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Ellis sees opportunity for growth amidst 2021’s challenges

Thursday, December 23, 2021 by Kali Bramble

Despite a year that brought both public health and environmental disasters, District 8 City Council Member Paige Ellis has pushed forward in her efforts to rethink transportation, parks and affordability solutions in our rapidly growing city.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has been a historic challenge, Ellis says it has opened up unexpected opportunities to rethink public space and mobility. “We’ve seen that as people change their habits, they’re open to commuting by bike, using public transportation, and using the car less when possible.”

This same idea drives Ellis’ Living Streets Program, which she launched in October following a wildly successful pilot program (called Healthy Streets) in 2020. Ellis says that Living Streets, which permits community-led street closures in residential areas, is especially important to neighborhoods lacking access to parkland or other recreational public spaces.

“I don’t know if we would have had this opportunity had so many not been stuck in their homes in 2020,” she said. “As we saw these streets vacated, we all started evaluating how we’re using that space, which is a public space, funded by tax dollars and open for public use.”

In 2019, Ellis received grant money from PeopleForBikes to attend a bike research tour in the Netherlands. Each morning, she and colleagues from cities around the U.S. heard presentations from some of the best minds in public transportation and bike infrastructure, followed by an afternoon of cycling to see their work in action.

“The phrase that has stuck with me the most is, are people tolerated in a space or are they invited to use that space? Is it easy for a pedestrian or cyclist to navigate an intersection, or are they fearful that a car is not expecting them?”

Ellis has been inspired to implement this wisdom, leading the sponsorship of a $460 million mobility bond passed in November 2020. This year, these funds took shape in the expansion of the All Ages and Abilities bicycle network, Safe Routes to School, and urban trails programs. Ellis says she’s been working hard to ensure that these bond dollars are stretched to their maximum potential, working closely with partners like trail construction contractors to iron out snags in permitting and cost challenges.

She’s also excited about the opportunities presented by Project Connect, which she hopes will transform the way Austinites navigate the city. District 8 has already begun to see changes, with the rollout of several new Capital Metro routes in Oak Hill and a MetroExpress route for South MoPac Expressway in the pipeline.

“A lot of the traffic coming through District 8 is people coming from areas outside of Austin like Kyle and Buda, sometimes cutting through neighborhood roads and causing traffic safety concerns. With so many people using our streets, we want to ensure that we have adequate transportation options throughout our district.”

Representing both Zilker Park and the southwest region of Austin that suffers from limited access to parks and recreation spaces, Ellis straddles two extremes of the city’s park spectrum. She takes pride in investing in the long-term stewardship of parklands, leading the city’s investment in the expansion of the city’s park ranger team and grounds maintenance staff over the course of several years. In 2022, she hopes to make Austin’s beloved Zilker more navigable and accessible via bus, while continuing to invest in Oak Hill’s Dick Nichols park.

Like everyone else, Ellis was shaken by the lack of preparation for Winter Storm Uri in February. She found herself picking up where emergency operations left off, distributing water throughout her district, which was geographically isolated from resources in the city’s core. 

“I don’t think this is something that should be expected of us … my biggest concern going forward is making sure that when disaster hits, we have water bottle distribution immediately. How is our city going to be there for people when utilities are impacted? This can happen in any disaster – wildfire, storm, flood – where issues with water and electrical infrastructure arise.”

Alongside her colleagues, Ellis also worked to combat the growing affordability crisis. Noting the homestead exemption increase, accessory dwelling unit proposal, and residential building in commercial zoning as important steps forward, Ellis said there is more exciting work around the corner.

“I think a comprehensive housing study is long overdue. I’m always thinking of ways we can make rules more fluid to help our city grow with its population.”

Also in the pipeline are efforts to streamline the missing-middle housing development process, a medium-density option to meet housing demands that has been historically underused. Ellis is partnering with Council Member Leslie Pool’s office to rethink site plan requirements for these zones, which currently require the same intensive permitting process as an apartment complex.

Next year, Ellis looks forward to hearing more from her constituents with a newly expanded team, including former Council candidate Ed Scruggs coming on board as a full-time outreach director.

“A lot of the conversations we have with constituents are very granular; it’s about a stop sign, a sidewalk, a sinkhole. We have a lot of abstract conversations about big policies on Council, but at the end of the day I’m here to make sure my constituents’ voices are being heard on these everyday issues.”

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