Friday, August 28, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

Planning Commission elects new leadership

At its regular meeting on Tuesday, the Planning Commission voted to elect new leadership. Todd Shaw was selected as chair and Claire Hempel will serve as vice chair. The two are replacing former Chair Conor Kenny and Vice Chair Fayez Kazi.

Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council Member Greg Casar surprised the commission by joining the Zoom call. The trio thanked the departing members for their commitment to the process, even in tough times like the hundreds of hours they spent toiling on CodeNEXT.

“I want to thank Conor and Fayez,” Adler said, adding, “This has been an incredibly hard time to be a Planning commissioner.”

Kenny told the Monitor he’s leaving to join Kazi at Civilitude Group, which includes a civil engineering firm, affordable housing developer and property management company. The two will be working on affordable housing developments together.

“The immediate horizon is that we are planning on a lot of townhouse-scale, infill affordable housing developments utilizing Affordability Unlocked,” Kenny said. “We’re also involved in some bigger projects on city of Austin surplus land.”

Kenny’s title will be director of public affairs, which includes public outreach and working with the city on zoning changes. That’ll put him before the Planning Commission he just left sooner than later. The group plans to make its developments 10 to 100 percent affordable.

“I think there’s a social good, capitalism opportunity to build a lot of projects that can get support from the city and support from the community,” Kenny said.

Kenny said that the two decided to step down to avoid any appearance of impropriety, though he clarified that no rules precluded them from continuing on the commission.

With new chair Shaw, who falls more on the conservative side of the housing debate, and Hempel, who appears more sympathetic to housing needs, Kenny said the commission is “in a good place.”

“The relationships are really good, the trust is there, and that’s why you had even people who are aggressively pro-housing voting for Shaw,” he said. “It shows that even between commissioners who have different views on things that there’s a good level of trust there.”

One reason for that, he said, is the commissioners had to do a lot of talking and working through major issues as part of the Land Development Code rewrite that ultimately failed two years ago.

“That’s not to say the Planning Commission is unified,” he said. “There are some really tricky issues about how we navigate affordable housing especially.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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