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Focusing the urban growth spotlight on Stratus Properties.

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The slowly unfolding drama in Florida has attracted all of our political attention, but locally, major issues affecting this city's future are in development. The question is not growth vs. non-growth. It is: What is our city going to be and look like in the middle of the 21st century? In this issue, we cover the current negotiations between Stratus Properties and the city. Stratus is more or less descended from Freeport McMoRan, whose development wars in the Nineties stained the city's history. Under different ownership, Stratus is back again -- but in a more civil way, though it looks like the first round of complicated negotiations have collapsed. Don't hold your breath; this has been going on for a decade. There is also the possibility of a Barton Creek/Mueller swap of some sort (exactly what is still under negotiation).The city and Stratus are still talking, but expect the Legislature to weigh in on this deal. Stratus does have expensive lobbying talent, and the Legislature just loves to remind this city how it is doing everything wrong.

This week's cover story ("The Status of Stratus," p. 26), by Robert Bryce, Amy Smith, and Mike Clark-Madison, provides a full look at the Stratus negotiations, including the offers, the history, the controversy, aerial photos, and maps. It is yet another installment in our endless series, stretching back to the Chronicle's early years and extending far into the future, examining the ways Austin deals with growth issues.

I hate to be pessimistic, but (as the Chronicle reported in the early Nineties) even with the strictest interpretation of the SOS ordinances, the buildout in the watershed is going to be overwhelming and devastating. To confirm this, look at the aerial photos in this issue. I'm not sure how well they will reproduce, but they show a virtually virgin Barton Creek Watershed in 1984. The most recent photo, taken last year, shows the area built out with only a few swaths of green left -- including the large tracts that Stratus is now talking about developing. Looking at the aerial view, you realize that while limiting density may have some impact on land use, the evolution from rural to suburban is nearly complete. Regulations or no regulations, in future decades, the sprawl will just continue. Imagine what the 2015 photo of this area will look like.

The war is not over if there will be development -- but how much development? In that context, we must ask how much development can the watershed can sustain? We will also need to develop the vision needed to plan roads and transportation systems to support this growth. If we ignore our transportation needs, the result will be devastating. We must plan for it. Light rail would have been a great step in the right direction. Its defeat at the polls was a loss for the community. We need a comprehensive view of this city, including not only Stratus' current proposal but every development around Austin -- including our reinvented downtown. It's not a time for heroes and villains. It is a time for sensible, long-range planning. In those old days, the issues were easy: Green was good, and growth was bad. Now every decision is complex, demanding a maturity of vision rather than a reliance on easy answers.

The wonderful display of democracy we've witnessed this year -- from the angry Naderites handing the election to Bush to the controversy in Florida -- has thrilled the voters. But, as with the best mini-series, many are hoping the end is near. The most distressing part of the whole affair has been the ferocity of the pundits and loyalists on both sides, as they angrily lay out their moral arguments that lead to the overwhelming conclusions that their candidate should win. A perfect example of this is the rant against hand-counting ballots, published in the Statesman and written by self-hating, anti-intellectual intellectual Marvin Olasky. We all know he would have been on the other side of the argument, waving his flag of moral purity, had that argument served the interest of his candidate. But he is just indicative of a larger trend. Everyone on every side rants in partisan rhythms without any perspective. Certainly, I think the Republicans are the most despicable, dishonest, and desperate, but I'm for Gore. Still, I think Gore's recent speeches were silly. He is certainly not worried about uncounted ballots in predominantly Republican counties. They rant, they rave, they look worse than they ever have -- all the politicians stink. Isn't it great?

Given the six million votes cast and the most narrow margin of error, there is no way to get a statistically convincing vote total in Florida. The inventor of one of the voting machines used today recently said that a 2-5% margin of error is acceptable. And as any kind of recount (hand or machine) is going to have at least a 1% margin of error, recount after recount of the Florida vote would probably shift the lead from one candidate to the other. Unless there has been an act of outright political theft or a truly substantial number of under-counted ballots for either candidate, the margin of victory will fall within the margin of error. Which leaves it to the courts.

The whole cranky system is moving as it should, in the courts of law. Pundits on all sides are talking about the collapse of the country. Nonsense. When this is over, we'll all respect the president-elect as much as we would have anyway (which will vary considerably). I'm worried that we'll all be gathering to watch the economy dramatically slow down, which will make the consequences of this cliff-hanger even more relevant. end story

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