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How Easy Is Austin?

By Amy Smith, Fri., July 19, 2002

The end is near.

Austinites may interpret that expectation in opposite ways, in light of the arguments both for and against the Stratus Properties development agreement. The City Council is expected to wrap up additional tinkering and possibly cast a final vote today (July 18) on a contentious deal that more than 500 people spoke against in public hearings -- despite unusual limits placed upon the debate by the council, which suspended its own rules to do so.

By approving the agreement, proponents argue, the city will not only have officially protected the environment, but achieved closure on a longstanding land-use battle fought from the courthouse to the Legislature, where the threat of more Austin-bashing still lingers.

Opponents of the deal insist the Stratus development would instead be another and perhaps final nail in the coffin of Barton Springs, where already endangered salamanders have been recently turning up sick or dead for as-yet-undetermined reasons, perhaps pollution-related.

To judge from its July 11 meeting, a council majority apparently agrees that the proposal on the table is not half-bad, given the dedication of six tracts of open space, strict water-quality controls, and a commitment to green-building standards and native plant landscaping, among other things. The deal gained the council's first, nearly unanimous vote last week, with only Raul Alvarez dissenting. His nay vote drew loud applause from the dozen or so opponents who stuck around for the wee-hour decision.

Though the council limited public input for the June 27 and July 11 hearings, the city has little choice but to reopen today's hearing for testimony on two additional zoning items held back from last week's agenda due to a notification glitch. The hearing is set for 4pm -- a time of day unlikely to allow a large turnout.

Alvarez told fellow council members that he could not endorse a deal that carries a $15 million subsidy to extend infrastructure in "areas where we have said we don't want development." The $15 million covers the amount the city would forego in various fees and assessments. That carrot, other council members respond, helped the city "buy down" the density proposed in Stratus' original plan. Nevertheless, Southwest Austin will still get an additional 1,700 residences and 1 million square feet of office and retail space (down from the original 2 million to 2.5 million square feet). The development will cover 15 noncontiguous tracts that Stratus controls in the Barton Springs aquifer.

As an alternative, Alvarez suggested postponing action on the deal pending two things: the creation of a regional plan and a determination of what's causing the pollution in Barton Springs. "We have one scenario that we think is bad, and then we have this agreement here that we think is less bad -- and this is what the [$15 million] is giving us?"

"I'm also uncomfortable with the $15 million," Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman reasoned, "but then you ask yourself how much is the aquifer worth to you? If you're going to try to lessen development, what are the options? We spent the past 10 years spending every political nickel we had just to protect that piece of paper [the SOS ordinance]. It's time to move on now. Everybody knew SOS was not tailored enough to guarantee protection of the aquifer."

So, rather than trying to hold developers to the ordinance, the City Council now appears willing to tailor the ordinance to fit the development -- or, in their view, risk something far worse over the aquifer.

But Robin Cravey, former aide to Council Member Daryl Slusher and a former city planning commissioner, urged the council to move away from that stance and listen to the public's wishes. "Once again the people of Austin come to the council requesting -- demanding -- that the council stand firm against the pillage of our aquifer ..." he said. "I know how hard it is to see work undertaken with the best of motives rejected by our peers. But I also know how easy it is to become so immersed in details that we lose sight of the goal."

Of all the old environmental warriors to turn out to address the council, only one, George Cofer, spoke in favor of the deal, telling council, "I absolutely know in my heart it's the right thing to do. I know in my mind it's the right thing to do. ... I've learned that 'Just say no,' and 'Don't do it' ... is simply not the answer, in my opinion."

By most indications, the majority of the council seems to share Cofer's opinion. A victory for Stratus appears almost certain. "Austin is not easy," Stratus attorney Steve Drenner observed last week in his closing rebuttal, referring to the time and expense the company has spent in negotiating the agreement.

The City Council may well prove him wrong.

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