Who Are the Powerful People in Your Neighborhood?

Jan 22, 2015

Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. But are powerful neighborhood groups preventing it from becoming denser and more affordable?
Credit Filipa Rodrigues/KUT News

As you might have heard, and most probably have felt, Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. But how it should handle that growth is an ongoing debate. As a new city council steps forward, it might help to take a look at some of the people who are likely to be a vocal part of that debate: your neighbors.

Say, for example, you want to make an addition to your house, like a small garage apartment. Something you'd maybe rent out to a UT student to help cover some of your mortgage. How simple it is depends both on a complicated city code and on what part of town you live in.

"One of the first things you would do is look at the neighborhood plan and see what it contemplates for that particular site," says Chris Riley, who left office this month after serving on Austin City Council for five years. Neighborhood plans are basically blueprints that the city has worked on with certain neighborhoods. They outline policies for land use and growth in their area. "Neighborhood planning allows citizens to shape the neighborhoods where they live, work or own property," the city says on its website.

The city has actively encouraged this kind of neighborhood planning in the city for years, but only in certain parts. Most of the neighborhoods in the center of the city have come up with a neighborhood plan with the help of the city, but that's only roughly a quarter of neighborhoods in Austin. The other 73 percent of neighborhoods in the city have no plan.

If your neighborhood plan doesn’t allow the zoning change you're interested in, you’d first go before the neighborhood plan contact team to try and get their blessing. The contact team, which consists of neighborhood volunteers, are the stewards of the neighborhood plan. And contact teams are a lot like neighborhood associations in many respects.

"They're supposed to be separate, but they're pretty much one and the same," says Pete Gilcrease, current chair of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan Contact Team. "They almost always come to the same conclusions. If you got the blessing of both organizations, you'd probably be approved in most situations at the planning commission or the city council."

Gilcrease just founded a new neighborhood association in Hyde Park, Friends of Hyde Park, to counter the existing one, the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. He says Neighborhood Plan Contact Teams – like the one in Hyde Park – can have strict bylaws, which can limit participation.

When something comes before the contact team, they vote on it, recommending either for or against. And that recommendation will go on to the city. The local neighborhood association will likely do the same.

"Those recommendations are given great weight at the city," says former council member Riley. "Because we do want to respect the interest of a neighborhood to develop its neighborhood plan and to oversee its implementation over time.” It's rare for the recommendation of a contact team to be different than that of a neighborhood association, at least in high profile cases, as Riley remembers.

While neighborhood associations are not an official part of government, these neighborhood plan contact teams are part of the city, in a way. It's murky – the city even had its top lawyer look into it.

"The city attorney kind of cut the baby in half. And said, 'Well, sometimes they are, and sometimes they're not,'" says Heidi Gerbracht, Vice President of Policy for the Real Estate Council of Austin.

And not all neighborhood plans are created equal. Some have additional land use codes, too. In a neighborhood like Hyde Park, the code overlays largely mean preservation: keeping existing structures, a focus on single-family homes, an old-timey feel. But in the West Campus neighborhood, the code overlay there means the opposite: dense high-rises, close to transit, with mixed-use development. What this all adds up to – the different codes, the power of most central neighborhoods to review zoning changes – is a somewhat unevenly designed city at the moment.

"It's the accumulation of little decisions that amount to policymaking for the whole city," says Riley.

Gerbracht of RECA agrees and says that over time, these zoning changes and development requests fought by neighborhood groups and contact teams at city council have added up to less density and affordability overall in Austin. 

"I think the cumulative impact of that is pretty significant," Gerbracht says. "But it's unquantified at the moment. It's had a pretty significant impact on our ability to accommodate the folks already living here as well as the folks we know are going to continue to move here."

RECA recently issued a white paper on housing supply and affordability in Austin, which found that "half the city's renters and 28 percent of homeowners spend more than the recommended 30 percent of their income on housing." While Austin has grown by well over half a million people since 2000, the number of housing units in the city has grown "by only about 84,000." As Austin has grown, its density has decreased and is now "far less dense than Houston, Dallas or San Antonio." The paper calls for adding 100,000 units of housing in the city over the next decade.

The city is hoping to change things up with its Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, a road map for the city's growth. It envisions a compact and connected city: Look at a map of Austin's future as envisioned in the plan, and you'll see more density projected for parts of the city. But you won't see that in central neighborhoods like Hyde Park or Bouldin. And as the city moves forward to rewrite its land development code as part of Imagine Austin, there could be neighborhoods that push back or try to opt out of some of the changes proposed city-wide. Take the recent moves toward an 'Accessory Dwelling Unit' (ADU) ordinance to allow the construction of smaller units, also known as "granny flats," to increase density and affordable housing. The Hyde Park Neighborhood Association and Neighborhood Plan Contact Team passed resolutions opposing city-wide implementation of the ADU ordinance.

"What we voted basically is that the city should not pass any blanket ordinances on that subject," says Lorre Weidlich, the association's Co-President. "It should be up to each individual neighborhood to opt in or opt out."

Former city council member Riley says pushback to code changes is to be expected in the older neighborhoods, but there could still be a way to incorporate them by focusing on the borders of the neighborhoods. 

"Even in places where we really want to respect the neighborhoods as they exist in the interior, we recognize there are citywide interests at play, especially along those corridors on the perimeter of the neighborhoods, where the whole city is going to have some interest moving back and forth."

Weidlich of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association thinks differently. "I'd prefer that we expanded outward a bit more and densified some of the outer edges of the city," she says. "The central city is historic. We can densify it to where it's no longer livable and loses its historic character."

"I think we would want to be very careful that the results of those opt-in and opt-outs are good for the community," Gerbracht of RECA says. "That they follow the things that Imagine Austin has laid out, that the community has said they desire, and don't simply exacerbate the problems we already have."

The city is currently holding a series of working groups on the code re-write, a project called CodeNEXT, which is part of the implementation of the Imagine Austin plan. The current land development code is "a mess," Riley says. "Even our own staff has trouble applying it. We all have some anxiety about hanging on to the Austin that we knew in the past. But we know that we can't just stick to the old world and expect everything to be fine. We will need to make some adjustments to meet the demand we're seeing today."

But if and how the well-established neighborhood groups in the central city will engage in the code re-write and comprehensive plan is uncertain, Gerbracht of RECA notes.

"Among the folks who have been very vocal at city hall, there's some really mixed feelings about the Imagine Austin vision," Gerbracht says. "And CodeNEXT is where that's going to happen. There's enormous possibility there, and enormous risk."  

For now, it's a waiting and watching game to see how a new city council will try to balance the needs of a growing city with the interests of powerful neighborhood groups trying to maintain what they like about their part of town.

This story is Part 2 of a two-part series. See Part 1 here: Competing Hyde Parkers: Won't You Be in My Neighborhood Association?