Election reflection: three big changes that have affected the makeup of Austin City Council

With the completion of the runoffs, Austin’s next City Council is set. Although it falls short of the densificatron the Austin Chronicle mused about, it is being widely hailed as the most urbanist-friendly council in recent memory. How did we get here? Well, I’d like to believe it’s because the world is coming to understand that building awesome, compact cities is the only way for humans to prevent catastrophic global climate change. In fact, I do believe that. But there’s also some structural, political reasons. Let’s listicle.

1) Higher turn-out elections

It’s no secret low-turnout elections favor Republicans and development skeptics. In 2016, development-friendly candidate Sheri Gallo led development-skeptic Alison Alter on election day 17,569 to 12,943, coming within just 634 votes of winning the 50% needed to avoid a runoff. But by the time the low-turnout December election came around, Alter won out 9,481 to 5,339. It’s possible there were some voters who changed their minds but more likely development-skeptic voters were just more motivated to turn out in December. Development-skeptic candidate Laura Morrison said her strategy was to force a runoff, where the smaller, more development-skeptical electorate would favor her.

But while our two-part runoff system means we have some low-turnout ballots, it used to be much worse. Prior to 2014, we elected City Council in May elections rather than November ones. The transition to higher turnout elections has brought out a broader group of voters with a broader set of issues, less animated by opposition to development. This trend could accelerate if Texas, like Maine, adopted instant runoffs, in which voters state their second (and third and fourth, etc) choices at the same time they select their first choice, allowing a runoff without forcing voters to come out twice. However, Ed Espinoza on Twitter tells me it may take a change to state law in order for this to happen:

2) 10-1 gave more representation to underrepresented populations open to development

Both before and after Austin switched from seven at-large Council Members to ten single-member districts and one at-large mayor, the vast majority of votes in Austin have come from the richer, whiter parts of town. Here, for example, are the total number of voters in each district in the 2014 city council elections, as well as the racial / ethnic group of the Council Members who have represented that district:

All districts were made to have roughly equal numbers of people living in them. But not all of those people vote! There were more than three times as many votes cast in 2014 in wealthier, whiter District ten than in poorer, more Hispanic Districts two and four. This difference is driven both by the number of eligible voters and by voter participation rates. When all Council Members were elected at large, this meant that the votes of the areas and populations that turn out at lower numbers were diluted among the votes of the areas that turn out at higher numbers. Since 10-1, these areas are represented at a proportion to their populations, not to their voting rates.

Of course, it isn’t a given that “population that votes in great numbers” or “white” are anti-development or “population that votes in lower numbers” or “non-white” are pro-development. Ora Houston of District 1 was a consistent development skeptic, while Jimmy Flannigan of District 6 and Sheri Gallo of District 10 have been more development-friendly. But generally, the electeds and the electorate in the less white districts have proven to be more open to development than the whiter, more voter-rich districts–and this is true in other places outside Austin as well. Indeed, if you look at the five districts with the fewest votes in the 2014 election (one, two, three, four, and six), these districts will be represented by some of the most development-friendly Council Members on Council in 2019.

3) 10-1 created new, geographically based sources of legitimacy

Prior to the 2014 switch to a district-based council, all Council Members were elected by an electorate from across the entire city. When we were considering the switch from at-large Council Members to geographical districts, there was something of a debate on what was likely to happen between two of my friends and fellow bloggers, Chris Bradford of Austin Contrarian, who feared that this would create a system of ward privilege, and Julio Gonzalez of Keep Austin Wonky, who was a bit more sanguine. At the time, I leaned closer to Chris’ argument but so far, Julio’s predictions have turned out to be more accurate. On issues that affect a single council district, Council Members definitely defer to the district Council Member in some ways; often, the Council member whose district is most affected will speak first and longest on a case. On cases where other Council Members don’t have developed opinions, they may choose to vote with the district Council Member. But Council Members have also shown a lot of willingness to vote their consciences.

Indeed, there’s a sense in which geographical districts have actually reduced ward privilege. When the Council was elected at large, they often gave a significant amount of deference on zoning cases to leaders of the nearest neighborhood associations. While neighborhood associations are unelected, they were still often seen as a good pulse of what voters thought in that district. Now, with single-member districts, some neighborhood associations still have a large amount of sway where voters elected a Council Member that agrees with them. But in other Council districts, anti-development forces have had to handle a diminution of their authority as they put their preferred candidates to the electoral test and lost.

Nowhere has this been clearer than District 3, where Pio Renteria has won two straight elections over his sister Susana Almanza. The siblings have been on opposite sides of neighborhood politics for decades; Council Members trying to get the pulse of East Austin sentiment sometimes used extremely imperfect proxies like how many people showed up to debate an issue at City Council. Now, with voters choosing Renteria twice, there is little reason for other Council Members to value Almanza’s voice over Renteria’s.

Where from here?

Politics has a way of going through pendulum swings. It’s possible that norms of ward privilege will emerge over the course of years. It’s possible that I’m overreading the factors above and luck has played a large role in the formation of the Council. After all, the same District 1 that elected development-friendly Natasha Harper-Madison also elected development-skeptic Ora Houston. But it’s also possible that these changes in Austin’s electoral system have led to a real structural shift in politics that could have big implications as Austin becomes closer to a big city.

Seven Suggestions for CodeNEXT’s Uptown Regulations

The city of Austin is rewriting its zoning code. Staff has prepared a draft with two different groups of zones running in parallel: traditional zones and a new form-based code with tighter rules about what buildings can look like. Each set has zones of different density / intensity of land uses; both include high-intensity downtown-like zones. Staff have indicated that more traditional zones will be used in downtown Austin while the form-based high-activity zones could be used in Austin’s uptowns, like the Domain.

Some friends of mine and I sat down at a party organized by AURA and read through the form-based downtown codes, known as T6. I love how the code description puts a real emphasis on walkability, so I’m going to share some suggestions to make this dream a reality. Many thanks to Tyler Stowell, Seth Goodman, and Mateo Barnstone for most of the ideas below.

  1. This downtown high-rise tower under construction has a comfortable width of about 69′.

    Eliminate or reduce minimum lot widths

Minimum lot widths are a rule sometimes used to limit density; they make little sense downtown. Practical construction considerations mean that many downtown towers will be wide. But tall, narrow buildings do get built; there’s one under construction right now on Congress Avenue that would be 30% narrower than allowed in the draft T6 rules. Narrower buildings can increase walkability by providing more storefronts per city block, increasing the number of walkable destinations.

Suggestion: Eliminate minimum widths as principle and send the message that narrow buildings are preferred. If minimums are kept, dramatically reduce them to where they are no longer a bottleneck. For example, 15’ for a main street building, 30’ for a midrise, and 50’ for a high-rise.

  1. Allow smaller building types
Incremental density in downtown Austin: a one-story building popped up into two stories.

Downtowns and uptowns are great places for tall buildings! But smaller, narrower buildings can complement these tall buildings well, filling gaps between towers or making use of small or oddly-shaped lots. Allowing small building types also allows districts to grow up incrementally without requiring rezoning.

Suggestion Allow Main St, Low Rise, and Rowhouse buildings in T6U and T6C.

  1. Raise or eliminate stepback floors
The North Shore apartment complex with stepbacks on one side from the Waterfront overlay district.

Stepbacks are requirements that buildings must be set back from the street that only kick in above a certain height. Buildings under these rules get narrower as they get higher in a characteristic “wedding cake” style. Stepbacks have pros and cons — without them, you can end up with a sheer wall along the street; with them, you can lose valuable sidewalk shade. But  the particular numbers in the draft T6 section (stepbacks at the 5th and 8th floors) are both too low and too small between floors. Stepback sections of buildings that are only three stories will be awkward to design and unpleasant to look at. Stepback stories starting at the fifth floor compromise the ability to deliver the large floorplates some offices need.

Suggestion: Reduce to a single stepback, starting at the 9th story. Consider raising that height on wider streets.

  1. Allow floorplates to grow or shrink as buildings rise

There is a requirement in the draft code that a building floorplate can not be larger than the floor beneath it. Most buildings already meet this requirement. When buildings don’t, it’s for a good reason: overhangs to provide shade, open-air amenity decks, unique aesthetic designs, corners cut out to create visual interest, etc. This is not addressing a problem, but does cause new problems. Eliminating this requirement will allow for more interesting and creative building designs while simplifying the building code.

Suggestion: Eliminate this rule.

  1. Remove the private open space requirements
Totally inadequate open space that satisfies a tiny fraction of the private open space requirements in my  building.

Private open space is the sine qua non of downtown luxury condos: swimming pools, rooftop decks, amenity levels, meeting space, etc. But not all housing need be luxury housing! I am moving into a downtown condo that nobody but the most snooty Austinites would call inadequate yet it will have only a tiny fraction of the required private open space. In walkable districts, residents have easy access to public open space. Removing this requirement will help improve affordability, walkability, and code simplicity.

Suggestion: Remove private open space requirements.

  1. Recalibrate parking setbacks

Walking right next to parking garages can be unpleasant, between noise, light, and air pollution. So let’s get those parking far from the street, right? Not always! If there isn’t enough space left to allow parkers to pull into spaces right or left, the parking garage may end up taking double as many floors! Alternatively, this encourages property owners to assemble multiple parcels together into large single sites, so the ratio of setback area to total area is reduced. The space around the parking garages isn’t necessarily particularly useful—office buildings work best with large open spaces, and parking garages wrapped by other uses need expensive mechanical ventilation. I’m the last person to encourage buildings build lots of parking. But if buildings do build parking (and downtown’s experience is that yes, most will), they should build them simply and efficiently, without ruining the rest of the building by encouraging overly large buildings or tall garages.

Suggestion: Replace garage setbacks with screening requirements from UNO. If garage setbacks are maintained, reduced them 10’ on upper floors, not 40′, to allow smaller buildings.

  1. Main Street building type
This building reads as a building that intends to be read as multiple buildings.

In the Main Street building type, there is a requirement that buildings wider than 150’ should be made to appear like multiple buildings, each no wider than 100’. One of the reasons this requirement is great is it underscores how important narrow buildings are and why it’s so important to make sure the are allowed everywhere. But the section is so ambiguous that, as written, it would guarantee years and years of contentious zoning board and City Council hearings over whether individual buildings comply.

Suggestion: Spell out how buildings can comply in a way that is clear enough that everybody or almost everybody can agree whether a particular building is in compliance.


Many of these ideas seem more like tweaks than overhauls. But when prescribing detailed rules, each and every rule must be closely calibrated or else any particular rule can create a cascading effect of complex consequences. Because of these complex consequences, I was very relieved when I heard staff was more interested in using the traditional code downtown. But these tweaks should help improve the T6 code as well.

CodeNext and “community character” in a changing world

Austin is revamping its land development code (i.e. “zoning”) in a project known as CodeNext.  It would be difficult to overstate how important this process is.  As I have said, zoning really is the central problem in Austin, as in many other cities.  Circumstances change and when cities don’t adjust to the changing circumstances, you end up with policies that don’t match the problems that the city is facing.  In a city faced with too many people driving too far and too many people driving until they qualify because central city housing is so expensive, Austin’s tight restrictions on multifamily development in the central city are really a bad leftover from a previous century.

Community Character

CodeNext’s current round of public meetings is framed less on change, though, but more on maintaining continuity.  This is how they describe it in the email they sent:

CodeNEXT is an unprecedented opportunity for Austinites to shape the way we live now and for generations to come. To be effective in framing how land can be used throughout the city, a revised Land Development Code should consider the unique character found in different types of neighborhoods throughout Austin. That’s where you come in. [emphasis in original]

We’re inviting you to walk your own neighborhood and document the features that make it unique. What do homes in your community look like? Your streets? Businesses nearby? Anyone can do it and we’ll show you how!

Although the framing here hints at things other than maintaining physical infrastructure (types of businesses), the majority of this framing is built around the idea of the “character” of a neighborhood reflecting the physical infrastructure of buildings, and nothing more.  I believe this is a mistake.

People Change Even When Buildings Don’t

I believe the buildings-first perspective is a poor perspective from which to guide policy.  As Edward Glaeser wrote in his book Triumph of the City: “Cities aren’t strcutures; cities are people.”  In the places where central Austin’s physical infrastructure has stayed pretty much the same over the last few decades, the neighborhoods have changed in character greatly.  I have friends who bought starter homes in sketchy neighborhoods and now live in expensive homes in swanky neighborhoods, all without either moving or the buildings around them changing much. The difference is that more people want to live in that neighborhood now, driving prices up.

Supply, Demand, and Price

In any market, including the housing market, supply and demand together determine the price.  In the housing market, the supply are the homes, the demand is the number of people who want to live in those homes (and the amount those people are willing to pay).   As time goes by, more and more people want to live in Austin, through many processes: natural growth as people have children, those kids grow up and move out to places on their own; a lot of urbanization as people move from the rest of Texas to live in Austin, and some cross-country migration as people generally move from the Northeast to sunnier places in the South and Southwest.  That is to say, the demand for living in Austin has gone up dramatically, and is currently trending upward.

So, the question for “community character” is: which determines a community’s character more: the price of living there, or the present form of buildings.  Preserving the character of the supply of buildings in the face of new demand means allowing all the change to come in the form of swings in price, as has happened in many places in Austin. Preserving the character of housing prices (e.g. “a good place for starter homes”, “an affordable neighborhood”) in the face of rising demand means changing the supply dramatically.

When it comes my turn to participate in the CodeNext hearings, I will express my preference for preservation through change: preserve (and restore) household affordability by changing the character of zoning constraints on supply.