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That's a Wrap: Curtain Call for Austin's At-Large Council

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
The Austin City Council gavelled in for the last time yesterday, marking the end of Austin's at-large city government ahead of the new geographically representative council.

The final meeting of Austin's at-large city council went much like their previous ones over the years: late. It all started out cheerily enough, at 10 am Thursday morning, with a prayer. But that moment of reflection quickly faded away as the council got into the grueling business of cleaning out their policy inbox. It was the longest agenda in council history, and the council didn't gavel out until the early hours of Friday morning.

It was, true to council meetings under the leadership of outgoing Mayor Lee Leffingwell, a very long day, dealing with everything from the height of signs at a strip mall to a request to re-zone a modest house into a modest office. But it wasn't all small potatoes.

A Greener City

One of the most significant proposals on the massive agenda (which clocked in at well over 200 items) was a call to change the city's energy and climate change plan by speeding up a move away from fossil fuel power to renewables like solar and wind energy. Under the new targets, over half of the city's energy will come from renewables by 2025, and the city will either retire or sell it's share of the Fayette coal power plant.

The revised targets would result in a significant drop in carbon emissions for the city, but has several caveats: the power deals Austin Energy signs have to come in cheap enough, and how exactly the city will get rid of the Fayette coal plant is unclear at the moment. 

Environmental groups like Sierra Club worked closely with Austin Energy to revise the plan, while acknowledging it fell short of their ideal. 

"Is this plan perfect? Hardly," Jeff Crunk with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign told the council. "In the world of energy and energy politics, there is no free lunch. What there is are hard choices, difficult tradeoffs, and imperfect solutions." 

Others may have still been waiting for a perfect plan. Several solar advocates and even a common friend of the Sierra Club, the group Public Citizen, shared concerns that the plan didn't do enough to reduce the city's use of natural gas.

The revised plan was passed by the council with a vote of 6 to 1. Outgoing Mayor Lee Leffingwell was the sole vote against.

Austin's Going to Get a Little Smaller 

The council also passed an ordinance approving "micro units," dwellings that are smaller in size than your typical apartment, under 500 square feet, with no parking requirement. The urbanist group AURA pushed for the ordinance, saying micro units would increase affordable housing and encourage denser development. 

Airport Boulevard Will Become More of a Street and Less of a Road

Outgoing councilman Chris Riley pushed hard for taking $22 million of money from Capital Metro's sales tax revenue, which would have gone towards the failed light rail plan, and putting it towards improvements for the Airport Boulevard corridor. That corridor was evaluated by the city earlier this year, with a vision to making it more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. Riley argued that since voters turned down the proposed light rail plan at the ballot box last month, the money is in essence just sitting there and should go towards the improvements already approved by the city. 

But others on the dais disagreed, saying using all $22 million would tie the hands of the future council to spread out the funds to other corridors also in need of improvements, like North Burnet and North Lamar. Ultimately the council approved $2 million to go towards some short-term improvements to the corridor:

"Pedestrian hybrid beacons, several of them throughout the corridor," said Robert Spillar, director of the Austin Transportation Department. "Right turn lanes, left turn lanes, changing the geometry to make the corridor more appropriate for pedestrians, bicycles, as well as vehicles throughout the corridor." 

You can read more about those short-term improvements in the Airport Boulevard Corridor Study

Rail is Back on the Menu, Sort Of

Just a month ago, Austin voters shot down a proposal and were told by Leffingwell that there's no 'Plan B.' But rail transit is far from dead. Today the City Council approved a resolution that could help speed up the Lone Star Rail project, a proposed commuter rail line that would run from Georgetown all the way to San Antonio, with seven stops planned for Austin. The council committed to contributing a little earlier than planned to help fund the plan. The catch? The state legislature has to amend some rules first. 
"And of course, as you know, the agreement is that you keep the funds anyway. They're not dispersed until the rail district is able to assure you that it will become operational," Bill Bingham, an attorney on the board of Lone Star Rail, told the council.
Austin's money towards the project wouldn't come from property tax increases. Instead, the dollars would come from increased tax revenues from homes and businesses around the rail stations in the city. 
Protections for Renters Against Income Discrimination

The council also passed an ordinance that bans housing discrimination based on an individual's source of income.
More from our reporting partners at Austin Monitor:

"City Council unanimously passed the ordinance Thursday after hearing arguments from public speakers for and against it. Proponents believe it will open up housing choices for Section 8 voucher holders — benefiting people with disabilities and underserved minorities — while opponents say it would burden landlords."    

The Austin Apartment Association, which opposed the plan, is already filing a lawsuit seeking an injunction to block it. The association maintains the ordinance is unconstitutional under both state and federal law.

And Now, the End is Near

The council also passed a few other noteworthy items on the 231-item agenda before heading out the door, including:

  • An extension of city benefits to those who identify as transgender,
  • A resolution to get more self-driving cars in Austin
  • A couple of tweaks to the Imagine Austin plan, but keeping the goal of a "compact and connected" city.
  • A project to install dimmable LED lights on Sixth Street 
  • A resolution to repatriate some of thousands of recordings by Alan Lomax, a native Austinite who recorded an extensive archive of blues music for the Library of Congress in the 1930s and 40's.

And in what was perhaps the most heated debate of the evening, the council passed zoning changes that would allow Springdale Farm, an urban farm in East Austin, to hold events like weddings and fundraisers.  
The council gaveled out at around 1 a.m. and, before 'It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)' came on over the loudspeakers, Mayor Lee Leffingwell gave his forlorn, if not deadpan, farewell.

“And that concludes our agenda for the night, and for the year. And forever,” Leffingwell said to applause. “Without objection, we stand adjourned.”

Andrew Weber contributed reporting.

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