The Austin Chronicle

Page Two

By Nick Barbaro, November 20, 1998, Columns

Smart Growth: It's not where you grow, it's how you grow. You can double the density of development on the Triangle and cut the traffic impact at the same time, if you just have the right mix of residential and commercial uses, and the right design to encourage alternative transportation and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.

Of course, it took a determined, sophisticated campaign by a number of neighborhood groups over a couple of years -- and all the political connections those extremely well-connected neighborhoods could muster -- to pull off what is now hailed on all sides as a historic step forward in development planning, and a significant precedent in having the city and state cooperate on the development of state land.

As more than one observer has noted, it's not at all clear that this kind of neighborhood victory could have been replicated anywhere else in the state. And of course, the really hard work is only just beginning; after all, now that all the sound and fury has died down, those lovely conceptual plans have to get engineered, financed, and built. And the city has yet to show any real commitment to actual traffic planning in the area.

Still, the Triangle process has to be seen as a major victory for the mayor, and for city planning as a whole in Austin. And it's not the only one this mayor and council have under their belts. *

* The Watson juggernaut has been an awesome force thus far. From the Convention Center to the civic center, from the Triangle to Auditorium Shores, from Barton Creek to Waller Creek, and from S.O.S. to the Chamber, the mayor has swept together coalitions, and been able to move forward on projects that had been stalemated for years and even decades. But note that none of these projects are as yet actually underway. And it is by no means certain that all these coalitions will hold together when it comes time to start making the hard decisions about exactly what goes where and who gets what. After all -- as a certain city councilmember who used to be the politics editor at this very paper was fond of saying -- "the devil is in the details."

Still, it must be noted that for all his celebrated persuasive powers, Mayor Watson has also demonstrated an admirable flexibility and patience when things don't go exactly as expected. Faced with a firestorm of opposition to the Ice-Bats-on-Town-Lake plan which he had masterminded, Watson had the good sense to back down quickly and graciously and move on to Plan B -- the civic center/Arts Complex plan -- without skipping a beat. And he was rewarded with a comfortable electoral approval, on Nov. 3, of a project which seemed highly controversial not that long ago. Again, of course, nothing is yet built, and much planning is yet to be done, but the signs are all very positive at this point.

Across the river at the Convention Center, on the other hand, we may soon get a better indication of how the proposed CSC/Liberty Lunch/ AMOA development may work out. You may recall that, while endorsing the bonds to pay for a Convention Center expansion, we castigated the mayor and council in this very column for appearing to commit to a specific expansion plan before doing any long-range planning for the surrounding area. Six months later, a block of theRailyard Apartments is gone, and other expansion steps seem on target, but there's still no official word about any sort of master plan for the area.

A similar outcome for the area around the Lunch would be completely unacceptable,especially given the huge amount of city-owned land in the area -- the Pole Yard, the Green Water Treatment and Seaholm Power plants, and most notably, the block containing the City Hall Annex, right in the middle of this new development. Personally, I have no objection to building up this underutilized area, even if it means forciblyrelocating Liberty Lunch. But I do have a problem with auctioning off all that city land piecemeal -- to be developed by private interests for their own purposes -- without considering how they all fit together, or whether they'll add up to a coherent neighborhood when they're all done. After all, Mr. Mayor, you have to remember that it's not where you grow, it's how you grow.

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