AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Brian Gannon thinks it was partly a vocabulary problem.
Gannon had grown tired of what he considers an unhealthy instinct among some Austinites to fight change. But he said his fellow urbanists have relied too heavily on wonkish language, or dismissing their political opponents as NIMBYs (not-in-my-backyard types). Earlier this year he began using a new term, one that he and fellow Austin urbanists hope conveys their approach in a succinct way:
The “YIMBY” (or “yes in my backyard”).
The term has been used in other cities. But in Austin its use has accompanied a new, more aggressive political stance by groups that say this city shouldn’t fight urbanization.
Urbanists hope that by adopting a new approach, such as affixing the YIMBY label to the projects they do want in their backyard — more central-city apartments, a startup facility for musicians, Austin’s new Central Library and the University of Texas’ new Dell Medical School — they can reframe the debate about what kind of city Austin wants to be.
“What you get with (an urbanist approach) is restaurants, efficient public transportation, walkable neighborhoods, more affordable housing, businesses with universal appeal,” said Gannon, who lives in a subdivision in the Crestview neighborhood designed partly to draw riders to MetroRail. “YIMBY means, if you work with developers, you can get what you want — as long as you get it in writing.”
That philosophy is embodied by the rise of new neighborhood groups formed to challenge the long-established ones. In North Austin’s Crestview neighborhood, Gannon founded a splinter group, the Midtown Commons Neighborhood Association, in part because he disagreed with neighborhood leaders’ support for a city-sanctioned gate. The Crestview gate, which keeps Midtown Commons development traffic from turning onto neighboring Morrow Street, is the antithesis of the kind of compact, connected city Austin should become, Gannon told the Austin American-Statesman (http://atxne.ws/1NYt3hf ).
Old-guard neighborhood activists say their new counterparts are trying to tear up neighborhood plans that took years to craft. Many resent being portrayed as NIMBYs in the snark-laden social media posts of some of the new generation of urbanists. And they accuse the new neighborhood groups of carrying water for real estate interests.
“They’re the big development community. I think (developers have) found people who will do their work for them,” said Mike Lavigne, a Crestview resident who opposes the urbanist groups. “The biggest difference between us is that when they see a nice, quiet tree-lined street, they see an opportunity for a parking lot and I see a place where I can take my kid to go ride his bicycle.”
The New Urbanist philosophy champions the kind of development that can support lots of people living along major corridors, with an emphasis on transit and other alternative modes of transportation.
In the early 2000s, central-city developers and environmental interests formed a politically potent, if uneasy, alliance based on the notion that if Austin could build the housing and accompanying infrastructure to accommodate more residents in its urban core, fewer people would move into the environmentally sensitive Hill Country lands to the west.
But as that vision became reality, many central-city voters grew leery of what they perceived to be a rush to urbanize that would spill into their quiet neighborhoods. Many saw the urbanist movement not as a way to deal with Austin’s supercharged growth, but an approach that encourages such growth.
The latest test of the two philosophies came a year ago in the City Council election for the newly drawn District 9 in the heart of the city. Council Member Kathie Tovo, a skeptic of the city’s growth patterns, was pitted against fellow incumbent Chris Riley, the city’s most prominent New Urbanist.
Tovo won decisively.
In the months since then, both camps have shown they can exert influence at City Hall. At the behest of established neighborhood associations, for instance, the city is tightening regulations on short-term rental properties. Meanwhile, the urbanists in November persuaded a divided City Council to ease the regulations for homeowners to add garage apartments or backyard cottages in some cases, though not on the most common type of single-family housing lot in the city.
Pete Gilcrease was a longtime member of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. But he grew frustrated as the association opposed a citywide change to policies for garage apartments and opposed plans for a restaurant on the busy 45th Street, among other issues. He thought the association didn’t reflect the desires of most neighbors. So he quit and formed his own group.
He said the Friends of Hyde Park is more inclusive: Members may vote online, for instance, so people who can’t attend night meetings can still participate. Business owners, who are often not included in traditional neighborhood associations, are welcome to join. Gilcrease said he formed the group, in part, to dispel the notion that a single entity could represent the unanimous voice of an entire neighborhood.
These more urban-minded groups have cropped up in other neighborhoods, too, and led to the creation of Friends of Austin Neighborhoods, an umbrella organization with nine member groups so far, meant to challenge the politically potent Austin Neighborhoods Council.
The arrival of the new groups has brought significant discord to neighborhood conversations, both on social media and in public meetings, said Mary Ingle, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council.
“I feel like (the Austin Neighborhoods Council) has conducted (itself) in a very civil manner and if these groups want to exist, fine, just stay out of our business and don’t try to bring down our organizations,” Ingle said.
Many members of those new neighborhood groups are also aligned with the organization AURA, which was originally formed to promote light rail. AURA has since expanded into land-use issues, organizing members to attend council meetings and weigh in on big decisions. Eric Goff, one of the founders, said he began looking around for fellow urbanists in 2009 after seeing council decisions “and feeling like I must be the only urbanist in Austin.”
A few months ago, a set of New Urbanists also launched a lobbying organization called Evolve Austin. Its members “are urbanists who have not until this point had a way into the political discussion,” said Glen Coleman, one of its founders. He noted the group isn’t stacked with real estate interests: its board includes representatives from Austin Music People, Bike Austin, Habitat for Humanity and AustinUp, which advocates for the needs of senior citizens.
Still, the traditional neighborhood groups say the newly formed counterparts are trying to revive battles that have already been resolved. Lavigne said the new groups’ practices, such as online voting, can stack the deck and short-circuit the face-to-face interaction necessary for neighborhood consensus building.
“If there’s a silent majority, they certainly have a right to attend a meeting and make their voice heard, but so far that has yet to be the case,” Lavigne said. In Crestview, he said, after urbanists “lost one (neighborhood association) election, they quit showing up and just started to talk about things online.”
That online dialogue is a far cry from the high-minded appeals that urbanists tended to make in years past. The @SuperNIMBY Twitter feed declares: “Austin was founded in 1839, it was best in 1840 and it’s been downhill ever since. Say no to any change!” And riffing off the gate blocking access to Morrow Street, @CrestviewGate delivers a satirical, pro-urbanization message. One Tweet declares that historic Austin’s historic districts have been “protecting poorly built early 1900’s houses since 1990,” adding that Crestview’s gate also protects “neighborhoods from other neighbors.”
Such messages rankle many traditional neighborhood groups, whose members caution that prolific use of social media shouldn’t be confused with actual political strength.
“I don’t disagree they have different opinions than us or that they don’t have a right to their opinion, or to act on it,” Lavigne said. “But to give them the same standing as a neighborhood association is a disservice.”
After all, he added, “Elections are not held on Twitter. They are held in person.”
Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com