Paper Tigers

Some Editors Not So Smart About Smart Growth

illustration by Doug Potter

When the Save Our Springs (S.O.S.) Ordinance was approved by city voters in 1992, environmental leaders were concerned that Austinites would grow complacent, believing that the southwest sector's development controversies were over. The recent short-lived Motorola debate has shown that locals are still vigilant; unfortunately, it's certain media figures who are slow to understand the importance of stemming the tide of mega-growth projects in this water-sensitive area of the city.

In the case of the Austin American-Statesman, the aftermath of the Motorola site decision has simply been a case of wiping the egg off Rich Oppel's face. In his February 15 column, before Motorola moved its proposed site from Circle C in Southwest Austin to Northwest Austin, the Statesman editor implored environmentalists to "Let Motorola build." Oppel's editorial was a classic case study of mainstream media obsequiousness toward big corporations: Let's not do anything to offend them, because they do so much for us, and they're already so put-upon.

Noting that city council greens might block Motorola's plans with zoning requirements, Oppel countered, "But they should not use that power, because it would not be fair and would put at risk the environmental-business coalition. Pushing around Motorola in Circle C - the most controversial political taking yet - will hand pro-developer interests in the Texas Legislature a free pass to dismantle annexation." Oppel also warned that we might get into "an ugly fight. Also, a bitter public battle might put at risk the S.O.S. ordinance itself, which is now before the conservative Texas Supreme Court."

Haven't we heard all this before? It reads with a disturbing similarity to pre-Oppel Statesman editorials: Those bad old enviros, there they go pushing around those poor corporate CEOs. There's no consideration that perhaps "coalition" means enviros and businesses working together for solutions - which might actually mean the monied interests, for a change, giving some ground - rather than activists simply rolling over.

And of course, there was the typical praise for that great act of corporate altruism, the job: "Austin's greens and other liberals have watched our stunning growth and talked more of `social equity'.... Nothing creates social equity like a job.... Motorola's jobs are among the world's best." Remember Freeport McMoRan's spin on the Barton Creek fight - how environmentalists were supposedly denying jobs to hungry East Austinites by stalling construction?

Thankfully, Motorola saw the light - and, to some extent, so has the Statesman, which has been in full retreat from Oppel's column ever since. When the city's Smart Growth initiative (which aims to direct growth away from Southwest Austin) was announced, it was met with applause and rosy optimism. A Feb. 27 editorial, "Smart Growth is deja vu" effused praise for Smart Growth and hope for its success, and a March 9 news story by Chuck Lindell cheerily outlined what advantages this plan has over the ignored and failed Austin Tomorrow plan from the 1970s. The editorial was surprisingly on the mark in its understanding of why directing growth away from the southwest and into the city's preferred growth corridor makes sense.

Then came Motorola's change in plans, which prompted the March 13 editorial, "A graceful move." The Statesman showered the company with plaudits - deservedly so - for "sidestepping what seemed sure to be a painful controversy, in a city beset with too many.... It proves that economic growth can indeed be Smart Growth, and that local businesses can expand without igniting environmental firestorms."

Yet there are signs that the Statesman's shift in thinking is not quite complete. Curiously absent amid the gushing over Motorola - again, much-deserved - was any praise for the environmentalists and city leaders who engineered this compromise. This was much more than simply avoiding a fight - it was an example of a true coalition, where enviros got what they wanted, and in the process left Motorola looking like the good guy. If it weren't for committed activists and city councilmembers, Motorola might have forever stained itself in the eyes of our citizens. By guiding the company away from contributing to the destruction of the Edwards Aquifer, city leaders and the greens have helped Motorola bear out its claim of being a "good corporate citizen." Somehow, one is left feeling that the Statesman simply views Motorola's move as analogous to a parent - in this case Motorola - taking an unruly child out of the movie theatre before the kid starts screaming.

But if the Statesman is a little slow to fully grasp the concept, at least it is starting to see the light. The same cannot be said for the Austin Business Journal. The March 13 edition of the ABJ was loaded with bile - much of it misleading - against local greens. In fact, the weekly's attack on environmentalists was nothing short of a foaming-at-the-mouth rage. "What have we learned?" asked the headline of editor Beth Zacharias' column. To hear Zacharias tell it, Motorola's decision to head north is an outright disaster that will bring pox and plague upon the Capital City.

Zacharias slammed the greens for stopping Motorola's "great plans for an excellent, environmentally sound use of prime commercial land..." She was referring to Motorola's plans to comply with the S.O.S. Ordinance. She even tried to wrap herself in the S.O.S. flag by asserting that, "Area voters passed a law requiring certain rules be followed when developing over the watershed. Does anyone remember handing the mayor or City Council carte blanche to decide whether the letter of the law was enough?"

Zacharias exhibited an utterly shallow knowledge of Edwards Aquifer issues with these assertions. While Motorola's intentions were laudable, S.O.S. is not and was never intended to be the final word on aquifer-area development. The ordinance itself (section 13-7-36.13) reads, "The adoption of this Division is not intended to preclude the adoption, at any time, by a majority vote of the City Council of stricter water quality requirements upon development in the watersheds contributing to Barton Springs or of further measures to restore and protect water quality."

The ordinance mainly regulates impervious cover and onsite pollution prevention; however, the type of development in question still must be subject to zoning and must be appropriate for the area of construction. The heavy traffic flow and certain intensified area development which Motorola's project would have attracted - which in turn would have created offsite pollution problems - made the impervious cover compliance a moot issue.

Zacharias apparently didn't remember how S.O.S. came to exist in the first place, either: "The voters be damned. In this process, did anyone stop to remember who passed the Save Our Springs ordinance? It was the voters. Not Brigid Shea or Daryl Slusher or Kirk Watson." Apparently, the fact that Shea, Slusher, and Watson are champions and leaders of the S.O.S. movement is merely a trifling detail for Zacharias.

Among Zacharias' other complaints: "...another hunk of tax dollars just blew out of Travis County," undercutting the recent "acrimonious annexations to `protect the tax base of Austin.'" That assertion ignores the fact that Motorola's new site at Parmer and McNeil, although not within Austin's city limits, surrounds recently annexed areas, and is within the city's stated preferred growth corridor. The growth that the facility will spark in the area will bring enormous revenues to the city, and it's entirely reasonable to speculate that the area itself could eventually be annexed.

And of course, there's the ever-present threat of the Legislature beating us up. Funny how the people who try to scare us with this threat never mention the best weapon in Austin's arsenal: that the Lege is constitutionally prohibited from singling out a particular city for legislation, a tool which has served Austin well in court thus far. Yet, "We must never forget who put us in this position," Zacharias grimly declared in her column. Similarly twisting facts, the Journal's unsigned editorial was headlined "Bullied right out of town." Again, there is the failure to understand the issue: "It was the hub for exactly the kind of development city officials and environmentalists have touted." Well, as explained earlier, no, it clearly wasn't - it's right for other parts of town (such as Northwest Austin), but completely wrong for the aquifer area.

And "city officials intimidated Motorola to move.... We bullied a company that has done much for Austin." Let's review: Motorola gets their plant, and comes out of this smelling like a rose. It was probably one of the greatest public relations coups in the history of the company.

Interestingly, the ABJ provided no quotes from Motorola officials to suggest that the company felt bullied or to back up Zacharias' contention that the new location was "a better spot, really. Not from the perspective of the company... but for those charged with holding the city's growth hostage on behalf of the environment."

Oddly enough, certain sources in the know have informed "Media Clips" that the Journal's editors had lunch with some S.O.S. folks the day before publication - and never gave any warning of the carpet-bombing which was coming. Now is that any way to build credibility? (Zacharias told "Media Clips" that, "We never tell people what's coming out beforehand.")

The Austin Business Journal has been praised in these pages before as being ahead of the curve with its reporting on the business community. This issue, however, would suggest that they are not only behind the curve, but completely off the track. "The Business Journal may be missing the mainstream," observes Councilmember Slusher. "You have the Chamber of Commerce and S.O.S. supporting the bond package, and a lot of development interests realizing that over the Edwards Aquifer is not a good place for intense development, and the city responds by making development easy within the desired development zone. So [the ABJ is] out there on the edge."

A new day of cooperation between the business community and the enviros has dawned in Austin. The ABJ should wake up and smell the coffee.

Heading South

James Garcia, the editor of the Latino politics newsletter Politico, is leaving town. But he isn't going far - he's been tapped by Alternative Media, Inc. (AMI) to be the new editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current, the Alamo City's alternative weekly. Garcia said AMI President Ron Williams - whose company also owns Detroit's Metro Times and the Orlando Weekly - had contacted Garcia not long after buying the Current on Feb. 16. Garcia said he initially was not interested in the editor position, wanting to focus on Politico, but had offered to do some writing for the Current.

But after further conversations with Williams, "I found Ron to be extremely sincere about creating diversity in the staff. He made it clear that he wants to replicate what he has done in Detroit [the Metro Times is a rarity among alt-weeklies in that it has an African-American editor, especially important in the heavily African-American city]. San Antonio is a city of about 55% Hispanics, and the Current's readership profile is pretty close to that.

"The Current has tried to be an alternative paper, but it hasn't had the resources to push the copy to that level. Right now it's just sort of an entertainment supplement. When I first saw it, I thought it was something like XL [the weekly supplement to the Austin American-Statesman]," Garcia explained.

Although Garcia is packing his bags, he's not packing in Politico - he plans to continue the weekly newsletter, and AMI has discussed making a "modest" investment in it. "Maybe $10,000, and they may let me run Politico out of their San Antonio offices."

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Media Clips
Media Watch: 'A Sense of Purpose'
Media Watch: 'A Sense of Purpose'
Texas Tribune makes its debut in the realm of nonprofit journalism

Kevin Brass, Oct. 30, 2009

Media Watch
Media Watch
The 'Statesman's 'World' Keeps on Shrinking

Kevin Brass, March 21, 2008

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle