The Austin Chronicle

Page Two

By Nick Barbaro, June 4, 1999, Columns

Weak Mayor system? Not so as you'd notice. Once again, at today's City Council meeting, we will get a vivid demonstration of Mayor Kirk Watson's amazing mastery of this city's political machinery -- a machinery so delicate and subtle, under our somewhat unusual "weak mayor" city charter, that no mayor in the past quarter-century has been able to master it like this.

In the grand scheme of things, the issue of the city's day labor site moving out of downtown to a site on north I-35 isn't the biggest one facing the council, but it is emotional, and it's illustrative of just how Austin is developing.

When last we left the day labor issue two weeks ago, the controversial move to a clearly tenuous 50th Street site seemed to be in big trouble. The workers hated the idea, the neighborhood hated it, and there seemed to be four votes on the council to at least put off the move for 90 days, to give a citizen coalition a chance to broker a more palatable solution for all concerned.

But it was also clear that Kirk Watson very much wanted this site out of downtown, and when the decision was put off for two weeks, I think it was clear to everyone in the room that hizzoner was not going to be on the short end of the vote when it came back.

Flash forward two weeks, and lo and behold, Bill Spelman is now reported to be a firm vote for the new site, and its passage is considered to be pretty much a done deal. Seeing as it's a packed agenda -- this being the sole council meeting in a six-week span -- it may pass without even much discussion.

Is this a bad thing? Probably not. If the neighborhood gets the infrastructure improvements it is requesting, this could even become a plus for them. And the laborers? Well, most anything should be a step up from the current bastardized, crime-ridden set-up behind Liberty Lunch; at worst, this'll be an inconvenient interim.

Still, this remains troublesome on two counts. First is the distinct impression that the city was not being particularly honest with its citizens with regard to this issue. City staff never contacted any of the effected neighborhood groups about the move (though they at some points claimed they had), they failed to get the workers involved until they had to, and they effectively suppressed any consideration of alternate sites. They, and their council supporters, were spinning information and acting suspiciously boosterish -- more interested in making a deal than in determining whether this was the right deal.

Which brings me to the second concern: the ferocity with which downtown boosters wanted to rid themselves of the day laborers, and the doggedness with which the mayor pursued that goal. As the mayor sees it, he's a no-nonsense kind of guy. This thing has to go somewhere. This spot will work. If the neighbors have a problem with it, let's deal with that, give them some sidewalks and police, and get on with it. And as far as that goes, I'm right there with him. But that begs the question of why it was suddenly an important item on the city agenda for day labor to be out of downtown.

It has not gone unnoticed that this council's major policy initiatives happen to be in lockstep with the big-money downtown developers. And there is considerable concern in some circles that the "big box" developments this council has so far facilitated, could be inimical to the existing culture downtown.

Austin's downtown works because of a thriving but fragile small business climate that has developed largely on its own over the last decade or more. Entrepreneurial small business can only do so much, of course, and few dispute the need, at this point in our city's history, to take development to the next level, with transit and other infrastructure improvements, and a substantial residential component, which will only come from major investments, both public and private. But how do you add one without killing the other? Very carefully, and with a great deal of sensitivity to the pre-existing conditions. I know that this council understands that. They just have to keep it in mind.

Much of the Chronicle staff has been in Memphis, Tennessee, for much of the past week, attending the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, a trade organization of papers like ours from around the U.S. and Canada. (The trip itself involved 27 people, and two overnight rides across Arkansas on a chartered bus, but that's another story.) Aside from the usual nuts and bolts, it was interesting in at least a couple of different ways.

For one thing, it was interesting seeing firsthand some of the problems another city was having with their downtown redevelopment campaign. Memphis had a classic case of suburban white flight, and downtown is, for the most part, pretty desolate. To date, the renewal consists of a scattering of high-dollar projects -- primarily offices and condos -- which have, indeed, brought people back into downtown to live and work. But I don't get the sense that those people actually live much of their lives downtown; things like groceries, basic retail, and day-to-day services are few and far between, and people who work in bank buildings and live in $200,000 condos aren't the sorts who create good street life, anyway. So I suspect that downtown Memphians get in their cars and drive to the mall to do their shopping and hang out, just as their suburban brethren do, and there are still a lot of boarded-up storefronts on Main Street. Is this New Urbanism at work?

(Downtown Memphis may get livelier soon; on either side of our hotel were two huge construction sites, soon to be a new retail center with a cinema and a downtown baseball park for the city's AAA team. By the way, where is the Ice Bats' downtown stadium going?)

Secondly, though, it was good to be reminded how lucky we are to live in Austin. See "Live Shots," p.74, for Music Editor Raoul Hernandez's take on the heart of Austin in the Home of the Blues. As for downtown renewal, we should be thankful that we're starting this phase of the process with a healthy core of thriving small businesses downtown -- and we should be ever so careful that we don't do anything to screw that up.

And also, even bearing in mind all criticisms and concerns expressed above, we should be thankful that we have this city council in place at this time in the city's history. Much of what we do here in the next few years will shape much of what this city will become over the next century, and to shepherd that process, this is easily the most able council we've had in the 25 years I've lived in Austin. It's a dynamic engine that can take us many places. All we have to do is keep control of the steering wheel.

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