Editor’s Note: Jack Evins and his wife Debbie have lived in and around Hyde Park since 1974 and have been stewards of the Weisiger-White house on Avenue F since 1977. Jack served as president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association for two terms beginning in 1978. As a longtime resident, HPNA officer, and owner of a historic home, Jack offers a unique perspective worth sharing before he and Debbie move to Debbie’s hometown of Galveston to begin the next chapter of their lives.
KL: You have lived in and around Hyde Park since 1974. What brought you to Austin and Hyde Park?
JE: I came here to do graduate studies in International Relations at The University of Texas after graduating from Texas A&M with a political science major and history minor.
KL: What is it like to be the steward of a historic landmark home?
JE: Our home, the Weisiger-White house built in 1892, was one of the first structures in the neighborhood to get historic zoning. When we bought our house, it had been divided into a triplex with one unit upstairs, one unit downstairs, and a garage apartment in the back. It needed extensive work on the foundation and elsewhere; we have made several attempts over many years to get it into its current condition.
KL: How did you become involved in the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association?
JE: In about 1976, shortly after the neighborhood association was formed, Debbie and I became aware of the HPNA and we began attending meetings. Merle Franke was president and Dorothy Richter was, as always, one of the main players in neighborhood efforts. Dorothy and others encouraged me to take a leadership role and I was nominated as president. I served for two terms, 1978 and 1979. As a student of history and political science, I was drawn in during an era when young people were inclined to be politically active. We were coming off the heels of Vietnam protests, Watergate, race riots, and assassinations, and so the notion of being involved in political issues that impacted a neighborhood that had historic merits was a natural fit and really engaged me. So, the HPNA favored me with the office of president for a couple of years, which was a real privilege, and at an exciting time to be involved. Of course, at the time, the neighborhood’s reputation and standing as an historic neighborhood was not well established or recognized.
KL: Will you tell me about the work you did during that time?
JE: We saw historic zoning as an opportunity to protect some of the landmark structures and try to stabilize the neighborhood. At the time, there was considerable pressure on the old housing stock. Absentee landlords, with little inclination to perform necessary upkeep for old, tenant-occupied structures, allowed homes to deteriorate. There was pressure from multi-family development to replace single-family homes. The Hyde Park Baptist Church was seeking parcels for surface parking, activities, and expanding their physical plant, and they demolished several houses.
Historic zoning was a mechanism used to stem the tide of deterioration and demolition and preserve the historic fabric of the neighborhood. We wanted to draw attention to the unique characteristics of some of the structures, which was a step in the right direction.
KL: How have you seen the character of the neighbor evolve during the time you have lived here?
JE: Well, fortunately, we were in at the beginning of the wave of historic zoning, and then the neighborhood revitalized the Historic Homes Tour. We identified particular landmarks and then the tour generated some public support and appreciation outside the neighborhood for the unique characteristics of the built environment here. Of course, we had some contentious episodes with the Hyde Park Baptist Church as they expanded their footprint and threatened housing stock. Ultimately, the inherent beauty of the neighborhood with its distinctive older housing stock, urban forest, and proximity to central city amenities drew other people with sufficient resources who came in and started fixing up houses.
The flip side of that trend is a move toward some type of gentrification, and that is a double-edged sword. The neighborhood is an asset in terms of representing a certain historical epoch. Aside from the surviving structures, there are a number of people important to the history of the city and beyond who lived in the neighborhood and who are worth memorializing. However, the requirement to invest significant capital to preserve structures means that the neighborhood is less affordable for people with modest incomes. That concerns me because I believe the neighborhood benefits from having as much diversity as it can support.
KL: As a resident and neighborhood leader, which accomplishments are you most proud of?
JE: I served on the Travis County Historic Commission and I also served on the city’s Commission (an urban master plan committee) back in the 1980s. In terms of actual results, I am proud of what Debbie and I did to preserve our own house. In terms of my work in HPNA, I helped in resolving an impasse between the City of Austin and the Texas Fine Arts Association that was impeding a commitment for funds to preserve the Elisabet Ney Museum. The museum structure had some serious issues and, like other historic buildings, it was deteriorating. We were able to persuade TFAA and the city to work together and that resulted in an agreement that led to significant funding from the city, the Heritage Society, and others. I took my sister to visit the museum for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and it was a real thrill to show her something that was so significant and to feel like I had some small role in its current vibrant state.
KL: The Hyde Park neighborhood has a long history of intense division on important issues such as the demolition of houses, the Hyde Park Baptist Church development, the local historic district, the debate about accessory dwelling units, and commercial development. People who live here tend to be very civically engaged. How do you think these conflicts have shaped the neighborhood over time?
JE: The conflicts have some pluses. To the extent that people have strong feelings about neighborhood issues, they become engaged with others in discussions that have to do with the larger fabric of the neighborhood. I think that is better than not caring at all, regardless of their position. As a political scientist, I think people should be involved in deciding what their community and larger society should be. I place a value on diversity of thought as well as socio-economic diversity. Dialogue is important. If there was a homogeneity of thought about what this neighborhood should be like, the neighborhood could develop tunnel vision and become unnecessarily hostile to or even oblivious to opportunities to evolve into something even better than it is now. Debate and emotive issues are good because they involve people. The local scene is a microcosm of what is happening at a national level. Ultimately I hope that people will find grounds to compromise and not get drawn in to non-negotiable hard-line stances where nobody is able to get anything done. That is disadvantageous. What we need to do is be able to voice opinions and try to synthesize some kind of amalgam solution that maybe makes no one totally happy, but at least moves the ball forward.
KL: You have been very involved in the Halloween celebration on Avenue F. What part did you play in developing one of the best traditions in our neighborhood?
JE: Debbie and I hosted a Halloween party annually for several years. We invited friends and co-workers. Our neighbors Earnest and Carol Adams also hosted a party. Over the years our own party took on too much of a life of its own and so we decided to stop having them, but Earnest and Carol continued. They began decorating their porch and we began incrementally upping our game in terms of decorating and attracting more trick-or-treaters. It was just so much fun to have people come by and obviously appreciate the effort we and our neighbors put into the event. Even though they were often people from outside the neighborhood, it was great to have some means of providing a relatively safe environment that honored the tradition of Halloween because I don’t know how much opportunity kids have any more to get a sense of what Halloween is. Each year, what we put together was beyond what we did the year before. We went way over the top. Apparently it was contagious and now many neighbors participate. It was great to get feedback about how much fun it was and how much people appreciated our efforts. I love the spontaneity of the event.
KL: As you plan to leave Hyde Park, are there any thoughts you would like to share with your neighbors?
JE: I encourage those who live here, who are aware of and sensitive to the unique character of this neighborhood, to continue to find ways to recognize and publicize the historical nature of the neighborhood. The neighborhood is not exclusively defined by its history, but it would be different without it. It is important to value its architectural constructs and the existence of the subdivision itself, frequently referred to as Austin’s first suburb. Also, we should remember certain individuals who have resided in the neighborhood for key parts of their lives and their contributions to our Austin’s development.
Austin is a unique community and Hyde Park defines a part of Austin and an important part of Austin’s evolution. I feel fortunate that Hyde Park still exists in the state that it does. West Campus had a lot of structures comparable to Hyde Park. While a few homes still exist, the sense of the fabric of the neighborhood as it was has been forever changed. Parts of Fairview and Travis Heights still have a little bit of that flavor, but these areas are few and far between.
I am proud of the fact that my home and the one next door are the oldest side-by-side residences in the neighborhood. We discovered years ago that William D. Eyres built our house, the one next door, and the one immediately south across 41st Street, and that he also had a hand in the construction of the Elizabet Ney Museum. It may be just the nerdy history buff in me, but these details are significant to me and part of what makes Hyde Park different from other neighborhoods. I would encourage those in the neighborhood to focus on the things that make us distinct and help foster public appreciation of those elements because absent that, those elements are in danger of being lost.
Yes, Ney Day has been rescheduled for Saturday, July 18!
Though originally scheduled for late May, the recent monsoon season basically washed that date off the calendar. As a result, on Saturday, July 18, Ney Day returns! At this, the Third Annual Ney Day, celebrate Elisabet Ney, her art and her legacy, with readings from Austin women authors, sculpting demos, food trucks, performance art, technology activities, clay crafts, health screenings, and much more. The headlining act will be Elisabeth McQueen, with Yes Ma’am Brass Band, the Djembabes, and more. And don’t forget, Shipe Park Pool is right across the street. Bring your swimsuits and towels and make a day of it. The event will run from noon to 5.
You may also have noticed an addition to the 45th street side of the museum property; that’s Jennifer Chenoweth’s Dance of the Cosmos, a special project supported in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin’s Economic Development Department. This remarkable piece will be officially opened at Ney Day. It will then grace the north face of the museum grounds for a year.
Remember too that the Ney’s summer camp, Visual Literacy: Storytelling through Art, still has a few spaces in it! If you’re interested, call 512-458-2255. August will see the return of Saturday morning drawing classes, too.
The Ney is at 304 E 44th Street and is a part of the History, Arts, and Nature Division of the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department. Admission as always is free.
Welcome to the Pecan Press Kid’s Corner where you can find out about kid happenings in Hyde Park. Feel free to submit anything kid related, including event info, kids’ drawings, stories, comics, songs, poems, what have you!
Boy, it’s hot! But don’t let the heat keep you from having some summertime fun around the neighborhood. Of course, a dip at Shipe Pool will cool you off. You can take your tike for a healthy smoothie at Juice Land or yummy vegan ice cream treat at Sweet Ritual, 45th and Duval. Or, hit Dolce Vita for a delicious gelato. Check out their kids‘ specials – Sock Monkey Sundae and Sprinkle Cup, both served up with gummy worms! Casey’s, across the railroad tracks at 51st, has been cooling off neighbors for almost 20 years with their New Orleans-style snowballs. They also have macaroons if you prefer. Don’t forget Sno-Beach at 34th and Guadalupe for straight-up snow cone delights.
For some indoor fun, you might want to take a peek inside the Elisabet Ney Museum across from Shipe Park, or bike on over to UT and check out the dinos at the Texas Memorial Museum, kids’ art tours at the Blanton, Texas history and the IMAX at The Bullock Texas State History Museum, Texas and American West landscapes by Frank Reaugh in August at the Harry Ransom Center, or bowling at the Union Underground. A bit further afoot, near Mueller, is the Thinkery for lots of kid fun – and dare I say education – and Café Monet at the Triangle to get their creative juices flowing. And of course, a stop at Quack’s for a whimsical cut out cookie and cool drink will always bring a smile to a kiddos face. Have fun and stay cool out there!
Editor’s Note: From the time of Elisabet Ney, a German immigrant, Hyde Park has been privileged to provide a home for people from around the world. Their presence in Hyde Park has added to its richness and diversity. In the following article, one of those people, Cristina Pérez Guembe, whose family lived in Hyde Park for a year, says farewell to their temporary home.
It was in the early hours of July 15, 2014, after a long trip that included a four-hour delay in New York, that we arrived at the house on Avenue H that was going to be our home for the next 12 months, exhausted but excited with the prospect of the new adventures awaiting us.
It’s been a great year, beyond our expectations and even beyond what we could have best imagined, a year that will be deeply embedded in our hearts forever and will always be cherished in the history of our little family.
I remember very well our first days and conversations with our backyard neighbor, Dorothy, the admirable lady Mayor of this Austin corner, and with Robert, Kathy, and their children, especially Lucy, with whom my girls had lots of fun back in those hot Texan summer days at Shipe Pool.
It is certainly going to be sad to close the door for the last time at the house that has been our home here on Avenue H, with those big windows open to the nature of the area, where I had the privilege to witness wildlife at its best, with the passing of the seasons, the squirrels, the blue jays, and the cardinals singing; it surprised us with a huge pecan rain one day or a full spring of white irises another. We will remember with a big smile the day we had that first paella night with Tim and Amie, an adorable couple who soon will become a family, who shared with us their Thanksgiving table. We wish you all the best!
Looking back with all perspective, it is curious to see how things developed in the weeks after our arrival and how what seemed to be at first casual encounters became later great stories to tell. As I’m writing this, I’m sitting at the very desk that once belonged to your dear neighbor, John Kerr, aka Squirrel Nutkin, who used to write in these same pages that help build your community so simply yet effectively, which has allowed me to know more about this little corner of Heaven on Earth. Being also a journalist by education, I feel honored to be able to use the place where he most probably sat and wrote for you, too, as I sit and write for you now.
Back in September, in my quest of furniture without a car, I saw an ad that led me to the Kerrs’ house on Avenue F, and a few days after, I was installing a decent number of pieces of their furniture and other accessories to make our stay comfortable. After knowing more about the history of this wonderful family of neighbors, I can honestly say that being surrounded by their things made me very happy, as I thought that it was the closest thing to being their guests at their very own home.
I wish I could have met them, as I’m sure we would have had great conversations about many topics, and surely the camino would have inevitably sprung, as the city where we currently live and my grandparents’ nearby birthplace are part of that pathway. It is now nice to think that we might receive their daughter’s visit one of these days when we get back home, as she is seriously considering following her father’s steps. Wherever you go, Ellen, buen camino!
Shortly after that, I got also to know that one can never foresee that a first casual encounter provoked by a simple styrofoam cooler can bring the joy of a beautiful and lovely friendship. Thank you, Carol and Amon, for everything! Words will never be enough to express how much I have enjoyed the time shared with you and all my gratitude for all the things you have done for us! I hope it won’t be long until we see you in Spain!
Yes, “thank you” is the key word. Thanks to all these neighbors who overwhelmingly responded to my petition of furnishings to make our house feel again more like a home, after the previous renters claimed the belongings we had borrowed from them up until January. Thank you, Sue, and thank you especially, Lin, the sweetest lady I have ever known.
We enjoyed very much being part of your community and going to all the events that make Hyde Park such a magical place: the Fire Station Festival; the Halloween night that, together with the Easter party and egg-hunt at the Kennedy-Cigarroa home, was unforgettable for my daughters; the Christmas Party; the Shipe Park day. I enjoyed very much being part of the Homes Tour and getting to know first-hand about the history of this place and its first settlers. Thank you, Kevin, Carol, and all the neighborhood association friendly faces that I always encountered at those gatherings for those opportunities of enjoying neighborhood life.
We also enjoyed the walks to Lee Elementary School and the experience of school life as we helped our children get the most of the big experience of attending school in a different country. Lee is such a gem in the heart of this city. Both my daughters have made memories and friends for life, I’m sure. School was, at moments, challenging for all, including us as parents, but it also proved to be a great opportunity to share unforgettable moments, such as the programs, events, and those science projects we did, thanks to the generous collaboration of Don and his chicken eggs. Thanks to the staff at Lee and to those families who are Hyde Park neighbors as well, who eased very much our journey through the school year.
As you read this, I’m probably overwhelmed by the number of things that moving back home after a year abroad with a family of four involves, with mixed emotions about what lies ahead, just as much, or almost, as I had when we first came, surrounded by suitcases and piles of stuff to fold and pack, trying to get everything clean and tidy at the house for move-out requirements and the next tenants.
I wonder if I ever will be able to close these suitcases. I’m pretty sure that we will have huge excess baggage fees, as the bags we are packing are full of great memories of this magical year in Hyde Park. I sincerely hope we can come back someday again, walk around the letter streets, and enjoy the beautiful gardens, the delicious cheese of Antonelli’s, the ice cream and the other culinary secrets of that concentration of yummy-ness revolving around the crossing of Duval and 43rd street.
Thank you, Hyde Park, for being such a warm, welcoming place, for all the joyful moments you have given us that will be forever part of us. Whenever somebody asks about the best place to live in Austin, I have no doubt about what will be the answer in my family.
Dear neighbors, you know very well that you have a treasure here, but it is not the nice houses that are valued at several thousands, nor the fact that it is close to UT or downtown or other useful services at hand, it is the people who live here that make the magic happen. Keep always alive that magic of Hyde Park.
Until we meet again,
Cristina, Ramon, Aitana, and Marina, the Spanish family at Avenue H and 39th street, your humble ambassadors of Hyde Park in Barañain, Navarra.
The world is full of rum cakes, but in the history of Austin, one stands out: the Cuneo Rum Cake, named after Cuneo’s Bakery, which stood at 4225 Guadalupe Street for close to 36 years after its founding in 1925 by Mr. and Mrs. V.A. Cuneo. The picture shows it as it looked in 1956. Its rum cake, the creation of Cuneo’s production manager, Ray Kennedy, became an Austin favorite.
Ray learned his skills at the Fleishman School of Baking in the 1930s. After 11 years at Cuneo’s, he briefly opened a bakery in Cisco, Texas, where he spent part of his childhood, but ended up returning to Cuneo’s. He left again in the 1950s and worked for 25 years at Mrs. Johnson’s Bakery before retiring in 1978. He was a resident of the Hyde Park Annex and he served as a deacon of the Hyde Park Baptist Church for 57 years. He died in 2003 at the age of 89.
In 1977, Ray Kennedy shared the bulk version of his rum cake recipe in the Austin American-Statesman, saying, “They used to line up outside the bakery to buy those rum cakes, they were so good.” Thirty-four years later, in 2011, someone requested the recipe from Monica Kass Rogers, Chicago food writer and owner of the website LostRecipesFound.com. Rogers reached out to Addie Broyles, food writer at the Austin American-Statesman, to track down Ray Kennedy’s children, James Kennedy and Rita Bruton, who still had the recipe.
Rogers scaled the recipe down to a single cake and posted it on her website. After she posted the recipe, readers added such comments as “We use to receive this rum cake each Christmas. … We lived in Houston and loved the rum cake every year.” and “Cuneo’s made my Wedding Cake fifty six years ago. I grew up in the area of Hyde Park surrounding the bakery. The donuts were delicious too!” In response to a request, Rogers adapted the syrup to include real rum instead of rum flavoring.
Yield: One tall, 10-inch, tube cake.
FOR THE CAKE
4 cups cake flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsps baking powder
4 cups sugar
1 cup shortening
¾ cup butter
½ tsp each lemon and orange extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup milk
1 cup sugar
½ tsp salt
½ cup water
1 oz corn syrup
2 Tbsp butter
2 tsp rum extract
FOR THE SYRUP
1 cup sugar
½ tsp salt
½ cup water
2 Tbsp butter
2 tsp rum extract
Monica Kass Rogers’ Syrup Adaptation Using Real Rum
1/2 C butter
1/4 C water
1 C sugar
½ C Bacardi dark rum
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in the water and sugar. Heat to boiling and boil five minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in rum.
Co-President Kevin Heyburn called the May meeting of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association to order at 7:09 PM at the Hyde Park Theater on 43rd Street.
The first item on the agenda was the consideration of a resolution asking the city to select Hyde Park as one of the four areas to evaluate potential Code Next changes. Co-President Lorre Weidlich presented the resolution on behalf of the Steering Committee. If Hyde Park is accepted, none of these changes would be adopted earlier, but it would allow evaluation and understanding of the impact of the changes on zoning within the neighborhood. Analysis would likely be shared with the Hyde Park Neighborhood Planning Contact Team and the HPNA would coordinate any analysis of the proposals with the Contact Team. The resolution was adopted 34 for, none against, and no abstentions.
The next item on the agenda was a resolution supporting the application of the Griffin School for a variance to allow the school enrollment to increase to 125 students. In particular, the school is seeking a variance regarding street width. City code requires that private schools be located on 40’ wide streets. Two of the streets that the Griffin School is located on are 27’ and one is 30’ wide.
Adam Wilson, Head of the Griffin School, presented some background on the request and the school. The Griffin School is a 9-12 grade college preparatory school that has been operating about 20 years, including 17 years in Hyde Park or in the Hyde Park area. When the school moved into the current location, the school applied for a conditional use permit that restricted enrollment to about 65 students. The current enrollment of the school is 93 students and thus it needed a new conditional use permit.
Since the original conditional use permit was issued, the school has worked to get more parking, which was a key issue with the original restricted enrollment. The school has since reached an agreement with Ridgetop Baptist Church to provide off-site parking. The Griffin School has been meeting with its immediate neighbors to address any concerns that they might have. Some initial proposals include entering into a restrictive covenant with the HPNA, limiting student parking to off-site parking only, one-way flow of traffic on Martin and Evans streets from the school for drop-off and pick-up, and enrollment verification.
Several neighbors spoke against supporting the variance. Several issues were raised about increased traffic, additional people in the neighborhood, and the school being out of character with the neighborhood. Concerns were also raised about issues that might arise if the school loses its current parking situation. Supporters of the variance raised the points that the increase is only about 30 more students than current enrollment and that the Griffin School has a long history of support for the neighborhood and a history of working with its neighbors to address any concerns.
The resolution passed 27 for, 4 against and 5 abstentions. It was noted at this time that Kathie Tovo was in attendance.
The next item on the agenda was a presentation by Ken Webster regarding the Hyde Park Theater. The theater holds about 75 people and typically has about 15 shows per year. Normally, a show runs every weekend during the year. The theater hosts Frontera Fest during January and February, which supports independent and small producers and playwrights. The contest has two different groups: Small Fringe, which is typically less than 25 minutes, and Long Fringe, which is less than 90 minutes. The theater focuses on American, Canadian, and Irish producers and playwrights. The theater has won numerous awards, including two acting awards this year for one of their earlier productions.
Finally, the meeting ended with announcements. Kevin announced that the Steering Committee would be meeting on June 8th at 7 PM at Trinity United Methodist Church. Additionally, the Board of Adjustment is meeting on June 8th at 5:30 to discuss, among other things, the variance for the Griffin School. The DRC is meeting on June 4th at 7 PM. Planning has begun for the Hyde Park Homes Tour. The committee is always looking for new volunteers to help with putting on the tour. The tour will likely be the first weekend in November. The opening party for Shipe Pool will be June 20th and will include food vendors, a movie, and possibly a puppet show. All are welcome to attend. A bench is being installed at Huffstickler Green by the Park’s department. Kevin adjourned the meeting at 8:45 PM.
Flooding and Its Implications
Our profound sympathies go out to all our Hyde Park residents who were adversely affected by the Memorial Day flood. The news footage of displaced apartment dwellers on 45th Street displaced by flood waters was sobering, to say the least. Hyde Parker Tim Hampton, in the 4400 block of Duval, reported that he provided temporary shelter for half a dozen people and their pets. Some were in such a hurry to get out they didn’t even have time to put on shoes.
We are glad that the neighborhood has serious discussions about new development in Hyde Park. The recent meetings HPNA had about a proposed restaurant on 45th and Speedway come to mind. If commercial businesses opened up on 45th Street, they would inevitably create consequences for the neighborhood as a whole, especially if those businesses increased impervious cover in Hyde Park. Flooding should make all of us consider carefully how our social environment effects our natural environment.
We appreciate the efforts of our Co-Vice Presidents, Adrian Skinner and Kathy Lawrence, to put together a program that enables all of us to explore the issues raised by the recent flooding.
Our thanks go to Ken Webster at the Hyde Park Theatre for providing our June meeting place and talking to us about the theatre. We think it inspired a few meeting attendees to attend the latest production there.
We were saddened that the Six Annual Shipe Pool Party was cancelled due to inclement weather, after all the organizational effort by the Friends of Shipe Park. We hope that some of its activities can be rescheduled for future summer events in Hyde Park.
Editor’s Note: In May, HPNA welcomed Jeff Jack, architect, member of CodeNext Citizens Advisory Group (CAG), chair of the Board of Adjustment, and ex-officio member of the Planning Commission. Jeff spoke about the CodeNext process and its potential threats to neighborhoods. Excerpts of his remarks appear below.
The CodeNext Background
Know what this is? It’s a Rubik’s Cube. The Rubik’s Cube is a good analogy for what we’ve been doing in the city of Austin for a long time. I was president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council when we started neighborhood planning. It was supposed to be a vehicle to address the conflict between neighborhoods, environmentalists, and the development community, where the community would come together and map out the future and get codified into a neighborhood plan. Then that neighborhood plan would be respected by the Council.
It didn’t work that way. After the first couple neighborhood plans were created, the staff began to take the process in a different direction. Staff’s intention was simple – new urbanism, density. What we’ve had over the last 20 years is a process where each turn of the Rubik’s Cube was lining up for an inevitable conclusion. That is going to play out in the last step of the process called CodeNext.
Imagine Austin was one of the steps in this process. We went through this great community gathering of people interested in shaping our city. Out of that came some recommendations, but a lot of the voices in the neighborhoods weren’t heard. Many felt that the staff already had a foregone conclusion of where they wanted the process the end. At the very last of the process, council members Tovo and Morrison put in page 207. Page 207 is critical for our neighborhoods because it said that the neighborhoods plans that had been created by the communities, codified by the vote of the council, would be respected in the CodeNext process. Well, maybe and maybe not.
When we started dealing with smart growth, in 2000, Kirk Watson had just become mayor and he brought with him all of the smart growth initiatives. He had about a dozen that he wanted to get implemented immediately. The Neighborhoods Council at the time said, wait a second. We’re doing neighborhood plans, we really shouldn’t be doing this as a one-size-fits-all in the city. So the only one that he got through was a secondary unit on a 7000-square-foot SF3 lot. All of the other infill options were made optional for the neighborhood planning process. It was essentially a zoning change, but staff’s legal department said no, it’s not a zoning change, so you didn’t have to get notified.
Forces Driving New Urbanism in Austin
The new urbanist idea has been around for a long time, but in Austin we have essentially five groups of people who support the idea. There are those people who like the urban lifestyle. They want a bar on every other corner and a coffee shop on the corners in between. Now I’m an old urbanist. When I lived in Denver, I lived downtown in a high rise, my office was in a high rise, I didn’t take a car, I rode the bus between, and I could walk to the neighborhood bar if I wanted to. But when I came to Austin I joined the Zilker Neighborhood Association. I realized neighborhood are more than just buildings, it’s the people who live in the neighborhoods that really count and define the neighborhood. If you start from that position, neighborhoods really need to be respected.
We also have people who believe in economics 101. You simply have supply and demand. All we have to do is increase the supply of housing in the city and the price of housing’s going to go down. The problem is, what we have done is encourage an in-migration of much wealthier people over the last 20 years, so instead of the demand curve simply moving out, it’s moved up.
One thing I’ve been advocating in the city of Austin for many years is to have a city economist. We’re a $3 billion a year corporation with no economic expertise on staff. When they want to prove something, they hire a consultant and tell him what they want him to do, and he gives them a report giving them what they want. We have nobody on the city staff who has the ability to do an analysis of any of the deals that we’ve made, any of the code changes that we’re proposing, to know whether they really work or not. It’s total resistance from city staff to have that expertise available, because they don’t know what the answer’s going to be.
Third group of people. There are environmentalists who believe that the automobile is the root sin of sprawl and if we can just get enough density in Austin, we can stop sprawling. Now I don’t know about you, but I know that capitalism doesn’t stop at the city limits. If you drive out 71, 290, 183, as soon as you get past the city limits you’re going to see development. The developers know they can go out there, buy the land cheaper, build the houses that people want, and make money. Sprawl’s not going to stop by densifying our neighborhoods. It’s just going to change the nature of the sprawl.
There are also people who are advocates for transit. They believe we have to dense pack the neighborhoods in order to have enough ridership in our neighborhoods to support rail. Those four are sort of the vanguard for the discussion about new urbanism, CodeNext, and density in our neighborhoods.
But you know what’s really driving it? Money. The development community, the homebuilders, the land speculators, the engineers, they’re salivating at Austin becoming a gold mine to be mined for our real estate. Because they understand that the lot that you own today is going to be worth a lot more if they tear down that house and build something else on it.
One of the first things that we heard in pushing the new code was that the code is difficult, it’s expensive, and it’s time-consuming for the development community. We suggested that you look at the administrative, managerial, and procedural issues with the code that we have today and fix that first, then deal with the substantive issues. Staff would not do that. When they wrote the RFQ for CodeNext, they excluded that work totally.
A year after we’d started CodeNext, they hired a California consultant, Zucker Systems, to look at those issues. They came up with a 700 page indictment of the city staff. It’s taken the mask off of what the agenda was. But the city staff hasn’t embraced it. They’re trying to say, maybe the consultant didn’t have all the facts, but the fact of the matter is they don’t want to acknowledge that most of the claims by the development community about time and money for getting things permitted was really managerial in nature. It hid the real agenda of getting rid of the neighborhood protection parts of the code.
I think the Zucker report scared the city management. One of the things that’s happening in the CodeNext process is a shakeup in our staff. For the last two years we’ve dealt with staff members who basically pushed the new urbanist creed. We hired a new assistant director for planning and he has a little bit different perspective. He says that the new code should be based on the DNA of your neighborhood.
The CodeNext Process
Back in November I proposed a resolution that clarified that the CAG supported being able to replicate your neighborhood plan with a new code. The pushback was amazing. The staff said, this is all bad, and I said, wait a second, in Imagine Austin it says we’re going to be able to do this. Staff said, respect, it’s not the same thing as replicate. If you don’t think that “replicate” means what you want, what does “respect” mean? We can’t get answers.
CodeNext went through a couple things. One of the important ones is the community character analysis. But they didn’t take it very far. They didn’t show you what percentage of your lots was in different classifications. But they did give you a bunch of pictures showing this house or this little corner grocery store that you like, and they’re going to use that to justify future changes in the code that affect your neighborhood. Oh, you like that picture of that house with the big tree and the nice Victorian roof? By the way, it had a granny flat in the back, so you automatically like granny flats, don’t you? It’s called a visual preferencing survey and it’s very manipulative. Another part of the Rubik’s Cube.
One of the big disappointments is that they didn’t do anything really data-drive. This is Zilker (pointing to a map). Those color-coded districts are each different service areas for sewers. And this yellow area right here? The load is 1320 LUEs, living unit equivalents. The capacity is 1340. So if we were to put density in that area, somebody’s going to have to pay to increase that sewer capacity, from there practically all the way to Govalle. When asked about this in the Imagine Austin process, city staff said, we’ll deal with the cost of infrastructure later. It’s called a bond election.
We were also supposed to have some code talks because we understood that there were issues unresolved, like compatibility standards. What’s the relationship between residential property and commercial property? Right now our code says that commercial property will step back and step down adjacent to residential property so that there is not an adverse effect on the residential. That is a huge problem for commercial development. We had code talks, there’s no consensus, haven’t had another code talk since. So about three months ago the city staff came up with another bright idea called working groups – three working groups and they got to pick the topics. The CAG didn’t have any say about it.
One of the good things that’s come out of this is that they hired an innovation officer for the city of Austin, somebody who’s been in federal government, dealt with bureaucracies and trying to create new ways of doing things. She basically led the working group exercise. At the end everybody could agree on only the beginning questions. She called them, “How might we do something?” How might we respect deed restrictions? How might we assure that if we build units for affordability, they actually are affordable? A whole slew of questions like that didn’t get answers. The staff trotted out a bunch of best practices. They were doing this in San Diego, they were doing this in Eugene, and the problem is that they weren’t contextually the same as Austin.
Our entire city government budget is based on mainly property, sales, and franchise tax, unlike a lot of cities that have income from state income tax. So when you say that you’re going to do affordable housing in Oklahoma City by having a sales tax, does that work in Austin? Is the gap between income levels and cost of living the same in Oklahoma City as it is in Austin? Well, there’s no data. It was just thrown out there as, well, they’re doing it over there, why don’t we do it? So that came to a screeching halt and the “How might we?” questions are the only thing that got forwarded to Opticos, the consultants doing CodeNext.
In the fall of this year, they’re going to do some testing of the code ideas. They are going to pick four areas of town. We asked to see the RFQ about this testing. They won’t show it to us, because I understand what they’re going to do: They’ll give you a dog-and-pony show about how wonderful it’s going to be if we do it this way. My suggestion is that we take a neighborhood that has an adopted neighborhood plan with a core transit corridor through it and really test it. Will the character of this neighborhood be the same if we adopt all of these infill tools? That’s the kind of question I’m hoping that the core exercises charrettes are going to address. If we don’t do it, my resolution goes back on the table. We’re not going to let the last piece of the Rubik’s Cube fall into place and end up with a picture we don’t want.
Missing Middle Housing & Effects of Entitlements
The consultants and the city staff said we don’t have enough missing middle housing to accommodate our growth. In most neighborhoods, you want to have a variety of housing, but where do you do it? If you look at some of the examples of form based code that have been adopted in other cities, they come in and say, in this transect, we’re going to allow these different types of housing units and we’re going to put them in your neighborhood somewhere. It doesn’t mean that people are going to bulldoze your houses immediately, but it does change the entitlements. In time the investment community is going to buy up those properties at the value of housing and tear them down and build something denser.
When you do that, what happens with your evaluations of your property? I have a site next to me. Guy bought a house for $800 thousand, tore it down, built six units, each one is priced at $600 thousand to $1 million. My property taxes went up $58 thousand. When TCAD looks at the sales price of the properties around you, they put that into the pool of comparables and it raises everybody’s property taxes. Increasing tax is directly related to increasing entitlements.
If you look at the city of Austin, how much land area do we have in the city full purpose, when we look at our ETJ, our extra territorial jurisdiction? The amount of land area in neighborhoods with neighborhood plans, what percentage all total do you think it is? 17%. So 83% of the opportunity to accommodate growth is outside of our planning areas. We’re focusing all of this attention to densify these urban core neighborhoods when we’re paying almost no attention to all of that 83% of land area that we control that is out there beyond us. I rail about this at the Planning Commission every time we have to approve a low density large lot subdivision at the edge of town in one case and in the next case we’re trying to push entitlements to densify an urban core neighborhood.
Deed Restrictions & HOAs
We’ve been asking the city since the beginning of neighborhood planning to do an analysis of deed restrictions in these planning areas. It does us no good as a community to put neighbor against neighbor by not acknowledging deed restrictions. If you live in a subdivision that says you’re not going to have a second story unit and you build a 2-story ADU, you get sued if you have a strong enough neighborhood association or HOA. In the South Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan, for the first time, the city staff looked at deed restrictions in one part of the neighborhood and the infill options that were in conflict with the deed restrictions were taken out of the plan. So we have a precedent. If you look at most of our older neighborhoods we’re going to find out that the deed restrictions are pretty extensive.
We have a new city council because there’s little trust in this community in our city staff. Those council members are going to be faced with a huge problem because a lot of the neighborhood plans are in essentially four of the ten council districts. Don Zimmerman doesn’t have any neighborhood plans in his entire district but he’s got a lot of HOAs that have deed restrictions. The other council members all have to understand that some of the pushing they feel, they’re going to have to push back and say, wait a second, my neighborhood doesn’t allow that.
It’s not all bleak. We do have a new city council. I think that we do have to engage them, make them understand our issues. And hopefully they’re not tied as previous councils have been to the development community, and maybe we’ll get some traction out of this and we’ll get a new code that actually works for the community.