Tuesday, August 18, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy

How to change a street name in Austin? It’s tricky.

The statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis will stay put on the University of Texas at Austin campus, for now. While a request for a temporary restraining order is holding up the statue relocation, the original decision to move it came after the school convened a panel of professors, alumni and current students. The process of changing a street name in Austin is, perhaps, more arduous.

Last month’s grumblings about renaming Robert E. Lee Boulevard in the Zilker Park neighborhood seems to have dissipated. Some fervor around the issue picked up two months ago, after the call to bring down the Confederate flag flying outside the South Carolina Capitol had many municipalities and their residents reconsidering local establishments named after notable Confederate leaders.

But according to Austin city code, a street cannot be renamed because of a problem the neighborhood has with its existing name – in this case, whether or not a commander in the Confederate Army should be memorialized by street signs bordering Barton Springs Pool.

Instead, there are eight valid reasons under which someone can apply to have a street name changed, all but two involving an explicit issue with the current name (that is, correcting a misspelling and doing away with duplicate names). These include honoring a person, making sure the street name is consistent with its compass direction and “enhanc(ing) a neighborhood through the association of a street name with its location, area characteristics, and history.”

“An application would have to meet one of these qualifications in the code,” said Cari Buetow, program coordinator with the city’s Transportation Department. She handles all the street name applications that come to the city. These can come from either a City Council member, a city department or an individual who owns property on the street whose name is under review. Applications brought forth by individuals come with a service fee of $415; that fee is waived for Council members and city departments.

Once someone brings an application forward, the city mails support forms to all the property owners on that street. If less than 50 percent of the property owners agree with the change, the application goes no further. If 100 percent of the owners agree with the name change, seven city departments and agencies will have to approve it before it goes to Council members for a final vote.

“But if we get even one form back that disagrees, it goes to a public hearing,” Buetow told the Austin Monitor. So if at least 50 percent of owners – but fewer than 100 percent – agree with changing the street’s name, the city will convene a hearing.

Following a public hearing, seven city departments and agencies review the new name. These include the Austin Fire Department, the Austin Police Department and Emergency Medical Services, all of whom consider how the street name change might affect their ability to respond during emergencies. Other agencies include the U.S. Postal Service and the city’s traffic engineer.

“These are agencies who we feel have a strong enough connection with the street to have a significant say in whether the street name changes,” Buetow told the Monitor.

Once these agencies approve of the change, Council must do the same. Then, the Transportation Department starts calculating the cost of changing the street signs – a sum that, if the application was brought by an individual and not a city department nor Council member, must be paid by that individual. A regular street sign, assuming that the post and screws are already up, costs roughly $150 (between $28.78 and $49.80 for the actual sign, additional costs for installation).

Council Member Ann Kitchen told the Monitor that she had received calls asking about street name change applications in regard to Robert E. Lee Boulevard, but an application has not yet been submitted to the Transportation Department. Kitchen said that she herself would not bring an application forward.

“I think it’s very important for this to be driven by the public and by the neighborhood, and so I will definitely support the process if the neighborhood wants to bring it forward, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do that,” Kitchen said. “This is a citizen-driven process.”

Photo by Seth Anderson (swanksalot) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Transportation Department: This city department is responsible for municipal transportation planning including roadways and bikeways.

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