The State of the City is Changing

State of the City 2017

Change. That was the theme of Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s “State of the City Address,” which he delivered to a packed crowd at City Hall last Saturday.

“But change – even in the form of growth – is not our enemy,” Adler said, encouraging Austinites not to fear the change we so often complain about as a city. He seemed confident that Austin can continue to grow and change while still maintaining its unique “cool-factor,” that thing that makes Austin, “Austin.”

“We change in ways that reflect what’s important to us…The spirit and soul of Austin endures not in spite of all the change we see – but as an integral part of that change,” Adler said.

He continued on to say that Austin can serve as an example for how a city can grow and still maintain its values and character. But he warned, we can’t do that unless we start changing again, this time to solve some of our city’s biggest problems.

“The great prosperity in Austin is not being shared equally by all,” Adler said, pointing out that despite the fact that Austin as a whole has an amazingly low unemployment rate of 3 percent, that number amongst African Americans is nearly 10 percent. The uninsured rate for Latinos is over 30 percent. Most students in Austin’s public schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

“Longstanding families in East Austin are already being priced out of their neighborhoods.  And if we do nothing about the status quo, and don’t change, it’s just a question of time before more and more families will be forced to move and they’ll be joined by more and more being priced out of Barton Hills, Travis Heights, Allendale, Crestview and beyond.” – Austin Mayor Steve Adler in his annual State of the City Address

Adler warned that if we don’t change, yet again, and address our real problems of inequality, traffic, and a lack of diversity, we will turn into San Fransisco  (a city where the average home price is over $1 million).

So what’s next? How does Mayor Adler envision that we start addressing these problems? What are his plans for 2017?

 

1. Improve Austin’s East Downtown Corridor (with some help from the future Waller Creek Park)

In case you haven’t been following along with the plans for Waller Creek, the Waller Creek Conservancy (along with the City of Austin) have been working on developing a chain of parks around a restored Waller Creek, running from 15th Street to Lady Bird Lake. The district would include more than 37-acres of connected urban parks, as well as three miles of hike and bike trails.

Waller Creek Park District

This map (from the Waller Creek Conservancy) outlines the vision for the Waller Creek District

In his speech, Adler said that the creation of the park could intersect with and help to solve some of the city’s other concerns in that area, including preserving the historic Palm School, finding additional funding for the Mexican American Cultural Center, and a coming up with a solution for the city’s large homeless population and struggling homeless shelter (the ARCH).

“This year, we’re going to see if we can house the homeless in permanent supportive housing, ease the burden on the ARCH, create a world-class park for all of Austin, preserve our heritage, fund the Mexican American Cultural Center, restore 6th Street to an entertainment district for everyone including families, and strengthen the economic foundation of our city by giving due consideration to a convention center expansion.” – Austin Mayor Steve Adler in his annual State of the City Address

2. Rewrite our city’s land development code – aka CodeNEXT

“This year, we will rewrite our land development code,” Adler said. “There are going to be few things, if any, that are as important as this project.”

In case you’re not a city-planning wonk, a land development code is basically a rule book for the city, explaining what can be built where. It dictates which neighborhoods can have high-rise apartment complexes and which can’t, how many parking spaces businesses are required to have, and basically determines how a city looks.

CodeNEXT will determine how Austin looks 10, 15, and even 50 years from now. It will influence where density will be directed, and ultimately, how much density we will actually have. It will affect affordability because it will determine the type and availability of housing we have in Austin. It will also affect the environment, our transportation infrastructure, and social justice issues right here in our local community… So it’s no surprise that Adler called it one of the most important issues of 2017.

It’s also no surprise that people are already bickering over it, which is what Adler tried to address in his speech.

“In rewriting our land development code, I’d like to propose we treat each other like we’re on the same team.  We can all win if we achieve two goals:  (1) protect our neighborhoods, and (2) deliver the increased housing supply we need to make Austin more affordable.” – Austin Mayor Steve Adler in his annual State of the City Address

In order to achieve both of these goals, Adler proposed a compromise that he is calling the “Austin Bargain.” The bargain essentially asks all Austinites to agree to two things:

  • Not to force density in the middle of neighborhoods…
  • …And in exchange, adopt a code rewrite that will give us the housing supply we need by focusing along our major corridors like Lamar, Burnet, and Airport Boulevard and our major activity centers like the area around the Domain, Mueller, and downtown.

Of course, Adler said this still means that we’ll have to make hard decisions about the transition areas between neighborhoods and activity centers…”but an Austin Bargain would mean that we would begin the code revision process with agreement on as many as 95 percent of all properties in the city.”

This, he said, would be a very good starting place.

3. Reform Austin’s Economic Incentive Programs

In order to address income inequality and economic segregation in Austin, Adler said that the city needs to co-invest with or offer incentives to companies to create jobs in Austin if they’re willing to:

  • Bring good middle class jobs for the people who already live here
  • Train and provide paid internships for local folks to get those jobs
  • Create those jobs in the parts of town where it provides the greatest access to those most in need
  • And generally, to follow the city’s rules

Adler’s goal is that over the next five years these programs will help move 10,000 Austinites out of poverty.

4. Support East Austin through the Spirit of East Austin Initiative

During his speech, Adler announced the launch of a new Spirit of East Austin website that captures and shares community suggestions for East Austin and lets residents know about the nearly 200 projects already underway, all aimed at improving the quality of life in a part of the city that has long been ignored.

Spirit of East Austin

One of those projects includes a piece of property recently purchased in Del Valle by H-E-B. The site will become the home of a public/private farming initiative, as well as a mobile food pantry program serving Del Valle students.

5. Support Our Musicians

Another important action that Adler said must be taken in order for Austin to grow (while still maintaining our character) is the preservation of our local music industry. Even in the face of an affordability crisis for musicians and the loss of downtown music venues, Adler seemed optimistic, saying that Austin can not only save its beloved music industry, but help it grow.

“But if we’re going to succeed, it could well be that we’ll need to do things the Austin way by maximizing our strengths as a tech city,” Adler said.

How?

This spring, Adler said that the city will be announcing the beginning steps of a crowd-sourced mini-bond program that would allow thousands of Austinites to invest in a community effort to preserve our iconic music venues.

Adler also helped to highlight a new app called TipCow, which allows you to tip live bands directly from your phone.

“It’s easy, it’s creative, and it’s a perfectly Austin way to pay musicians. You can’t expect someone to make it as a working musician in Austin if you’re not willing to pay them for their work. It’s the ‘give honor to whom honor is due’ principal. So I want to set an expectation in Austin that we tip live musicians. Just because sometimes there’s no cover charge doesn’t make the musicians volunteers.” – Austin Mayor Steve Adler in his annual State of the City Address

TipCow

6. Push Back Against the State and Federal Government

In light of events both in our federal and state governments, Adler spent a good deal of his speech talking about issues bigger than just Austin.

At the state level…

Adler fought back against threats by the Texas Legislature to impose budget constraints on municipal governments, saying that the restrictions would prevent municipalities from instituting the type of programs their constituents have elected them to create. Adler called on the legislature to instead fix the state’s “broken school finance system” to help Texans save on property taxes.

Adler also addressed the controversy over Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s new “sanctuary” policy. He stood in strong support of her decision, despite threats from Texas Governor Greg Abbott to cut funding to the county if the policy is not reversed. Adler’s support was met with one of the only standing ovations from the crowd that night.

“With respect to public safety you should know that Austin is one of the safest cities in the country. One of the big reasons we’re safe is because the people in our community trust our public safety officers:  our police and our sheriff’s department.  That trust is exhibited when everyone who is being victimized in our city feels comfortable seeking law enforcement protection.” – Austin Mayor Steve Adler in his annual State of the City Address

And on to the national government….

In light of President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, Adler went off script a bit to address the weekend’s events.

“Immigrants are part of who we are and who we have always been,” Adler said, explaining that 1 in 4 Austinites were not born in the U.S.

“I just want the immigrant and refugee community in this city to know that we are a welcoming and supportive community and that they are an important part of this community,” Adler continued. “And in this community, they should feel welcome and safe.”

Adler capped off the night with a strong reassurance that even as Austin and the world changes…”No legislature and no election can change who we are and the values that as a community, we hold dear.”

He said that the state of the city is strong, because of those values and because of our ability to recognize our very real problems and address them together.

“We will show the world how we change to preserve our soul,” Adler said, “and how we make ourselves great, over and over again.”

“So just as we can see our skyline rise over what used to be a sleepy college town and still recognize the spirit and soul of Austin everywhere we look, the world could completely lose its mind and we’re still gonna be Austin, Texas.” – Austin Mayor Steve Adler in his annual State of the City Address

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