Zone Interview – Neighborhoods Need a Planner on Their Side

This is the first of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Melissa Zone on her candidacy and the issues identified in the candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:

*     Top Priorities, Experience, Community Involvement
*     Livability, Affordability and Housing
*     Transportation, Open Space and Infrastructure
*     Public Safety, Small Business, and City Budget

Melissa Zone has worked for the last four years as a senior planner with Travis County, in the transportation and natural resources department. Prior to that, she worked as a planner in southwest Florida and in Cleveland. Her parents were both Cleveland city council members and community leaders. Zone has a history of community involvement and volunteerism. She raised funds and provided hands-on services for the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland. She co-founded the Rose Institute for Life-Long Learning, an organization that provides continual learning opportunities for senior citizens. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from Cleveland State University. In her neighborhood, Crestview, she has been active seeking a local park.

Why are you running for Council?

I have a unique opportunity where I can apply my personal and professional experience at a critical time in Austin, where what I deal with everyday is something that Austin needs in a leader.

I want to protect our neighborhoods. That doesn’t mean keeping things exactly the status quo, but it certainly shouldn’t be all multi-family. It’s possible to find a successful balance. We can protect neighborhoods, provide affordability, provide various housing options, provide transportation, and reduce the traffic jams within our neighborhoods. There are tricks to getting the balance right.

 What are your top 3 priorities?

It’s our quality of life, affordability, housing options. The number one is protecting our quality of life in the neighborhoods. A great example – think about Little Deli. You’ve got the little homes. There’s commercial development. But it’s done in a way that just lifts everyone’s spirits. I’ve never seen anyone walk in or hang out there miserable. And you can’t define that – you have to see it. I want to keep that character.

Tell me about a past experience shaping policy or making a decision that illustrates how you would serve on Council.

I’ll give you two examples, one relevant to the north end of the district, and one relevant to the south end, from when I worked as a planner in Florida.

So suburban Florida was booming, and developers were coming in and throwing up gated communities with no sidewalks.   It was just an unhealthy environment. One such project was called Bradford Square. The developer was open to the idea of working with me, and arranging the housing in clusters around shared open space. Instead of spreading out the houses, I said, “You have a lot of vacationers, you have a lot of second-home owners. Build cute condos and townhomes here along the main street, so you don’t see the parking from the front. Maybe along the golf course you put your little McMansions, because they all love them. And the other housing you clump a little closer together so you’ve still got wildlife habitat.” The conservation space and storm water feature became the focal point for the community. They put a walking path around the conservation space, and we added more shade trees and sidewalks. Kind of like what you have up at Riata Trace. The developer liked the idea. Where you had the housing was a little bit denser, but it looked nicer and was integrated with the natural surroundings. It actually looked less congested.

Here’s another experience a bit relevant to the upcoming Burnet corridor plan. In Ft Myers, Florida, we had two corridors, Veronica Shoemaker Blvd and Martin Luther King Blvd, both going through poor neighborhoods. And there were also some very wealthy second-home communities. Those people had to get off the highway and drive through the poor areas. And they wanted it to become a showcase neighborhood, pretty much to gentrify it. I was the neighborhood planner. Council and the mayor were giving my director and me direction to do that. We heard what they said, took their direction, but we took extra measures to ensure that people who would have been pushed out stayed in their homes. We found HUD money for community development. In Florida, developers have to pay for growth. We worked with them, and where there were improvements that we could do using federal and state funding through the local equivalent of CAMPO, we leveraged that money. We used the developer money to upgrade utilities to people’s homes. They had 2” mainlines for water, so their houses would have been flooded. We got the big lines along the boulevards to support new density, but then we made sure that feeder lines ran off the main lines into the old homes – they got clean water and didn’t get flooded. HUD has programs where we were able to do painting, roofing. The state had money for improvements in low-income neighborhoods to improve hurricane safety. There was FEMA money. We played social services in a way, we did everything so people didn’t have to leave their homes. Staff just worked hard because we have a heart.

Tell me about your involvement in North Austin, what you’ve accomplished on the ground

My very first problem that I helped to solve was when we moved here. We had a U-haul, and we were looking for a place that would take the dolly. Phil found them on Yelp – it was a mechanic, Riethmeyer’s automotive repair near Parmer and Mopac. They’re right next door to the Hideout. Phil took the car over, and had them remove the dolly. I was waiting while Phil was working with the mechanic. The woman there was asking me questions – it was a quiet day. “My husband’s from here, we’re moving back,” and she asked, “Oh, what do you do?” I said I was starting work at the County as a planner. “Ohhh – you work in government. Can you answer this question? She had a notice from the city about a watershed problem. Their business is in a watershed, they had to do some stuff. I said I hadn’t even started, so I don’t know the regulations yet. But I offered to look it up. I gave her my cell.

She called me that week – she did not waste time. She read the letter to me. All it said was, “Your property has been deemed to be in a watershed, and you’re going to have to do some improvements.” She said she had been trying to call the city, but they don’t return calls. The same old problems.   Well, I went, looked up everything, and according to the city’s map, they were just outside the watershed boundary.

There was a doctor who was wanting to buy the property, and was saying, “well, I’m going to have to give you less, because it’s in a watershed.” The engineers they called were going to charge tons of money to make improvements. And I said, “Sandy, you don’t have to do a thing!”

That was my first one. Then the park project. Went to a neighborhood association meeting and they were like, “We were supposed to get a park, and they’re not doing it – how do we get answers?” I raised my hand and said, “I could probably figure it out.” Where’s the land, what’s the address? I started researching. That’s how I found out the Huntsman tract was deeded to the public. The northwest part really is supposed to be public. So I found all that history, Phil helped me. We wrote a resolution that gave the whole history of it. And then I said, “Let’s go get us a park.” I told people we were going to Austin Energy first [Austin Energy owns the land] and then straight to Sara Hensley [the parks director]. I said, “We’re going right to the top – we’re talking to all the players. And we’re going to meet with all of them within a week, so they don’t have time to converse and like ‘how do we deal with this.’ We went right to the director, and I said, “Everybody – you talk first, you tell them why – you do the heartstring. And then when they come in, I’ll start.” And by the time they ended the meetings, they’d be like, “Council says it’s ok.” And then we started taking it to City Hall. We’ve had protests, we’ve been on TV, we had an article by Impact News.

I just do whatever someone has issues, I’m like – yeah, I’ll help you. It’s just who I am – a problem solver. It’s interesting to me.

As a candidate who lives in the south part of the district, what do you bring to voters who live in other parts of the district?

When we moved here we lived for over a year at Metric and Lamplight Village. We tried to buy a house in Gracywoods for a long time. I have a coworker who lives there who was always trying to help us. Phil’s niece lived up there too. We understand the traffic issues because we had to deal with that. The uncertainty of some of the crime in that area. I saw it first hand.

I guess what I bring to this district is that I lived in both parts of the district. Our vet is up there – Vet Care. Our mechanic is up there. Our favorite breakfast place is Café Java. I guess we don’t see it as “up north” because when we first came here, we settled a lot of our services in the Parmer area. I guess I don’t see me as “the southern part.”

See also:
District 7 Candidates Page
Melissa Zone to Run in District 7; Prioritizes Quality of Life, Affordability
Zone Would Use Planning Experience to Champion Neighborhoods