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After re-election, Adler in ‘do stuff’ mode for 2019

Friday, December 21, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

As upbeat as Mayor Steve Adler stays most of the time when talking about the stalled and heavily criticized CodeNEXT rewrite of the city’s land use code, it’s still easy to hear the exasperation and disappointment that lingers over the issue.

Adler still thinks pulling the plug on the process this summer was the right move, even though it had become saddled with political baggage. In an election year that included a mayoral re-election campaign, it was an issue that could have dogged him had it remained an active piece of daily life at City Hall.

So with the land use rewrite guaranteed to be back on the front burner in 2019, what does Adler think about putting a different name on the process – to get away from the negative branding associated with CodeNEXT?

“The first thing is, I hope I’m not going to spend a lot of time on figuring out what to call it or what to brand it,” he says, flatly. “What’s more important is for us to figure out how to get it done.”

In terms of tactics and timetables, Adler spoke broadly about getting back to the process early in 2019 and moving it forward with more interaction and feedback from residents who feel like they were overlooked in the roughly two years of work. He’s mindful of having City Manager Spencer Cronk lead the next go at the rewrite, but said significant pieces and concepts from the draft plans can be retained for the final document.

“A lot of the work that has been done in the past was good work and valuable work, because it helped us identify where we had differences and where we need to work things through and rebuild that process, to come up with just a range of different kinds of suggestions,” he said. “I certainly don’t think it’s starting over. It is focusing on the elements where people were feeling like they weren’t being heard or their ideas weren’t being evaluated, to make sure that we end up with the best possible solutions.”

Adler sees revising the land use code as the policy tool with the most potential both to directly address affordability – the issue he returns to most frequently in public appearances and on the Council dais – and help solve the mobility problems that are growing along with the population of Austin.

His look back on 2018 includes appreciation for the slate of bond issues passed by voters, including $250 million for affordable housing along with a host of other infrastructure issues including parks funding, flood prevention, health care and improvements to cultural facilities.

Also decided in the November election was Adler’s next term, with voters re-electing him from a crowded field (his most serious opponent was former Council Member Laura Morrison) by a margin that eliminated a possible runoff election in December.

That sizable victory and the arrival of two new Council members – Natasha Harper-Madison in District 1 and Paige Ellis in District 8 – who appear inclined to support progressive policies have Adler in a “do stuff” mindset. He believes this Council “is going to be predisposed to action and delivering on affordability and mobility and equity issues.”

“I’m excited we won the election the way that we did. The issues in the election that I was in personally were in … pretty stark contrast and difference in vision on how this city should move forward and what were our most significant challenges,” he said. “It was just really clear that people want us to actually start doing stuff. They see the challenges of affordability and mobility and the challenges of equity in this city and they want us to do things.”

One of Adler’s pet issues from 2017 was the “downtown puzzle” concept he helped broker with the local hotel industry and homeless services organizations that would leverage a proposed expansion of the Austin Convention Center to create more funding for homelessness relief. Funds from the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax also could come into play for a variety of other improvement projects in the downtown core.

That initiative was paused in 2018 so architecture and other students at the University of Texas could conduct a study of the convention center expansion. Adler is ready to put his and city staff’s attention back on it once the study is complete in the coming months.

“There were two things we asked them to do; first, to take a look at a lot of the disputed facts that people on different sides and from different places were raising … to evaluate the economic viability of convention centers and what they do for communities,” he said. “I’m hopeful that the University of Texas will come back and help us all get working on the same fact base. Beyond that I’m very excited to see what they come back with from a design standpoint.”

Eight months removed from a series of bombings and bomb threats that had the city in the national news for weeks, Adler heaped praise on Cronk – who had been in his job only two months – and Police Chief Brian Manley for taking leadership roles in working with national law enforcement agencies.

Asked what he saw as his role during those tense times, he said his first priority was working to communicate the latest information to the public consistently, to build trust.

“The law enforcement folks are on the front lines doing the work to bring the crisis to an end, but I think that people look to the mayor as their representative,” he said.

“I believed my job and my responsibility was to get as much information out to the public as quickly as we could … so that people would know what’s going on, and also being very honest with the community about what was happening and what we knew and what we didn’t know.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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