Page Two

Page Two
I'll warn you: I can't be objective about this Triangle Park/Triangle development thing. I have a vested interest here, a personal stake in this tract of land, which profoundly colors my judgement on the subject. It's the sense of proprietorship I share with a lot of other people I know: I live close to it.

Not right acrosss the street, mind you, but less than 10 blocks away -- close enough to walk over for a movie in the evening (if there's good enough pedestrian and bike access), do some window shopping, maybe even hang out for a bit (if there are any public spaces bigger than traffic islands). In my fondest dreams, I envision a whole new community center coalescing: more urban than 43rd & Duval, more convenient than downtown but maybe linked to it by public transportation (if it's really built to be transit-ready), more public than a shopping center, a sort of a... a... new urban center!

Yeah, well, like I said, that's my fondest dream, and you can't expect dreams to come true, can you? As you can see, however, I've made peace with the idea of losing this strip of greenspace -- even if it is 20 times bigger than the only dedicated parkland in the area, Shipe Park. There are a lot of big "ifs" in the last paragraph, and many more ugly details (which have a tendency to get uglier as things wend their way toward completion) to come, but we might as well frame the argument in realistic terms: The issue is not greenspace-vs.-development, it's what type of development we're going to see on this space.

Here's the deal. It's really pretty simple.

1) Austin has grown, and continues to grow.

2) We can expect that all privately-owned center-city real estate will in time be developed to its maximum commercial potential.

3) The Triangle is prime center-city real estate, but publicly owned, by the Texas Dept. of Mental Health & Mental Retardation (MHMR). But,

4) State agencies are seriously under the gun from the Lege to make money on their real estate holdings.

5) There is absolutely no doubt that MHMR can make money from the Triangle. Thus,

6) There is absolutely no doubt that MHMR will license their property out for development.

Would we prefer that the state not go around selling off all of our land? Maybe, but that's not a fight we can even engage in right now. The point is, MHMR put the tract on the block, and got an offer of $9.1 million for a 50-year lease to a development company called Cencor. That's a lot of money, and Cencor intends to put in a lot of development, and make a lot more money. MHMR has accepted the offer, and if Cencor is somehow driven out, they'll accept another similar offer from someone else, and if someone really wants to have a true "Triangle Park" there, they'll have to come up with the cash, as well. $9 million bond issue, anyone? I didn't think so.

But if we're not going to have a park, and we're not going to have a nice, grassy, vacant lot, what can we have? And who decides? The owner, MHMR, is at this point pretty much out of it; they'll be happy with any resolution that gets something built, and thus gets them their money. The developer, Cencor, wants to build to the max, frankly can't be expected to care much what the neighbors think, and is about fed up with hearing what it can and can't do with its development, dammit.

The prospective tenants, though -- that's another matter. No retailer wants ill will, and more than one shopping center has gone back to the drawing board when a skittish anchor store got cold feet. They're clearly the weak link in the development side; and the weakest link of all is even easier to finger. Randalls is in desperate need of some good publicity, and really now, isn't a supermarket about the most brain-dead use of that space you can imagine? Not only is it about the least neighborhood-friendly, most surface-parking- and traffic-intense usage possible, it's also geographically redundant in an area of town that's already saturated with grocers. But hey, it worked for Central Park, so...

But there's another way, and here's where the three-cornered dynamic that Mike Clark-Madison writes about in the cover story comes into play: The traditional neighborhood folks, the new-urb types from Hyde Park, et al., have been banging their heads against Cencor for almost a year, extracting marginal victories and tentative promises, and they've just about worn each other down without really getting to the core of the problem.

Then, without warning, the wild-eyed enviro-radicals -- the "Shining City on the Hill" people, as Clark-Madison terms it -- descend from the north, start harrumphing about how this was going on without public input... parkland torn up... suburban blight... traffic... and for perhaps the first time in modern history, it's the left that gets to play good cop/bad cop. Now, suddenly, it's all up in the air again -- the plans have to be re-defended, the dirty laundry re-aired, the hard-fought compromises re-examined -- and though Cencor and MHMR are ready to turn a deaf ear, others with more sensitivity to public relations may not be so inclined, especially in the wake of the recent city elections. Actually, it's a kinda sweet little situation, in its own way. So I don't know, maybe you can expect dreams to come true, after all.

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