Page Two

Page Two
Monday morning after SXSW (Film, Interactive, and Music conferences and festivals), after the Austin Music Awards, after four huge issues in a row, after it all, Chronicle publisher and SXSW director Nick Barbaro and I sat in the office talking. It wasn't a conversation of celebration, but one of concern, as we realized that on this Thursday, even before this issue is finished being distributed, the council is holding its final public hearing on the massive CSC/City Hall proposal, and in fact, may have already made up its mind on it, hearing or no. The way CSC has moved toward realization has heightened all of our concerns about this council.

This is not a Save Liberty Lunch plea, but it is also very much a Save Liberty Lunch plea. Given the homogeneity of this council, and Mayor Watson's impressive spin and coordination abilities, the CSC plan sprang full-grown and has raced along. What the city of Austin will look like in 20 years, and into the future beyond that, is being decided right now. This huge waterfront tract, the gateway between Auditorium Shores and the booming warehouse district, is an important component in the inner city's growth. Yet everyone is talking short-term economic gain rather than long-term vision. I hate losing Liberty Lunch, but I would especially hate losing it to some civic experiment gone awry.

We're suspicious that CSC is not really a part of this council's mandate -- that it's something they're going to do just because they can do it. And we're concerned about misplaced priorities and truncated procedures. In isolation, CSC is problematic enough, but it is also symptomatic of how this council runs the city.

There is a legitimate concern that this council, arguably the best we've had in two decades, has grown cocky with their success. Their success has come more from coalition building than from achievement. The old environmental/development war is indeed over, but now we have to face the future. Given the booming economy, this does seem like an ideal time to generate extra cash from downtown. But what about the inevitable slowdown in the economy? What if there's another bust?

These aren't doomsday predictions. This is the suggestion that rather than spending city resources on creating business, which they have shown such little flair for in the past, this ought to be the ideal time to concentrate on the difficult decisions of Austin's future.

What about light rail? What about commuter rail? What about more bike lanes, bike routes, and an emphasis on alternative means of transportation? What about county and city consolidation? What about city services and roads? What about the roads around the new airport? What about the parks? What about the city's infrastructure? Instead of rashly leading the charge to forever change downtown, couldn't the council concentrate on these basic issues?

And what about the CSC plan itself? Well, we don't know, and we doubt anyone has a very good idea about it because it has moved along so quickly. If this were part of a long-term redevelopment of the city that will preserve much of its identity as it accommodates growth, that's one thing. But to lose not just Liberty Lunch but a whole undeveloped quadrant of downtown to ugly urban growth would be a shame. We don't believe anyone really has much of a handle on this development's impact. But what we've seen has not been encouraging:

  • There's precious little public space and public use envisioned for this public land -- and there's even less in the new plan than there was in the original incarnation.
  • There's no strong guarantee that either the rents or the ambience of the commercial space would be tuned to the needs of homegrown businesses and existing downtown users, rather than generic national chains which are more the norm.
  • There's been nothing whatsoever in the way of traffic studies, or alternative transit plans to accommodate the sudden infusion of residents and employees in the area. In fact, it seems likely that the council may squander so much of its political capital in pushing through this and other developments, that it will have none left to spend on the infrastructure that would make it all work.
  • The CSC complex would artificially superheat property values in the area, jeopardizing the homegrown businesses which have begun thriving downtown just in the last few years. Liberty Lunch would go immediately, but the Music Hall, La Zona Rosa, Waterloo Brewing, Antone's, Ruta Maya, and dozens of other west-end businesses are just as clearly threatened.

Yet despite all the rhetoric, despite the fact that Watson wooed his bride-to-be at the Lunch, and that Slusher and Goodman have roots here as well -- despite it all, here in the "Live Music Capital of the World" there's the feeling that they still don't quite get it -- don't get what all the fuss is about. They see the possibility of a shiny new community, and they grossly undervalue the community we already have.

That sounds harsh. In fact, we like this council. We're not sure what we think about CSC. But we do know that in these heady times, moving ahead without caution will serve the city badly. This council is absolutely rushing forward and it makes us more than nervous.

Adding to the council's arrogance are the relatively uncontested election races coming up (see "Council Watch" this issue, by Jenny Staff). And not to indulge in "we told you so," but this column did refer to the current campaign finance law as a full employment act for incumbents.

The Statesman tries to co-opt SXSW with their pre-event advertising and their daily special sections. Editorially, though, the tone is almost always negative, each year featuring a different theme. This year's theme was that there were too few headliners at the SXSW Music Festival. This should be taken in context of their coverage two or three years ago that bemoaned the number of headlining acts, claiming that there were so many that it impacted on the number of unsigned bands, and that by booking too many big-name acts we had lost our way. Now, by not booking enough big-name acts, we've lost cachet. We certainly had the same number of unsigned bands both years, and almost the same number of headliners.

Waking up in the morning, after working most of the night on SXSW, only to find the Statesman's invariably discouraging words (usually accompanied by mostly glowing reviews), begins things on a bitter footing.

The truth of the matter is that this year's attendance was up over last year's on every night except Wednesday (when we had fewer venues). Thursday night, when it poured, the door was 30% better than last year. The people of Austin were out at the clubs, as were our SXSW guests. They know that SXSW is about the music, and whether catching old favorites or trolling for new acts, they're out to hear the music.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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