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Land use commissions worry move from City Hall will hurt public participation

Monday, December 6, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

In a rare joint meeting, three land use commissions frustrated by an unwelcome move from City Hall grilled city staff last Monday about why meetings will soon be held in the new Permitting and Development Center. The staffers, after hearing a litany of questions and concerns, did not budge.

“This was an administrative decision going back approximately six years when the building was designed,” Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales said. Space constraints at City Hall and the idea of the PDC as a “one-stop shop” for development prompted the move, he said. Unless City Council allows them to stay, the Planning Commission, Zoning and Platting Commission, Board of Adjustment and several other bodies must move.

“I’m highly disappointed in this,” ZAP Commissioner David King said. “It seems like this decision is not about serving the public; it’s about serving a particular internal interest of the city staff.” 

Commissioners argue the move will decrease public participation since City Hall, they say, is easier to get to than the PDC, which is located in the Highland Mall redevelopment. City Hall, they point out, is better served by transit. 

Citizens from South Austin echoed these concerns. “I cannot imagine what it’s going to take for us to get all the way north in the middle of rush hour,” said Ana Aguirre, a community organizer. “It is effectively disengaging an entire South Austin community.”

After public comment, Gonzales, planted behind a podium, took questions for over two hours. Though it was clear early on that city staff had made their decision, over a dozen board and commission members shared concerns and asked questions.

Safety is another salient concern, since the Highland area is less active at night, when meetings are held, than downtown. The PDC also does not have a metal detector at the entrance, unlike City Hall. “We piss people off,” Board of Adjustment Member Brooke Bailey said. “I want a metal detector.”

Commissioners are also worried that their inclusion in the “one-stop shop” implies that they serve developers, not the public. Planning Commission Chair Todd Shaw said that City Hall should host the important civic conversations that take place at meetings. “It’s the public’s house,” he said.

While Gonzales acknowledged the commissioners’ frustrations, he showed no intention of changing course, saying, “Any location has its pluses and minuses.” Pointing out that the population center of Austin is closer to the PDC than it is to City Hall, he expressed the hope that the move would actually increase public participation. He also emphasized that the move will alleviate the scheduling challenges at City Hall, where nearly 70 boards and commissions, as well as City Council, all vie for meeting space.

As the night went on, the discussion grew redundant, as Gonzales signaled multiple times. “I don’t think that there’s anything else that I can offer other than what has already been said.” Some wanted him to be more frank about whether the move is really a done deal. “Just call it as it is,” Board of Adjustment Member Michael Von Ohlen said. “City Council at the end is going to have the last say.”

Council will weigh in soon. On Dec. 15, the Audit and Finance Committee will discuss bringing the question to Council for a vote. The boards and commissions also hope procedural tactics work in their favor. The groups have submitted rule and bylaw changes, code amendments and 2022 meeting calendars all stipulating City Hall as the meeting location. 

No matter the outcome, members hope city staff communicate better in the future, especially with the public. 

“I think we have an opportunity to do better, learn from mistakes, engage the people in these kinds of decisions, and not further alienate them from a process that’s so hard to grasp and so difficult to engage with,” ZAP Commissioner Carrie Thompson said.

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