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Clarksville meeting displays fear of CodeNEXT and density

Friday, July 28, 2017 by Jack Craver

On Wednesday night the pews at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Clarksville were packed with nearby residents who had come to hear about how their surroundings would be impacted by CodeNEXT, the proposed rewrite of the city’s Land Development Code.

The meeting, which had been advertised for weeks by signs throughout the area alerting residents that “CodeNEXT is rezoning our neighborhood,” displayed the hostility that talk of zoning changes, particularly those that increase density, sometimes provokes in Austin’s central neighborhoods.

The neighborhood group hosting the event, the Clarksville Community Development Corporation, provided attendees with a sheet claiming that the proposed zoning changes would result in higher property taxes and more congestion and make the neighborhood “the victim of gentrification.”

Clarksville was once a predominantly African-American neighborhood and is the oldest surviving freedomtown west of the Mississippi River. Today, it is overwhelmingly white, has few homes valued at less than half a million dollars and “is going through its second wave of gentrification” that is forcing out middle-class families, Clarksville Community Development Corporation President Mary Reed later told the Austin Monitor.

The three speakers the group invited to address neighbors on the matter were all on the same page.

Former City Council Member Laura Morrison, Planning Commissioner Karen McGraw and Mary Sanger of Community Not Commodity all denounced CodeNEXT as a threat to the character of existing single-family neighborhoods through increased density, reduced parking requirements and more mixing of commercial and residential uses.

All three also cast doubt on or outright dismissed the notion that increased housing supply necessarily helps keep the cost of housing lower.

To Sanger, the fact that the CodeNEXT team was on record describing their desire to add density based on “market desirability” was evidence that “they want to redevelop our neighborhoods.”

Sanger said District 9, which covers much of Central Austin between MoPac and I-35, is “getting hit the hardest” by the new zoning code. She applauded neighborhood groups that are putting pressure on the mayor to “keep his promise not to increase density in our neighborhoods,” highlighting yard signs that residents in wealthy Pemberton Heights have put up in opposition.

McGraw said that while the city has been providing tools for areas to increase density, she would like to see more focus on tools to preserve structures. Right now, she said, the only really effective way for neighborhoods to protect their character is by getting designated a local historic district, a status conferred on only four neighborhoods in the city.

Of the many residents who spoke up during the Q&A session, only two challenged the prevailing narrative that CodeNEXT was a problem, not a solution.

John David Carson described use-based zoning and parking requirements as “why we have sprawl today,” and pointed out that Clarksville, home to a number of small, iconic businesses such as Nau’s Enfield Drug and Fresh Plus Hometown Grocers, already accepted a mix of uses. How could the city grow in a way that is environmentally sustainable, he suggested, if it doesn’t take aggressive measures to encourage a denser city that is less car dependent?

McGraw responded that she believed Austin’s two parking spots per single-family home were “already minimal,” noting that the city, unlike many others, allows residents to “stack” their cars.

Morrison also emphasized the “growth concept map” that was a part of Imagine Austin, which encouraged density on the corridors and around activity centers throughout the city, such as the Domain in North Austin. That strategy is a more sensible way to accommodate growth than cramming it into existing neighborhoods, she argued.

Both McGraw and Morrison also criticized what they saw as the CodeNEXT team’s belief that people would abandon driving anytime soon. The California-based consultants, “don’t know what we drive here in Texas,” chuckled McGraw.

The three speakers urged the crowd to get active and pressure City Council members to push for big changes to the proposal.

McGraw assured the audience that their Council member, Kathie Tovo, who also appointed McGraw to the Planning Commission, would have their back. Unfortunately, she said, that likely wouldn’t be enough.

“Don’t just count on Kathie to save us, she’s going to do what she can,” said McGraw. “Some of these Council members who represent the suburbs, they don’t know anything about historic neighborhoods, they just think it’s old.”

Dave Sullivan, a longtime resident of the area and a member of the Code Advisory Group that was responsible for gathering input used to inform CodeNEXT, said he saw no reason to attend the meeting at St. Luke.

“It was just a group of NIMBYists,” he said. “I hear enough from them otherwise.”

Sullivan dismissed many of the complaints about CodeNEXT as uninformed, pointing out that the proposal in fact downzoned the area of Old West Austin where he lives. Currently, he said, the parcel his house is on allows the development of a small multifamily building. Under the proposed code changes, that would no longer be the case.

Unless there’s an economic downturn or people stop moving to Austin, said Sullivan, the value of property will continue to rise. The less housing supply that is built, the more dramatic the price increases will be, he said, but there is likely nothing the city can do to actually reduce the cost of housing. He acknowledged that proposition is a tough sell to many of his neighbors.

“I’m afraid that whatever we do, many citizens will look at the (price) increase and blame it on what we’ve done,” he said.

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

Photo by Daveiam made available through a Creative Commons license.

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