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Council denounces ‘false choice’ of pitting parkland against affordability

Tuesday, October 26, 2021 by Amy Smith

More than two months after City Council passed a new budget that took effect Oct. 1, city management now wants to freeze one of the adopted fee schedules as it relates to the amount developers pay toward parkland acquisition and development.

While some Council members appeared ready to deny the request at the outset, a long and bumpy deliberation ended with a decision to postpone the matter indefinitely. Thursday’s vote was 9-1-1, with Council Member Pio Renteria dissenting and Council Member Greg Casar off the dais.

Getting to that decision was not easy. Council members expressed their frustrations with staffers for placing an unsolicited policy matter on the agenda. With rare exception, policy matters are driven by Council and implemented under the direction of the city manager.

Moreover, Mayor Steve Adler and other Council members reproached city management for placing them in the position of pitting parkland and housing affordability against one another. And several Council members expressed irritation over the level of influence the development community holds at City Hall – a sentiment in the community that has held steady for several decades, whether accurate or not.

Either way, the request to freeze the new parkland dedication fees, which are in some cases double the amount developers paid in the 2020-21 budget, would allow time for staffers to conduct a housing affordability impact study of the new fees, examine how peer Texas cities charge developers for parkland fees and “provide opportunities for internal and external stakeholder engagement and feedback.”

Austin ranks 45th on the Trust for Public Land’s 2021 ParkScore index, a higher ranking than Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, Houston and Fort Worth. Austin fares poorly against peer cities outside of Texas, such as Seattle and Portland, which rank 9 and 10, respectively.

Council Member Alison Alter likened staffers’ request to opening “the Pandora’s box of how we calculate” the fees – a reference to a fractious 2015-16 stakeholder process that included development representatives and parks advocates. Most of the stakeholder group finally reached agreement after crafting a fee schedule and achieving consensus on other touch points. Council adopted the amended ordinance in January 2016, marking the first change to the parkland fee structure since 2007.

The Austin Parks Foundation, an important partner in parkland improvement and financial support, participated in the 2016 stakeholder process and supported the final agreement. This time, the foundation stands opposed to any changes to the fee structure.

“If affordability is the real issue, it should be tackled holistically and with a look at all city fees and all of the non-city determining factors, rather than singling out the public good that is our parks,” CEO Colin Wallis wrote in a letter to Council.

Alter, who was also part of the stakeholder process prior to her time on Council, kick-started deliberations with gloves off.

“I’m ready to deny this request,” she began. “I believe that this item sets up a false choice between parks and affordability that Council did not ask the city manager to put before us.”

She noted that every development is assessed an assortment of fees to cover the costs of roads, sidewalks, utilities, inspections and more. “As the cost of services rise, those fees also rise. To single out parkland as a unique cost driver is misguided,” Alter said.

Under questioning from Alter, parks department officials said the proposed freeze would be of no benefit to PARD and would in fact result in a decrease in revenue to the department.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes also came out swinging. “They were part of the negotiations in coming up with the formula,” Fuentes said of the push by the Real Estate Council of Austin and other real estate organizations to stall the new fee structure. “We have for the last few years been growing our parks system. All of a sudden they’ve decided that they have an issue with the formula. They have an issue with the fees and they want to freeze the fees, and to me, it shows the extent to which they’re influencing how we do policy.”

Council members Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen shared the sentiments of their colleagues opposed to the staff proposal.

“We want those fees to keep pace with the market value of land,” Tovo said, “because the whole intention is for the fees to be used to buy land for parkland to keep up with the growth that our city is experiencing and making sure that no matter where you live in the city … and no matter what kind of housing you live in, you have access to parkland.”

Kitchen called the agenda item an “end run around the process that was used previously to actually talk through and grapple with these issues.”

Adler acknowledged he was struggling to understand what Council was being asked to do, and expressed disappointment in how the matter appeared to have stumbled onto Council’s Oct. 21 agenda, with little more than an Oct. 8 memo from PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley.

“I don’t think anybody on this dais wants to make a forced choice between parks and affordable housing, but the way this has been teed up and set up, it’s inescapable,” Adler said. “That’s the choice that we’re making, whether we vote yes or whether we vote no, certainly in terms of how it will be perceived and discussed in the community.”

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