Swarms of Austin residents were tailgating ahead of the annual Texas-Oklahoma college football game on a Saturday this past October. About 50 other people decided to spend the sunny morning inside the Asian American Resource Center for something a little less action-packed – a meeting of Austin’s Zoning and Platting Commission.
The ZAP commission, which deals with land use issues, typically holds a lot of late-night meetings, combing through the finer points of individual zoning cases. But on this particular Saturday, ZAP members were hosting a “listening session,” offering residents a chance to share their input on CodeNEXT, the ongoing overhaul of the city’s land development code.
The draft document spans more than 1,000 pages of technical language. If approved, CodeNEXT would govern what can be built in the city and where it can go. Many residents see this process as a chance to shape Austin’s future, but people across the political spectrum have been unsatisfied with what’s being proposed.
One of them is Mary Ingle. A past president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Ingle had a lot to say about CodeNEXT at the meeting.
“This process has been a cram-down from day one,” she said.
Ingle told commissioners that CodeNEXT was too long and complicated and that it doesn’t respect neighborhood plans, among other things. Then she brought up a specific case, a building proposed near her Central Austin neighborhood.
“There was a case at the Board of Adjustments where somebody tried to cram a 17,000-square-foot building on a 6,000-square-foot lot,” she said. “This is not Calcutta.”
The Indian city reverted to its original name, Kolkata, in 2001, in a rejection of the whitewashing effects of British rule. Nonetheless, it wasn’t immediately clear what Ingle meant when she drew that comparison. She quickly moved on to a criticism of the proposed rules for drive-thru businesses.
In an interview with KUT days later, Ingle shared her concerns about CodeNEXT, namely that she didn’t feel the proposed code was compatible with the type of housing that already exists in her neighborhood, just north of the UT campus.
When asked about her comment on Calcutta, she replied: “I’ve been to Calcutta. I know what it looks like there. I know how much pollution they have to deal with. I know how packed in and overpopulated it is and how much poverty there is.”
Ingle went on to say she had fought a tough public battle against the particular development she referenced before the ZAP commission. She refused to talk about it any further or explain the comparison to Calcutta.
Attorney Stephanie Trinh, who served on the ZAP Commission until recently, was present at that October meeting and called Ingle’s words “highly, highly offensive.”
Trinh said it’s troubling that Ingle would choose to compare Austin to a city of people of color. She said she can’t presume to know the intent behind Ingle’s words, but noted that many other places, like Manhattan, also have a high-population density.
“You know, maybe she’s envisioning a city that is incredibly dense and lower-income and kind of looks like a slum,” Trinh said. “I think that there's definitely racial overtones in that statement. I found it to be incredibly insensitive and kind of a fear-mongering statement to a very white room.”
Ingle said she has been “attacked left and right” by people who perceived her comment as racially insensitive.
“Sure, I could have said, ‘This is not Manhattan.’ Whatever,” Ingle said. “I made that reference because what came to mind was over-densification. I have been to Calcutta. I used to teach squash at UT with all the Indian students. I love Indian people. Why would I make a racial statement?”
Virtually any public discussion on CodeNEXT is sure to be filled with hyperbole. Speakers often lean on coded language, words that can serve as a sort of shorthand for broader political views.
Elizabeth Mueller, an associate professor of community and regional planning at UT-Austin, said these phrases can take on different meanings depending on the audience.
Take the concept of “density,” for example. Literally, it refers to the number of housing units in a given area.
“Some people are afraid of density because they don’t want to see the character of their neighborhood change,” Mueller said. “And for them, density might mean adding a secondary unit behind your house. For other people, density might mean adding a large, multifamily building.”
The concept may seem straightforward enough, but in the tense public debates over Austin’s land use, residents who take a stance in favor of density are often pegged as urbanists. Those who speak against it are quickly labeled NIMBYs (not in my backyard).
Another commonly used phrase is neighborhood character. Mueller said this idea takes on different meanings depending on where someone lives and what they value about that place.
“People who are concerned about change in the character of their neighborhood are concerned right now about their own ability to stay in their neighborhood,” Mueller said. “And they fear that changing the amount of development allowed in their neighborhood is going to increase the pressure" of displacement.
Mueller said it’s important to put these discussions in context. Austin has a history of racial segregation in land use decisions. The city’s 1928 Master Plan notoriously divided residents along racial lines, relegating black and brown people to the area east of I-35. Today, the city remains one of the most economically segregated in the nation.
“I mean, we do have a problematic history here of using zoning and planning in exclusionary ways, and it’s part of what’s produced the underlying pattern that we’re overlaying all these things on,” she said. “And sometimes, the way we’re talking about these things is not really acknowledging that.”
She said when people rely on buzzwords, it makes it hard to get to the core of real land use issues, and the tense political divisions around these ideas can make public meetings an intimidating space.
“There’s a small group of people who are really engaged and have spent a lot of time learning about this who are able to speak the same language as the planners,” Mueller said. “But I think there’s a lot of people who are hearing about this for the first time or are newcomers to it, and it’s very difficult to engage in the discussion.”
Still, she said, this kind of coded language can be a way to express anxiety around CodeNEXT.