Reinventing theTriangle

Will the Stakeholders Ever Achieve Consensus?

As the outcome of theChronicle's Triangle Design Contest makes clear, there's not much consensus out there about the fate of this three-cornered parcel. Which is why, in real life, the Triangle keeps moving in circles. Since our last big story on the Triangle in July, tangible developments have been few. Cencor Realty, prospective developers of Triangle Square, still have not filed a zoning case with the city, and Cencor's Tom Terkel has stuck to his script: All good ideas for redesigning his proposed retail complex will be considered and, if possible, implemented, but eventually Cencor will move to break ground. "We want to build consensus in any way possible," Terkel says, "but on the other hand, we need to get on with our job."

Meanwhile, the angry opposition, the ad hoc Neighbors of Triangle Park, have also stuck to their script: In the words of NTP spokesperson Sabrina Burmeister, "Cencor's current plan is clearly wrong for Austin's future." As the plethora of "No Strip Mall" signs in North Central Austin attests, much of the NTP aversion to Triangle Square is linked to its three major anchor tenants -- a massive Randalls superstore, a 13-screen Act III movieplex, and a Barnes & Noble -- and the resulting surface parking, heavy traffic, and non-Central-Austin character they bring to the Triangle.

These anchor tenants are the sticking point, but Terkel says they are necessary to the project. He says they provide financial credibility that lenders demand before fueling the whole deal, and, he adds, the anchor tenants are traffic generators necessary for the survival of small businesses at the location which would rely on pedestrian traffic brought to the site by the big three.

Since there's not much you can do to prettify or NewUrb a supermarket, it's hard to see how far Cencor can move away from what is, in its guts, a big shopping center oriented to auto traffic, no matter how un-strip-mall its accoutrements. Realizing this, NTP has fought to remove Randalls et al. from the Triangle table, which Cencor argues is impossible, since the three anchors already have signed leases for the space. No wonder this has been the shoal upon which recent Triangle mediation efforts have foundered.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood associations in the area -- which tried for 13 months to tune up a project they felt was inevitable, given that the Triangle's landlord, Texas MHMR, can ignore Austin land-use policies if it so chooses -- have been rocked by NTP's success at mobilizing residents around the Triangle. This led the Hyde Park NA, queen of Austin neighborhoods, to formally oppose Triangle Square in August, following a survey in which 95% of responding residents gave Cencor the thumbs-down. (This move proved so divisive that several HPNA officers refused to attend the subsequent press conference.)

So basically, we've gone nowhere fast. That is, until last week, when Councilmember Beverly Griffith donned the costume of the cavalry and rode into town on her white horse -- or, more precisely, on a little cart called a charrette.

That little cart, once used to collect the work of architecture students after high-pressure timed examinations at Paris's L'Ecole des Beaux Arts, has since lent its name to any intensive group design process, and beyond that to any gathering of public input in a planning project. Since Austin has lots of planning projects, the city has been gripped with what wags have dubbed "Charrette's Syndrome," and most wingdings dubbed "charrettes" are unworthy of the name.

But Austin's best example of a real community charrette -- held last year to tackle intractable stakeholder conflicts around Lamar and Barton Springs Road -- proved so popular and successful that Griffith wishes to repeat it over the Triangle. At a meeting on October 21, Griffith gathered participants in the Barton Springs charrette to explain and/or tout the exercise to their counterparts at the Triangle, all of whom listened with apparently open minds. If the Triangle stakeholders are willing to give the charrette a spin, Griffith's office will scare up the necessary funding, out-of-town experts to facilitate, and so on, and do it quickly. In fact, Griffith has tentatively lined up, for the weekend of November 14, some of the same out-of-town experts who worked on the Barton Springs Road success story, along with charrette-givers who specialize in retail-leasing situations like the Triangle's.

On the surface, everyone is making happy noise about the charrette idea. "A charrette will give us an opportunity as a community to move away from the strip mall plan," says Burmeister, "and not just to add token or superficial changes to the current proposal." For his part, Terkel is "cautiously optimistic.... We're open to any way of receiving community input."

However, Terkel has not committed to the mid-November charrette idea because, he says, time constraints, and agents of the state, are pressing him to go ahead and file a zoning case for the development. Terkel admits that neither he nor the state are convinced this charrette idea will come to any good. While the idea of community input is attractive, he says, "I'm not sure we're likely to receive any fresh or new input; over the last 18 months, some of the community's comments have become similar and repetitive." Terkel says that he has already spent more than a year putting together a plan using input from neighborhood leaders and other volunteers from the community, and that throwing out all of their hard work would be "disrespectful." On the other hand, he says, a project that was the result of a charrette would be perceived as better than what's on the table, no matter how great the current plan is.

Perhaps the most frightening thing for all parties involved in a charrette would be the idea of starting from zero. According to Griffith's aide, Jon Gilvar, neither the neighbors nor Terkel could go into a charrette process with demands concerning the existence of the three anchor tenants. "The idea of doing a charrette is that all previous discussions are put on hold," he says. "You check any preconceived notions at the door."

After all, it worked with the last charrette, right? But there's a reason for that. While the differences of vision down south on Barton Springs Road ran deep, they also ran quietly; the battles between NAs like Bouldin Creek, restaurants like Chuy's, the Zilker Park/Barton Springs defenders, and the city's public works department got heated and bitter, but they didn't explode into a watershed moment (no pun intended) in city politics. This meant nobody had to worry about looking bad, or weak, if they worked toward compromise.

At the Triangle, the opposite has happened: One's stand on Triangle Square has become emblematic of one's commitment to a particular Austin future, and the controversy has taken on the character of a jihad. For example, as Burmeister's comments imply, after months of rallying the troops, NTP would be hard-pressed to abandon its stance against Randalls and the cinema, which a charrette would demand they do. (This has led to much grumbling among some NA leaders that, were it not for NTP's intransigence, we'd have already had a charrette, done all that can be done to create a consensus project, and gone home.)

And how can Terkel, with lease contracts in hand from the anchor tenants, turn back now? Some suggest he paid too much for the land in the first place, and, if he has since found the project isn't economically viable without the monster retail aspects, he should give the land back, collect his money, and go home.

Another drawback at the Triangle, compared to Barton Springs, is that down south, the main focus was on infrastructure, and thus only one player -- the city -- had to actually implement the charrette's recommendations. Any major conceptual changes to Triangle Square hit at least six players in the pocketbook -- Cencor, MHMR, the city, and the three anchor tenants -- which adds up to a number of potential vetoes, even before bringing in state government as a whole. (It's still not clear whether MHMR can, within its legislative mandate, actually participate in a charrette as an equal player with other stakeholders, although the agency seems willing, in principle, to do so.)

Even if all the stakeholders could participate, some probably wouldn't, a reflection of the complete lack of consensus on the highest and best use of the site. (Consider that many neighbors want it to remain an undeveloped greenspace, while many others want it to be more dense -- a function of mixed use -- than Terkel has actually proposed.) However, the ease with which divisions melted away on Barton Springs Road gives Griffith's office cause for hope.

"We would probably still consider doing it even if some of the stakeholders didn't want to participate," says Gilvar. "At least then, the city council would have something to work with when it considered Cencor's actual zoning case. The council isn't very good at spontaneous city planning on the dais."

After the meeting, the crowd broke up into intensive confab for longer than the event itself, which is no surprise when a bunch of NA leaders end up in the same room at the same time, but which nonetheless gives additional hope to Griffith for her effort. "Look around here," she said amid the buzz. "This is already a charrette."

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