On Nov. 3, Austin residents will vote on Proposition A. If approved, it will increase the city's property tax rate by around 20% to help pay for Project Connect, a $7.1 billion overhaul of the local transit system.
Proponents say the plan will help make Austin a more equitable city by ensuring residents have access to an affordable and comprehensive transit system.
But past transit initiatives suggest that the project could deepen the fault lines it hopes to address, which is why Austin City Council has allocated $300 million for anti-displacement initiatives under the Project Connect proposal.
The broken spoke
District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison told Austonia that the pandemic has magnified infrastructural failures and exposed disparities in health care, education and transit access.
"Multiple generations of disinvestment have to be reconciled," she said.
Although Project Connect provides a chance for the city to catch up, it could also lead to some unintended consequences.
In other U.S. cities, transit investment has accelerated gentrification and displacement.
Researchers at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University found that the "predominant pattern" of neighborhood change following transit investment was "one in which housing becomes more expensive, neighborhood residents become wealthier and vehicle ownership becomes more common," according to a 2010 report.
Some Austinites have seen this happen in their own backyards.
The construction of MoPac in 1971 led to the destruction of nearly one-third of the homes in Clarksville, one of the earliest freedmen's communities established west of the Mississippi and, during segregation, one of the few remaining Black neighborhoods west of Interstate-35.
Similarly, the building of I-35 in the 1960s "both displaced existing Black communities and reinforced the de facto and de jure segregation of Austin" codified in the city's 1928 master plan, according to the Austin Justice Coalition.
As a result, there is concern that, if implemented, Project Connect could worsen Austin's affordability crisis and deepen the inequities it aims to rectify.
"Once this is approved in November … the speculation of real estate is going to happen instantaneously, almost over night," said Steven Pedigo, director of the LBJ Urban Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.
The alternate route
Aware of this likelihood and the precedent of past transit investment, Austin City Council worked to ensure the Project Connect budget includes $300 million in anti-displacement funds to be spent over the next 10 to 13 years on things such as:
- The construction or development of new affordable housing,
- Preservation, repair and rehabilitation of existing affordable housing,
- Financial assistance for homeowners,
- Home repair,
- Rental subsidies
- And right to return assistance.
"If it's after the fact, we've missed the boat," District 5 Council Member and Capital Metro Board Member Ann Kitchen said at an Aug. 7 meeting.
Dr. Yingling Fan is a professor at the University of Minnesota who has researched the effects of light rail development in Minnesota's Twin Cities. In 2012, she co-authored a report that looked at neighborhood change induced by new transit corridors, including gentrification and displacement.
"My opinion is we need to be aware of the potential impacts," Fan said, "but there is a lot of opportunity for government agencies to work with neighborhood organizations to ensure affordable housing supply is protected."
Austin Mayor Steve Adler and others have stressed that no city has done as much as Austin proposes to with Project Connect to offset displacement.
Harper-Madison pointed to the city of Denver, which established its Transit-Oriented Development Fund in 2010 with an initial investment of $15 million—or 5% of what Austin plans to allocate.
"We're going to be the gold standard," she told Austonia.
The next stop
But some community members have raised concerns that the funding will not come through or, if it does, not achieve its stated aim.
David King, speaking as a long-time resident of the Zilker neighborhood, worries that Project Connect is "a perfect storm for displacement" and that $300 million is inadequate to prevent what is coming down the tracks. (He is also a member of the city's zoning and platting commission.)
"I don't think the city is as committed to preventing displacement as it could be," King told Austonia, adding that he would like to see more concrete parameters for how such funding will be allocated and demands on developers who build near transit stations.
In response to such concerns, council members established a "contract with voters" that ensures the city will create neighborhood-level strategies with community members, develop an equity assessment tool and publicly track the progress of its anti-displacement initiatives.
Yasmine Smith is a co-chair of the local nonprofit People United for Mobility Action, which works to ensure every Austinite has access to safe, affordable and convenient transit options. She has been heartened by the city's commitment to equity in developing Project Connect and believes the contract with voters will ensure the anti-displacement funding is put to best use.
"I like to analogize it to gumbo," Smith said. "Right now, we're in the roux stage. We've made a good roux, a great base, with the legal binding documents."
If Proposition A is approved by voters, it will take a long time "to get the tenderness of the meat just right," but Smith said she will be at the stovetop, stirring away.
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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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