Austin At Large

The first time I covered a meeting of the Austin City Council, as a reporter in 2009, its demographics struck me as quaintly appropriate for a liberal, progressive oasis in the heart of Texas. There were two white men, two white women, an African-American woman, and a Hispanic man, and a grandfatherly old white man in the mayor’s seat. This seemed like a nice, balanced representation of the city.

Then my editor told me that the presence of nonwhite city councilors was informally mandated by a gentlemen’s agreement that has guided city elections since the early 1970s. One seat on the city council is to be reserved for an African American, and one for a Hispanic.

The original purpose of the agreement wasn’t to share political power with minority communities, but to avoid a lawsuit. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, cities across the South began to face lawsuits for electoral systems that didn’t accommodate minority representation in local government.

Austin had adopted its at-large election system, in which there are no geographic districts or wards, in 1953. As long as the City Council was elected at large, campaigns had to be run citywide, and funded not by private donors but by the white business community, which in the ’50s and ’60s had no interest in giving minorities a seat at the table.

The Voting Rights Act threatened to undo all that, and so the gentlemen’s agreement was devised as an end run around the law—a way to provide minority representation while maintaining control of city governance, keeping a paternalistic and frankly racist system in place. Since its institution, white business interests—not the city’s black and Hispanic communities—have selected acceptable minority candidates and backed their campaigns.

The first African-American city councilor, an IBM manager named Berl Handcox, was elected in 1971. Since then, no white candidate has run for that seat, which is now occupied by Sheryl Cole, also an African American. The first Hispanic councilor, John Trevino, was elected in 1975, and since then the racial makeup of the City Council has remained more or less intact. No more than one Hispanic and one African American have ever served as councilors at any given time, and with the exception of a special election in 2001,[1] no person of color has ever been elected to the mayor’s office.

A lot of Austin residents either deny the existence of the gentlemen’s agreement or claim that it came into being as a benign, even progressive, way to include minorities. Since the early 1970s, a strong liberal-progressive political majority has dominated city politics, and the current councilors are allergic to the slightest appearance of any kind of exclusion, to say nothing of racism. To watch their committees and subcommittees in action is to be hypnotized by the tedium of consensus building, “community engagement,” and bureaucratic procedure. They are fully committed to the depiction of democracy.

Outright racism is no longer the problem with the City Council; the problem is that its members still answer to Austin’s business interests and disproportionately favor them over neighborhood concerns and small businesses. The problems of minority residents, particularly in the historically Hispanic neighborhoods on the East Side, are not a priority for councilors. This is the true legacy of the gentlemen’s agreement, and it’s nowhere more apparent than in the city’s unprecedented growth over the last decade, especially downtown.

An explosion of real estate development, in the form of high-rise condos, has transformed Austin’s skyline. It’s as if the housing crisis and recession never really happened, which is essentially the case in Austin. Construction has gone on unabated through the economic downturn, with some of the largest projects completed during the last few years. The Austonian, a fifty-six-story tower that opened in June 2010, is the tallest building in the city and the tallest all-residential building west of the Mississippi, with condos priced from $600,000 to more than $9 million. Prior to the Austonian, the city’s tallest building was the forty-four-story 360 Condominiums, which opened in May 2008. The forty-two-story Spring opened in 2009, and the thirty-six-story W Residences was completed last year. Two more fifty-story condo towers were proposed this spring.

The condo boom has doubled the population of some sections of downtown since 2000, and while this has been hugely profitable for realtors and condo builders, it’s also meant rising property taxes and other pressures for single-family homeowners and small businesses. Last September, City Council increased 2012 property taxes by 3.6 percent—a modest hike compared to each of the last five years, in which the city has increased taxes by the highest rate allowed without voter approval.

For the small, longstanding music venues on the eastern edge of downtown—places like Mohawk and Emo’s, which helped establish Austin’s international reputation for live music—rising property taxes and the encroachment of high-rise condos mean the beginning of the end. The tension between the music scene and high-rise development is growing, with condo owners increasingly intolerant of the noise from outdoor and late-night shows, and musicians finding it more and more difficult to make a living in The Live Music Capital of the World.

Austinites have begun to notice. A locally produced documentary released last year, Echotone, examines the escalating conflict downtown. Noise ordinances and intricate city planning schemes—most of them hatched or supported by City Council—are a direct threat to Austin’s live music industry, which doesn’t represent as much raw capital as the real estate market but does define Austin’s culture, make it a destination city for musicians and artists, and bring a massive influx of visitors during the Austin City Limits music festival and SXSW.

The tension between development interests and the existing community is exemplified by the $128 million Waller Creek Tunnel Project, touted by its champions as a grand civic undertaking, on par with San Antonio’s River Walk and Chicago’s Millennium Park. The plan itself—to build an underground tunnel that redirects floodwaters and dumps them into Lady Bird Lake—seems sensible enough. Flooding and bank erosion have long been problems along Waller Creek, and a barrier to the development that’s come to other parts of downtown over the past decade.

But the lack of high-rise development has allowed something else to happen along the creek. In east downtown, it runs roughly parallel to Red River Street, where a stretch of four city blocks has become home to about fifteen gritty, beer-soaked live music clubs. Because the area is in the hundred-year floodplain, it has enjoyed artificially low property tax rates, which in turn have allowed the music venues to flourish. The cluster of Red River clubs have become the heart of Austin’s live music scene, drawing crowds from all over the city and touring indie bands from all over the world. With live shows seven days a week, the area has also become a staging ground for local musicians struggling to make a name and a living.

The Waller Creek project is changing all that. To ensure it becomes a jewel in downtown’s crown, City Council created the Waller Creek District Master Plan, a blueprint for future investment that calls for $34 million in improvements such as repairing eroded banks and adding bike lanes and walking paths to city parks. This is all well and good, but a tax-increment financing district that includes most of the Red River music venues is paying for the tunnel. That is, the city is confident that property values, and therefore tax revenues, will rise significantly along Red River once the tunnel is complete, so it’s borrowing against future property tax revenues. As the music venues’ leases expire, their landlords will likely sell to the highest bidder or raise rent on the venues, and that will be the end of the Red River music scene.

This process has already started. The iconic Emo’s nightclub packed up and moved to a new, terrible location south of the river and east of the freeway in the fall, as did Austin’s Beauty Bar. Smaller Red River venues are facing the expiration of their leases this year because landlords want the option to sell. City Council members routinely pay lip service to the notion that the Red River music venues are an “integral part” of their plan, yet a 3-D rendering of the plan depicts more than a dozen new high-rise towers in an area that currently is home to a cluster of small music clubs, a Salvation Army, and a homeless shelter.

Austin is the fastest-growing city in the United States. More than 150,000 people moved there in the last decade and the city now has almost 800,000 residents. The greater metro area added almost half a million people in the past ten years and now has a population of about 1.7 million. This rapid growth has made Austin one of the few cities in the country where the housing market is strong and stable. The total dollar amount of single-family homes sold in Austin in October was more than $543 million, and with the population expected to keep growing and spreading into other parts of the city, the future looks good for realtors and developers in Austin.

For everyone else, the future looks expensive. Central Texas is struggling with an overloaded infrastructure and crippling congestion, which will keep getting worse unless Austin and Travis County can figure out how to build light rail, buy more buses and establish more routes, carve out more bike and pedestrian paths, and build larger highways—all of which comes with a price tag in the tens of billions. That money would have to come from ever-increasing property taxes and fees paid by current residents, and of course those living in growing neighborhoods will be hit hardest.

This means the residents of the East Side, where the city’s Hispanic population (35 percent of the city’s residents) has been concentrated for more than eighty years, ever since the city cordoned off those neighborhoods as a ghetto for Hispanics and blacks in the late 1920s. While much of the rest of Austin has grown and prospered in the last twenty-five years, the East Side has been disproportionately neglected, marred by blight and crime and now in the throes of rapid gentrification.

Austin’s real estate boom, spreading out from downtown, is accelerating that process on the East Side, where many homeowners are low-income or retired and living on fixed incomes. East Side homeowners have seen their property taxes rise sharply over the past decade, some by more than 100 percent and others by more than 1,000 percent, yet the city has barely acknowledged the problem in its plans for future development. Last year, City Council adopted the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan, to guide the transformation of a part of the city known for dilapidated strip malls, aging apartment complexes, seedy bars, and cheap Mexican restaurants. City planners envision a light rail connecting a revamped, pedestrian-friendly corridor to the airport and downtown, with high-end apartments and condos replacing the bars and strip malls.

East Side residents criticized early versions of the plan for making no mention of the loss of low-income housing, and in the face of mounting public pressure a few provisions were added to the plan, like requiring high-rise developers to set aside units for affordable housing. But these were small gestures, not serious policy changes. When asked directly about what role affordable housing plays in the corridor’s master plan, city councilors and planning officials say it’s important, but they’re quick to add that gentrification is a “challenging issue” and that there’s a “limited amount of funding” for low income housing. This is very similar to the way they talk about the Red River music venues.

Watching these issues play out in city council meetings, one can’t help but think the city’s zeal for master planning might at least be checked if there were a city councilor representing the people most likely to bear the brunt of the costs. But for the most part, no one on City Council talks about what’s happening on the East Side or on Red River because no one represents those neighborhoods, and no one ever has.

In the back and forth among the councilors, there is never a question of whether they should implement a master plan, only debate about how best to do it and what it should include. The City Council seems to take for granted that its job is to devise public-private partnerships that will reshape the city according to the vision and interests of major real estate developers. In this respect, it is ideologically uniform despite a pretense of diversity and equal representation.

Prior to the November elections, Austin was the largest city in the US that still elected its city council members at-large. Voters rejected proposals for single-member districts six times since 1973, and councilors historically shunned and discouraged the notion, at times arguing that single-member districts would create parochial ward politics and transform Austin city government into a Tammany Hall.

This year, that changed. On November 6, Austin voters passed a referendum that will create ten single-member, geographically defined city council districts, with the mayor elected at large. The new scheme will fundamentally change the political landscape in Austin. Creating single-member geographic districts could mean more influence for neighborhood groups and substantially less for business interests and local political elites. On the other hand, as some have already pointed out, single-member districts will probably mean smaller campaigns, which are easier to buy.

Austinites also voted to move city elections to November, to increase voter turnout. Austin elections have always been held in May, which has kept the voting constituency small, something city councilors used to tacitly encourage. City Council elections in May had one of the lowest turnouts in Austin history: nine out of ten registered voters didn’t cast a ballot. All but one of the incumbents won reelection.

When you’re elected by a fraction of registered voters citywide, it’s easy to know your supporters and deliver results for them. Open up elections, or run for a single district, and things get messy. The political establishment didn’t want that in the past, and while its causes for concern might have changed, the desire to exert control, expressed through the devising of master plans that favor a certain kind of growth, has remained. Which is another way of saying that the gentlemen’s agreement might be dead, but its ghost still roams City Hall.

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