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Housing prices in Austin have exploded in the past decade, leading to a city that’s not just unaffordable but also highly segregated. In this podcast, KUT lays out how we got here.

Barton Springs could have been a putrid swamp. Saving it shaped Austin's housing market.

People in the water and lying on grass on the other side
Amaya Austin
/
KUT
A development proposed near Barton Springs in the '90s would have brought homes, shops and at least one golf course to the area.

This story is Episode 3 of the podcast "Growth Machine." Listen to the full episode through the player above, and subscribe here.

On June 7, 1990, hundreds of people swarmed a meeting of the Austin City Council, filling the chambers to capacity and spilling out into the streets. They stayed for over 12 hours, cursing, shouting, singing, invoking religion.

They were there for a zoning vote.

But this was not just any zoning vote. The City Council was set to approve one of the largest developments that had ever been proposed in the city.

The project was known simply as the Barton Creek Planned Unit Development. But underneath that dry title were big plans. The subdivision would occupy over 4,000 acres, more than five times the size of the current Mueller development. It was going to be built right along Barton Creek near Southwest Parkway and would include homes, shops and at least one golf course.

“These people want to come in and use our land to make a fortune off of it,” one man shouted at council members during the meeting.

Demonstrators protest outside the Austin City Council chamber in June 1990.
Courtesy of Alan Pogue
Demonstrators protest outside the Austin City Council chamber in June 1990.

They warned that construction in West Austin was dumping unsustainable levels of pollution into the area’s groundwater. If approved, they said, the development would contaminate the Edwards Aquifer and render Austin’s beloved Barton Springs Pool unswimmable.

On the other side of the fight was a big dog.

Jim Bob Moffett was the chairman and CEO of Freeport-McMoRan, a large mining company spearheading the project. An oilman of the kind we rarely now see, Moffett grew up poor in Houston and played football at UT Austin under Coach Darrell Royal before finding vast fortune in petrochemicals.

As the head of Freeport-McMoRan, Moffett controlled a massive Indonesian mine. Now, he had found real estate gold in Austin.

For many in Austin, Moffett was a Texas success story: a self-made man, with a penchant for impersonating Elvis. (Moffett passed away in 2021.)

To many others, he was a villain.

Freeport-McMoRan had a record of polluting rivers and despoiling coastlines and forests in Indonesia. The mining group worked with, and in some cases paid, Indonesian police and security, who brutally suppressed dissent.

The all-night council meeting that pit this grassroots environmental movement against Moffett’s company is spoken of as a legendary event. Some people have coined it the "Barton Springs Uprising." And if you were there, you were part of history.

But its outcome didn’t just end up determining the future of Barton Springs Pool. It changed the way the city has grown ever since.

A real estate boom, a banking bust and a quick lesson in hydrology

In the 1980s, Austin was in the midst of a real estate boom that was, by many measures, more transformative than what it is going on today.

High-tech industries flocked to the city thanks to government policy and the presence of the University of Texas.

The city's population was growing faster than it had since its founding. Between 1982 and 1987, more than 100,000 people moved to Austin. These people needed houses. In 1983, developers received permits to build nearly as many homes and offices as they would four decades later.

Then the savings and loan banking crisis hit. It led to repossessions and market liquidations that flooded Central Texas with cheap, available land. Real estate investors bought up huge tracts of property, much of it former ranch and farmland in the Southwest of town. (One reason so many subdivisions around the city have the word “ranch” in their names is because they, indeed, used to be ranches.)

But Southwest Austin contained more than just a wealth of cheap real estate. It was also the location of the recharge zone for Barton Springs.

Basically, this land, called an aquifer, acts like a big sponge. It soaks up the rainwater and creek water flowing over it. In this part of town much of that water comes back up though natural springs, including Barton Springs.

Environmentalists and groundwater officials said development in Southwest Austin would cause toxic runoff from homes and businesses to leak into the aquifer. Once it got into the ground, it could come back up and poison the springs.

It was a fear that seemed to have already materialized. After the Barton Creek Mall was built in the early 1980s, the water quality in the springs began deteriorating, and the city formed a task force to see what it could do.

A woman sings in opposition of a proposed development in Southwest Austin at a council meeting in June, 1990.
Alan Pogue
/
Courtesy of Alan Pogue
A woman sings in opposition to a proposed development in Southwest Austin at a City Council meeting in June 1990.

So, when Jim Bob Moffett proposed his Barton Creek project, Austin’s environmental community drew a line in the sand.

“The city's here because of the springs, quite literally,” says Bill Bunch, one of the organizers of the push against Freeport-McMoRan. “We would not be talking, sitting here without Barton Springs.”

Bunch, who is still active in Austin politics, says a coalition of environmentalists and concerned citizens organized to turn people against the project because it was the most visible example of the development they opposed.

The group wasn't sure how council would vote at that meeting in June.

“We knew we had two votes and maybe three,” Bunch says, noting that at that time Austin had a total of seven council members.

But after more than 12 hours of impassioned testimony, the council voted against the development. Just before 6 a.m. on June 8, 1990, the council chambers erupted in applause. Attendees blew whistles. Someone yelled, “And now for a swim at Barton Springs!”

The environmentalist victory that night put the brakes on one of the biggest subdivisions in city history. It also ushered in a new political reality in Austin. The defenders of the springs were empowered, organized and not going away. Many of them agreed their work was far from over.

The city responds

“The Jim Bob Moffett, Barton Creek PUD [vote] happened literally a month after I trained as an intern,” remembers Matt Hollon, who, at 26 years old, was just starting as a city employee working on water quality. “It was really a heady time, very exciting.”

Hollon says after the vote the entire city seemed interested in the “wonky” particulars of his chosen profession.

“The media, the city, ... average people were really, really engaged in the conversation,” he says. “I was lapping it up!”

But once the initial excitement over the victory waned, the environmental coalition that had defeated the Barton Creek PUD faced a problem.

Moffett’s subdivision was just one project. Developers could always file new plans or build somewhere else over the aquifer. What could environmentalists do about that?

The answer lay in something called impervious cover.

Impervious cover is anything on land that stops water from being absorbed into the earth. Concrete, asphalt, rooftops, the foundations of houses — all of these things count as impervious cover.

Moffett’s subdivision was just one project. Developers could always file new plans or build somewhere else over the aquifer. What could environmentalists do about that?

The argument against development in Southwest Austin was that pollution would run off that impervious cover and seep into the groundwater. It would pollute the aquifer and come right back up in Barton Springs.

“Phosphorus and nitrogen just can't get very high in the [aquifer] water. It just goes wild with algae, which isn't just a nuisance, but actually can really kill the aquatic life in the system,” Hollon says.

The solution environmentalists and city water officials arrived at was to limit pollution by severely curbing impervious cover over this part of town.

At first, city leaders appeared to agree.

In the months following the Barton Springs Uprising, City Council called a temporary moratorium on development over the Barton Springs watershed. In other words, no one could build there.

It also put in place temporary water quality rules and told city staff to come up with a long-term plan to restrict development.

“There weren’t that many cities doing this work at that time,” Hollon says. “So we were way out in front of that, kind of on the bleeding edge.”

Throughout much of Austin, the impervious cover limit is 45% of a piece of land. But, after looking at how development would impact the aquifer in West Austin, city staff proposed impervious cover there should be limited to 15% to 25% of a lot.

That means if you have a 5,000-square-foot lot in this part of Austin, 15% of that could be impervious cover. Whatever structure is built could be only 750 square feet — either a small house or a garage.

Many developers, business leaders and property owners were shocked by the plan. And when city staff proposed making development restrictions permanent, they started speaking up.

“When I read the proposed amendments to this ordinance — ludicrous, outrageous, ridiculous, off the wall and out of bounds came into my mind,” one speaker told City Council members at a meeting in 1991.

“My message is simple: Do not pass these amendments," said another. "You must say no to this insidious, thinly veiled no-growth ordinance."

The council played for time. It delayed adopting these new restrictions and then it proposed a different set of development rules, these far friendlier to builders.

You can guess how the environmentalists took that.

The birth of Save Our Springs

“We needed to pursue some kind of action to protect Bartons Springs, because it seemed pretty clear that the council wasn't going to do it," remembers Brigid Shea, a Travis County commissioner who was an environmental activist at the time.

“We’d been having meetings with a variety of environmental leaders for months and decided that we needed to form a coalition."

The group called itself the Save Our Springs Coalition, or S.O.S. It decided to take the issue to Austin voters.

S.O.S. created a petition that, if successful, would force the city to put strict caps on development in the Southwest of town. The proposal was called the Save Our Springs ordinance.

Suddenly, what had been a battle fought through the lobbying of local politicians and shouting at zoning hearings became a citywide exercise in direct democracy.

S.O.S. set up public events and talked to people on street corners and outside polling places. Members were greeted by a sympathetic public. It was hard to find people against protecting Barton Springs.

"[Bill] Bunch and Brigid [Shea] were both well trained in the media,” remembers Gary Bradley, a local developer who became the public face of opposition to S.O.S. “I'm not stupid. I mean, S.O.S.? That's cool. And it's got a nice ring to it.”

Campaign signs in support of the S.O.S. ordinance, which was up for a vote on Aug. 8, 1992.
Courtesy of Alan Pogue
Campaign signs in support of the S.O.S. ordinance, which was up for a vote on Aug. 8, 1992.

Bradley’s group opposing the S.O.S. ordinance had settled on a decidedly less catchy name: Citizens for Responsible Planning. It was composed of Chamber of Commerce and Austin Real Estate Council members, West Austin landholders and allies on the City Council.

When the S.O.S. Coalition announced it had enough signatures to put its ordinance on a citywide ballot, council tacked onto the ballot its own much less restrictive and more developer-friendly proposition.

But that’s not all council members did to try and squash the S.O.S. ordinance. In Austin, the City Council is required to vote to either accept a citizen-backed petition outright or put it on a ballot. But council members refused, time and again, to vote on the petition, effectively pushing the proposition from a May ballot to an August one.

The move gave Citizens for Responsible Planning more time to organize. It also allowed developers more time to file building plans on the West Side on the assumption that such plans would be grandfathered in under looser development rules.

But the postponement had another impact as well.

“It also made clear, just frankly, what tools the City Council was of the developers,” Shea says. “To see these council members tying themselves in pretzel knots to avoid doing what they were legally required to do was really shocking.”

After a flurry of legal filings, including a judge's order that council members vote, they put the proposition on the ballot. With just three months to campaign, things got really ugly.

Protesters and counterprotesters took to the streets. TV and radio stations bombarded people with political advertising.

Shea says she believes her phone line was tapped by the opposition. Bradley says someone shot a rifle at his house. Both say their cars were constantly vandalized.

“We would get horrible phone calls late at night and really just violent, just foul, nasty stuff,” Shea remembers.

When the ballots were counted in August, it wasn’t even close. The S.O.S. ordinance won by a landslide. More than 60% of people who came to the polls voted in favor of it.

An ‘S.O.S. landscape’

The S.O.S. ordinance went into effect immediately. Overnight it became much harder to build in the part of town west of MoPac and south of the river.

Most people agree this strategy worked. If it weren't for limiting development and raising awareness about the aquifer, they say, Barton Springs might be unswimmable today.

But one thing the ordinance did not do was stop people from moving to town. Between 1990 and 2000, Austin’s population grew by 41%, the fastest population growth since the 1950s. The question still remained: Where were all these people going to live?

In TV interviews done right after the election was called, you can already hear hints of the battles that would come next.

Representatives of the local development industry vowed to go to the courts and the state Legislature to get the new ordinance overturned.

There was also frustration brewing among environmental activists in other parts of town. Cynthia Vasquez, an activist from East Austin, accused the S.O.S. Coalition of letting Black and brown Austinites down.

In an interview, she said many who supported S.O.S. did not come out equally as strong for ballot initiatives to fund projects in East Austin, including money to build a Mexican-American cultural center.

"At the time [people] said S.O.S. is just a bunch of no-growthers. They want to stop all the growth."
Brigid Shea, Travis County commissioner and environmental activist

“It wasn’t our votes they wanted, because we didn’t have that many votes to give,” Vasquez said. “They wanted public image. They wanted PR. They didn’t want to seem that they were elitist. They didn’t want to seem that they were against the poor East Side minorities and the South Austin minorities. They didn’t want to seem that they didn’t care about our environmental issues.”

In a separate interview with a local TV station, Shea proclaimed that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

“We, in the environmental community in particular, will be very vigilant to make sure that some members of City Council don't try and tamper with the ordinance,” she said, as someone behind her held a sign demanding the recall of two pro-developer council members.

What you see in these interviews is the emergence of a new city politics, one that would be hyperresponsive to environmental concerns. (Shea was elected to the Austin City Council several years later). It was also a politics that was deeply suspicious, at least in its rhetoric, of development. Being an environmentalist in Austin meant being solidly anti-development.

Joshua Long, who teaches environmental studies at Southwestern University and has written about environmental movements in the city, called the S.O.S. movement “anti-development, quality-of-life oriented” environmentalism.

Shea and others involved in S.O.S. reject the idea that they're opposed to development and say they're rather more discerning about where it should go.

“At the time [people] said S.O.S. is just a bunch of no-growthers. They want to stop all the growth,” Shea says. “I remember Jim Bob [Moffett’s] righthand guy … said at the time, if S.O.S. passes, you'll have to get your kids a telephone calling card because they'll have to call you long distance because they won't be able to get any jobs here and they'll have to move away.”

In an interview last year with theAustin American-Statesman, Shea said she didn't support building new housing in existing neighborhoods in the central part of the city, while Bunch has advocated for new housing to be built on the edges of town, where land is vacant.

But the conversation around where environmentalists should stand on development is changing.

“Many people came of age in the environmental movement fighting development,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, says. “The trouble is now we're seeing the severe consequences of fighting all development because our region is growing rapidly, and we have to put people somewhere and put those homes somewhere.”

These days, development — and especially urban density — are not the boogeymen that they used to be to a lot of environmentalists, Hollon says. Over 30 years after activists got the City Council to shut down Moffett’s big project, he still works for the city.

“I remember being a pretty fierce opponent of impervious cover from an early age in my career,” he says.

Now, he says, the prevailing wisdom is that cities should build more houses on less land to protect the environment. Building homes closer together and closer into the city reduces the need to build farther out and drive everywhere. It reduces water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“That's one of the difficulties of an S.O.S.-looking landscape," Hollon says. "You've got very low density."

But this more density-friendly attitude is still fiercely opposed by a lot of other environmentalists. Hollon says he has a regular meet-up with an old friend at Barton Springs, where this entire conversation kicked off. They argue over it.

“We go to Barton Springs and swim and then we hang out and eat tacos and talk about this exact same topic,” he says. “Like probably hundreds of times, the same topic.”

He says they never seem to change each other's minds.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at mbuchele@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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