For a city of nearly a million people, many big decisions in Austin tend to be influenced by a self-selected few. Lots of small recommendations by neighborhood associations can end up having a big impact on how Austin handles its growth. But now, changes in city governance and the neighborhoods themselves may upset the status quo.
Take the neighborhood of Hyde Park. Lorre Weidlich moved to Hyde Park in the seventies when she moved to Austin for graduate school and immediately fell in love with the neighborhood. "I like the old houses, the vintage feel to it all, the streetscapes with all the bungalows," she says. "And it's also very much a community. It's a friendly place."
Weidlich is co-president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, which has also been around since the seventies. The neighborhood itself dates back much further, to 1891. That's when Colonel Monroe Shipe founded Hyde Park as a suburb of Austin. He was the sort of individual the Neighborhood Association often finds itself fighting against these days: a developer.
"Colonel Shipe was a mover and shaker in the history of Austin," Weidlich says. "And this part of the city is very much part of the history of Austin."
Shipe bought up the land here, then built and sold a suburban dream: affordable homes on large lots, with beautiful groves, lakes, and a rapid transit line. The streetcar here ran downtown every fifteen minutes until 1940. But Shipe also designed Hyde Park to be exclusive. Early ads said, "Hyde Park is strictly for white people." And Shipe himself was an instrumental figure in segregating Austin in its early days. Fast-forward more than a hundred years, and that blatant racial segregation is gone. But now some neighbors in Hyde Park are being accused of a different kind of exclusiveness.
"They were trying to keep other voices out that were not sort of the tight group that they're used to," Alejandro Puyana says of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association (HPNA). Puyana has owned a home in the neighborhood for about three years. A while back, he tried to show up and vote at a meeting of the neighborhood association. They were voting on a recommendation on short-term rentals. But the association has strict bylaws – you have to wait 30 days after registering before you can vote.
"We do that to make sure nobody stacks the vote," Weidlich says.
For Puyana, it meant he couldn't simply show up to a neighborhood association meeting, register, and then vote.
"And I felt very cheated by it," he says. "I felt like my voice wasn't respected and counted. And it was unfair."
"It basically prevents any new people from coming and voting on anything they're passionate about," adds Pete Gilcrease, also a resident and chair of the Neighborhood Plan Contact Team. "We just found the whole process very difficult to change. So it seemed like an easier process to create something from scratch."
So that's what they did. Gilcrease joined Puyana and another resident, Ricky Hennessy, to create a new neighborhood association with the aim of more inclusiveness, naming it Friends of Hyde Park. It's open to anyone that lives in or owns property in Hyde Park, including businesses. There are no dues, voting is anonymous, and you don't have to attend meetings to vote, because voting is done online over a period of several days. The group's first vote is a resolution to support "Accessory Dwelling Units," also known as "granny flats," units smaller than city code currently allows.
What the three did in creating a new neighborhood association isn't difficult. All you have to do to create one is go to the city's website to register. Anyone can do it. (For the record, I should say here that although I live in Hyde Park, I’m not a member of either neighborhood association. -TH)
Hennessy said their group wants to bring more voices to the table.
"The current one, the HPNA, really wasn't very representative of everyone that lived in Hyde Park," Hennessy says, noting that 80 percent of those who live in the neighborhood are renters. (Renters are welcome in both neighborhood associations.) "But when they would go to city council meetings, they would speak as if they represented the entire neighborhood."
Neighborhood associations don't have any official authority within city government, but they can have a lot of influence. They issue recommendations on zoning changes, variances, and city policies. And not all neighborhood associations are created equal. Just ask former city council member Chris Riley, who left office this month.
"Some neighborhoods are very active and have had very well established neighborhood associations for a long time," Riley says. "Some other areas, especially those in the outlying areas, may not even have neighborhood associations at all, or may only have the involvement of a few people in the neighborhood."
"Council members have to make decisions on the input they get. So if you have a group of folks who are available and willing to be engaged, that's who gets heard," says Heidi Gerbracht, Vice President of Public Policy with the Real Estate Council of Austin. Gerbracht spent the last decade working on city policy, most recently as Policy Director for former council member Bill Spelman. "It's people who have lots of time and ability be engaged and go to meetings, stuff like that. Which can be self-limiting."
The Hyde Park Neighborhood Association is certainly one of the more vocal and better-organized neighborhood associations, pushing at council to preserve single-family homes, parking requirements, and limiting denser development. They've had success helping to pass the city's controversial "stealth dorm" ordinance, which places stricter occupancy limits on homes in Austin.
The founders of Friends of Hyde Park hope their group will be more friendly to renters and increased density, a counter to some of the recommendations of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association.
"If we are able to do a neighborhood association that is open, diverse, and fair, I think the information that goes to council will be much better," Puyano says. The group ran into difficulty finding a meeting place at first and had to abruptly relocate their first meeting after a local church changed its mind about hosting them. They've since secured a spot at the Hancock Recreation Center for the year, but their monthly meetings are held at the same time as the HPNA, which some residents feel is the opposite of inclusive. Gilcrease and Puyana have also appointed themselves as Chair and Vice Chair of the new neighborhood association, respectively, but say they plan to hold elections in the future.
"What makes a neighborhood association a neighborhood association is its work to maintain community – getting people together, getting them talking, getting them socializing," Weidlich of HPNA says. "It remains to be seen whether they're [Friends of Hyde Park] going to do that kind of thing."
Hyde Park isn’t the only neighborhood where there's talk of forming new neighborhood associations. On top of that, the city has undertaken a huge change in government, switching from an at-large council to geographic representation. How exactly neighborhood associations will fit into that shift remains to be seen, but already there's been some changes. The city is pushing its online forum aimed at making it easier for Austinites to weigh in on city policy without necessarily showing up in person for a meeting. And more structured committees and council meetings could mean it’ll become more convenient for citizens to participate in policy and zoning discussions. Either way, Lorre Weidlich of Hyde Park Neighborhood Association says they'll be watching.
"We're going to be keeping our eye on the situation, as I'm sure all neighborhoods are," Weidlich says. "To find out which council members are neighborhood-friendly, and which ones aren't."
There's another big change on the horizon. The city has embarked on a process to rewrite its land development code, with the goal of creating a "compact and connected" city. But whether neighborhoods will embrace those plans, or fight to individually opt out of them, remains to be seen.
This is Part One in a two-part series on the influence of neighborhood groups on city policy. Tomorrow's story, Part Two, will look at how the city has encouraged neighborhood engagement in some areas but not in others, and the impact of neighborhoods and neighborhood plans on changes to the city's code.