’s recycling centers. Those centers aren’t equipped to recycle plastic bags, so those bags end up going to the landfill.
A reader suggested these numbers mean Austinites didn’t strongly support the city’s bag ban, which the City Council approved in 2012 and the Texas Supreme Court struck down last month. When the free disposable bags went away, the logic goes, customers simply paid for the heavier, reusable plastic bags and then threw them away, too.
I don’t think that’s the story those numbers tell, though.
Consider the old brain-teaser about which weighs more: A ton of feathers or a ton of bricks? The answer, of course, is they weigh the same. A ton is a ton. It just takes more truckloads of feathers than bricks to hit the one-ton mark.
That’s also the case with plastic bags: Specifically, you get about seven times as many disposable plastic bags per ton as you would thicker, reusable plastic bags, according to the weights of both bags provided in this 2015 report for the city.
That report even included a helpful photo from H-E-B showing, on left, a box containing 100 reusable cloth bags; in middle, a box containing 250 of the thicker, reusable plastic bags; and on right, a box containing 2,000 disposable plastic bags.
Let’s be clear: 23 tons of plastics headed to the landfill is a bad thing, whether it’s composed of thicker, reusable bags, or seven times as many disposable plastic bags. But in terms of measuring Austinites’ compliance with the spirit of the bag ban, the number of bags matters. Considering the weight of discarded bags remained about the same, it seems only a fraction of Austinites were throwing out the heavier, reusable plastic bags, compared to the number of residents who used to toss disposable plastic bags.
In other words, many Austin residents made the switch to reusable cloth bags, or used the heavier, reusable plastic bags repeatedly, as intended.
I should also tell you: None of these plastic bags have to go in the trash.
True, you can’t recycle them in the blue recycling bin that you roll out to your curb. But H-E-B and Randall’s have recycling bins near their store entrances where customers can drop off plastic bags and other kinds of plastic film, such as bubble wrap and the plastic wrapping that comes around paper towels.
Last year H-E-B recycled about 1,000 tons of plastics statewide from those bins, spokeswoman Leslie Sweet told me. She didn’t have a breakdown for the Austin area or for plastic bags only. But rest assured that number includes some of those heavier, reusable plastic bags, which in fact bear markings on the bottom proclaiming they are “recyclable.”
Why doesn’t the city recycle them?
Blame the machinery. The items placed in residents’ curbside blue bins go to recycling processing centers where machines separate paper from metal and glass bottles from plastic ones. Any kind of soft plastic material, such as plastic bags or bubble wrap, gums up the gears, a city spokeswoman told me.
Point is, when you work in the public sector, you work for the public. Whether you’re fielding complaints about soaring water bills or scrutinizing rezoning applications, you’re handling matters of public interest. We have a right to see what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
Above all, we expect your actions serve the public good, not a personal agenda.
So I was disappointed to learn the city employees’ union is pushing against a long-overdue effort to require Austin employees to disclose their second jobs. The city’s human resources director originally promised such a policy last fall, but opposition from the local AFSCME has stymied the effort.
“As long as employees who work for the city of Austin show up for work on time and are doing their job, we feel like what they do on their off hours is their business,” Carol Guthrie, the local AFSCME ’s business manager, recently told Statesman reporter Elizabeth Findell. “Many employees have to have two, sometimes three, jobs to make ends meet. They’re proud people who don’t want people to know they subsidize their family that way.”
OK, first of all, there’s no shame in picking up extra work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates one in 20 workers has a second job, with dual-earners evenly dispersed among age groups and over-represented among college grads. Findell’s previous reporting shows some city workers are making extra bucks as pilates instructors, barbers, H-E-B baggers, ride-hailing drivers and real estate agents, among other professions.
I bet the vast majority of these second jobs pose no conflict with workers’ duties at City Hall. But the only way to know is to have full transparency. A librarian who moonlights as a Realtor probably isn’t a problem, but a Development Services worker dabbling in private real estate raises ethical issues.
As Findell has reported, only a third of Austin’s 36 departments require employees to notify a supervisor about their outside employment, and not all of them keep the information in a centralized, easily accessible format for the public to see. That’s unacceptable in a city that prides itself on transparent government. It’s also out of step with other Texas cities.
Houston requires its city workers fill out a form and get the approval of their department director for any outside gig. Fort Worth has a similar form, and San Antonio, El Paso and Arlington likewise require workers to get their department head’s approval in writing before starting a second job.
Not only does this disclosure provide transparency, but it ensures there’s a conversation between worker and boss about any potential conflicts of interest.
That’s a better safeguard than Austin’s current policy, which simply prohibits employees from taking a second job that poses a conflict of interest or interferes with their city duties — and largely leaves that call up to the employee, except in specific departments that require notification. Even the proposed policy being drafted by Austin’s HR director doesn’t go far enough: Employees’ second-job disclosures would be noted in their personnel file, but there would be no centralized place for the public to look up that information, rendering this open-government gesture largely hollow.
I don’t begrudge city workers earning extra money on the side; in fact, I applaud their talents and drive. I do think a full disclosure policy, commonplace in other large Texas cities, protects employees as well as the city. It puts everything on the table, so there aren’t surprises down the line about whether an employee’s second job poses a problem.
Austin and its workers should embrace this kind of transparency, in full view of the public. When you work for the government, it’s just part of doing business.
The video of an Austin police officer punching a man in the face as he lay restrained on the ground is disturbing. One officer grabs the man’s arms, while the other officer sits on top of his legs, delivering a series of hard blows to a seemingly defenseless suspect. A third person who is not an officer helps restrain the shirtless man.
No wonder the video went viral.
But here’s the thing: Context is important. And as Austin Police Chief Brian Manley cautions, context can’t be seen or determined from a video recording showing only part of the incident, which happened early Wednesday in downtown Austin.
Context, as Manley says, means knowing what happened in the moments before a bystander started recording the incident. That should be available from footage of body-worn cameras of two officers, who arrested the suspect. But here’s another thing: Those cameras failed.
One fell off an officer — or was knocked off — as he was trying to arrest the man, Justin Grant, 23. A second body camera worn by another officer stopped working.
“There was a lot that happened prior to the part that has been displayed in public right now,” Manley said. “I understand the community’s concern with the video as it was posted. I don’t think it was readily known that the suspect at that time was in possession of a deadly weapon.”
Manley was referring to a 6-inch knife, which according to police and witnesses, was tucked in Grant’s waistband. A witness said Grant could be seen reaching for the weapon as two officers approached him on Fourth Street. Police also say Grant tried to reach for his knife during the altercation.
Officers were called to the scene because Grant reportedly was threatening staff at the Rain nightclub early Wednesday. Grant ultimately was arrested and charged with drug possession, resisting arrest and making a terroristic threat, according to court documents.
Given what’s on the video, the arrest has become controversial, raising questions about whether the officers used reasonable or excessive force.
Manley has called on his Internal Affairs division to get answers to that question. The inquiry, he said, will turn on information gathered from police, witnesses, the nightclub and viral video, among other things. The chief has asked for others who witnessed the incident to come forward with their accounts or cell phone videos.
What won’t be part of the inquiry is what would have been the most objective account of the incident because the officers’ body cameras failed. Those cameras have been successful in providing independent, factual accounts regarding APD’s use of force because they captured the entire episode.
On several occasions, officers were proved to be acting with reasonable force after supervisors reviewed the footage from body-worn cameras. Such evidence was invaluable in how those incidents were perceived by the public and handled by police brass.
This week’s controversial arrest, however, illustrates the limitations — and deficiencies — of body-worn cameras, which were supposed to be sturdy enough to endure contact between police and suspects in arrests that get physical.
What I learned, however, is that the Axon-manufactured body cameras Austin police use are attached to their shirts, using powerful magnets. While hard to pull apart, it’s not uncommon during physical contact for them to slide apart, then fall to the ground. That is apparently what happened Wednesday with the first officer’s body camera.
As for why the second officer’s body-worn camera stopped working, that still is a mystery.
Manley says there is no indication that the officer turned his camera off, and in fact the camera was recording before it suddenly stopped. He added that it didn’t capture any of the incident.
The chief said he is working with Axon to look at better ways of harnessing cameras to officers’ uniforms. As to that other camera that just stopped working, Manley said he would examine whether it is a lemon that should be replaced or whether the malfunction signals something bigger with body-worn cameras.
Do they, for instance, have a technical default that causes them to stop under certain conditions?
In the short run, it’s a problem for APD, which has come under national scrutiny for its use of excessive force. The department has not shaken the stigma of the violent arrest a few years ago of a small-framed African American schoolteacher, Breaion King, after she was stopped by an Austin officer for a traffic violation. That was caught on video, which also went viral.
The city made a huge investment in body-worn cameras in response to King’s arrest and other incidents that involved excessive or deadly force. Those cameras are key to a healthy relationship between police and the public. They protect police and the public and help hold officers accountable. But body-worn cameras aren’t useful if they don’t function in the moments we need them most.
If context is important, then body-worn cameras need to work.
Whatever the Austin City Council decides to do in its negotiations regarding a proposal to bring Major League Soccer to Austin, it should check two boxes: Be on firm legal ground with the letter and the spirit of state law, and fairly compensate taxpayers in the way of direct benefits akin to the arrangement the city has with the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
That is why it’s a good idea for the city to immediately clear up new questions raised by Austin lawyer Bill Aleshire about whether the proposal for a professional soccer stadium on city-owned land violates state law.
It also would be wise for Precourt to sweeten the deal for taxpayers.
In a letter sent this week to City Attorney Anne Morgan, Aleshire stated that the city cannot lease, transfer or give away McKalla Place to Precourt Sports Ventures under state law unless the city receives compensation, totaling more than $18 million, or uses the land for a purpose consistent with its owner – Austin Water.
“Based on what information has been disclosed publicly, the City of Austin is on the verge of violating laws that prohibit property acquired with water utility bonds for specific use by the utility to be leased to one who would devote the premises to an inconsistent use,” Aleshire wrote in the letter to Morgan.
“McKalla Place is an Austin Water Utility asset purchased and improved with water bonds paid by Austin water utility customers. A soccer stadium is not a water utility use.”
If that is true, it throws a curve ball (excuse the baseball metaphor) into professional soccer stadium negotiations, which already are raising concerns about whether Austin is getting a fair deal, or as Council Member Ora Houston has said, “giving away the farm.”
I contacted Morgan, the city attorney, for a response.
“We did advise our council in executive session,” she told me via email. “While I cannot disclose what we advise in executive sessions, I can tell you that if council asks the city to go forward with negotiations regarding McKalla, we will explore and address the issues raised by Mr. Aleshire.”
In a unanimous decision Friday morning, the council directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to analyze Precourt’s proposal and begin stadium negotiations. In a separate action, the council passed a resolution seeking alternative proposals for McKalla Place.
At this point, few – including myself – can determine the legitimacy of Aleshire’s assertions or whether they have any merit at all. The city is in the best position to clarify those matters and should do so publicly to limit speculation that is likely to cloud or confuse matters regarding the use of McKalla Place for professional soccer or, for that matter, other purposes, such as a mixed-use development. To allow such questions to simmer without clarification is unfair to the water utility and its users, Precourt and the public.
Aleshire asserts that state law prevents the council from selling McKalla Place to Precourt without taking competitive bids. He did say, however, the council does have authority to use the land for a purpose consistent with the water utility – a stipulation he joked isn’t satisfied with a few rain water collection barrels or low-flush toilets.
Matters might end up in court, Aleshire told Morgan, unless the city sheds light on the legal questions raised by using property owned by Austin Water for sports or entertainment purposes.
Again, this is speculation, but if Aleshire’s assertions do have merit, it would seem that the city would have methods to make the water utility whole, clearing the way for soccer or other uses of McKalla.
Aleshire’s caution should not be taken lightly. He prevailed in a previous legal skirmish with the council regarding the city’s attempt to grant water utility fee waivers to the Pilot Knob housing development, getting the council’s action reversed and declared void.
Those new legal questions come as Austin City Council members are in talks with Precourt about its proposal to lease the 24-acre McKalla property for $1 a year. The initial terms of the agreement would cover 20 years, but with options that permit Precourt to renew under the same terms, the contract could run 80 years.
Precourt has proposed financing the construction of a $200 million stadium on the site for its Columbus Crew, SC, which it wants to relocate to from Columbus, Ohio, by year’s end. Because the property – including the stadium — would be owned by the city of Austin, Precourt wants a deal that would exempt it from paying property taxes to the city, Travis County, Central Health, Austin Community College or financially-strapped Austin Independent School District.
Some on the council have downplayed such taxpayer subsidies, arguing that the economic and social benefits Major League Soccer would yield for the city outweigh other financial considerations.
That argument ignores the fiduciary responsibility of council members to consider the highest and best use of a public asset — prior to a decision. That doesn’t mean a soccer stadium isn’t the best use, but that can’t be determined in a vacuum.
That is especially true, given city records provided by Aleshire.
Austin Water, the city’s water utility, purchased the property in 1995 for $1.4 million, city records show. That distinction requires the city to at least recoup the utility’s $18,261,323 investment over time.
So far, Precourt’s offer, while significant in benefits to Austin’s private business community and the city’s overall economy, does not provide direct or meaningful compensation to Austin Water, those who pay fees to the utility, or city taxpayers.
As the Statesman’s editorial board has said, the proposal deprives students and families in Austin district schools and ACC of badly-needed tax revenue the city likely would realize from other private developments that paid property taxes to those jurisdictions.
Precourt seems to be getting the message. This week it announced it would build up to 130 units of affordable housing on the site with a parking garage. The details are sketchy, but that would be a solid benefit to taxpayers, helping Austin deal with its Austin’s affordability crisis.
If the sports franchise wants to win over critics, it should look to the city’s arrangement with the ACL Music Festival in which the private venture uses Zilker Park to stage its festival two weekends a year, though preparations and clean up limit park use for weeks before and after the festival.
The city gets a solid return from ACL: Since 2006, ACL has contributed over $26 million to the Austin Parks Foundation for improvements to parks, trails and green spaces – and in 2016 alone, it donated $6.3 million for maintenance and improvements to hundreds of city parks. ACL also pays for the yearly restoration of Zilker Park’s Great Lawn.
Major League Soccer might well be a Kumbaya enterprise for Austin; might boost the city’s cool factor. Even so, the council should put its game face on and get the best deal for Austin Water users and taxpayers.
The Los Angeles FC’s fancy new Banc of California Stadium just opened this spring on government-owned land. And it’s going to pay property taxes.
“There was never any issue about property taxes being charged or not,” Seth Burton, LAFC’s vice president of communications, told me late Wednesday via email, responding to questions I’d sent earlier. “The stadium is a private development and did not request or need property tax defrayed.”
The Los Angeles FC stadium seats about 22,000, a shave above the 20,000-seater that Precourt Sports Ventures proposes to build in Austin. It’s worth noting the LAFC stadium has other bells and whistles that brought construction costs to $350 million, well beyond Precourt’s $200 million stadium budget in Austin (I don’t have the details on the Carson, Calif. stadium that’s home to LA’s other team, the LA Galaxy). LAFC fully financed its stadium construction, just as Precourt proposes to do.
Both stadiums also involve government-owned land. Burton told me the LAFC stadium sits on state-owned land that is being subleased from the University of Southern California. Precourt wants to build its stadium on the 24-acre McKalla Place tract owned by the city of Austin, which the franchise seeks to lease for $1 a year.
But here’s a key distinction: When the construction dust cleared, LAFC retained ownership of the soccer stadium it built and plans to pay property taxes on it. The first bill hasn’t come due yet, so Burton couldn’t provide a dollar amount. “The process to determine the amount of taxes is ongoing,” he said, which is not surprising, considering the challenges involved in appraising a sports venue for tax purposes.
In Austin, Precourt has proposed giving the stadium it builds to the city. This city-owned facility would remain off the tax rolls, much like the city-owned stadiums used by FC Dallas (technically based in Frisco) and the Houston Dynamo.
The property tax question is just one piece of the puzzle for Austin officials to figure out if they proceed today with Precourt. It’s possible some other combination of benefits makes better sense than putting the stadium on the tax rolls. But it’s instructive to know there’s a place where an MLS team pays property taxes without flinching.
Financially speaking, it’s the biggest unknown in the proposal for a Major League Soccer stadium site at McKalla Place: How much property tax revenue would the city forfeit if the stadium was kept off the tax rolls?
Michael J. Gaudini, a policy advisor with Council Member Leslie Pool’s office, fired up Excel and calculated some reasonable estimates that provide some scale to the debate, with some caveats I’ll explain in a minute.
We know a private appraisal in 2016 valued the land at $29.5 million, and we know Precourt Sports Ventures plans to spend $200 million building the proposed 20,000 seat stadium if the Columbus Crew SC moves here. Using those values, Gaudini estimates such a stadium would pay roughly $5 million in property taxes its first year, if the stadium and the land were both fully taxed.
That bill would include $2.7 million for Austin schools, $1 million for the city of Austin, nearly $850,000 for Travis County, almost $250,000 for Central Health and about $230,000 for Austin Community College. (Gaudini’s spreadsheet has exact dollar figures, but I’m rounding here for ease of discussion.)
Of course that’s just Year 1. Gaudini forecast three scenarios stretching into the next 25 years, rightly recognizing that forecasts become less reliable the further you reach into the future.
Under his first scenario, assuming a 4 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $211 million, including $114 million to Austin schools, $42.5 million to the city of Austin, $35 million to Travis County, $10 million to Central Health and $9.6 million to ACC.
Under his second scenario, assuming a 6 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $278 million, including $150 million to Austin schools, $56 million to the city of Austin, $46 million to Travis County, $13.5 million to Central Health and $12.7 million to ACC.
Under his third scenario, assuming an 8 percent growth in property taxes each year, the total lost tax revenue over 25 years would be $371 million, including $200 million to Austin schools, $74.6 million to the city of Austin, $62 million to Travis County, $18 million to Central Health and $17 million to ACC.
The 6 percent or 8 percent scenarios are the likelier ones, if recent history is any guide.
These forecasts are built on assumptions, including the idea that tax revenues will continue on a steady upward march for the next quarter century, between fluctuations in the tax rate and growth in property values.
I asked Gaudini about this, and he acknowledged the Travis Central Appraisal District might look at other indicators to set the value, as the agency did for COTA (the appraisal district, understandably, didn’t want to speculate with me about a proposed stadium’s tax bill). But he found several indications, including this presentation by the Tampa-area tax appraisal office, that construction cost is a fair value to use.
All of this is an academic exercise: Precourt wants a property-tax free deal. That’s not uncommon: FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo play their MLS games at city-owned stadiums that don’t pay property taxes. With a few exceptions, property tax-free stadiums are baked into the financing for pro sports franchise deals.
Also missing is any sort of comparison to the taxes that other developments might pay if McKalla Place was used for housing or mixed- use projects. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan asked city staff for that very thing at Tuesday’s work session with the hope of better understanding the opportunity costs. The council is set to consider two resolutions Thursday: One launches the city’s negotiations with Precourt for a soccer stadium deal, while the other allows other developers to pitch plans for the site.
Nonprofit-owned affordable housing on city-owned land wouldn’t pay property taxes, though it would help address a critical city need. (Precourt recognizes that and has added an affordable housing component to its stadium plan). However, if a for-profit developer built a mix of apartments, shops and offices at McKalla Place, it likely would pay property taxes.
These comparisons are beside the point for Mayor Steve Adler, however. He said there’s no doubt a mixed-use development on McKalla Place would bring more property tax revenue. But the soccer stadium, he said, would serve a larger community purpose.
“We did the (downtown) library on an incredibly valuable tract,” Adler noted. “I don’t remember an analysis being done about what we would be able to do if we put that to a mixed use development, which would have been an extraordinary value. We didn’t do that because a library was a really important thing for us to have, and now there are thousands of people a day going to the library.”
Of course there’s a difference between a city-owned library and virtually free use of city-owned land by a for-profit venture like Precourt.
But a soccer franchise would bring other community benefits. Weighing them all will be the City Council’s challenge on Thursday.
This is one of those moments in which City Council Member Ora Houston, the lone African American on the Austin City Council, questions whether she is invisible.
Not in the superhero way, but in the manner that some social scientists say disproportionately affects black women.
“It is unfortunate that in 2018 we still operate by the same good old boy rules, practices and procedures of the past,” Houston told me. “What happens in those situations is that there are voices that are not being represented in the room.”
A case in point is the way Houston was cut out of high-level talks regarding the University of Texas’ Lions Municipal Golf Course – even though swaths of UT are in her District 1; even though she initiated meetings last year with UT President Gregory L. Fenves to discuss options for saving Muny and dealing with the expiring lease agreement between the city and UT; and even though she kept Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Alison Alter in the loop of information regarding those meetings.
Yet, when Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson called the meeting a couple of weeks ago regarding Muny, Houston was not among those invited to the table. Those who were invited and attended were: Adler, Alter, Fenves, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, and Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk.
Watson says he chose the group based on their ties to Muny and ability to jump-start stalled negotiations regarding the popular golf course. Alter’s District 10 includes Muny as does Howard’s legislative district.
“I convened the meeting because I’ve become frustrated with both parties (UT-Austin and the city) and how they are approaching the matter,” he told me. “The purpose of my meeting was to light a fire.”
“I invited the mayor, city manager and council member who represents the neighborhood where the golf course is located. I’m pleased other council members are interested in this and I would encourage as that fire continues to burn, those council members need to make their interests known to the city and go for it. That is what is going to be necessary.”
Watson noted the clock is ticking on Muny’s future as an 18-hole, city-operated golf course. Under the contract, the city leases 141 acres (that include the golf course) along Lake Austin Boulevard from UT-Austin for more than $400,000 annually — a fraction of what the property would fetch on the market. That was estimated at nearly $6 million annually several years ago if leased for mixed development.
As far back as 2011, the city has known that UT’s desire was to permit the lease to expire next year as UT officials sought to monetize the entire 345-acre Brackenridge tract – which includes Muny — to generate more money for academic programs.
UT’s long-standing plans to turn the property into a mixed-use development were made more difficult, but still possible, when in 2016, the National Park Service – prompted by a group of golfers, environmentalists, Austin residents and black leaders — added Muny to the National Register of Historic Places.
Muny is recognized as one of the earliest municipal golf courses in the former Confederate states to be desegregated. Since that time, Watson said, negotiations between the city and UT have nearly stalled.
Houston isn’t buying explanations that the snub was an oversight. She made that clear in an email to Cronk this week. After first thanking Cronk for sharing information with the whole council about the meeting Watson called, she went on to say:
“It is, however, unfortunate that I was not included in that meeting. Not that I would have anything additional to offer. I have been meeting with the President and the Agent since last year regarding these very issues and the University is in District #1. My most recent face to face with President Fenves was May 11th to discuss an option that I suggested. How embarrassed I am to be discussing some of the same issues and be unaware of the meeting. So much for my credibility with the President.”
It was not the first time Houston has been overlooked on matters that directly affect her district. She elbowed her way into talks regarding how the public would be informed about the planned Capitol Complex construction, which would impact traffic on roads in her district.
She notes that Adler’s longer-term plan to generate money for Austin residents experiencing homelessness by leveraging taxes aimed at tourists who stay in local hotels was taken seriously, but not so with her proposal to temporarily house homeless residents in state facilities with empty beds.
Some no doubt will say the snub Houston sees in such matters is all in her head. It’s not.
The experience of going unnoticed and unheard is not unique to Houston, but a common occurrence for many black women, University of Texas professor and cultural critic Lisa B. Thompson says.
Black women, she said, are either hyper-visible, such as Oprah or Beyoncé, or they go unnoticed in matters of health and wellness, such as the lack of focus on the needs of black women in improving their outcomes in heart disease and maternal mortality rates.
For professionals, it can play out like this, Thompson said: “You (a black woman) are in a meeting and offer an idea. There’s no response. Two minutes later someone else (a white person) will say something similar and it’s a great idea.”
True, more than 32,000 people signed petitions supporting a ballot initiative that would allow voters to decide the fate of CodeNext and similar zoning overhauls, an indication many are concerned about the issue. But as Uber and Lyft can tell you, gathering enough signatures to put something on the ballot doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have enough votes to prevail on election day.
The most revealing glimpse I found on CodeNext attitudes comes from a poll commissioned by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. This scientific survey of 501 Austin residents found 45 percent favored CodeNext and 36 percent opposed it. With 19 percent unsure, a decision could swing either way.
Most notably, the poll shows a stark difference in support for CodeNext based on how long people have lived in Austin. Support for CodeNext is 63 percent among those here less than a decade, and just 27 percent among those here more than 35 years. The opposition counts just 23 percent of the less-than-10-years crowd — and more than half of the folks here longer than 35 years.
Now, you may quibble with the pollster’s wording of the question, which described CodeNext as an effort “to rewrite the land development code and rezone certain areas of the city … in order to create more diverse housing options and increase density” in Austin or select neighborhoods. The question waves at the expected positives without acknowledging critics’ concerns about the potential displacement of longtime residents and the disruption to established neighborhoods.
And the poll, conducted in December by Baselice & Associates with a 4.4 percent margin of error, is no doubt a few months removed from the pulse of Austinites now. Even so, the results provide a helpful map to the fault lines in the CodeNext debate.
The poll showed Democrats supported CodeNext 2-to-1, while only a third of Republicans did. Predictably, support was stronger among the folks who said they believed in planning for future growth, and tepid among those who would prefer no growth at all.
The length of time people have been in Austin struck me as the most useful prism for understanding the debate, though there are exceptions to the trends. I’ve talked to some decades-long residents who champion CodeNext, and you can count me among the newcomers (I moved here five years ago) who aren’t yet sold on the plan. Still, in broad strokes, it helps to understand people on the other side of the divide.
Most of us recognize Austin is a vibrant city that will continue to draw newcomers (there’s no hope, as the joke goes, of building a wall around Austin — and making California pay for it). It’s not a question of whether Austin will change, but in what ways, and to whose benefit?
I don’t think most longtime residents want a city frozen in amber, but they do want the neighborhood they’ve invested in to retain its feeling of home. I don’t most think newcomers want to knock everything down, but as we’re searching for housing, it’s clear to us that much, much more of it is needed.
And here’s where the poll provides some common ground: 85 percent of those surveyed agree that “Austin has an affordability problem.” (I’d love to meet the 15 percent who aren’t feeling the squeeze.) Devise a CodeNext draft that can address that overarching problem, providing more of the affordable units new residents need without physically or financially pushing out longtime residents, and the city of Austin might get more of us on the same page.