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For Garza, D2 growth brings services and focus on land use

Wednesday, December 26, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

There’s a blown-up map of Southeast Austin in the office of District 2 Council Member Delia Garza, with multicolored overlays providing a look at the total scope of residential and commercial development in progress in the area.

There are dozens of them, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise since low property values east of Interstate 35 have helped to draw much of Austin’s growth that way in recent years. In neighboring districts – 1 and 3 specifically – that growth has caused waves of displacement and gentrification and the attendant concerns that come with longtime residents being priced out of their homes.

Gentrification isn’t the main concern Garza expresses when discussing all the new rooftops coming to her district, since much of the development is taking up property that was previously vacant or underused. Instead, her hope is that the families and newcomers moving into District 2 will start to attract more city services and bring commercial offerings closer to residents in traditionally low-income areas like Del Valle, where she said residents have been waiting more than a decade for a proper grocery store.

There are improvements on the way, with fire protection improvements coming with funds approved in November’s bond vote, and more medical services coming through the work of Central Health and other community organizations. But other quality-of-life issues remain.

“We have food deserts because we’ve been pushed and the land is further out where families can afford it, but there’s no grocery stores and there’s no services,” she said. “So if commercial and residential could grow together that would be ideal right now. I have constituents in Del Valle who have been waiting for a grocery store for 10 years and it still hasn’t come.”

The growth coming to District 2 also makes Garza concerned about the city’s stalled land development code rewrite, specifically because the limits on multifamily, “missing middle” housing options mean in most cases that developers have to build more expensive single-family units to cover construction costs.

“A big, big part of that issue is when the land is expensive and the land use code limits what you can do, that means only one rich person can live there, as opposed to if our land use code said you can build a fourplex there, and that means four people who are splitting the high property taxes,” she said.

On the issue of restarting the CodeNEXT process in 2019, Garza said she and other Council members realized too late in the initial process that there was significant opposition to large-scale zoning changes. That lesson learned, she plans to be more vocal and involved in pushing for comprehensive reform instead of using the patchwork approach advocated by others.

“For me there were assumptions made that everybody was on the same page, and that we needed to do something as soon as possible … for those of us who were ready for reform and were ready for more progressive land developing code, we sat back a little bit and didn’t get as involved in the process early enough,” she said. “By then the only voices being heard were those that were consistently against the changes, or slowing things down.

“We understand that we’re growing as a city and as much as there’s a large group of Austinites that want us to be the small sleepy college town, that’s not the case anymore. So there needs to be a general big reform of the land development code.”

From a business perspective, Garza sees the revision of the city’s Chapter 380 agreements for incentives as a potential game-changer. With new policies targeted at helping grow small businesses and middle-income jobs, she said the district is hospitable to manufacturing and food production jobs that pay around $50,000 per year and can provide stability for struggling families.

As a board member for Capital Metro, Garza said the coming year should see continued messaging about the importance of an aggressive mass transit plan for the city, with a public vote of some kind most likely coming in 2020.

With two new City Council members – Natasha Harper-Madison in District 1 and Paige Ellis in District 8 – who have spoken in support of large-scale transit, Garza is optimistic the 2019 Council will embrace proposals that can get more residents out of single-passenger cars.

“It always amazed me that we had Council members who might not understand the value of public transit, or that would want to know how it specifically benefits their districts,” she said of past Council members. “There seemed to be more pushback than I would expect from city leaders on the value and the need for better public transit. I think this Council has a better understanding of why as a great city we need a good public transit.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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