Suttle as a Kick in the Head

Formula One development deal well worth more scrutiny

Better count your chickens, Austinites, because Richard Suttle is loose in the henhouse again. Everyone's favorite developers' attorney is at City Council today (Nov. 18), asking for $13.5 million (maybe more by the time you read this) "to provide water [and wastewater] service to the Formula 1 ... development located at 7700 Elroy Road." For that expenditure, the city is requiring assurance that the project: a) hires a fair share of minority- and woman-owned contracting firms, and b) installs oversized pipes to accommodate additional development expected in the area.

Now, the very fact that Richard Suttle is involved in this project should give everyone pause. He's the developers' equivalent of criminal attorney Roy Minton: the guy you go to when you're guilty, when you want to get something approved or subsidized that you really don't deserve.

Over the years, Suttle has represented pretty much every development affront in town: the Northcross Walmart, the Domain, the Hyde Park Baptist Church parking garage, the Concordia debacle, the pile of rubble that was Las Manitas Avenue Cafe – the list could go on at some length. The last Suttle-repped project we reported on was the 300 E. Riverside condo towers, of which Katherine Gregor wrote that it presumed "such greedy setback variances, [was] so outrageously out of scale, and ... so blatantly disrespectful of [Waterfront Overlay] values" that it spawned a whole new citizens' group,

The selling points are always the same, and will sound familiar to anyone listening to the current F1 discussion:

1) "It's a private project. And it's a done deal. We're not asking for public money, we're abiding by all applicable regulations, and we have all the rights and permissions we need, so we can build whatever we want. But, out of the goodness of our hearts, we'd be happy to discuss giving the city something – minority jobs, say – if you give us ...." Hint: The "extra" jobs or parkland or whatever is always something that either costs nothing (F1) or that they were going to have to do anyway (Domain, Northcross). And if it were a "done deal," Suttle wouldn't be sitting there asking for our money to pay for it.

2) "There's a tight deadline due to outside forces. We really need to get this one part signed off on now, in principle, and we'll fill in the details later." This tactic is why many of the original promises never get put down on paper, or if they do, they are often either mysteriously misplaced (HPB, Northcross) or quietly rewritten at a later date (Domain, Riverside). But piecemeal approvals – particularly for something as substantial as a $13 million city construction project, in the current case – cycle back into the "done deal" aura of inevitability.

In general, I kind of like the idea of Formula One in Austin. I don't really buy either the environmental or the lifestyle complaints about whether it's a good fit here. So if folks who should know are convinced that they can make a go of it, more power to them. But that should be their gamble, not the city's.

In specific terms, there are two big red-flag problems with the agreement before council today.

First, with the agenda items appearing on the council agenda a scant 72 hours before they are scheduled to be voted on, there's been no opportunity for analysis. Is the city getting value for its $13.5 million? Is F1 paying its fair share of this infrastructure cost, given that it's the prime beneficiary? No one knows the answer to that key question; it would certainly not appear so on the face of it, and backup materials don't give any insight. Yet council appears to be prepared to sign off on the designated $13.5 million, in an expedited fashion, without full vetting: Why?

Second, even if the first question could be answered affirmatively: It is absolutely crazy that the city of Austin should be the entity to risk the first actual investment dollars to get construction going while we wait to hear back about the rest of the details – including whether the project is going to happen. If this agreement goes through as planned, the developers, Land Accelerator, LLC, will presumably start putting in the oversized water and sewer lines more or less immediately (using our money). And if one of the myriad balls that are still in the air happens to drop, and the project doesn't materialize, what happens? We're out $13 million worth of infrastructure (which area neighbors have previously said they didn't want), and the developers are out ... oh wait, they're not really out anything, and they have nice, new, prepaid water lines built right through their property. Feeling warm and fuzzy yet?

A fiscally prudent City Council would take tomorrow's agenda items under advisement and offer back the same verbal promises we're so used to accepting from the other side: Once the figures are vetted, we'll agree to this deal in principle, if and when the rest of the project comes together.

But don't bet on fiscally prudent action from this council.

PS By the way, F1's next big anticipated cost for the city will be the estimated $4 million a year for public safety expenses (or "four Domains," as Council Member Bill Spelman mused earlier this week). This is supposed to be reimbursed by the state of Texas, though state officials have been very cagey thus far about guaranteeing that. Who do you think is going to blink first on that one? My hunch is that the city will be asked to pony up a guarantee, with the verbal promise that the state will cover it. Want to bet on it?

Nick Barbaro is the publisher of The Austin Chronicle.

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