Squaring the Triangle
The Three Austins Collide at a Central-City Crossroads
An uppercase Greek delta -- that is, a triangle -- symbolizes a lot of things, but one of them is "change." And whatever else the three-cornered empty space between Guadalupe, Lamar, and 45th Street stands for these days, it sure as hell has something to do with change.
But change from what to what? The Triangle's three sides match up with the three cities we call Austin -- the Capitol of Texas, the People's Republic, and the City on a Hill. All three want this three-cornered chunk of Central Austin land to become something it isn't now, whether that be a lucrative real-estate deal, protected community property, or a model for infill development.
And all three see the stakes as being higher than the fate of this one field. For the backers of the Triangle Square shopping complex, Austin opposes the project at the city's peril, inviting a nasty backlash from both the Texas Legislature and the real-estate industry, assuming that those are indeed separate entities. Conversely, many locals fighting for what they call Triangle Park feel compelled to preserve the Central Austin we all know, even if that means rejecting the only redevelopment strategies currently being offered by the private sector. At first glance, the neighborhood associations in the area -- who've been working with the Triangle Square developers for nearly a year -- seem caught in the middle, tasked with creating consensus. But they too have an agenda to represent, not a blending of these two views, but a third one; for them, the Triangle is a battleground upon which Austin's new planning principles have to be defended, lest years of effort and struggle go to waste. Sometimes this requires saying yes to either the developer or the neighbors; sometimes it means saying no to both of them.
The barroom wisdom about Austin politics says that battles like this start as demagoguery and progress, slowly if at all, to a more pragmatic plane. But the Triangle flap may see this flow inverted. Despite the increasingly contentious atmosphere around the project, all three sides have shown, at least from their point of view, ample flexibility over the last year of discussion and debate. But now, as the project prepares to enter the city's development pipeline -- with July 15 as an arbitrary, but still symbolic, deadline for public input -- there are still clear gaps between the three positions, and this is where ideology aims to kick in. And as the Triangle is transformed from a quandary into a genuine battleground, we will find out which of the three Austins can least afford to lose this fight.
The Capital View
For Austin No. 1, the Capital of Texas, in the literal sense of the label -- that is, state government -- the disposition of the Triangle is simple: They need the money and they need it now. Specifically, the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR), which owns the Triangle along with the adjacent Austin State Hospital grounds south of 45th -- a total of 170 acres of prime central-city real estate -- needs to make some money off its currently underused property or feel the wrath of the Governor and Legislature.
In 1985 and 1987, the Lege passed companion measures -- lackadaisically backed by Governors Clements and Richards, enthusiastically supported by Governor Bush -- directing the state to maximize the value of its assets, which in the case of most state agencies means land. Agencies that hold surplus land, as so tabbed by the General Land Office, have three choices: They can develop it themselves, lease it to private developers, or give it back to the General Land Office (GLO) for use elsewhere by state government. For a chronically underfunded agency like MHMR, the middle choice -- the only one that produces direct revenue for their programs -- is the obvious one. Nor are these idle mandates. To underscore its intent, the Legislature back in 1987 took away several other parcels of MHMR surplus land in Austin and gave them to the Department of Transportation. At that time, another bill -- which didn't pass, luckily -- proposed selling the entire 170-acre parcel to the highest bidder, with no provisions for either local oversight or citizen involvement in what was to go there.
And in this last session, the Department of Criminal Justice -- the only agency that owns as much land as MHMR or TxDOT -- saw its state appropriation reduced by exactly the value of its surplus land, which it had made no effort to develop in the last decade. "MHMR has an obligation to the entire state to maximize the income generated by its land," says Steve Craddock, the agency's asset manager. "[We've] been very responsive to the demands of state leaders, and this last session was very tough on agencies [like Criminal Justice] who haven't been responsive to those demands. If we back out or fail to develop this land, our real fiscal suffering would be at the hands of the Legislature."
The agency's real-estate adventure in Austin began in 1990 with what was originally the 38th Street PUD, known today as Central Park, the multiple-use (as opposed to mixed-use) complex at the southwest corner of the State Hospital grounds, home to the wildly successful Central Market grocery. With Central Park's success, MHMR moved to find a developer to take on the Triangle, which according to the GLO is the most valuable chunk of MHMR land anywhere in Texas. In July 1996, the agency initiated a 50-year lease, for an upfront payment of $9.1 million, with Cencor Realty of Dallas for the 27 surplus acres of the Triangle, which it formally executed on May 15 of this year; last week, it approved a conceptual site plan for Cencor's Triangle Square shopping complex. (Even though $9.1 million works out to only $180,000 a year over 50 years, which should be cabfare to the State of Texas, it also works out to more than $337,000 an acre for raw land, which is a damn lavish sum, especially for a lease, and is much more than MHMR expected to get in its request-for-bids.)
Unlike the State Hospital itself, most of the Triangle -- excepting the MHMR children's unit, home to the Austin Child Guidance Center, at the corner of 45th and Lamar -- has remained undeveloped during its 150-plus years of MHMR ownership. For much of that time, it was the farm worked by State Hospital patients; in more recent years, it's served as a temporary stormwater detention field. According to the GLO's "fact sheet" -- which is actually a pro-Triangle Square broadside, distributed by MHMR and Cencor at recent community gatherings -- the state General Services Commission (overseer of all state building projects, as opposed to the GLO, master of its undeveloped public lands) had envisioned using it to expand the adjoining Health and Human Services complexes with "high rises and parking garages....The Triangle Square development will be a less intense, more community-oriented use."
Sez you, say Triangle Square opponents, and indeed, the scale of the center seems sufficient to jar most central-city senses. If all goes according to Cencor's plan, kids attending the MHMR day school will look out at the loading dock of a 62,000-square-foot Randalls superstore. Along the other side of the school grounds, they'll see the posterior of a 13-screen Act III multiplex cinema and its adjacent four-story parking garage. Further across the Triangle, along the Guadalupe side, shoppers at a two-story, 40,000-square-foot Barnes and Noble bookstore can look down at the spot, marked by homemade crosses, where four Hyde Park Baptist students died in a last-day-of-school 1994 car crash.
These are just the three anchor tenants with whom Cencor has already signed subleases. There are 11 other buildings of between one and five stories slated for the Triangle, for a grand total of over 444,000 square feet of built space, not counting the Act III parking garage. This will all require at least 1,000 parking spaces, which in turn will require impervious cover on about 90% of the project's acreage. The remaining open space, which Cencor has dubbed "The Green" on its site plan and touted as a community gathering place, is actually another detention pond, an essential amenity (and required by city ordinance) given all the impervious cover, especially since the Triangle sits astride the Hemphill Branch of Waller Creek, perhaps the city's most flood-prone watershed.
Tom Terkel of Cencor
This early June blitz has probably done Terkel and Cencor more harm than good, having served to inflame neighborhood activists, but its main points are held quite sincerely by the developer in question. "I think that this city, as sensitive as it is to the environment, is going to realize that this development -- infill in the inner city, increasing density to support revitalization that the community dearly wants, improving the tax base, diverting development away from sensitive areas -- is a good idea," Terkel says. "I hope it doesn't cave in to the latest mob of people screaming Not In My Back Yard."
This poses a problem for the City on a Hill, since these are indeed core components of the New Austin planning philosophy -- incorporating such ideas as "sustainability," a "compact city," and the New Urbanism, a term dropped liberally by Cencor in its PR campaign. And from Terkel's perspective -- and keep in mind now, Cencor is a Dallas-based developer of strip malls -- Triangle Square is NewUrb on its own terms. It has wide sidewalks and trees, some structured parking in lieu of asphalt, traffic-calming strategies on the surrounding streets, gateways and water features and the famous Green (which, at least in dry weather, will be what Terkel and Cencor call an "amphitheater"), and architectural designs, revealed last week to MHMR, that consciously echo the vintage Austin commercial districts downtown, or along Guadalupe in Hyde Park. (It also, originally, had a residential component, but JPI -- proprietors of the Jefferson apartment communities -- dropped out when the Austin rental market began to soften.)
Many, if not all, of these elements are changes to the original design, the products of Terkel's 11 months of meetings with his "Triangle Neighborhood Leadership Group," consisting of 11 reps from neighborhood associations and groups surrounding the Triangle. Also spawned from these meetings were some structural changes, largely concerning drainage, a paramount concern to the frequently flooded neighborhoods downstream along the Hemphill Branch. According to his lease, Terkel was only required to solicit neighborhood input for 60 days after the lease was signed, a period that will end July 15; the 10-month delay in getting the lease signed served to extend this mandated neighborhood-involvement process. "We have benefited enormously from the constructive criticism and ideas we received from the neighborhood, and our project is infinitely better today than it was," Terkel says. "And we remain open to new ideas to implement in the future. But we are moving ahead with the plan.
"We didn't meet with people for 11 months because we don't have any interest in making the project better," Terkel continues. "I'd be delighted to discuss with anyone their specific concerns about the project and what we can do to improve it, but I'm not interested in endlessly debating whether to build something or not, because it's not my decision to make."
The People's Park
Not building anything on the Triangle would definitely be the preferred option for many who live nearby, and this constituency has coalesced into the Neighbors of Triangle Park -- the "anyone" referred to by Terkel above, and the force behind the blue "Stop Randalls/Stop Act III/No Strip Mall" yard signs that punctuate the leafy north-central streets. Yet where philosophy is concerned, the NTP goes repeatedly out of its way to point out that it's not simply anti-development. "I think if you ask most of our members, and most of the people who live in the neighborhoods, what the best option was, they'd say leave it the way it is. But if you present them with realistic options, they may feel differently," says NTP spokesperson Sabrina Burmeister. "Many neighbors' ideal would be leaving it as a greenspace, but few would say green-and-nothing-else; they realize the most likely option is good development."
That having been said, there's no disputing that NTP's goal is to stop Triangle Square by any means necessary -- "We won't stop opposing Cencor and its development as long as it's unacceptable," Burmeister says. Right now, given that the state appears committed for the long haul, NTP is directing its efforts at Randalls and, to a lesser extent, Act III -- the anchor tenants who, like any anchor, need the boat a lot less than it needs them. "I'd say Randalls is the ultimate target, and we'd like to get them to pull out of the project entirely," says Burmeister.
Of the two big anchors -- the third, Barnes and Noble, hasn't yet been the focus of NTP efforts -- Act III has paid little heed to the neighborhoods, and has little reason to, even if it is owned by super-Democrat Norman Lear. Few if any moviegoers pay any attention to which exhibitor owns the screen they're watching, and Central Austin moviegoers form the core audience for the art-house flicks Act III shows at its Village Cinema, which the chain would rather screen at its Triangle tri-deca-plex. So the likely PR damage to them is more than offset by the delight with which many in-towners would greet a central-city theatre. The opposite is true for Randalls, whose highly visible floundering in the Austin market has been accentuated by their lack of a real "superstore," especially near the Triangle, where Central Market, the other HEB store at Hancock Center (which, after that mall's redevelopment, will be larger than the proposed Triangle Randalls), and Fiesta own the market with their megastores.
So the thought of alienating thousands of potential, and needed, customers, all of whom have plenty of other grocers to choose from, by hanging tough with the Triangle must be enough to give Randalls chairman Randall Onstead pause, no matter how plum a big central-city store might be. At last report, Onstead is scheduled to meet both with NTP and with Terkel's neighborhood leadership group. According to information shared by Burmeister with local residents at NTP's last meeting, Randalls' major qualms about pulling out concern not potential legal difficulties with Cencor over the grocer's signed sublease, but the chance of seeing another supermarket occupy its Triangle location. (The likely backup would be Albertson's, but considering that chain was the loser of Austin's last neighbor vs. supermarket battle on Mesa Drive, its taste for combat might not be too high.)
A Randalls bailout would cause problems with Cencor's master lease with MHMR, though not necessarily the automatic termination, and abandonment of Triangle Square entirely, that NTP envisions. According to MHMR's Craddock, that's "one of the possible options," but there are others. Cencor's master lease with MHMR requires Terkel to pre-lease 40% of the project, not counting the five-story office building slated for later completion and state occupancy. The Randalls occupies 25% of the remainder, but the lease doesn't spell out in detail what happens if (now that Terkel has already met the 40% threshhold) one of the pre-leased anchors backs out. Yet NTP is still wise to see a Randalls bailout as its best chance.
"[If] Cencor couldn't just stick someone else into there," says Burmeister, "we're hoping to have the bidding process open again so we could find another developer." Failing that, she says, "we'd like to create a situation that's uncomfortable enough for MHMR and Cencor that, later on, when the city has to deal with zoning, MHMR will want out of the deal."
Despite a campaign of well-organized and attention-grabbing dissent (including pickets at Randalls' two existing Central Austin stores in which protesters cut up their Randalls Remarkable cards) that matches Cencor's PR choreography move for move, NTP takes some care to minimize general ill will toward Randalls, though most Austinites probably think that the Triangle fight is against the grocer and not the developer. One of the points of their position, says Burmeister, is that "we like the existing Randalls stores (on 35th St., and at Koenig and Lamar) and don't want them to close. We don't want a new store in the Triangle replaced by empty stores somewhere else." There is also an aura of realpolitik -- "Ultimately, we don't think talking to Terkel is a very productive route," says Burmeister. "He always talks about the constraints imposed on him by Randalls and Act III and Barnes and Noble, and we've consistently asked him to bring decisionmakers from those companies down to meet with us. If he doesn't have any power to make any more changes, then why are we talking to him?"
The best change Terkel could make, in the view of NTP, is to bail out himself; as the group wrote in its own position paper, "It was clear early on that with Cencor Realty a suburban mall was a foregone conclusion, [since] Cencor had no experience outside of suburban malls. Tom Terkel... admits that he had never heard of New Urbanism before the neighborhood representatives introduced him to their vision. Cencor made it clear that the suburban mall core of the development was unnegotiable."
But what would a real alternative be, given that an actual park is probably unrealistic, the state's own builders are likewise not NewUrb apostles, and any other developer that could match $337,000 an acre would likely come from the same pool as Cencor?
The Neighbors have based much of their lobbying position on a 1987 report by Garry Mauro, then (as now) commissioner of the GLO, calling for a master plan of the entire 170-acre MHMR property, within which the Triangle could well be reserved as greenspace, since Mauro explicitly mentions its use for community recreation. Of course, the same General Land Office -- though not necessarily Mauro himself -- is now lending its support to Cencor, noting at length in its "fact sheet" that "Triangle Square is not a typical suburban strip mall" and that "The property has never been a park, nor has it ever been used as such until the Triangle development was proposed."
"The Triangle is the most difficult part of the entire property to develop, because of the traffic problems it generates," says Burmeister. "If there were going to be greenspace anywhere on that property, it should be at the Triangle. But I don't expect that there will be a master plan anytime soon, so the best we can hope for is a better developer and a better development. I think we're trying to get the best thing for the neighborhoods."
The City on a Hill
The Neighbors' cause is handicapped, in Cencor's eyes at least, by the fact that they aren't an actual neighborhood association. Instead, the organization sprang to life when local residents, learning of Triangle Square in the local media, rose up in reaction to, or defiance of, the NAs who'd been negotiating with Terkel for months. "We feel the neighborhood leadership group has done a good job, and is trying to continue to make this a better development, so that base is already covered," says Burmeister. "I don't like casting blame on the neighborhood associations, because they're well-meaning and none of them wants to see Triangle Square. But the associations aren't designed to inform people on a grand scale, and Cencor passed the buck to them instead of going to residents directly. We started informing people in the neighborhoods, and then they went to their associations and said `What's going on?' and the associations became somewhat defensive."
That defensiveness could occasionally be seen, and constantly felt beneath the surface, at the Hyde Park NA's "town hall" meeting on June 23, convened by the HPNA in conjunction with the NTP. The HPNA, de facto leader among the 11 groups working with Terkel, has not taken an official position on the project -- it intends to do this via a survey published in the neighborhood newsletter. This did not sit well with the large (even for HPNA) and restive crowd, who likewise did not react well to the evening's established format, in which, after small groups discussed specific issues like traffic, drainage, and, "political realities," the assemblage was set to break into two sides, those who opposed Triangle Square and those who sought to improve it. (The dissenters -- or at least some of them -- would have preferred HPNA to oppose it, and only after that avenue was exhausted try to improve it. It is, of course, about 10 months too late for that.) After some sharp exchanges with HPNA president Lin Team, the NTP contingent, and most everyone else in the room, decamped to the anti-Triangle conclave. The dozen or so people remaining, however, included most of the people who've led HPNA and other central-city NAs, and by extension much of the city's current wave of neighborhood empowerment.
"I hope [the project] doesn't cave in to the latest mob screaming Not In My Back Yard." --Tom Tekel, Cencor
And herein lies the rub, the distinction that separates the People's Republic from the City on a Hill. Many members of the Neighbors of Triangle Park, readily and irrevocably equating "suburban" and "commercial" with "bad," come across as radical and unrealistic not only to Cencor but also to their own neighborhood leaders. And even the NTP leaders, who are neither radical nor unrealistic, are well aware that no matter how noble and wise their aims might be, they have to dig their own channel to get their message across. The established Central Austin NAs, on the other hand, just elected an entire City Council and deserve more credit than most for turning Austin from a pro-developer sprawlbox into an incipient neighborhood Mecca. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that the entire New Austin planning approach -- the Citizens Planning Committee, the Sustainable Communities Initiative, the neighborhood planning project, the new revisions to the Land Development Code, the Traditional Neighborhood District, and all the other NewUrbCompactCity stuff -- was born, or at least assembled, in and around Hyde Park.
And right at the threshhold of neighborhood victory, along comes Triangle Square to give the whole New Austin deal a swift kick in the butt. On the one hand, New Urbanist doctrine depends on its planning ideas -- mixed-use, traffic-free and walkable, designed for gathering and interaction, heavy on the green space, a 24-hour community built on the traditional town-square scale -- being not only desirable but viable economically. And if a NewUrb-style town center isn't viable at the Triangle, where it would connect with well-established neighborhoods with much of the same character, it's hard to say where it would work in Austin. Yet Cencor is betting a big wad of money -- probably too big, truth be told -- that a suburban shopping center is a better idea for this site, and they only need to point to Central Park, which despite the Central Market mystique isn't really any less suburban than Triangle Square, to back them up.
This inescapable fact, combined with the state's ultimate mastery of the Triangle and the neighborhoods' previous failure to stop, or substantially alter, Central Park when it was first planned, left the NAs with little room to move other than toward negotiations with Cencor. The subsequent uproar -- catalyzed by, or into, the Neighbors of Triangle Park -- may not have been totally unexpected, but it likewise points to flaws in the system that's poised to become the main venue for planning decisions throughout Austin. "One of my concerns here is that the neighborhoods have some real say, which means continued communication with as much of the neighborhood as you can," says Mayor Kirk Watson. "Instead, we ended up with what looked like an agreement that turned out not to be. It's representative of a weakness in our neighborhood system."
It also points to inherent philosophical conflict between the superficially united front of the Central Austin Green Machine -- in order to protect the fringe, you need to develop the core, which means people who live in places like Hyde Park have to get used to higher densities and less green space. For many of the Neighbors of Triangle Park, the currently green Triangle is an example of what ought to be, and the current battle over it an expression of their rights as citizens to self-determination. For many in the Central Austin neighborhood establishment, the existence of raw land in the heart of town is indicative, at least a little bit, of previous planning failures; ultimately any development would be better there than nothing at all, and the current fight is an expression of their commitments as citizens to come up with a better way, even if that involves an unlikely partnership with a Dallas mallmeister. "In order to have redevelopment of the urban core, you necessarily have to have things built near neighborhoods," Watson says. "That makes it important that they mesh with the neighborhood identity."
Just as NTP empathizes with the NAs, the members of the Triangle's Leadership Group can empathize with their neighbors' outrage. "People need a sense of control over their destiny to be productive. Some of us have been working on this for two and a half years, and some of us were at this same place -- this same sense of anger -- about a year and a half ago," says HPNA's Cecil Pennington. "Once we realized that we could do something about the worst parts of the project, we became more comfortable and have gotten more done. Our approach from the beginning has been that the longer we could work together [with Cencor], the better. And we've come a long way already. Is it far enough? I don't know."
In all likelihood, the NAs have gotten about as far as they can with Terkel directly, though the arrival of Randalls in the negotiations may change that. "As the major anchor, they're a large part of the equation," says Pennington. "If we're going to continue to have productive work with Tom and Cencor, Randalls has to be included. I think the progress that we've made just since May 15 [the creation of The Green and the addition of structured parking, as well as work toward an additional retention pond across Guadalupe from the Triangle] shows how motivated people are at this point. I hope we can continue this same response, but... Terkel is interested in wrapping up this phase."
And Now What?
In the next phase, Triangle Square falls into the arms and laps of the city's planning-and-development staff, the Planning Commission, and the City Council, all of which are the current custodians of the New Austin ethos which HPNA and its brethren helped create. This means that their concerns will likely be similar to those of the NAs. "I think folks in the neighborhoods look to the city as their proxy, as they should," says Pennington. "And obviously the city will have to come through on issues like traffic calming and water detention. I'd prefer to go in together -- us, Tom, and the city -- instead of apart. I look at what happened with the retention pond at Central Park" -- the product of collaboration between the Drainage Utility, the developer Barshop and Oles, and the tenants' association at the Gables apartments -- "and see the sort of partnership there that's required of a good project. So it could happen here."
Indeed, if Kirk Watson's views are shared by his colleagues at council, the city may end up being more hard-assed than the NAs themselves. While he cautions that he's still gathering information and making up his mind, the mayor notes that "it's important that one of the first tests of our urban infill approach be a development that doesn't just steal the language and still use conventional development methods. It's not New Urbanism just because it's not in the suburbs. We need to ensure a human scale, that it doesn't change the face of the neighborhoods forever but rather complements them. We need to set a clear example of what's important."
Yet the city has little intrinsic power to make an example of the state, as spectators of previous Austin-bashing at the Capitol well know. In the current case, whatever zoning the city recommends for the Triangle -- whether the CS-1 (commercial with liquor sales) Terkel will no doubt seek, something less intense that makes Triangle Square impossible, or (most likely) a CS-1 with a laundry list of restrictions in a conditional overlay -- is subject to review and approval by a five-member panel dictated by the legislation known as Senate Bill 478. For the Triangle, this panel will include Watson, Garry Mauro, County Judge Bill Aleshire, MHMR Executive Director Don Gilbert, and another state rep; in the previous cases where SB478 was invoked, the state, with its three votes, has always won. "My responsibilities [under SB478] are why I want to ask so many questions about Triangle Square," says Watson. "It's an important hurdle for Austin, and I want to be very prepared."
"We won't stop oppossing Cencor and its development as long as it's unacceptable." --Sabrina Burmeister, Neighbors of Triangle Park
Of course, if Terkel accepts the conditions likely to be imposed by the city, the SB478 panel's approval is pro forma, even though the review happens automatically. And rest assured that Mauro's aspirations to higher office have been noticed by NTP and the NAs. The Triangle Square zoning case should be filed with the city in July, with supplemental info coming in August; factor in at least four months of work by city staff, and a month each to get the case through Planning Commission and City Council, and the SB478 review kicks in about two weeks before next year's Democratic gubernatorial primary, in which Mauro is already widely seen as the front-runner. (If he runs for re-election to his current post, Aleshire will also be on this ballot, though the chances of his drawing a primary opponent are fairly meager.) Since it's nigh well impossible to win a Democratic statewide primary in Texas without winning Travis County, and -- as we saw in the recent council elections -- the highest-turnout boxes in Travis County are mostly in Central Austin... well, you can figure out the rest.
So, while it's unlikely that the Triangle will come down to a high-drama political showdown with Mauro as Gary Cooper, it could happen. And it could happen again and again in Central Austin, as more and more property -- including hundreds, maybe thousands, of acres of state land -- becomes available for development or redevelopment. But if there is any point of consensus among the three Austins as they collide at the Triangle, it's that the current experience should not be repeated. As Pennington puts it, "I hope that on the heels of all this, the city and state get together to plan the use of all this state property, and set up funding streams to deal with all the problems in advance. A lot of problems could have been solved in the beginning if this process had been more open. People want a park? Give them a chance to find the necessary funding. I think everyone -- developers, neighbors, the city, the state -- would be happy to take part in that process. It's foolish to repeat these same battles at every step."