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Austin urbanists see support for denser housing in defeat of Prop J and Laura Morrison

Friday, November 9, 2018 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Most mornings, Dave Sullivan bikes from his house in Clarksville to the University of Texas. He then hops on an express bus to his job as a researcher at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus.

During the election season, his daily commute served as a sort of poll of voters – albeit with a minuscule sample size.

“I would pass by signs in support of Prop J and I didn’t see any signs against Prop J,” said Sullivan, who served on the city of Austin’s Planning Commission. “My own small sample from my own observations made me think it was going to get more support than it did.”

Proposition J would have required the public to vote on every citywide land development code rewrite and would have enacted a waiting period between City Council’s approval of a new code and the code going into effect. But it failed on Tuesday night by a 4-point margin. Former City Council member Laura Morrison also lost – in this case badly – falling to the incumbent Steve Adler who secured nearly 60 percent of the vote.

“If you look at the people who show up at City Hall on Thursday,” said Kevin McLaughlin, a board member of the nonprofit AURA, which advocates for more housing, a walkable city and better public transit, “you would think that neighborhood preservationists were a majority of Austinites.”

Many supporters of Prop J and of Morrison’s campaign were the same. And they share a concern about changes to single-family neighborhoods in Austin as the city grows and struggles to accommodate its population.

Some people are reading a larger story in this double defeat.

“Austinites aren’t scared of change,” McLaughlin said. “Austinites want a growing vibrant Austin. They don’t want to just keep Austin the way it was.”

On election night, Adler called the election results a “mandate” to continue with a land code rewrite, despite hitting pause on the process with the scrapping of CodeNEXT in August.

But others argued the election results were a product of baffled voters and campaigns that outspent others.

“The Council messed with the language, they brought down CodeNEXT to confuse people and then they ran a smear campaign against us and confused people,” said Fred Lewis, who ran Let Us Vote Austin, a political action committee. “The easiest way to defeat a ballot measure is to lie about it.”

“(Adler) had the big money behind him and it’s very hard to fight big money,” said Patricia King, the incoming president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, which endorsed Morrison and Prop J.

King said Morrison’s loss and Prop J’s defeat will not change the organization’s messaging.

“We’re planning to get together as a neighborhood and really protect our neighborhoods. That fight is going to have to increase,” King said. “We’re doubling down, we’re doubling down.”

But while some people read Tuesday night’s results as either a mandate or a threat, Angela De Hoyos Hart looked at the tight margin between those who supported Prop J and those who defeated it. In that, she sees a divided city.

“While the results might have been a more narrow margin than I had hoped, the passion is not by a narrow margin,” said De Hoyos Hart, who serves on Austin’s Planning Commission. “We need to continue to bring folks to an understanding on what the consequences are, both positive and negative, of the choices we need to make over the coming months and years.”

This article has been corrected since publication to correct a typo. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.

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