Council Member Greg Casar discusses Springdale Farms and larger issues of gentrification

I like to pick out videos from city proceedings which people explain the philosophies behind their actions. District 4 Council Member Greg Casar took the occasion of an appeal of a Conditional Use Permit denial for the use of Springdale Farms as an event space to discuss what he sees as the broader causes and cures for gentrification in Austin. The video is from ATXN, clipped by friend-of-the-blog Tyler Markham. The transcript is from the City of Austin. I have added formatting and light editing for readability.

Mayor, briefly, I think that you lay out very well the conditional use permit issue. Let me take a step back. In my mind there’s two very glaring facts about this situation in this case. The first is what you described very well: there is the issue at hand about one specific property, one specific conditional use permit and parking requirements needed, the noise mitigation, what is a compatible use on this piece of commercial property in this one narrowly tailored case. If it was just about that, then I think it would very simply be just another one of the many cases we see in a rapidly urbanizing city where uses start knocking against one another as we grow both residentially and as our businesses grow.

But what’s also glaring to me is that there’s a second obvious fact that clearly many people in the community, whether they’re nearby neighbors or people concerned about what’s happening in our city. This case is about something much more than that to many in this room for many different reasons, but especially some of the folks that came and spoke today in opposition. It means something about the racial and class divides in our city, about displacement occurring in our city, the change that is bringing some benefits to our city, but causing other detrimental effects as well. And that is a serious part of this conversation and the feeling that some folks think this would not be approved were it in another part of town.

My vote will be based on the first obvious fact, will be based on the merits of the conditional use permit, which is why I will vote for this. But I feel like it’s incumbent on us to acknowledge the second piece of this and to understand. I believe a lot of the folks that came and spoke before us have very legitimate concerns about whether or not this is a space that they feel is truly for that community. I’ve spoken with lots of people on both sides of the issue that live in the nearby neighborhood but I think it’s important for supporters of the farm and the owners to acknowledge and take seriously the concern that folks have brought up about whether they really feel like this space is for them and a community asset. I recognize that there have been attempts to do so but it seems clear to me that there’s still work on that front to be done.

People have brought this up as a cause of gentrification. I don’t see it as much of a cause compared to the ruthless global real estate market and our failed urban planning principles and racist institutions that we still deal with every single day, but I think the folks that have brought this up as a symbol or as a symptom of that kind of gentrification do need to be listened to and should be listened to. I ask every single one of you whether you’re on one side of this issue or another to participate in the broader policy debate about investing in affordable housing, even if it’s going to cost all of us a little bit of money. About rewriting and redoing the way we do our planning so that it’s not just up to some neighborhoods to absorb change, that there should be no such thing as a gated community that does not change. To talk about smaller living spaces because whether you like it or not and whether you agree with me on this or not, I see a city with rising land prices and I say the only way we can get people to be able to stick around in the central city is to find ways for us to live smaller and to use more transit and to invest in different kinds of housing

Stick around for the budget session right after this because we have temporary employees here at the city that don’t have healthcare and aren’t protected by our living wage standards and it’s that kind of a conversation that we need to engage in and it is the kind of conversation that when we’re talking about mixes of uses and different kinds of spaces in other parts of town that you hold us accountable to being able to support those when the noise is contained and when the parking is required and all of the sorts of things that I think was hammered out in the hard-fought compromise that makes probably no one happy. So I call on my colleagues to take that issue seriously and I appreciate the conversation this has begun but it’s got to be about way more than one small zoning case.

Councilmembers’ approach to zoning, in their own words, part 2

Last month, City Council took up one of their first large zoning cases, a proposed apartment complex near Burnet Road. Many of them used the opportunity to expound not only on the case in question, but some of the principles behind their decision, and I duly blogged those takes. Zoning changes require 3 “readings” (i.e. 3 different votes). If there’s no disagreement, all 3 readings can happen on the same night. But in this case, there was disagreement, so they only passed the vote “on first reading,” and this last Thursday, revisited it. If you’re interested in the background and outcome of the decision, check out Liz Pagano’s take in the Austin Monitor. Me, though? I’m interested in hearing what the Council Members had to say about their approach to zoning.

District 10 Council Member Sheri Gallo

Gallo here notes that the majority of Austin rents, neighborhood associations don’t always do a good job representing them, and it’s the responsibility of City Council to look out for all residents, not just the organized ones. Readers of this blog will be familiar with both the renting and neighborhood association ideas.

Here, Gallo gives her opinion that the reason why rents have risen in Austin is an imbalance of supply and demand, and suggests more housing supply is needed to stop price increases. This, again, is familiar territory on this blog.

District 3 Council Member Pio Rentería

CM Rentería, similar to CM Gallo, believes that raising supply will stabilize prices.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar

Casar offers a number of ideas here. First, he discusses a “filtering up” mechanism, where, if new housing doesn’t get built, old (or “vintage”) housing can become more expensive, giving as an example housing his brother lives in in Los Angeles.

Another two ideas that Casar argues for are that: 1) building housing is in and of itself, a “community benefit.” 2) There is an additional “economic integration” community benefit to having some portion of that housing be mandated Affordable Housing.  Neither of these ideas are new to council. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to hear both of them in the same speech. Frequently, the “economic integration” argument appears on the side of somebody arguing against denser zoning. In this case, though, Casar appeared to be arguing for greater density as a mechanism for making more Affordable Housing economically viable for the developer.

Mayor Steve Adler

I publish this not because Adler offered much background on his approach to zoning here, but because of the previous rarity of seeing a Council Member ask a developer to consider greater density on a site.  (Sorry, I accidentally cut the video short; the developer said yes, he would consider it.)

District 2 Council Member Delia Garza

Garza offers two items of note: 1) delays in the development process add to the costs of housing, and 2) Austin is a high-demand city, and when there isn’t enough housing supply in richer areas, this adds to gentrification pressures in poorer areas.

District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair

Troxclair offers a bit of a procedural take, arguing that Council’s way of using zoning as a negotiation tool encourages parties to take extremist positions. She appears to have misspoke when she said she couldn’t support MF6; she voted, as she did in the previous reading, for the higher-density MF6 and against the lower-density zoning.

The Developer

Finally, we hear from the applicant, C.J. Sackman, the developer of the project. I’m including this testimony not because his views will have lasting impact on the Council the way that Council Members’ do, but because they’re broadly representative of developers’ views.

The Rest

CM Pool (District 7), CM Kitchen (District 5), and CM Houston (District 1) emphasized that, because there was disagreement between a neighborhood association objecting to the project and the developer and because the two hadn’t fully negotiated, they wanted to pass a lower zoning category on 2nd reading only, to pressure the two sides to negotiate. CM Zimmerman (District 6) thought there had been enough testimony, and moved for the decision to be made for the higher zoning category on 3rd reading. Mayor Pro Tem Tovo (District 9) voted with Pool, Kitchen, and Houston.  In her testimony, Tovo focused on whether the developer could have provided steeper discounts on the Affordable Housing apartments, to target a poorer population.

New Councilmembers’ Approach to Zoning, In Their Own Words

On the City Council meeting on Thursday, 2/12, we had our first major look at the approach that many of the new Councilmembers will take to zoning and land use policy in practice.  The Item that I believe gave us the most insight was a re-zoning case.  For background, check out the Austin Monitor story. The basic gist of this case is that the owners of an auto repair shop are retiring and want to sell their land to a developer to build apartments.  As this was the first major rezoning case to come before the Council, many of the Councilmembers took the opportunity to state their principles.  I present to you the Councilmembers’ own words (not in the order they spoke at Council):

Don Zimmerman


Zimmerman views his decision through a lens of competing property rights: that of the property owner to build as they see fit and an implicit contractual expectation of neighbors that the city will not rezone nearby land.  As the opponents didn’t frame their argument in property rights, he decided to vote with the applicants’ property rights. CM Zimmerman voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Kathie Tovo


Kathie Tovo, generally more skeptical of new development during her first term, doesn’t speak directly to her approach, but asks questions related to whether development could still be profitable with less housing, as well as arguing that the developer should provide more larger (2 and 3+ bedroom units) units.  She also mentions “zoning is always discretionary,” pointing to a larger role for Council to play in deciding the details of what gets built and where. CM Tovo voted against the motion to signal support for the project.

Ora Houston


Similarly, Ora Houston asks questions regarding how many guaranteed Affordable Housing and accessible units the complex will have.  CM Houston voted against the motion to signal support for a larger complex.

Leslie Pool


Leslie Pool puts forward a theory of balancing the needs of current members of neighborhood associations and future (Millenial) residents.  She argues for a slower development process in which infrastructure gets built first, followed by more housing.  CM Pool voted against the motion to signal support for the project.

Sheri Gallo


Sheri Gallo expresses support for neighborhood voices in general, but says she doesn’t “understand the neighborhood thought process” on this particular case. She supports the larger complex in part because it is buffered from single-family homes, and because the housing is needed and desired by younger people. CM Gallo voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Sabino Rentería


Very much like Gallo, Sabino Rentería expresses support for neighborhood voices in general, but also for density. He argues that there isn’t enough land to build single-family housing for all the people who need housing. He also adds a different line of reasoning, arguing that further density will lead to higher quality of place, via slowing traffic, increasing viability for restaurants and other retail and increasing “eyes on the street.”  Contra Gallo, he argues that housing creates the political support for more infrastructure. CM Rentería voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Greg Casar


Greg Casar asked questions that indicated an interest in finding the way to make the market-rate housing most affordable, as well as asking whether, if this project wasn’t built, whether there would be other places to place similarly dense housing nearyby, arguing that “more people should have the right to live in that area.” CM Casar voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Steve Adler


Adler expresses a lot of process concerns, arguing against ad hoc zoning cases like this one, in favor of more comprehensive citywide plans. Nevertheless, he argues that while these planning processes are going forward, we need to keep moving forward. He also makes a plea for compromise. Mayor Adler voted for the motion to signal support for the project.

Delia Garza, Ellen Troxclair, and Ann Kitchen

These three councilmembers didn’t offer enough comment on this case to get much insight into their approach to zoning.  CMs Garza and Troxclair voted for the motion to signal support for the project; CM Kitchen voted against.