Niran Babalola is in love with cities

Niran Babalola is in love with cities

[Editor’s note: Very special thanks to Terrence Henry for making this interview happen. TL;DR: Niran Babalola’s message challenges Austin “progressivism” by highlighting systemic discrimination through Austin’s land use laws.  The message relates to modern policies and recent votes from City leaders.]

Niran Babalola is in love with cities.

“They’re amazing things,” he says, “where all these people come together in one place.” Babalola, the head of the housing and land use reform group DesegregateATX, is an Austin native who has spent much of his free time in recent years reading everything he can to understand cities better and what makes them work. And he’s found that the way Austin’s does things — whether it’s transportation, land use or housing affordability — tends to ignore the best practices of others and ends up only serving a select few.

“We’ve decided in this city not to govern for the have-nots,” Babalola says, pointing to land use policies that favor expensive single-family homes over denser, more diverse types that serves a wider range of people.

“We are the most economically segregated city in America, the only city with a declining African-American population.”

Over a long conversation (and a few cups of coffee) this summer downtown, Babalola told me the story of how Austin’s promise for all has been betrayed by its protectionism for the privileged few. A condensed version of our conversation follows:

TH: So how did we get to where we are today?

If you ask economists about how economic segregation occurs in cities, they’ll tell you it’s the policies of a city that makes it happen. They’ll point to studies showing how restrictive zoning laws cause economic segregation. The harder you make it to build homes, the more economic segregation you end up getting, especially in a city with a thriving economy like Austin’s. If you limit the number of homes, all you end up doing is pushing people out.

Niran Babalola

Niran Babalola

If you want to include all kinds of people, you have to include their homes. You have to include them in your neighborhood. Otherwise you’ll be pushing them further and further away from all the public investments we’ve made together.

If you look at the laws in effect in Austin’s central neighborhoods, in the vast majority of them, they say you can only build the most expensive type of housing: a single-family home with a big yard. Mixed-income neighborhoods in the core of the city are essentially illegal. But if you look at the statistics about what kinds of homes people live in, it will show you that the vast majority of white families live in single-family homes in Austin, a minority of black and hispanic families live in single-family homes. It’s not just economic segregation, it’s racial segregation. And we’re surprised we have an affordability problem!

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Rue de Rainey Market

Rue de Rainey Market

Check out the Rue de Rainey Market on August 14th, from noon to 7pm.

This is the kick-off event for what is planned to be recurring every other Sunday in the Rainey District.  Rue de Rainey Market will feature an array of local artisans, designers, and merchants.

The marketplace will be hosted at 604 Driskill, which is the parking lot to the across from Bar 96.


A Drive Through Austin – June 1996

A Drive Through Austin – June 1996

This is an amazing time capsule of a video.

Twenty years ago this video was shot by Pete Reid and his buddy, Brian.  Pete was a visiting student from Scotland at UT.

The video takes us from UT, down the Drag, along Guadalupe into downtown Austin.  The video quality isn’t great, but it is good enough for some good nostalgia to kick in. From Pete’s Youtube description:

“We drove down the Drag passing the Hole in the Wall, Tower Records, some drag rats, and Miami Subs. Then down Guadalupe passed the Dog and Duck, Liberty Lunch, an empty Austin skyline, and hardly any traffic. “

It starts off with shots of the Drag.  For me the most interesting part is about five minutes in when you can catch glimpses of how downtown Austin has evolved. Notably:

0:44 – Tower Records on the Drag

5:24 – on the left, Guadalupe @ 5th, that parking lot is where Plaza Lofts is now.

5:52 – on the left, Guadalupe @ 2nd, that white building is now where Austin City Hall is located.  The camera pans to the right to show Liberty Lunch.

6:27 – approaching and crossing Cesar Chavez

7:01 – shots of downtown Austin from 1st Street Bridge

Thanks to Pete Reid for sharing this on Youtube, and to Chris James putting it on my radar.

~ Jude

New downtown Austin train station making room for pedestrian plaza

New downtown Austin train station making room for pedestrian plaza

The downtown Austin “Red Line” train station is about to undergo a significant makeover, that will add room for two more trains at the station.  The capacity upgrade is expected to double the people (from >400 to 800) to commute to downtown from north Austin during rush hour.

However, the final design seems to be departure from any of the proposed concepts.

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Downtown Thriving as a Live-Work-Play Community

Downtown Thriving as a Live-Work-Play Community


Artist’s rendering of the office tower now going up at the site of the former Thomas C. Green Water Treatment Plant in downtown Austin where Google will take more than 200,000-sf. CREDIT: Gensler Austin

Nice story in The Statesman about the vibrant community that continues to grow downtown – not just in terms of nightlife, but also new economy jobs and associated residents:  Austin’s Tech Scene Heats Up Downtown.

It’s worth pointing out however that all this has not “just happened” by itself.

It has been 15+ years in the making with great purpose by the likes of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association (DANA), Mayors Kirk Watson, Will Wynn, Lee Leffingwell and their City Councils, the Downtown Austin Plan, and many more driving forces.

Except for weekday lunchtime and weekend nights on East 6th, it was a veritable ghost town when my team first opened an expanded Wild About Music down here in 1995, then started living here in 1999.

There’s still a ton of work to be done around issues of homelessness and vagrancy (two different matters), affordability (having only $50/ft rents and million dollar condos is not sustainable), traffic (a car-free zone?), and that IH-35 east-west barrier.

Dave Sullivan, longtime Austin civic leader during this big growth period, also just told me: “When I joined the City Planning Commission in 1994, software development was a prohibited use Downtown. I remember voting to change that in the late 90s. Seems incredible.

Incredible indeed, Dave.

And a worthy update:  After this story published I received a note from a longtime steward of Downtown Austin’s evolution, Michael Knox, of the City’s Economic Development Department.  He filled in another 10 years of preparation that went into the creation of today’s Downtown before my timeline even picks up.  Mike says:

“I started working on downtown in 1988, when it was part of AustinPlan’s Sector 1.  Of course AustinPlan, the comprehensive plan update to replace Austin Tomorrow, was never adopted.

“In 1989 we (Jose Martinez and I) started working with the Downtown Commission, actively promoting a thing called R/UDAT.  The 1990 R/UDAT application we co-wrote was accepted, and in 1991 we got the R/UDAT team visit and report, followed in 1992 by “A Call to Action: R/UDAT Implementation” that, in 1993 gave birth to the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Austin Downton PID.  These efforts involved hundreds of dedicated Austinites.

“Downtown initiatives were kicked up a notch in 1997 when Kirk Watson became Mayor, and Assistant City Manager Jim Smith (now Aviation Director) and I put together Kirk’s first six downtown initiatives, including the Waller Creek tunnel, Downtown Design Guidelines and the Poleyard and AMLI developments.”

So there you go…another of Downtown Austin’s many unsung heroes.  We thank you, Michael Knox.