Austin Urbanists See Support For Denser Housing In Defeat Of Prop J And Laura Morrison

Nov 9, 2018

Most mornings, Dave Sullivan bikes from his house in Clarksville to the University of Texas. He then hops on an express bus to his job as a researcher at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus.

During the election season, his daily commute served as a sort of poll of voters – albeit, with a miniscule sample size.

“I would pass by signs in support of Prop J and I didn’t see any signs against Prop J,” said Sullivan, who served on the City of Austin’s Planning Commission. “My own small sample from my own observations made me think it was going to get more support than it did.”

Proposition J would have required the public to vote on every citywide land-development code rewrite and created a waiting period between the City Council’s approval of a new code and it going into effect. But it failed on Tuesday night – by a 4-point margin.

"Austinites want a growing, vibrant Austin. They don't want to just keep Austin the way it was."

Former City Council Member Laura Morrison, meanwhile, lost the mayoral race (badly) – falling to incumbent Steve Adler, who secured nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Morrison is a past president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, a group that promotes the protection of single-family neighborhoods. She focused her campaign in part on CodeNEXT's demise, calling it a result of "Adler's failed leadership."

You'd think she'd have more support given "the people who show up at City Hall on Thursday,” said Kevin McLaughlin, a board member of the nonprofit AURA. "You would think that neighborhood preservationists were a majority of Austinites.”

AURA advocates for denser housing, a walkable city and better public transit.

Many supporters of Prop J also backed Morrison’s campaign. And they share a concern about changes to single-family neighborhoods as the city grows and struggles to accommodate its population.

But since both Prop J and Morrison lost Tuesday, McLaughlin said, it shows that most voters aren't nervous about changes to the city's landscape.

"Austinites want a growing, vibrant Austin," he said. "They don’t want to just keep Austin the way it was.”

On election night, Adler called the results a “mandate” to continue with a land-code rewrite, despite hitting pause on the process by scrapping CodeNEXT in August.

Others argued the outcome Tuesday showed voters were baffled and some campaigns outspent others.

“The Council messed with the language [on Prop J]; they brought down CodeNEXT to confuse people and then they ran a smear campaign against us and confused people,” said Fred Lewis, who ran Let Us Vote Austin, one of the political action committees that got the proposition on the ballot. “The easiest way to defeat a ballot measure is to lie about it.”

“[Adler] had the big money behind him and it’s very hard to fight big money,” said Patricia King, the incoming president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, which endorsed Morrison and Prop J.

"The easiest way to defeat a ballot measure is to lie about it."

King said Morrison’s loss and the defeat of Prop J will not change the organization’s messaging.

“We’re planning to get together as a neighborhood and really protect our neighborhoods. That fight is going to have to increase,” she said. “We’re doubling down, we’re doubling down.”

But while some people read Tuesday night’s results as either a mandate or a threat, Angela De Hoyos Hart looked at the tight margin between those who supported Prop J and those who defeated it. In that, she saw a divided city.

“While the results might have been a more narrow margin than I had hoped, the passion is not by a narrow margin,” said De Hoyos Hart, who serves on Austin’s Planning Commission. “We need to continue to bring folks to an understanding on what the consequences are, both positive and negative, of the choices we need to make over the coming months and years.”

Correction: A previous version of this post said Dave Sullivan serves on the City of Austin’s Planning Commission. He no longer serves on the commission.