The Politics of Postponement
By Katherine Gregor,
2:25PM, Fri. Feb. 13, 2009
City Council on Thursday handed down a politically elegant – if immediately unpopular – solution to Wildflower Commons, a proposed 37-acre mixed-use project over the Barton Springs Recharge Zone.
The project on a 265-acre site, with dedicated open space, has stirred organized opposition from the Save Our Springs Alliance and other environmentalists. The council action – to postpone a public hearing and decision until August 20 (with Laura Morrison dissenting) – did not please the enviros in attendance. The crowd of 25 to 30 citizens wearing bright green “No PUD” stickers were advocating a “no” vote that night on the Planned Unit Development zoning request, and they’d come prepared to present evidence against it. (Over 90 signed up to speak; only Robin Rather got the chance.) After the council action without a public hearing, SOS’ Bill Bunch yelled angrily at the council, followed by others. “Have the guts to vote it down!” cried Rather.
But though it failed to satisfy, the council action quietly supported the environmentalists’ position. “This is a bigger victory than you think,” said Council Member Randi Shade, when she stepped out into the atrium minutes later to soothe the crowd. She explained that because the developer successfully had gone through the city’s process – winning endorsements from city staff, the Zoning and Platting Commission, the Environmental Board, and the Oak Hill homeowners’ association – most council members didn’t believe it was appropriate to flat-out reject the project. Instead, they put the onus on the developer to come back in six months with an improved project – which, now, must conform to the city’s new, tougher PUD ordinance. A new proposal also must go through staff reviews and boards and commissions again; new information about environmental, water-quality, and traffic impacts can be heard.
“We’ve told the developer that the project submitted, as is, is not approvable,” asserted Shade. “A high bar has been set; they know they have an opportunity to come back if they reach that bar, otherwise, don’t bother.” Of course, the recession could always kill the project too.
“As long as there are private land owners there will always be proposals for re-development and new development over the aquifer,” Shade observed later in an e-mail to Bunch. “We won't ever get to do a touchdown dance or cross some sort of finish line. We can and must, however, continue to strive for better – better than what would have been considered last night, but also better than the Bradley Agreement, and better than the SOS Ordinance.”
A number of green-stickered citizens used the occasion to bash the weak leadership of mayoral candidates Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken, both of whom were silent on the dais. But other observers thought they’d gracefully navigated the politics on a complex issue – especially given that many “facts” claimed by both sides remain unverified.
Witnessing the civic fireworks were the out-of-town consultants who’d waited many hours to pitch themselves to lead Austin’s citizen-inclusive comprehensive plan process. Several commented to council that the evening had provided quite an interesting education in Austin’s “participatory tradition.” Indeed.