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July 6, 2023

Listen to This Podcast or We’ll Poison Barton Springs

By: Audrey McGlinchy

(Episode 3) In the 1990s, Austin voters passed landmark protections for parts of southwest Austin that sit on top of the aquifer that feeds Barton Springs. That set off a chain of events that had a profound effect on how the city would grow in the coming decades.

The full transcript of this episode of Growth Machine is available on the KUT & KUTX Studio website. The transcript is also available as subtitles or captions on some podcast apps.

Audrey McGlinchy On June 7, 1990, hundreds of people swarmed an Austin City Council meeting. [chanting] They were there because the council was taking a vote on a new development. It was going to be built right along Barton Creek near Southwest Parkway. On one side of this fight, you had the environmentalists. They filled up the seats in the council chamber until it reached capacity.

Speaker 1 That’s a record. And if everyone took their three minute limit we could, would radically be here another 24 hours.

Audrey McGlinchy Those who couldn’t get in stood outside. They held signs that said, “Honk if you love Barton Springs,” [honking] Because you see, all these people had shown up in the name of Barton Springs, in the name of water quality. On the other side of this fight, you had a big dog.

Jim Bob Moffett Thank you, Mr. Mayor. I’m Jim Bob Moffett. I’m the chairman and CEO of Freeport-McMoRan.

Audrey McGlinchy Moffett’s the rich guy trying to build this new development in Southwest Austin.

Jim Bob Moffett We will categorically not pollute Barton Creek. Thank you.

Audrey McGlinchy One after another, protesters came downtown. They went to a building at the corner of Second and Lavaca Streets. And if they were lucky, they got inside. They stood up at this podium, and there they yelled.

Speaker 2 Deceitful, delirious, disrespectful to every person in this room.

Audrey McGlinchy They sang.

Singer [singing] If we don’t cherish our river, it’ll perish forever.

Audrey McGlinchy They invoked religion.

Speaker 3 Well, I baptize my baby at Barton Springs about ten months ago, and I want to make sure that my baby can baptize his baby there.

Audrey McGlinchy They spoke for hours and hours and hours.

Speaker 4 The record of pollution is disturbing.

Speaker 5 It’s not going to do anybody any good.

Speaker 5 Ruined. We have enough houses already.

Speaker 6 I was reminded of the people in Cocoon.

Speaker 7 We’re going to see headlines that say Freeport-McMoRan met their Waterloo in Austin, Texas.

Audrey McGlinchy From five at night until five in the morning.

Speaker 8 These people want to come in and use our land to make a fortune off of.

Audrey McGlinchy It’s spoken of as this legendary night. One of those moments that defined what it meant to be in Austin. And if you were there, you were part of history.

Singer [singing] Someday you’ll be sorry when Barton’s blue turns brown. It will have cost us a river, lost us a river. Don’t let the people of Austin down. Run those developers out of town. [cheering]

Audrey McGlinchy But we know how these things go, right? No one defeats the big dog.

Audrey McGlinchy You’re listening to Growth Machine: How Austin Engineered its Housing Market. Episode three. Listen to this podcast or we’ll poison Barton Springs.

Audrey McGlinchy Every Sunday morning I come to this place in Austin. I sit on a blanket, I take out a magazine or a book, and I wait for the sun to warm me up, to get really sweaty, so that I can just jump in. I consider this my weekly mass. I call it Barton baptism. And this week I brought someone along with me. Hey, Mose. It’s Mose Buchele.

Mose Buchele What’s going on, Audrey? Whenever I come here, I wonder how many people come to visit, sit here on this lawn and think, “That’s it. I’m moving to Austin. Like, this is just too cool to have this right in the middle of the city.”

Audrey McGlinchy Yeah, and it’s kind of funny to describe, like, you know, you’re like, “It’s a public pool,” and they’re like, “Okay …” And I’m like, “You won’t get it ’till you get there. It’s hard to explain.”

Mose Buchele It is a truly unique place. It kind of looks like a big outdoor pool, but it’s spring fed, right?

Audrey McGlinchy And it’s huge. Like, I think when you first come here, you’re really struck by the size of this pool. Just seems to go on and on.

Mose Buchele Yeah, it’s like, almost as big as a football field, it seems like. I mean, you can swim one or two laps and you feel like you’ve got a full workout pretty much.

Audrey McGlinchy And it’s cold. [laughter] And what it maintains, it stays around 68 degrees Fahrenheit, so it’s chilly. All right. But today’s a hot day. So I think it’s going to hit, it’s going to hit, the cold’s gonna hit us. You ready Mose?

Mose Buchele Let’s do it.

Mose + Audrey [screaming, jumping in to Barton Springs]

Audrey McGlinchy [laughter] Woo!

Mose Buchele Yeah, that’s good. That’s real good.

Audrey McGlinchy Woo! Taking your breath away.

Mose Buchele Oh man. It is. It’s rejuvenating like no other place.

Audrey McGlinchy Yeah, woo …

Audrey McGlinchy Our story today has to do with Barton Springs Pool, but it’s about a lot more than that because this big fight that I told you about earlier didn’t just end up determining the future of Barton Springs pool.

Mose Buchele That’s right. It helped change the way the city has grown basically ever since. Austin, you could argue, would look really, really different today if the story had ended up differently.

Audrey McGlinchy And I got to tell you, this story has everything. Greedy real estate developers.

Mose Buchele Radical activists.

Audrey McGlinchy Fistfights.

Mose Buchele Spying, literal spying.

Audrey McGlinchy And it all starts in the early eighties.

Journey [music] Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it, anyway you want it.

Mose Buchele So Audrey, what was Austin like in the ’80s?

Audrey McGlinchy Well, I was not here or alive, but [laughter] this was the first wave of tech here in Austin.

Mose Buchele That’s right. And this is a different kind of tech economy than we would know today, right? Back then, people were like actually building things right? They’re making real things.

Audrey McGlinchy People might have heard of Michael Dell.

Mose Buchele Building computers in his dorm room. You had the beginning of this semiconductor industry, which I’m still not exactly sure what those are, [laughter] but I know they’re really important. Like you can’t have computers without them.

Audrey McGlinchy All of this is happening and this is about the time when people start calling Austin Silicon Hills.

Mose Buchele And like with any boom, companies are creating jobs, and so a lot of people are moving here.

Audrey McGlinchy Between 1982 and 1987, more than 100,000 people moved to Austin. The city’s population was growing faster than it had since its founding, and all these people needed houses. So developers were building a ton. In 1983, they built nearly as many homes and offices as they did in 2019, when there were three times as many people living here.

Mose Buchele So downtown is getting some taller buildings, but really they’re also building out a lot, pushing out of the boundaries of the city, right? Building more subdivisions.

Audrey McGlinchy Things are growing like crazy. And then, in 1989, there’s this big financial crisis.

NBC Announcer This is NBC Nightly News. Reported by Connie Chung.

Connie Chung Good evening. President Bush today grappled with his first pressing domestic problem, trying to save the savings and loan industry.

News Reporter The savings and loans scandal that could cost half a trillion dollars …

Audrey McGlinchy All you really need to know is that there were a bunch of these small banks throughout the country that were poorly regulated, poorly managed. And as interest rates started to go up in the ’80s, a lot of these banks started failing. That became a problem for people with big real estate investments. Maybe they got foreclosed on because they owed the bank money and they had no way to pay. Or maybe they just got desperate to sell.

Mose Buchele Either way, it created an opening for developers, with the right financing, to start buying up more and more land.

Audrey McGlinchy And in a lot of cases they’re actually buying up a bunch of ranchland, especially in Southwest Austin.

Mose Buchele And so you might have wondered why there are, like so many subdivisions around the city that have the word ranch in the name, you know, like Steiner Ranch.

Audrey McGlinchy Avery Ranch.

Mose Buchele Circle C Ranch. This is not just marketing. It’s because a lot of these places were actual ranches or farmland. And in the ’80s, these landowners either get foreclosed on or decide to sell — often to developers …

Audrey McGlinchy who then start turning these big swaths of land into subdivisions or suburbs.

Mose Buchele Right. A Super Ranch subdivision.

Audrey McGlinchy Super Ranch.

Mose Buchele So … [laughter] So it’s important to realize that all these parts of Austin, like this was like the country back then. You could go out to southwest Austin, suddenly feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like how it feels now. It felt like nature, it felt untouched, felt pristine. And there were a lot of people in Austin who really liked that.

Audrey McGlinchy And these people, many of them environmentalists, start to get concerned about development, particularly in this part of Austin.

Bill Bunch Well, for me, I got involved with local Earth First-ers and Sierra Club-ers, and some other local activists, let’s say Barton Creek folks, in the mid late ’80s.

Mose Buchele This is Bill Bunch. He’s actually still a really well-known activist in town.

Bill Bunch So you had the Earth First! activists who were basically U.T. students who were the, you know, the quote unquote, radical environmentalists. But you had the old school groups say, Barton Creek Association, the local group, or the Sierra Club …

Mose Buchele You had your city beautification advocates, right? Maybe not radicals, but, you know, more like Lady Bird Johnson types who wanted to preserve nature, improve parkland, stuff like that.

Bill Bunch A group, We Care Austin …

Audrey McGlinchy The Audubon Society. You know, like the bird people.

Bill Bunch … were all very active. And there were some of us young folks coming along to join with the folks who’d been leading some of these groups since the ’70s.

Audrey McGlinchy The point is, there were a lot of environmentalists, and they all started coming together over this one concern.

Mose Buchele They decided all these new houses and development in Southwest Austin were going to destroy Barton Springs. So why is that?

Mose Buchele It helps to think of this part of central Texas, west of Mopak, like a big sponge, okay? Basically, this is land that soaks up all the water. It soaks up the rainwater, soaks up creek water flowing over it, and it soaks it up into this big sponge underground, and then it pushes it back up, a lot of it, back up through Barton Springs.

Audrey McGlinchy And so if there’s some sort of pollution on the ground, it soaks into the earth, soaks into the sponge. This is called an aquifer, and that pollution likely ends up back in Barton Springs.

Mose Buchele So what does a big suburban subdivision have to do with that? Well, if you think of these developments, they can create a lot of pollution. There’s all the runoff from, you know, businesses, toxic stuff, oil spills from gas station, runoff from parking lots, but also sewage, fertilizer runoff from lawns, all this stuff. Once it gets into the ground, it goes into that, that sponge and then it could come back up and poison the springs, like, like turn crystal clear Barton Springs into a swampy, fetid, un-swimmable dump.

Audrey McGlinchy And that brings us back to June 7th, 1990, and Jim Bob Moffett.

Mose Buchele The big dog.

Jim Bob Moffett Thank you, Mr. Mayor. I’m Jim Bob Moffett. I’m the chairman and CEO of Freeport-McMoRan. I came onto this campus of the University of Texas in 1956 as a young boy from Houston …

Audrey McGlinchy So this guy owns a big mining company called Freeport-McMoRan.

Mose Buchele And what you have to understand about Jim Bob is he is a guy with a lot of fans in Austin, right? He’s kind of a larger than life figure. He grew up poor. He played football at U.T. under coach Darrell Royal, the guy they named the stadium for. Then Jim Bob goes on to become an oil man. He ends up heading this huge mining company. Freeport-McMoRan controls the biggest gold mine in the world in Indonesia.

Audrey McGlinchy And now he’s found real estate gold to mine in Austin. All these people are moving here and they need places to live.

Mose Buchele So for a lot of people, Jim, Bob Moffett is a Texas success story, a self-made man, an entrepreneur. But for other people, especially for environmentalists, it’s kind of like a villain in a muppet movie.

Geologist But we have done everything to ensure the safety of Barton Creek. And as a geologist, I will promise you I know more about Barton Creek than anybody in this room.

crowd member Bullshit.

Geologist Excuse me …

Mose Buchele I mean, seriously, like Freeport-McMoRan’s mines pollute rivers in Indonesia, destroy coastland, destroy forests.

Audrey McGlinchy His company works with, and in some cases pays, Indonesian police and security, who brutally suppressed dissent.

Mose Buchele And so opponents of this development, they see this guy, and now he’s coming into Austin. He’s saying, “I’m going to build this huge subdivision right over this aquifer, the very place the environmentalists don’t want me to build. That’s where I’m headed.” So now let’s see how this works out.

Jim Bob Moffett And I will also tell you that if any standards are shown by any future studies that are done by any environmental group, whether they are state, city or free enterprise, we will, we will adhere to those standards. We will categorically not pollute Barton Creek. Thank you. [clapping]

Bill Bunch Well, that was the largest development that had ever been proposed in Austin up to that point.

Audrey McGlinchy Just for context, the Mueller development in North Austin is about 700 acres. This development in Southwest Austin was going to be more than five times that size.

Mose Buchele So Bill Bunch and this coalition that he described, they zeroed in on this development. They fought it in public hearings and zoning meetings, and they did all this organizing to galvanize people against this specific project because this was the most visible and the biggest example of the development they opposed.

Audrey McGlinchy And it got pretty dramatic. So in researching this story, I came across a cover of the Austin Chronicle from around this time, and there’s a picture of Barton Springs pool on the cover. The pool’s empty, no one’s swimming in it, but there’s this inflatable ball floating in the middle of the pool and it has a skull and crossbones on it. Then above this picture of the pool is this sort of, like, ransom letter writing. It says, if you don’t read this issue, we will poison Barton Springs.

Bill Bunch I mean, the city’s here because of the springs, quiete literally, we would not be talking sitting here without Barton Springs.

Audrey McGlinchy So there’s all this organizing, all this activism, and it all comes to a head at this one city council meeting.

Speaker 9 A word to Jim Bob Moffett: If this goes through, your name will go down in infamy, just like all the other three name serial killers Texas has …

Audrey McGlinchy It really is kind of, like, almost a social event as much as it was a political event. You know, everyone’s just coming down to City Hall to yell at their council members.

Bill Bunch Oh, it was wild. The fire marshal had to limit access in and out to the council chambers.

Speaker 10 I’m being told that as now no more people can enter the council chambers because we’re at our maximum capacity under the park codes of the city of Austin.

Bill Bunch So a few hundred in there and hundreds more out on the sidewalk and, you know, banging drums. [drums] It was huge. And, you know, people were excited because just seeing that, that so many people cared about the springs and were willing to come up and speak up.

Speaker 11 This is a critical, environmentally sensitive area. The golf courses alone would attract several times the residential development, as is included in the initial 4000 acres.

Audrey McGlinchy Remember, this was a time before social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. And local radio stations, including KUT, actually aired these meetings live. You could get in your car, turn on your radio and hear a city council meeting going on. Then decide, “Hey, I’m going to go downtown and tell them what I think.”

Kevin Conner My name is Kevin Connor. I live with 1711 Moly, and I work at K98. I have a morning radio show. I’m usually up at this hour. And when I woke up this morning to KUT, uh … [laughter] Don’t tell anybody. [applause] I couldn’t believe that this was still going on, I-

Crowd Member 2 Welcomed to Austin

Kevin Conner Pardon?

Crowd Member 2 Welcome to Austin.

Kevin Conner Yeah, well …

Mose Buchele Right, or you tell your buddy like, “Hey, you know, put on KUT. You’re going to hear me in, like, an hour. I’m going to be screaming at the mayor.”

Speaker 12 This is the most beautiful pool I’ve ever seen, ever in my life. And it would be a fucking shame to ruin it with pesticides. [laughter]

Speaker 13 Excuse me, that kind of comment is out of order, sir.

Speaker 12 Thank you, sir.

Mose Buchele So it’s this huge grassroots uprising. And mind you, this is a zoning case, right? But it’s not like any other zoning case.

Audrey McGlinchy Hundreds of people showed up to talk against this one development.

Mose Buchele And Bunch says he was not sure how the vote was going to go.

Bill Bunch We knew we had two votes, and maybe three. There was a seven vote council. The other side had four or five votes going in.

Speaker 13 [applause] We have a substitute motion on the floor, any other …

Mose Buchele And so now it’s around six in the morning. They’ve been going on for more than 12 hours straight, and the council is finally ready to vote. A yes vote kills the development. A no vote keeps it alive.

Council Members Council member [inaudible]? Yes. Council Member [inaudible]? Yes. Mayor Cook? Yes. Mayor Pro Tem Shipman? Yes. Councilman [inaudible]? Yes. Council Member Carl Mitchell? Yes. This closes the hearing too. Council Member Humphrey? Yes. [applause]

Audrey McGlinchy They won. The hippies beat the big dog. All these environmentalists went up against this wealthy developer, and they got the council members to vote against the development.

Crowd [applause]

Mose Buchele But this is just one development, right? And so the second you win this, you got to start wondering, “Wait a second, people can just build somewhere else in this area. There are a bunch of other projects already on the books being planned.”

Audrey McGlinchy So what are they going to do about that? More after the break.

Crowd [applause]

Audrey McGlinchy The night that environmentalist shut down Jim Bob Moffet’s big development became known in environmental circles as the Barton Springs Uprising. The time when Austin banded together to tell developers Enough is enough. It put the brakes on one of the biggest subdivisions in city history.

Crowd [applause]

Mose Buchele It also ushered in a new political reality in Austin. The environmental movement had been growing for a while, but now it had flexed its muscles, and it had won. It was empowered, it was organized. It was not going away.

Audrey McGlinchy And watching it all unfold was this 26 year old intern with the city’s water department.

Matt Holland I was this super young, green whippersnapper in 1990 when I joined the city.

Audrey McGlinchy This is Matt Holland. He was just starting off as a city staffer working on water quality when all this went down. I mean, imagine you’re this wonky, watershed protection scientist. You probably don’t expect your job is going to be, like, the talk of the town. And suddenly it was.

Matt Holland And so I was definitely all in because I was so excited about my new profession and lapping it up. And there was, you know, the media, the conversations within the city. Not just wonky people, but, you know, average people were really, really engaged in the conversation.

News Reporter 2 So the overnight city council meeting was the longest in a decade. No doubt an indication of what environmentalists are calling the hottest environmental issue in Austin. Or as one called this area: the last vestige of a natural environment in our city.

Audrey McGlinchy So in the months following that night, City Council called a temporary moratorium on development over the Barton Springs watershed. In other words, no one can build here. It also put in place temporary water quality rules and told city staff to come up with a long term plan to restrict development. This is what environmentalists were demanding: permanent rules to protect the springs.

Mose Buchele But if they thought that this was the end of the story, they were wrong. Jim, Bob Moffett and Freeport-McMoRan had been caught off guard the night of the Barton Springs Uprising, but now they were going to start showing City Hall that there was another side to this story. Developers, landowners, business interests opposed to this plan also started organizing.

Speaker 14 How many more companies will want to locate quality jobs to a city where environmental radicals dictate city policy and the rules are always changing?

Mose Buchele And when city staff proposes making development restrictions permanent, they started speaking up. This is from a council meeting in 1991.

Speaker 15 When I read the proposed amendments to this ordinance, ludicrous, outrageous, ridiculous, off the wall, and out of bounds came into my mind.

Mose Buchele People who owned land over the watershed zone started to show up to complain about how the new rules could threaten their family’s livelihood, hurt their financial future, basically by limiting their ability to sell or develop their property.

Speaker 16 My message is simple. Do not pass these amendments to the Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance. You must say no to this insidious, thinly veiled no growth ordinance.

Mose Buchele Notice how he called it a no growth ordinance. You’re going to start hearing more and more of that.

Gary Bradley You first put regulations on in 1981. Again in ’84. Again in ’86. And every time something happens at Barton Springs, you come back to punish that same small percentage of property owners.

Mose Buchele That last voice you heard is a man named Gary Bradley. He was a big developer in his own right. He actually started the Circle C Ranch development. Anyway, he was Jim Bob Moffett’s partner, and he became, like, this public face of opposition to environmental protections in this part of town.

Gary Bradley Every cause has to have a villain. And Jim, Bob Moffett and Gary Bradley were like poster child.

Mose Buchele We talked to Bradley earlier this year. He refers to himself the third person here. He says he knew he was fighting an uphill battle.

Gary Bradley From 1989 on, you know, the environmental coalitions ran city hall. They elected the people and nobody was going to go against them.

Mose Buchele But it wasn’t quite that simple. Imagine you’re a city politician. By 1991, you have a highly engaged environmental coalition on one side …

Speaker 17 And they want to build and destroy one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Mose Buchele … And a lot of business interests and angry landowners in the other.

Speaker 18 You’re going to cause my property values to drop to zero.

Audrey McGlinchy So what do you do? This is Austin, so you start looking for some kind of compromise, right?

Mose Buchele The council played for time. It delayed adopting these new development rules and then it proposed a different set of development restrictions. These were rules friendlier to builders, and you can guess how the environmentalists took that.

Crowd [drums]

Audrey McGlinchy They were outraged. As far as they were concerned, the people had spoken loud and clear. Stop building over the aquifer. To see their goals watered down was unacceptable.

Brigid Shea You know, we’ve been having meetings with a variety of environmental leaders for months and decided that we needed to form a coalition.

Mose Buchele This is Brigid Shea, the woman who led that coalition.

Crowd Member 3 Save our springs!!! [screaming]

Mose Buchele They called it the Save Our Springs Coalition. S.O.S. for short.

Brigid Shea We needed to pursue some kind of action to protect Barton Springs, because it seemed pretty clear that the council wasn’t going to do it.

Mose Buchele So they hit the streets, started circulating a petition to change city development rules at the ballot box. Basically, they created a petition to take the stricter development rules and enshrine them into city code through a popular vote …

Audrey McGlinchy … forced the city to put strict caps on development in the southwest of town.

Mose Buchele But what were the rules that S.O.S. was proposing actually do?

Audrey McGlinchy So there’s this thing called impervious cover.

Various Voices Impervious cover. Impervious cover. Impervious cover. Impervious cover. Impervious cover.

Audrey McGlinchy Impervious cover is anything on a piece of land that stops water from being absorbed into the earth. So we’re talking concrete, asphalt. Think about your driveway, the foundation of your house. All of that is impervious cover.

Mose Buchele And we kind of explained this earlier, talking about this big sponge, this this watershed that is the ground around this part of the city. They don’t want that pollution running off the impervious cover and getting into the sponge because then it’s going to make all the water really polluted and then come right back up in the springs.

Matt Holland I don’t know how wonky you want me to get, I’m a relatively wonky person.

Mose Buchele You remember Matt Holland? He was the guy that worked for the city. Looking at this stuff as basically his job.

Matt Holland Phosphorus and nitrogen just can’t get very high in the water, or it just goes wild with algae, which isn’t just a nuisance, but actually can really kill the aquatic life in the in the system.

Audrey McGlinchy Throughout most of Austin, the impervious cover limit, and they do this with percentages, is about half of a piece of land. So take the lot that your house is on and half of that can be the foundation, the driveway, maybe a shed in your backyard. And they’re saying in this part of town, in Southwest Austin, near the watershed, we’re going to limit that to 15 to 25% of a piece of land, really ratchet down the amount of land that can be impervious cover.

Matt Holland So you’re just looking at 15% or 20 or 25 on the developable uplands area alone. So that actually makes it even a smaller footprint on certain properties.

Audrey McGlinchy So imagine you have a 5000 square foot piece of land in this part of Austin. 15% of that could be impervious cover. So foundation, driveway. 15% of 5000. That’s 750 square feet. So that’s like a one bedroom apartment or a big garage, but not both.

Mose Buchele What developer would even want to mess around and build on that land?

Audrey McGlinchy So that’s what this ordinance does. It it protects the springs by blocking development.

Mose Buchele This is the petition S.O.S. is asking people to sign. They need about 20,000 signatures to get it on the ballot. They set up their booths. They talked to people on the sidewalks, and they’re showing them this ordinance saying impervious cover, impervious cover. We need to do something about impervious cover over the watershed. And at the time, this is a really popular idea. It was hard to find people that were against saving the springs.

Audrey McGlinchy So needless to say, they did it. They got more than 20,000 signatures, and they got this thing on a citywide ballot.

Mose Buchele Here’s Brigid Shea back in 1992.

Brigid Shea Today I’m announcing that the S.O.S. Coalition has completed its drive to put an ordinance on the May 2nd ballot to save Barton Springs, the creek and the aquifer …

Mose Buchele And suddenly, what would’ve been a battle fought basically through lobbying local politicians, shouting at zoning hearings, council meetings. It became like a citywide exercise in direct democracy.

Audrey McGlinchy A battle for the hearts and minds of every voter in Austin.

Brigid Shea … So we believe in this case, the citizens will not be fooled by money, and we hope that they understand what’s at stake and that it’s something that money can’t buy.

Mose Buchele So this sets up this big battle. On one side, you have these environmentalists. They’re often West Austin environmental types. They’ve made common cause with the Hispanic groups in East Austin. People have been fighting for environmental justice in their communities, where they typically have a lot of heavy industry and a lot of pollution in these low income neighborhoods.

Audrey McGlinchy And on the other side, the anti S.O.S. side, you had your Chamber of Commerce people, your real estate council, you know, developers, business types. And they start recruiting others. Landowners, people who we heard from earlier that are worried about what these restrictions would do to their land.

Mose Buchele And the developers also had one more powerful ally, City Council. The majority of City Council at this time it was pro-development. They actually ended up putting their own, more developer friendly proposition on the ballot. So they really don’t want this S.O.S. ordinance to pass.

Audrey McGlinchy When the City Council realized S.O.S. had the signatures, they decided we’re going to push the election back.

Mose Buchele So basically, pushing the vote back accomplishes three things. One, there was an expectation that whatever new rule was approved, it wouldn’t be retroactive. So the more time developers had to file building plans with the city, the better.

Audrey McGlinchy Though, A, even if S.O.S. wins, there’s still a bunch of land that developers can work with under the older, looser rules. Here’s Gary Bradley.

Gary Bradley You know, they gave me a hurdle they didn’t think I could get over. They said, “Okay, you got to file your plans within a certain period of time or you’re going to fall under the S.O.S. ordinances.” Right? Well, $4 million later, with engineering firms going 24/7, we filed them all on time.

Mose Buchele Delaying the vote would also push it back into August. That would mean that U.T. students are on summer break. Student voters were typically supportive of S.O.S.. If you move the election to August, a lot of those voters are suddenly out of town. Also, good for the developers.

Audrey McGlinchy Then finally, pushing back the election just gives the pro developer side more time to organize. They knew they had a late start in fighting this thing. If they wanted to flood TV and radio with ads, lean on different voting blocks, maybe chip away at the lead S.O.S. seem to have, they needed time and they needed the city council to postpone the election.

Mose Buchele And that’s that’s what they did. Basically, a bunch of city council members just stopped showing up to council meetings. [laughter] There were court orders telling them that they had to go. They didn’t go. And then when they finally did show up, they abstained from voting. It got really nasty.

News Reporter 3 Tempers on the Austin City Council flared when they were taken to court this spring. Four members of the council defied a court order. And the divisiveness reached a fever pitch.

Ronnie Reynolds I was born and raised here. And, in fact, my first relative was here in 1839.

Audrey McGlinchy This is Ronnie Reynolds, one of the council members at the time. Remember that no growth thing we talked about earlier? That’s how he characterized S.O.S..

Ronnie Reynolds So all of you people that want to roll up the fences and not let anybody in, take a hike because I’m tired of it.

Max Nofziger Never has a judge told me how to vote.

Mose Buchele And here’s Max Nofziger, another council member. He was pro S.O.S..

Max Nofziger The only time it’s happened, and this is how extreme this is, people, is that a judge had to tell this council to follow the law. [applause Yeah!

Audrey McGlinchy So the anti S.O.S. side and their friends on city council succeeded in pushing the election back, but they also succeeded in really pissing people off. Think about it. Tens of thousands of people had signed this petition and their elected officials said, “Eh. We’re gonna ignore this.” Even people who may not have had an opinion about land development suddenly started taking notice.

Brigid Shea It also made clear, just frankly, what tools the city council was of the developers.

Audrey McGlinchy This is Brigid Shea.

Brigid Shea To see these, you know, these council members tying themselves in pretzel knots to avoid doing what they were legally required to do, I think, was really shocking.

Mose Buchele So with just three months to campaign, things got really ugly leading up to the election. Both Brigid and Gary describe that summer as a crazy time to be in Austin.

Singer 2 [music] Austin is a summer city and Barton Springs eternal …

Mose Buchele TV and radio ads, just people bombarded with all this advertising, pro and con S.O.S. ordinance.

Ad The campaign against S.O.S. is insidious and dishonest, writes the Austin Chronicle. Now, I’ve read the S.O.S. ordinance, and it’s the wrong solution from Barton Springs.

Mose Buchele Brigid says she was getting tipped off by moles by, like, spies within the developer organization.

Audrey McGlinchy She’s pretty sure her phone line was tapped.

Brigid Shea I’m looking across the street and there’s a guy sitting in a truck with a newspaper. He’s clearly watching me.

Mose Buchele Gary says his car was constantly getting vandalized.

Gary Bradley I don’t know how many times it got keyed.

Brigid Shea My car windows were smashed, my car tires were slashed.

Mose Buchele Gary says people tried to kill him.

Audrey McGlinchy I had a high powered rifle shot through my house twice.

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

Choir [music] Barton Springs …

Audrey McGlinchy All leading up to this vote in August.

Choir Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal.

Audrey McGlinchy And the hippies win again! [laughter]

News Reporter 4 Good evening. The people of Austin have spoken and the majority say they want a stronger ordinance to protect Barton Springs. Let’s look at …

Audrey McGlinchy The S.O.S. ordinance won by a landslide. More than 60% of people who came out to the polls voted in favor of it, and the ordinance went into effect immediately. Suddenly, overnight, it became much harder to build in this part of town, west of Mopak and south of the river. Future developers wouldn’t be able to build golf courses and strip malls. Sure. But also a whole bunch of houses. Remember, this was a time when Austin’s population was growing quickly. This was a big win for environmentalists. A win for the Springs. And most people agree that this worked. If it weren’t for this movement, Barton Springs might look a lot different today. But the question still remained. Where were all these people going to live?

Mose Buchele And even in these interviews right after the election is called, you start hearing these fault lines appear.

Cynthia Vasquez There wasn’t a vote they wanted because we didn’t have that many vote to give. They wanted public image. They wanted PR.

Audrey McGlinchy This is Cynthia Vasquez. She was part of an organization in East Austin. At the same time S.O.S. was on the ballot, there was funding for East Austin projects, but those failed. She says she helped deliver votes for S.O.S., but the same was not done for her community.

Cynthia Vasquez 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, and we gave them credibility. And that’s worth a whole lot.

Mose Buchele Meanwhile, people are immediately looking up Congress Avenue to the state capital. The developers are talking about lawsuits, but also talking about going to state lawmakers. If they can’t get what they want from the Austin City Council, maybe the state will step in.

Gary Bradley I went to the legislature to get justice because I couldn’t get it at city council.

Audrey McGlinchy Locally, this also means big changes in Austin politics. The environmentalists are now firmly in control.

Mose Buchele Here’s Brigid Shea after the vote.

Brigid Shea Well, as they say, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. And we, uh, 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, and that people don’t try and go to the legislature and overturn them through other means.

Mose Buchele Worth noting that Shea became an Austin City Council member after this and is now a Travis County commissioner. What we’re hearing in these interviews is a new emerging city politics that’s going to be hyper responsive to environmentalist concerns and is going to be deeply suspicious, at least in its rhetoric, of development.

Audrey McGlinchy It created a politics where being an environmentalist means being anti-development. They’re one and the same.

Audrey McGlinchy But this conversation seems to be changing.

Matt Holland It’s the topic. I mean, you just nailed it, as far as like the topic of environmental protection.

Mose Buchele You remember Matt Holland, he was that fresh faced intern the night the activists shut down Jim Bob Moffett’s big development at City Hall. Over 30 years later, Matt still works for the city, and he says, these days, development and, especially urban density, are not the boogeymen that they used to be to a lot of environmentalists.

Matt Holland I was all in with this, and I remember being a pretty fierce opponent of impervious cover, you know, from an early age in my career.

Audrey McGlinchy But now a lot of people, including Matt, say we need to build more to protect the environment. Now, this could mean less green space in some places, but building homes closer together and closer into the city reduces our need to build farther out and to drive everywhere. It reduces water use. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Matt Holland That’s one of the difficulties of a S.O.S. looking landscape. You’ve got very low density.

Mose Buchele But this pro-density push is something that’s still fiercely opposed by a lot of other environmentalists. Holland says he has a regular meeting with an old friend at the Springs where they argue about this very thing.

Matt Holland We go to Barton Springs and swim, and then we hang out and eat tacos and talk about this, the exact same topic, like probably hundreds of times, the same topic. [laughter]

Audrey McGlinchy He says they never seem to change each others minds.

Mose Buchele Meanwhile, more and more people keep moving here, and they’ve gotta live somewhere.

Audrey McGlinchy We’ll get into that next time, on Growth Machine: How Austin Engineered Its Housing Market.

Audrey McGlinchy Growth machine is a production of KUT and KUTX Studios in Austin. It’s produced by me, Mose Buchele, Marissa Charpentier, Nathan Bernier, Jimmy Moss and Matt Largey, with production help from Heather Stewart. Technical help from Jake Perlman and Rene Chavez. Stephanie Federico is our digital editor. Special thanks to Karen Coker, the Austin History Center, KVUE and KXAN for archival sound in this episode. There’s more at machine. I’m Audrey McGlinchey. Thanks for listening.

This transcript was transcribed by AI, and lightly edited by a human. Accuracy may vary. This text may be revised in the future.


August 18, 2023

Grow or Die

(Episode 7) Now that the machine has done its job, what now? We explore some of the existential questions that Austin’s housing market has wrought.


August 10, 2023

Pigs in a Parlor

(BONUS — Deleted scene!) We go back 100 years to tell the origin story of modern zoning.


August 4, 2023

There Go The Neighborhoods

(Episode 6) Austin last re-wrote its land development code in 1984. Sounds boring, right? Well, that rewrite made it harder to build denser forms of housing. We explore the history of zoning in Austin and the opposition to changing the rules today, which could make the biggest difference in fixing Austin’s affordability crisis.


July 27, 2023

Welcome to Silicon Gulch

(Episode 5) Not that long ago, Austin’s economy was sleepy, to put it mildly. People came here for UT, to work for the state or for the military. A little more than 50 years ago, a bedsheet changed everything — including the housing market.


July 20, 2023

Fertility Drugs for Cars

(BONUS) We talked in episode 2 about cars and roads — and how they affect where we live. We didn’t talk about one other way that cars affect housing: making places to put all the cars.


July 13, 2023

Smart Growth or Dumb Growth?

(Episode 4) When a new mayor came to power, he found what he thought would be a compromise — a way to bring new businesses and build housing for all the people coming to Austin without threatening the city’s ecological gems. It turned out to be more complicated than that.


July 6, 2023

Listen to This Podcast or We’ll Poison Barton Springs

(Episode 3) In the 1990s, Austin voters passed landmark protections for parts of southwest Austin that sit on top of the aquifer that feeds Barton Springs. That set off a chain of events that had a profound effect on how the city would grow in the coming decades.


June 29, 2023

Roads to Everywhere

(Episode 2) I-35 is more than a road. It’s been sculpting Austin’s housing scene for more than 60 years, encouraging endless sprawl and making gridlock a lifestyle. Take a drive with us through the highway’s history.