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Kitchen optimistic about work begun in 2019 but committed to finding real solutions

Monday, December 23, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

From where Ann Kitchen sits, 2019 was a productive year at City Hall. After years of stagnation on major issues from homelessness and transportation to our clunky land use code, the Council member says the city buckled down this year to solve some of its messiest problems.

“I think we tackled a lot of big things,” she told the Monitor. “A lot of them were tough things, but they were important.”

The biggest strides, she said, were made in transportation, housing and homelessness, criminal justice, and the revision of the Land Development Code. While much of the work is ongoing, she remains optimistic that City Council will find sustainable, comprehensive solutions that the community can accept.

In the spring, Council adopted the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan. Among other things, Kitchen said the plan has allowed the city to move the ball on implementing street impact fees that could help pay for much-needed transportation infrastructure. On Aug. 22, Council adopted the Land Use Assumptions and Roadway Capacity Plan, the criteria that will serve as the foundation for the impact fees. Council’s next move will be to vote on the fees themselves.

Compared to the fees developers pay today, Kitchen said these fees will be more flexible and can be pooled together from various development projects within a large geographical area to more easily fund and complete transportation projects like sidewalks, crosswalks or bus turnouts.

Ideally, that infrastructure would help prepare the city’s streets for a much more robust public transit system. Kitchen, who sits on the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board of Directors, said the city is “way past due” for a whole transit system.

Reflecting on the past year, Kitchen is pleased with the work done to engage residents and develop Project Connect, Capital Metro’s regional transit vision. She is also looking forward to early spring when the agency plans to present its recommendation for the system’s mode and alignment options.

Once that happens and people can consider a more concrete plan and its costs, she expects more Austinites will get involved. She said residents in her district may need more information in order to fully engage with the plan. “I think they’re interested, but I can tell you that for a lot of people they’re not yet really paying a lot of attention to it.”

Another major event for Kitchen and her district was the opening of the Westgate Transit Center this summer. The park-and-ride and transit hub is the southern terminus of the MetroRapid 803 route. While she doesn’t have any data on the popularity of the park-and-ride facility, she said residents – herself included – have definitely been using it.

Kitchen is proud that Council approved nearly $1.5 million in the Fiscal Year 2019-20 budget for changes to the mental health first response dispatch system. Her goal is to reduce tragic interactions between police officers and people experiencing a mental health crisis and provide immediate connection to mental health professionals.

“When someone is in a crisis like that, they really need to be dealing with a mental health professional,” she said. “A mental health officer doesn’t have the same level of training as a mental health professional would have.”

Council also approved a historic $64.4 million in this year’s budget to address the city’s homelessness crisis. Although homelessness became a deeply contentious issue this year, she said the investment reflects the “good news” that the issue “has become a higher priority in a very real way.” Overall, between the funding, the work of Homeless Strategy Officer Lori Pampilo Harris (who is now serving the city in a consulting role), and Council’s approval to purchase new shelter beds, Kitchen said she’s feeling optimistic about the chances of solving homelessness in the city.

Council’s vote last month to approve the purchase of an 80-unit motel to be converted into a shelter gives her hope for the coming year. Next year, she said, needs to be a big year for securing more housing-focused shelters like motels to satisfy the city’s current need for around 300 more shelter beds.

“I don’t think we have to live in a city where we have to accept that people have to live on the streets. That doesn’t work for me. We’re a better city than that.”

Kitchen reiterated that homelessness and housing affordability are inherently entwined. “People need other resources, of course, but the bottom line is they don’t have a place to live and that’s not acceptable.”

As Council amends and adopts the draft Land Development Code, Kitchen is trying to guarantee as much affordable housing as possible. Kitchen brought an amendment during first reading to keep the city’s Vertical Mixed Use affordability requirements for some properties. She said the program is calculated to obtain more income-restricted units than the proposed density bonus program.

Overall, Kitchen wasn’t ready to vote for the draft code yet. Kitchen sees the transition zones as a blunt tool for a delicate job and doesn’t think the code has quite calibrated the incentives necessary to ensure that the city will be getting affordable units with all of the added density.

“I don’t want to be a city that pushes everybody out to the suburbs, and I think that’s what’s happening to us now. And I do think additional housing types helps with that, but it doesn’t help us if we just incentivize expensive additional housing,” she said. “It’s just more work to be done. I’m optimistic that we’re going to get there.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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