Borrowing the language of chemistry, citing an example from computer science and referring to the culture of the startup scene, Mayor Steve Adler said city government shouldn’t be afraid to experiment when it comes to tackling the affordability and mobility challenges that have accompanied Austin’s rapid population growth.
“I want us to creatively and innovatively deal with the problems that fast-growing cities are facing even if other cities have never figured out the answers,” Adler said in prepared remarks for his second State of the City address, held Tuesday night at the 440-seat Zach Theatre. “This is how we learn and get better. This is how we do big things.”
Adler said that risk is part and parcel of pursuing meaningful solutions. In some cases, he said, such risk has produced great dividends, such as his work securing enough housing for all the city’s homeless veterans. In other cases, he noted, such risk has led to backlash, such as his failure to fully explain the mechanics of a deal for permanent affordable housing at the Southeast Austin Easton Park development, also known as Pilot Knob.
“Some rockets are going to blow up on the launching pad,” Adler said. “We cannot be afraid to fail so long as we learn quickly.”
Many of the “big things” Adler mentioned in his speech are already underway or about to be, including an “Affordability Audit” in which the city auditor will examine what city government does to make Austin more affordable as well as less affordable; a vision for transforming Interstate 35 by burying lanes downtown and adding lanes; and writing a plan that lays out challenges with workforce development and sets measurable goals for improving job training.
But the City Council needs time if it wants to significantly move the needle when it comes to Austin’s rising cost of living and traffic congestion, Adler said.
Adler said “three-letter emergencies” — new regulations for STRs (short-term rental properties), TNCs (transportation network companies, such as Uber and Lyft) and ADUs (accessory dwelling units, more commonly known as garage apartments or granny flats) — sucked up significant council time over the past year.
“The greater community needs us to spend time on doing big things, and it’s hard to imagine the big ideas that will get us there if we spend so much of our time on the emergency du jour,” Adler said.
Must-do items, such as passing a city budget and setting a tax rate, “would probably happen no matter who was in my job,” Adler said. More than three times, Adler named one accomplishment he doesn’t consider a big deal: approving a city budget and tax rate that saved the typical homeowner $14 on part of the overall tax bill.
This doesn’t mean the council hasn’t accomplished anything big, Adler said. He pointed to decisions to set aside more than $70 million for affordable housing over the next decade, some of which will be targeted at neighborhoods facing gentrification, and launching a process for gathering public input on mobility projects that could be part of a bond election.
“There is no law of cities that says as Austin grows we will become unaffordable and immobile,” Adler said. “Our future is still in our hands. Austin is still at a place where we can do something about it.”
Toward the end of Adler’s speech, a small group of protesters with ICE Out of Austin held up a sign that said “This great city deports” and began chanting “Less talk, more action.” They were escorted out of the room, with some in the audience yelling at them to shut up.
Alejandro Caceres, who was among the protesters, said they have tried to convince Adler to bring forward a resolution asking Austin police Chief Art Acevedo to cease communications with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, but with no success. Caceres said it’s clear the issue is not a priority to the mayor.
Adler told reporters after his speech that he has made his position on immigration clear. Last year, for instance, Adler joined the nonprofit Workers Defense Project in publicly calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to drop a lawsuit against an executive order from President Barack Obama that sought to provide protection from deportation to millions of undocumented immigrants with children born in the U.S.
Entrepreneur Keith Pattison, who said it was his first time attending a State of the City speech, said he appreciated the mayor’s take on tackling civic issues.
“I thought it was cool the way he talked about innovative approaches to solving city problems, as someone in the tech community,” Pattison said.
Sharon Watkins, who has lived in Austin for 40 years and also attended the State of the City address, said she’s “a really big fan and a really big critic” of the mayor.
“I think he’s up for the task, and I don’t always agree with him,” Watkins said. “That’s the kind of person you want to grapple with.”
The cost of the State of the City event was $4,500, which came from a mixture of city funds for staffers working that night as well as private donations administered by the Austin Community Foundation, said Jason Stanford, the mayor’s communications director.