Friday, January 27, 2012

January 2012 Essential Class - Transportation and Housing

Guest post from Essential Class of 2012 participant Amber Vasquez Bode. The January 2012 class day theme was "Transportation, Land Use, and Housing." 

Austin City Council Member Chris Riley
Our housing and transportation day started off with a bang via Chris Riley. I came into his presentation curious because I live in Allandale, where the battle with Walmart went down a few years ago and he was a key player. His presentation advocated form based codes over traditional zoning, and he put forward a strong case by unveiling plans for a revamped Airport Blvd. corridor as well as a new Highland Mall area corridor. Of course, my classmates and I wanted to know about plans for other areas of town, since it seemed like the East side has been getting all of the love these days.

It sounded like there was a lot of unanimous community support in the areas that were currently on the radar, especially since the two mentioned in the presentation had nowhere to go but up. It makes sense, but is still a little disheartening for the rest of the run down corridors in need of makeovers in other areas.

Mike Clark-Madison followed with more discussion on land use and housing, examples of amazing results from form-based codes were shown and made me start wondering what was the opposition? It seemed to make so much sense- why not?

Lucy Galbraith tied it all together with an in-depth discussion on transportation planning. It was exciting to hear potential solutions to our chronic mobility crisis, but the challenge became clear to me, at least through discussion at my table. As we discussed bonds to pay for all of the new plans and allotting the extra tax revenue to pay for them, Lisa Fielder made the point that she has no interest in paying for projects on the other side of town from where she lived and already paid a fortune in taxes. We all felt the heat of high taxes, and the struggle with how our city gets from here to there came into focus. The transportation plans seemed awesome and ambitious, but still left me wanting even more solutions for the price tag.

The stakeholder engagement exercise we did after lunch was pretty enlightening, and certainly challenged a lot of assumptions I came in with as to who had the power and who was important in community debates. The following panel discussion highlighted some intriguing innovations from car sharing to building mini houses in peoples back yards. I couldn't help myself from asking the same question (again- I know) about why housing in central Austin seems to overlook larger families. The answer from Laurie Loew and Lisa Garcia was that large families need to stop thinking bigger is better and learn to live together in small spaces again, as they did with their respective huge families growing up. Fair enough.  Monica Williams at my table had a strong argument for packing it up and moving out of central Austin if I wanted more space. However, Lisa Fielder held her ground and made it clear that she had no intention of sharing space just because she lived central and felt no obligation to do so to allow more people to be central. All valid perspectives, I felt lucky to be around such informed people.

Amber Vasquez Bode is a Criminal Law Attorney with the Vasquez Law Firm in Austin, Texas.

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