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Lost Austin behind us, Smart Growth ahead?

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I was on Sammy and Bob's morning show on KVET-FM last week promoting the "Lost Austin" issue of the Chronicle. After the usual pleasantries (along with that doggedness that makes him such an Austin institution), Sammy Allred got to the point: How could the Chronicle put out an issue lamenting what Austin had lost, when it actively supports Smart Growth, which was destroying the city? At first, I was a little taken aback, having thought I was there to wax nostalgic about the Stallion, the Alliance Wagon Yard, Soap Creek Saloon, and KOKE-FM. But it was a discussion worth having, and I wish we had spent even more time on the topic. It did seem ironic that Sammy and Bob, both anti-government regulation and thus opposed to the environmentalist agenda, were attacking me on the growth issue. I guess their reading is that if the environmentalists hadn't jacked around protecting land, there would be sprawling developments in every direction. If these were supported by an adequate road system, there would be decentralized growth and the downtown would be left alone. Smart Growth had thus destroyed the inner city by directing business growth toward downtown.

I think this is confusing the solution with the problem. I think we have significant growth downtown and kudzu-like sprawl throughout the Hill Country. The worst of both worlds, right here in River City. We are lacking an effective public transportation system and adequate roadway super-structure. Which makes this growth even more painful. We have increasingly stretched city services. Smart Growth is a tool to direct growth, not to create it. Certainly the current City Council and Chamber of Commerce, giddy with Central Texas economic success, have been cheerleading Austin around the world to encourage growth. Even without their support, I fear most of the growth would have still happened. As with everything, the government is taking more credit and getting more blame than it deserves for the city's current condition. (Although I do wish they spent a lot less time on tax breaks for downtown development and more time concentrating on providing city services with adequate support.)

The notion that Smart Growth, a government innovation, would be so successful is unlikely. Much of what is going on downtown is because of government initiatives. The theory is that a vital downtown is crucial to the health of the city. I join Allred in his distaste for the main tool the city has used to accomplish this, tax advantages. But I think the growth is greater than the political imagination could concoct. Austin is a very attractive place. It offers an ideal combination of environment and culture. I realized how much the Chronicle's enthusiasm made us part of the problem when, in the mid-Nineties, personnel managers would tell me they always sent job candidates copies of the Chronicle. They wanted them to see just how much was going on in this city. When it comes to growth, the enemy isn't just easy targets -- corporations, governments, or charged sloganeering. It's us. People and then more people and then more people ...

That I was on the radio (doing Kevin and Kevin's show on KGSR and Dale Dudley and Bob Fonseca's on KLBJ-FM as well as KVET-FM) promoting the Chronicle's "Lost Austin" issue was perhaps appropriate, because I had so little to do with it. The effort was spearheaded by Robert Faires, but everybody pitched in to make that issue so outstanding. A special tip of the Hatlo hat, however, to Kim Mellen, who masterminded the timeline, and to Sarah Hepola and Cindy Widner for doing the actual legwork on the Slacker map. While everybody did the work (and I think it is a brilliant issue), I was actually out of town at Sundance. (Rick Linklater scored two hits there with Tape and Waking Life and was the toast of the festival. See Marjorie Baumgarten's Sundance report)

I just read in Ken Lieck's "Dancing About Architecture" column that Louis Harrison's marvelous American Pop (on KUT) is leaving the air. It is only on for two hours on Sundays, but oddly enough, my son and I are often in the car when it comes on and are both huge fans. I guess that will be an item for the all-too-soon next edition of "Lost Austin." end story

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