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July 13, 2023

Smart Growth or Dumb Growth?

By: Audrey McGlinchy

(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.

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 Previously on Growth Machine.

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.

Speaker 1 Oh, it was wild.

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

Speaker 3 And as a geologist, I will promise you, I know more about Barton Creek than anybody in this room.

Speaker 4 Bullshit!

Speaker 3 Excuse me.

Mose Buchele Basically, they created a petition to take these stricter development rules and enshrine them into city code through a popular vote.

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

Speaker 5 My car windows were smashed, my car tires were slashed.

Gary Bradley I had a high powered rifle shot through my house twice.

Speaker 5 Good evening. The people of Austin have spoken and a majority say they want a stronger ordinance to protect Barton Springs.

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

Audrey McGlinchy So the Save Our Springs people are coming off of this big high. Their petition was a success and Austinites voted to limit development in Southwest Austin to protect Barton Springs. But as these stories often go, state lawmakers then got involved. In 1993, then Senator Ken Armbrister, a Democrat from Victoria, Texas, filed a bill that would let some developers go ahead with projects in Southwest Austin, and they wouldn’t have to follow the new S.O.S. rules. This was what developers wanted, and what they’d lobbied for. Remember Gary Bradley? He’s a local developer we heard from in the last episode.

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

Audrey McGlinchy But Austin environmentalists also had allies at the legislature.

Speaker 6 Okay, Senator from Travis, Senator Barrientos, lays out amendment number six …

Audrey McGlinchy Senator Gonzalo Barrientos represented Austin for more than two decades, and in 1993, he was ready to do whatever it took to stop this developer friendly bill.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos Mr. President, members, this will have been the very first time that I will filibuster.

Audrey McGlinchy Filibustering is a way to stop or delay a bill. Basically, senators make these long, winding speeches in an attempt to block a vote, and you have to follow a couple of rules. You can’t sit down. You can’t eat or drink. You can’t leave the Senate floor, which means you can’t use the bathroom, and you have to talk the whole time.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos Where you see members, I’m speaking against this law because I don’t believe that we have to go to extremes in most cases.

Audrey McGlinchy To pass the time. Barrientos read a bunch of things. He read the S.O.S. petition in its entirety.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos It reads, “Save our Springs Initiative Petition, an ordinance initiated by petition by the citizens of Austin to prevent pollution Barton Springs, Barton Creek and the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer.”

Audrey McGlinchy He listed off some of the tens of thousands of people who signed the petition.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos Melody Evans. Barbara Visser. Barbara Frizzell. Ray Garcia signed up. Ray Garcia. You know, the one from Chippewa Street.

Audrey McGlinchy He also just adlibbed a bunch of stuff. Often, it seemed, hamming it up for the more conservative, Austin-bashing lawmakers.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos You know, some people around the state sometimes think that were kind of nutty around here because we talk all the time about Barton Springs and Barton Creek and the Barton Springs Aquifer. You say they think that we’re radical tree huggers, that we’re nuts about the water in the Barton Springs swimming pool. And yet when people visit here, they say, “Oh, it’s so beautiful. We want to keep it this way.”

Audrey McGlinchy It wasn’t entirely clear how Barrientos actually felt about this bill. At times it seemed like the senator was not actually on the side of the Barton Springs environmentalists.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos You’re a little bitty old, sleepy town of Austin, Texas. Just a while back was 50,000, 80,000, 100,000 people. Now we’re going on to half a million. We can’t tell people to leave, even though some of my environmental friends, environmentalists, some would have us build a fence around the city of Austin. We cannot do that.

Audrey McGlinchy But the senator felt he had to stop the bill. He was elected to represent the people of Austin who had voted to limit development in the Barton Creek area.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos We had thousands and thousands of people vote on this issue. And I could not go back in good conscience and try to cut deals for them because they have already voted.

Audrey McGlinchy Barrientos filibustered for hours and hours.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos These waters that have been gushing forth …

Audrey McGlinchy He talked on and on and on.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos In order to prevent pollution, impervious cover for …

Audrey McGlinchy 12, 13, 14 hours. From three in the afternoon until nine in the morning.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos 20% in the contributing zone within the Barton Creek watershed …

Audrey McGlinchy And at that point Barrientos had been standing up and talking for nearly 18 hours straight.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos Because they generally require less fertilizer …

Audrey McGlinchy Towards the end of it, the senator started stumbling over his words. The guy was tired.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos Stormwater runoff should have a [stuttering] velocity.

Audrey McGlinchy Just before 10 a.m., he gave up and walked off the floor.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos Runoff approaches the …

Audrey McGlinchy Throughout those 18 hours of reading, grandstanding and, well, maybe holding his bladder,  Barrientos said multiple times he had one wish. One wish that would have helped him avoid this fight.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos I truly believe that had environmentalist developers, City of Austin City Council members sat down at a table and not gotten up, we would have been able to work out a compromise.

Audrey McGlinchy A compromise. Turns out the senator would get just that.

Audrey McGlinchy I’m Andrew McGlinchy. This is Growth Machine: How Austin Engineered its Housing Market. Episode four, Smart Growth or Dumb Growth?

Audrey McGlinchy Mose Buchele, a reporter here at KUT, is gonna join me again for this episode. Hey, Mose.

Mose Buchele Good to be back, Audrey.

Audrey McGlinchy So, while the battle for Barton Springs was going on, at Austin City Hall and then at the state legislature, another environmental struggle was taking place in the city.

Mose Buchele That’s right. And it focused not on Barton Springs and development in the city’s West Side. It focused on East Austin.

Audrey McGlinchy Like you heard in earlier episodes of this podcast. East Austin was historically where black and Hispanic people lived. It was more working class, lower income. And this was the legacy of segregation. The 1928 master plan and eventually the construction of I-35 in the sixties. Susana Almanza is a local activist and she grew up in East Austin.

Susana Almanza What you saw in East Austin were small businesses, mom and pop businesses owned by the community. When you went down the street, you saw people who looked just like you.

Mose Buchele The East Side also had more heavy industry than other parts of the city. Of course, it was no accident polluting businesses ended up there.

Susana Almanza The city had done industrial zoning in our communities, which allowed for hazardous corporations or facilities to be across the street from schools next to residents. And so we know that zoning was a racism tool that had been used against our communities.

Audrey McGlinchy By the 1980s, people in the East Side started organizing to fight back.

Mose Buchele They opposed plans to put a big tech center in the Montopolis neighborhood on the East Side. They took aim at a gas fired power plant that the city had put in East Austin’s Holly neighborhood.

Audrey McGlinchy They demanded the city move a recycling center that they said brought rats and pollution to their neighborhood.

Mose Buchele Yeah, Susana and her group, People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources, or PODER, led efforts to move a big gasoline storage facility, called a tank farm, away from East Side neighborhoods.

PODER Protestors Move those tanks! Move those tanks! Move those tanks!

Susana Almanza Six of the largest oil corporations in the world. Chevron, ExxonMobil, Texaco, Citco, Gulf States. They were all in East Austin in a 52 acre tank farm, which had benzene, toluene, xylene, all of these terrible emissions. And, as we know, benzene was known to cause cancer.

Mose Buchele At first, Susana says her group didn’t have much to do with the West Side Barton Springs activists.

Audrey McGlinchy But by the time the Save Our Springs ordinance was up for a vote in 1992, she had thrown her support behind it. She says this was a tough decision.

Susana Almanza We felt PODER had to walk a real delicate line in it because we did have a lot of people that were in the community that were upset that how could we side with the whole Save Our Springs.

Mose Buchele So why were people on the East Side suspicious of West Austin environmentalism? Well, for one thing, the concerns of the West Side activists always seemed to take priority at City Hall.

Susana Almanza The environmentalists in West Austin did have the ear of the City Council, and they knew them personally because, as we know, most of the City Council representatives were from West Austin. And so, of course, they were going to want to protect, you know, their environment.

Audrey McGlinchy East side environmentalist were fighting, I mean, cancer-causing pollution in their neighborhood. West Side activists were fighting for a swimming pool.

Mose Buchele I mean, it sometimes felt like when it came to East Austin, the city didn’t think there was any environment to protect. When a bird called the Golden-cheeked Warbler might have heard of, it was listed as endangered and more West Austin Hill Country land was going to be protected, Susana says a joke started going around.

Susana Almanza Well, we’re the “Brown-cheeked Warblers,” why can’t we protect the land over here?

Audrey McGlinchy That’s not to say the defenders of Barton Springs were having an easy time of it. We opened this episode talking about how state lawmakers tried to water down the S.O.S. ordinance almost as soon as it went into effect.

Mose Buchele Despite the filibuster from State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, the bill to do that passed in 1993.

Audrey McGlinchy The only thing stopping it that year was Governor Ann Richards. She ended up vetoing this bill

Mose Buchele By 1995, there was a new governor in town with his own ideas about the environment.

George W. Bush I know the human being and fish can co-exist peacefully.

Mose Buchele That’s right. By this point, George W. Bush is governor of Texas.

Audrey McGlinchy So in 1995, opponents of S.O.S. headed back to the Capitol, this time with a governor who was more sympathetic to them. Suddenly, Gary Bradley and other Austin developers had the advantage.

Gary Bradley Well, people at the legislature care about truth, care about justice, care about property rights.

Robin Rather To me, it looked like straight up corruption.

Mose Buchele Robin Rather is a local environmentalist. She joined S.O.S. in ’93 and was eventually named chair. And she was in charge of lobbying at the Capitol with the group’s lawyer, Bill Bunch.

Robin Rather There were billions of dollars to the development community at stake. They spared no expense on those lobbying efforts. They were very, very skilled. They had the best lobbyists in the world doing it. You know, you had me and Bill Bunch up there, we were not professional lobbyists, we’re just trying to lay out the environmental facts of the situation, and getting exactly nowhere.

Audrey McGlinchy In 1995, there was no filibuster. There was no veto. Governor Bush signed a bill to weaken the S.O.S. protection.

Mose Buchele Except.

Audrey McGlinchy Except it was a lot messier than that.

Mose Buchele Right.

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

Audrey McGlinchy Like I said, in 1995, Bush signed the developer friendly legislation into law. But two years later, in the 1997 legislative session, those rules were mysteriously removed.

Mose Buchele Yeah, mysterious.

Audrey McGlinchy That forced developers to again comply with S.O.S. for all their projects. But they were also challenging S.O.S. in court.

Mose Buchele So in 1998, the state Supreme Court upholds the S.O.S. protections.

Robin Rather With Greg Abbott on the Supreme Court at the time, yeah.

Audrey McGlinchy Meanwhile, the Federal Government has determined that the Barton Springs Salamander, which we haven’t even talked about yet, is an endangered species. Here’s Bill Bunch with S.O.S..

Bill Bunch Okay, there’s this federal dictate now that we protect the water.

Mose Buchele That could further complicate building projects. But in 1999, the legislature comes back and passes developer friendly laws again.

Audrey McGlinchy And somewhere in all of this, Gary Bradley challenges Bill Bunch to a fistfight.

Gary Bradley I don’t need Bill Bunch from Berkeley to tell me what to do in Texas. I really don’t.

Mose Buchele It just seemed like this was a war that was never going to end.

Barton Springs Eternal Singers [music] Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal. Barton Springs Eternal …

Mose Buchele But as it kept going, Robin Rather, with S.O.S., says she started to get the feeling …

Robin Rather We were losing badly. We were losing badly.

Barton Springs Eternal Singer [music]

Robin Rather Enter Kirk Watson.

Audrey McGlinchy Can you introduce yourself to me? Tell me your name.

Mayor Kirk Watson Where’s a bumper sticker? I usually have a bumper sticker around where I can do that. No, my name’s Kirk Watson. I’m the newly elected mayor of Austin, Texas.

Audrey McGlinchy That’s right. Austin Mayor Kirk Watson. Yes. He’s currently the city’s mayor, but he was also elected mayor in 1997.

Mose Buchele And Watson says when he decided to run the first time, he knew he’d have to deal with something he calls aquifer politics.

Mayor Kirk Watson Aquifer politics dominated a great deal of the politics of this community for a long time. And I can even make an argument in some instances, it still is part of it.

Audrey McGlinchy We mentioned in the last episode that after several wins, the Save Our Springs organization had amassed a ton of political support in Austin, even if that wasn’t true at the state level. And on the other side, you had well-funded business and real estate interests.

Mose Buchele Watson says it was like Austin had its very own two party system.

Mayor Kirk Watson It was as nasty as any two party system you can think of, even right now. It was environmentalist versus developers. It was the Chamber of Commerce versus the Sierra Club. It was the Save our Springs Alliance versus the Real Estate Council.

Audrey McGlinchy Watson saw all this bad blood as holding the city back. S.O.S. had consumed Austin politics and nothing else could really get any oxygen.

Mose Buchele But what was it holding the city back from?

Audrey McGlinchy In the nineties, across the country, cities were in trouble. People had moved out to the suburbs, which was easier because we had built highways, blue collar jobs, manufacturing jobs. These were also moving out of cities and out of the country entirely. Cities that had relied on this kind of economy were losing jobs and losing people.

Mose Buchele Other cities were trying to avoid this by becoming the capitals of the new tech economy. You know, this is the dot com boom at this time. Like nobody’s really making things anymore. I mean, I guess people are making websites like, I don’t know, or something, but the idea was that your city could grow by becoming a new capital of this service-oriented tech economy.

Audrey McGlinchy Basically, the idea was you were either going to be an abandoned factory town or Silicon Valley.

Mose Buchele So Kirk Watson and the City of Austin started actively recruiting industries to come here. But when companies would show up to check out Austin, they’d have to contend with S.O.S..

Robin Rather S.O.S. would meet them at the airport. Metaphorically, it’s a, “love to have you and your jobs. Do not move over the aquifer.”

Audrey McGlinchy And if they did.

Robin Rather We fought like dogs.

Mose Buchele So Watson’s challenge, as he saw it, was to grow Austin’s economy without pissing off S.O.S.. On one side, developers wanted to build. All these people are moving here and they need houses. But environmentalists don’t want them to build, at least in this part of town where Barton Springs is. So how do you square that circle?

Robin Rather What he did was introduce a concept called Smart Growth.

Speaker 7 Smart Growth.

Speaker 8 Smart Growth

Speaker 9 Smart Growth.

Speaker 10 Smart Growth.

Speaker 11 Smart Growth.

Audrey McGlinchy Smart Growth.

Robin Rather It was the everybody wins strategy. That’s what Smart Growth was supposed to be.

Mose Buchele So, Audrey, what is Smart Growth?

Audrey McGlinchy Well, Smart Growth is really just a marketing term, but it means building cities in a way that, well, some people say is smart. That means no longer building outward, but instead building inward and upward.

Mose Buchele So putting businesses and houses closer together. Maybe you live on top of a grocery store. You can you can walk or bike to work. You can take a bus or a subway, wherever you want to go.

Audrey McGlinchy I mean, let’s just cut to the chase. We’re talking about cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston.

Mose Buchele London, Paris, Madrid.

Audrey McGlinchy Mexico City, Bogota. Anyway, supporters say this is, quote, smart for several reasons. One, building new housing in a city cuts down on having to have a car and drive everywhere, which is better for the environment.

Mose Buchele There’s this great news story from Austin in the late nineties where the reporter explains this thinking. She’s standing on the side of a highway holding a donut in her hand.

Audrey McGlinchy It’s got pink frosting, just so you have the full image.

Reporter The idea is to stop what’s already happened in some cities, it’s called the donut effect, where the center city literally hollows out and all the growth goes to the outer rim of the city …

Audrey McGlinchy Building this way also uses up fewer city resources. Cities don’t have to keep building, I don’t know, pipes for water or roads to get to new development on the edges of town.

Mose Buchele And it also encourages building smaller homes, townhomes, apartments. These are typically cheaper than a house with a lawn.

Mayor Kirk Watson What I was saying at the time and what we were saying at City Hall was, “We’re growing folks.”

Audrey McGlinchy Again, this is then-mayor and now-mayor, Kirk Watson.

Mayor Kirk Watson How do we grow in a way that’s smart so that we don’t do something dumb to this place we love?

Audrey McGlinchy And Watson’s plan was to begin with downtown Austin. Think of it as the center of that donut.

Mose Buchele If you walk around downtown Austin today, there’s a lot going on, right? There are restaurants, offices, a couple of music venues. Back in the 1990s, it wasn’t like that.

Audrey McGlinchy Yeah, people have described it to me as like a ghost town.

Mayor Kirk Watson Downtown rolled up about five, 5:30. And the economy in downtown was the old traditional economy of lawyers, real estate and banking.

Mose Buchele Some people liked it that way.

Robin Rather You could roll up there, you could park all day for free, you could walk around. But there weren’t big, huge buildings. It didn’t even feel like a downtown. It felt like a small town, like, Main Street.

Audrey McGlinchy Anyway, once he got into office, Watson decided he needed to bring people back downtown. He would get companies to open offices there and get developers to build housing downtown and nearby.

Mose Buchele But to do this, he needed buy-in from environmentalists and developers. He needed to broker peace.

Robin Rather What he did was put dollars on the table.

Audrey McGlinchy More after the break.

Mayor Kirk Watson We’re stuck because City Hall just reacts. It doesn’t plan ahead …

Audrey McGlinchy Kirk Watson ran for mayor the first time in 1997. This is a TV ad for his campaign. And he ran on the idea that we had to get control of how the city was growing.

Mayor Kirk Watson … And create a Greenbelt plan to protect the lakes and hills around Austin.

Audrey McGlinchy Instead of just building on the outer rings of Austin, we needed to put new housing and offices in the center of the city.

Mose Buchele But like we said, to do that, he had to make peace between the West Side environmentalists and the builders.

Mayor Kirk Watson The city was split very badly. And I actually ran saying, “I’m going to try to bring this city together. We’ve got to stop this.”

Audrey McGlinchy So the two camps started getting together, like real estate people, people from the Chamber of Commerce and the Barton Springs Defenders. And they had meetings. They got together for drinks.

Mose Buchele When you think about it, they finally did exactly what Senator Barrientos dreamed of during that filibuster that we heard about at the beginning of this episode.

Senator Gonzalo Barrientos … Environmentalists, developers, council members sat down at a table and not gotten up …

Audrey McGlinchy But it wasn’t so easy.

Robin Rather It was ridiculously awkward.

Mose Buchele I mean, in some cases, these people had spent like more than ten years hating each other.

Robin Rather Here we are trying to, you know, play nice, would be the way I would say it. So we go have beverages. People are trying to make small talk. People are trying to get past the fact that they’ve been fighting.

Audrey McGlinchy These were sworn enemies. And it made some of them physically ill to start rubbing shoulders with the other side.

Robin Rather My good friend and colleague, Bill Bunch, when we were sitting down with those guys, he would literally puke. I’m not talking about just metaphorically. He would literally be throwing up.

Mose Buchele Bill did not confirm or deny this when we emailed him.

Audrey McGlinchy Meeting over drinks was one thing, but the next step was to get these groups to join forces to support a new city policy.

Mose Buchele Basically, Watson decided to dangle money in front of both these two groups for things that they each wanted. For the business people, I mean, they wanted to make money, right? And they wanted to keep developing. So why not a bigger convention center, bringing thousands of visitors to town and millions, millions of dollars to the city.

Audrey McGlinchy And the West Side environmentalists wanted land to be protected, to ensure that very little would be built over the aquifer.

Mayor Kirk Watson People had said for years, “If you’re going to regulate the land that strictly, you oughtta buy it,” they would say. And my response was, you know, that makes some sense.

Mose Buchele So Watson hatched a plan. They put bonds on a ballot and asked the public to pay for these things. But in order to get both, the environmentalists and the business interests would have to come together.

Audrey McGlinchy And as Robin remembers it, Watson engineered this in a pretty sneaky way.

Mose Buchele He told the local paper that basically it was a done deal, right? The environmentalists and the real estate guys had already agreed they were coming together over this bond issue.

Robin Rather And I remember Gary Valdez was the chair of the Austin Chamber, and he called me

Gary Valdez [dial tone] This is Gary.

Robin Rather He was like, “Did you read today’s paper?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m sitting right here.” He’s like, “Did you know this?” I was like, “I knew nothing.” [phone dial] And we conference called the head of RECA.

Audrey McGlinchy That’s the Real Estate Council of Austin.

Robin Rather Jerry Weintraub, “Weintraub, did you know about this? What are we going to do? It’s in the paper. He’s announced it. He said we’re gonna work together.”

Audrey McGlinchy I asked Watson about this.

Mayor Kirk Watson I thought they’d agreed. [laughter]

Mose Buchele Either way, by late March 1998, Robin and Gary, S.O.S. and the Chamber of Commerce were at a press conference together, announcing their support for these bonds.

Reporter 2 Old political enemies come together on common ground today over one of the most controversial issues in Austin …

Mayor Kirk Watson We had a press conference at the gazebo, right there on the water, and Gary and Robin were there, and I talked to them both many times. But I must admit, while I felt like we had made great progress and had gotten to the point where there was agreement conceptually such that I felt comfortable having a press conference with them, I must admit that I was worried about what they might say.

Robin Rather I was like, “$60 million, guys. Open space.” And they were like, “Convention center!” And, you know, it worked. And you could see it as a genius political move.

Reporter 2 Two months later, voters went to the polls and passed the bonds, the S.O.S. bond, the one to buy all that land in the Barton Springs watershed actually got the least support. It passed, but barely, with 53% of the vote.

Mose Buchele Convention Center did a little better, with 58% of people voting in favor. But what it shows is that each side needed the other one. If they hadn’t told their people to support their opponents projects, neither would have passed.

Audrey McGlinchy But the bonds were just the beginning. These were being pitched as the start of that thing we talked about earlier, Smart Growth. a vision for how Austin was going to grow.

Mose Buchele And by 1999, a year after the Bonds passed, S.O.S. was saying, “We’re friends now and we’re all in on this Smart Growth thing.” Here’s developer Gary Bradley again. This is how he put it.

Gary Bradley The deal was simple, you know, Watson’s smart. “Okay, S.O.S., you can have everything southwest, but you can’t shut down the whole damn town, okay? So leave me downtown and leave me North Austin. That’s the deal.”

Reporter 2 So city leaders divided Austin into two basic zones, and they gave them names. One was called the Drinking Water Protection Zone. This was land basically just west of Mopac. Land where you couldn’t really build, or it was really hard to build.

Mose Buchele And then you had what they called the “desired development zone,” which is like pretty much anywhere east of Mopac, right? This is land not only where you could build, but where you were encouraged to build, where you’d literally be rewarded for building.

Reporter 2 And if you look at this map of these zones, the blueprint for Smart Growth, it’s like looking into the future of Austin, prophecy of what would happen in the city in the coming years.

Mose Buchele Yeah. West Austin is is pretty much preserved in amber, right? And all the growth that’s happening happens on the East Side.

Reporter 2 But there was a big problem. One that would have huge consequences for the people already living in East Austin.

Robin Rather At the time, no one understood about gentrification.

Joshua Long I don’t think people fully realize the economic burden that this development would have on the people of Central and East Austin.

Audrey McGlinchy Joshua Long is a professor of environmental studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown. We heard from him in the second episode of this podcast, and he studied the impacts of Smart Growth in Austin.

Mose Buchele Joshua says the city campaigned to get people to move downtown, fill in that donut hole or, you know, the “desired development zone.” And it worked. But these people also started moving to East Austin. And remember, many of them were working for, like, ’90s tech companies, and so they had more money.

Joshua Long You get that influx of money. You get changes in demographics. You get changes in political perspective.

Audrey McGlinchy Between 2000 and 2010, the median household income in one East Austin zip code more than doubled, incomes doubled. This was new people moving in with big paychecks. This was not existing residents getting huge raises.

Joshua Long And it was development, not for them, it was development for future growth, which led almost immediately to gentrification.

Mose Buchele Gentrification is when wealthier, often whiter people move into a neighborhood. And this same decade, East Austin, south of E. 11th Street, became significantly whiter, about 20% whiter.

Audrey McGlinchy Joshua says the ideas around Smart Growth are good on paper. Many U.S. cities are trying to do these things today, build more and smaller housing closer together, make it so you don’t have to drive everywhere. But …

Joshua Long If you don’t have affordable housing built into your plan and you don’t have a significant public transportation plan put into place for Smart Growth, what you’re going to get is Smart Growth for the wealthy. Smart Growth for those who can afford it. And that’s going to displace everybody else.

Audrey McGlinchy And as more people moved to this neighborhood, often with more money, home prices went up. By the year 2000, home values rose across the city. But they were up the most in East Austin. That meant taxes were way up, too. And long time black and Hispanic residents started leaving.

Mose Buchele So, you know, Robin Rather says she and others didn’t really understand this is going to be a consequence. But there was someone who did.

Susana Almanza We saw the tsunami coming. We saw it. We could see, like, “Oh my God, you know, they’re coming to take the land.”

Audrey McGlinchy You remember Susana Almanza. She was the East Side activist we heard from earlier in this episode. And she says during this time that we’re talking about, she and her group, PODER, were fighting their own battles, and in a lot of cases, they were winning.

Mose Buchele Yeah, they got the tank farm moved. They got the city to commit to shutting down the gas power plant in the Holly neighborhood.

Audrey McGlinchy But one thing she says they were not at the table for was the planning for Smart Growth.

Susana Almanza If you looked at, when the people were working on Smart Growth, they were looking as if East Austin was void, as if no one lived on that land. So Smart Growth was already saying, “This can be over there, that can be over there. You can do this,” as if people didn’t live there.

Mose Buchele She says this was something her group, PODER, even talked about at board meetings. They just decided they could not take on both fights at the same time.

Susana Almanza I said, “But the next fight is going to be gentrification. So what do y’all want to do?” And they said, “Well, we got to clean up the neighborhood first. We got to, and then we’ll take on gentrification.”

Audrey McGlinchy But by the time they did, it was too late.

Susana Almanza And so that’s the process that we’re now undertaking. Is the whole the biggest issue is gentrification. And the problem is, is that it’s not just one corporation, two corporations or six. But again, the biggest culprit is still the city. The City of Austin is still the biggest culprit in gentrifying our communities and displacing communities of color.

Mose Buchele A lot of the people that supported Smart Growth don’t fully agree.

Mayor Kirk Watson Well, that’s an overly simplistic point of view.

Mose Buchele Kirk Watson blames market forces. I mean, basically capitalism, right? As more and more people want to live in a neighborhood, and if not enough housing is available, the price of existing housing goes up.

Audrey McGlinchy Watson says, in some ways, the East Side environmentalists were almost victims of their own success. They cleaned up their communities, kicked out those polluting companies, and suddenly their neighborhoods close to downtown became incredibly valuable to everyone else.

Mayor Kirk Watson One of the things that occurred is it made that land now more desirable. And so the market would say, “That land is now more desirable,” and it changes the whole character of where people want to live.

Audrey McGlinchy But did anyone anticipate, I mean, someone must have anticipated that this would affect lower income folks currently living there. Was that a conversation?

Mayor Kirk Watson Not in the way that you see today, because we were working very closely with the people, with the advocates for those neighborhoods. They were saying to us, “We must change the zoning.” And of course, on its face it needed to be changed. But it had an impact. And one of the things that’s always been a trouble with that is that the people that fought so hard to make life better under those circumstances, they don’t all get, they haven’t all had the opportunity to enjoy the benefit of it.

Mose Buchele And to a point, Susana kind of agrees. East Austinites did make their communities cleaner, more desirable to outsiders.

Audrey McGlinchy But she says the problem is they were not involved in planning what came next. There were no protections or considerations for the people already living there.

Susana Almanza You know, I walk now down my community and I don’t see my Latino friends. I don’t see our Latino businesses anymore. You know, I see a lot of young, white, more upper class, you know, wealthy people walking up and down the street. And you can just talk to any of the elders and they’ll go like, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what happened,” but we all know what happened.

Audrey McGlinchy While Watson disagrees with this characterization, some of the original supporters of Smart Growth say it’s right.

Robin Rather That Smart Growth policy set in motion an unprecedented degree of expensive density. And it started a vicious wave of displacement.

Mose Buchele A few years ago, at an event marking the 90th anniversary of the 1928 master plan that segregated East Austin, Robin Rather even issued kind of a formal apology.

Robin Rather I’ve apologized for my role, but apologies are not nearly enough. It’s our responsibility right now to put people first, not real estate first.

Robin Rather If I made a mistake by supporting a Smart Growth policy, I’ll say it. In fact, I have apologized. I wish I’d never heard of Smart Growth. I think it’s been a disaster for Austin, and I’ve publicly apologized for my own personal role in it.

Mose Buchele And, you know, in a lot of ways, this is a conversation we’re still having to this very day.

Audrey McGlinchy And we’ll hear about that in a later episode. Thanks so much, Mose.

Mose Buchele Thanks, Audrey.

Audrey McGlinchy I want to go back to where this story started, last episode. A development over the aquifer. That is what started this whole fight, an environmental fight to make sure that this beloved place, Barton Springs, stays clean for decades. But along the way, it became a debate about something else, about how the entire city should grow, where new housing should be built, and whose neighborhoods would change. And that’s a fight that’s still happening now. Smart Growth, density, whatever you want to call it. These ideas are not objectively bad. Apartment buildings are not bad. Duplexes are not bad. Being able to walk somewhere instead of drive is not bad. The problem is, in Austin, these things became a luxury that only certain people could afford. A decade after Smart Growth, this concept came back with a different name and different maps. Now we were talking about building more places for people to live all over the city. And this time, the conversation, well, it got really contentious, so I’ll call it a fight, happened right out in the open on the public stage.

Audrey McGlinchy But before we even get to that, we have to talk about tech, about how Austin became Silicon Hills. That’s next time on Growth Machine.

Audrey McGlinchy Growth Machine is a production of KUT and KUTX studios in Austin. It’s produced by me, Mos Buchele, Nathan Bernier, Marissa Charpentier, Jimmy Moss and Matt Largey. Production Help from Heather Stewart. Technical help from Jake Perlman and Renee Chavez. Stephanie Federico is our digital editor. Special thanks to Elliott Shredder, Andrew Busch, the Austin History Center and KVUE for archival tape. There’s more at I’m Audrey McGlinchy. 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.