2020: Highlights (and lowlights) of an unforgettable year

By Elizabeth Pagano

Austin Monitor

It’s not likely that anyone who lived through it will soon forget the year 2020. It’s possible, however, that one might forget the details of local news stories from the year. For that, we offer this review of the year that was, and we wish everyone a safe, healthy and much happier new year.

The Pandemic

Believe it or not, when 2020 began, very few people had heard of Covid-19. That soon changed, putting the pandemic unquestionably in the position of number-one-completely-overwhelming-news-story-of-the-year. That was true virtually everywhere on the planet this year, but even so, Austin Mayor Steve Adler managed to make national Covid news, not once but twice.

First, Adler won praise for his bold, prescient-adjacent call to shut down South by Southwest at a time when everything – including the severity of the pandemic – was really unclear. It was a tough call to make, but in retrospect doing anything else would have been a disaster. But more recently, Adler made national headlines (including a name-check from The Daily Show) when it was revealed that he had recorded a somber nightly address urging people to stay home and exercise caution – while he was vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Which … yeah.

Locally, while there is now more than one vaccine available, it doesn’t look like those will be widely available until the spring. And the economic fallout from a sudden, radical shift in various sectors is something that is ongoing and not yet understood. Worse yet, Austin is entering the new year under the grim threat of a state of emergency, as local hospitals continue to fill and cases have topped 19.3 million nationwide with more than 334,000 deaths. Though we would really, really like to leave this news story behind, it’s obvious that Covid-19 and its effects will be with us well into 2021.

‘Reimagining’ Public Safety

In another national story turned local, Austin’s protests over police brutality did not fall on deaf ears this year. The protests, which were spurred by the police killings of George Floyd and Michael Ramos as well as a history of racist police violence, were met with violence from Austin police, provoking a flurry of City Council resolutions aimed at police reform. Another consequence was a 5 percent decrease in the police budget this year and a promise from City Council to undertake a process called “reimagining public safety,” a long-term planning effort to move some non-crimefighting duties away from police that will continue through this year.

That promise includes earmarking $150 million of APD’s budget to be moved in the next budget. This move has caught the attention of conservatives, including those who lead the state, and led to a lot of hand-wringing about out-of-control crime, even though Austin continues to be a very safe city and there is not a clear causal relationship between police spending and crime rates. Nonetheless, there’s a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would have the Texas Department of Public Safety fully take over APD, “to keep Austin safe.”

Live Music Capital of the World?

What happens to the Live Music Capital of the World when live music is shut down for the better part of the year? Nothing good. With venues, festivals and bars closed due to the pandemic, Austin’s music industry has been hanging on by a thread. With layoffs at SXSW, C3 Presents and the permanent closure of places like Margin Walker, Barracuda and Plush, the industry begged the city for help, which eventually came in the form of grants, the SAVES ordinance and a new economic development corporation.

At the end of the year came word that the much-needed Save Our Stages Act had passed, meaning federal dollars are on the way. Still, the slow response to the crisis, the lack of respite from continuously increasing real estate prices and the uncertainty of when live music will return leaves the future of music in this town a very open question.

Prop A (and B!) Win

tWith most eyes, hearts and nerves focused on the presidential election this November, it was kind of a low-key revolution that Project Connect resoundingly passed in Austin. The plan, which was Proposition A on the ballot, promises to transform the transit landscape of the city with a $7.1 billion investment in a number of public transportation improvements, including, significantly, rail.

Combined with Prop B’s $460 million for things like sidewalks, urban trails and bikeways, Austin might really be taking a step away from its current car-centric nature toward a future that has more viable mobility options for everyone.

Tesla Is Coming to Austin (Because Austin’s Growth Didn’t Pause)

Amid the pandemic, and dire economic news from many places around the world, Austin’s economy continued to barrel forward. Perhaps nothing made that clearer than the July deal struck to build Tesla’s “Gigafactory” in Southeast Travis County. Actually, it was made slightly clearer a few months later, when Tesla CEO and tech symbol Elon Musk announced that he, too, was moving to Texas and plausible rumors about a company relocation began swirling.

And earlier this month, tech giant Oracle announced its relocation to Austin, leading to the overall dissonance of being a boom town during a distinctly non-booming time in history. Will we walk out of our (increasingly expensive) doors to encounter a brand-new, post-pandemic Austin? Stay tuned.

Changes at the County

Travis County has a reputation for being a stable, quiet, governmental entity not prone to making scenes. That reputation still holds, but the pieces are in place for some major criminal justice reform this year. Not only did the county finally create a public defender’s office in 2019, it also has three new public servants who have all sworn to concentrate their efforts on making sure jail is not used as a means to control populations that could better be served by, well, social services. District Attorney-elect José Garza, Travis County Attorney-elect Delia Garza and Travis County Judge Andy Brown seem to all be in agreement when it comes to prioritizing criminal justice reform, and it will be exciting to see what happens next.

City Loses Land Development Code Suit

It wouldn’t be an end-of-the-year list if we didn’t write something about the ongoing Land Development Code. (Right? This has been going on forever, right?) At any rate, in this, our most recent chapter, Council appeared to be on the verge of passing a new version of the code. Then District Judge Jan Soifer ruled that the first votes on the code were void because the city did not properly notify homeowners. That was in March, and though the city has appealed the decision, everything is on hold due to the pandemic, adding another delay to a seemingly never-ending process to get a new, functional Land Development Code.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, which is the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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