AUSTIN, TEXAS — To look out over the capital of Texas is to see a growth spurt in its most fervent phase. The rapidly-growing city of Austin extends in every direction, bleeding into its also-booming suburbs, while modern apartment complexes are replacing once sleepy, green spaces.
That growth explosion is at the center of a bitter feud that has divided the city’s green groups, cost millions of dollars, and sparked a controversial ballot initiative known as Proposition J that will appear before voters this November.
The ballot initiative was introduced after some residents took legal action against the city: Austin wanted to reduce urban sprawl but naysayers said the city went about things the wrong way, sparking the lawsuit and resulting in Proposition J.
If approved, the initiative would require both a public vote and a mandatory waiting period extending upwards of three years prior to any change to the city’s Land Development Code. That means the city’s currently out-of-date code, adopted in 1984, will take years to be updated.
For some of the city’s environmental advocates, that mandated delay — as laid out by Proposition J — would be welcome news, seemingly allowing them to fight gentrification and limit mass-development. Others say Proposition J would be a disaster, arguing that if the development code isn’t updated soon, there will be severe implications for human health and the environment.
Studies have repeatedly found that urban density is better for the environment, reducing energy needs, emitting less carbon dioxide, and limiting encroachment on natural habitats. The carbon footprint of households farther from cities, and into the suburbs, can often be more than double those in the city’s core. But development and densifying can also disrupt neighborhoods and, as some opponents of such efforts argue, exacerbate gentrification.
In Austin, political fights tend to pit the largely progressive city against the conservative Texas government, a common theme across the state. And it’s usually no different for environmental issues in Austin.
But the divides over Proposition J have brought environmental advocates’ competing visions to the fore. Everyone from conflicted non-profit workers to baristas in the city declined to be quoted for this piece because of just how controversial the issue has become.
A pressing need to address sprawl
The ballot initiative itself came in response to a plan called CodeNEXT, which emerged from some Austin green groups and others seeking to reduce city sprawl. Proposition J, in turn, was also a response from some environmental organizations and their allies, including those focused on communities of color, who felt the CodeNEXT proposal would do more to hurt than help them — these groups are supporting the ballot initiative, which would place steep limitations on the next draft of CodeNEXT.
CodeNEXT’s history is complicated. Like many Southern cities, Austin has largely been built outwards, as opposed to upwards. A plan released by the Austin government in 2012 paved the way for the city’s land development code to be overhauled — ever since, officials have been working on a process called CodeNEXT. This would outline a plan for densifying the city’s urban core, lowering costs, and allowing for tighter, more compact building.
Groups like Environment Texas have called upon Austin’s government to move forward with CodeNEXT in an effort to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and scale back the consumption of utilities like electricity and water.
A report released by the organization along with Clean Water Action and the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG) in October 2017 found that compact development in cities more generally could reduce energy usage by up to 50 percent in suburban neighborhoods with detached, single-family homes. It would also allow for less pollution and allow more clean rainwater to infiltrate soil, in addition to minimizing the pesticides and pathogens coming into contact with drinking water.
CodeNEXT’s draft at the time called for over 75,000 housing units more than current zoning allows, in addition to laying out green infrastructure rules and calling for rain gardens and other eco-conscious additions in new and redeveloped buildings — steps environmentalists have supported.
“Comprehensive development is better than sprawl,” Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger, a CodeNEXT proponent and Proposition J opponent, told ThinkProgress, noting that the current 1984 land code is “horrible for [Austin’s] climate.”
But advocates supporting CodeNEXT and working to change Austin’s approach to growth are meeting resistance.
Heated opposition amid a city identity crisis
Opponents have claimed CodeNEXT would destroy the city’s neighborhoods and greatly shift how current residents live. The backlash has also fed on a growing identity crisis in a changing city that has historically defined itself as “weird,” propelled by a vibrant music and arts scene, along with deeply-rooted communities.
As newcomers have poured into the city, drawn to its laid-back image, that vibe has changed, leaving long-standing residents defensive and staunchly opposed to any efforts to further densify the city. Communities of color have also pushed back over concerns about the city’s rapid gentrification.
The resistance to CodeNEXT resulted in a City Council and mayoral decision to kill the initial effort this August, after spending more than $8 million and six years on the plan.
City Manager Spencer Cronk has since agreed to step in and oversee a revival of CodeNEXT, which is likely to be a lengthy process involving input from constituents on all sides of the divide. That means the overhaul will take place long after the November elections, at which point CodeNEXT’s supporters may have a far tougher fight on their hands should Proposition J pass.
“We’re very concerned [about Proposition J],” Metzger said. “It’s a major impediment to promoting climate solutions and it really ties the hands of city leaders to be able to create solutions to the big problems we have.”
But other environmental advocates feel differently. The Save Our Springs Alliance, which describes itself as “Austin’s water watchdog since 1992,” has come out in favor of Proposition J and against CodeNEXT. And they’re not alone.
The local organization People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER), which works at the intersection of environmental, economic, and social justice issues, has taken a strong stance against CodeNEXT and called for the proposal to be put to a vote.
Neither PODER nor the SOS Alliance responded to requests for comment from ThinkProgress, but both organizations detail their opposition to CodeNEXT on their respective websites, as do a number of other local organizations.
Most of the environmental advocates who have come out against CodeNEXT and in support of Proposition J don’t debate that compact cities catering to density are better for the environment. But many are concerned about gentrification and displacement in a city that has already seen its Black community dwindling each year while Latinx Austinites increasingly fight for space.
That’s arguably truer in no place more than in East Austin, historically an enclave for Austinites of color. As Austin’s population has boomed, the area has seen a flurry of development and a steep rise in housing costs, with sleek new coffee shops and bars replacing long-standing neighborhood institutions.
During an October 2017 gathering addressing CodeNEXT, Carmen Llanes Pulido, the executive director of Go! Austin, Vamos! Austin (GAVA), balanced concern for the environment with concern for vulnerable populations.
“I’m an environmentalist and I don’t disagree with you that compact and connected cities are better for the environment and there’s a big argument to be made that more urban development can be cleaner and greener than sprawl,” Pulido said, expressing opposition to CodeNEXT. “Here’s what’s missing from this conversation. When you densify an urban environment and there is not affordability and you effectively displace families from the central core, where do they go?”
At another forum in May earlier this year, community leaders again pushed back on CodeNEXT’s shortcomings.
“CodeNEXT is not designed to address gentrification,” said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP. “Since it’s going to be the zoning for the next 100 years, you would think they would want to address the disparate impact of current policies on Black and brown people.”
Many proponents of densifying the city told ThinkProgress they remained aware of gentrification issues and clarified that they felt communities of color should be involved in the CodeNEXT process. But they remained firm on their stance in support of the overhaul and against Proposition J.
As Austin continues to grow, its sprawl is allowing the city’s carbon footprint to spiral, in addition to mitigating efforts to build a cleaner, greener city. Proposition J would limit ambitions to aggressively counter that issue by delaying the update to the city development code, opponents say, creating a headache for many environmentalists.
“As you know, scientists tell us time is running out to start dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions, to have a chance to stop catastrophic climate change,” said Metzger, who laid out the argument against the ballot initiative in frank terms.
“We can’t afford to put up more barriers and waiting periods to transform our communities to eliminate car dependency,” he said, “[to] make our neighborhoods more walkable and transit friendly, and to build greener.”