Saturday Night Live

Mayor Kirk Watson takes his downtown vision to the streets

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

No one has been more active or more vocal about the future of Austin's downtown than Mayor Kirk Watson. But after 16 months of discussing the many overlapping events in downtown from the comfort of the mayor's office, it seemed time to bring that conversation to the streets. Watson, as usual, was a great sport about the idea and agreed to a club-hopping tour on a recent Saturday night. Unfortunately, there wasn't much live music action happening that evening -- Stubb's was closed, Liberty Lunch's Ice-T show was canceled. We stopped by the Electric Lounge too early to catch the bands, and during our stopover at Blondie's, the audiotape ran out. Like everyone else out that night, though, we had a great time drinking coffee, shooting pool, looking for parking. A typical leisurely Saturday night in Austin.

Our journey began over coffee and dessert at the High Life Cafe. It didn't take long for the mayor to be recognized.

Elise: You are such a hip mayor.

Kirk Watson: Yeah, I tell people that all the time. What's your name?

Elise: My name's Elise.

KW: Elise, I'm Kirk. Very nice to meet you.

Austin Chronicle: Can I ask you something, Elise?The mayor and I are out, looking at Sixth Street...

KW: We're bar-hopping together.

AC: To say he's a hip mayor ... what makes you say that?

Elise: I say that mainly because he's out drinking coffee --

AC:... at the High Life Cafe --

Elise: Right, with a girl with a butterfly in her hair.

KW: [laughs] Right, I mean, what more could you want? There you go. You're good for my image.

Elise: Actually I sent a letter to the entire council [recently]. I was born and raised here and I went to Georgia for college and I came back and didn't like some changes that I had seen.

KW: Remind me of your letter.

Elise: It was about renovating the Coliseum.1 It's not a great piece of architecture but it's something that I'm so used to seeing. I think architecture has an influence on people, you know, and to totally tear it down and completely redo it --

AC: Did you grow up here?

Elise: Yeah.

AC: OK, so what did you go to at the Coliseum?

Elise: I went to Randy Travis and I went to debutante balls. I was in a fashion show and I sang in the choir at the Christmas Affair. I went to hear the Pops symphony concert, you know, in fold- out chairs and tables. I mean, I think, I don't know. An opera house might be a good idea. A friend of mine recently kind of talked me the other way.

KW: Well, you understand [that] if it passes on November 3, what we will do is build a new community events center that will be a replacement for the City Coliseum because it is in bad, bad disrepair.

Elise: I'm sorry. You know what, I'm thinking of Palmer Auditorium2 ... City Coliseum, sure, could use a facelift.

KW: Good, I'm glad to hear you say that. What we're going to do is do away with City Coliseum -- that old airplane hangar that sort of hunkers down there on Town Lake -- we're going to build a new community events center. Palmer also needs some work; we haven't been keeping it up. But leave Palmer. The folks that currently use Palmer will have the opportunity to go over to the new community events center, and when that occurs, then you have [Palmer], that private individuals have indicated that they'll raise $50 million to turn into a performing arts center for the entire community. The good news is that the financing mechanism is predominantly from people who rent cars. We'll also be able to pull up all that asphalt, tear down City Coliseum. And right in the middle of that right now is the park police station. Take all that out and create more greenspace so that we end up with a much nicer --

Elise: What's nice about that space too is that it's already all asphalted and it's by the park.

KW: We're going to pull up a lot of asphalt. What we're going to do as part of this is build structured parking so that you don't have to have the sea of asphalt. The voters have to pass it on November 3, but with the kind of support it's receiving, I think they will.

Elise: And then my other qualm while I'm here --

KW: All right. Talk to me.

Elise: Well, it's just, you know, it's such a faux pas to say, you know, 'I'm anti-development.' You know, these days. Like South MoPac for instance, or like the lot right next to Zilker Park, you know.

KW: Did you vote in the May 2 election3?

Elise: No. I was in Europe.

Watson chews the fat at the High Life Cafe on Seventh Street with Elise (left) and the Chronicle's Kayte VanScoy.

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

KW: Did you vote absentee? Well, you understand that on May 2 I was pushing so that we could spend up to $65 million so that we can buy lots of land down there so that it doesn't get developed. It stays pristine.

Elise: Why everyone's moving here is [because] Austin's so pretty and it's not gonna be there if --

KW: Well, I couldn't agree with you any more. And we won [the May 2 election] and we're down there purchasing land right now.

Elise: Really?

KW: Oh, yeah. Yeah, we've started closing on properties which will make all the difference in the world, I think. What we need to do is we need to be working to do things like we're doing with the May 2 bond proposition to protect what's become so vital to the economy of this place.

Elise: And the well-being of this place.

KW: But the good news is, the spirit is still there. Well, no question about that. This is a place that captivates people, not only because of the wellbeing, the quality of life, but also it's an economic place. People are making wonderful livings in this place and a big part of it is because [the quality of life and the economy] are so tied together. That's why I asked you if you'd voted, because I worry about a lot of the very same people that are concerned the way you are, that they're not involved.

Elise: Voting these days ... I mean, more people vote for the Best of Austin in the Chronicle than go out and vote for their own damn city.

KW: I agree.

[Elise leaves]

AC: I was sitting here [in the High Life Cafe] the other day and there were these two women sitting next to me talking about Palmer. And two interesting things. One was that they completely misunderstood it altogether, just like that woman did. Maybe it's just fundamentally complicated. I don't know.

KW: No, I've got a theory, but finish.

AC: The other thing was that, completely without my prompting, they were going on about pretty much the same thing [Elise] said which was a kind of discomfort level at your involvement in Palmer. They were saying 'Well, he's just trying to shove this down our throats.' I interrupted and I told them how [the Palmer bond initiative] worked. And then they had kind of the same reaction that this woman did --

KW: Nobody's against it once you explain it to them.

AC: Yeah, it's a good idea. But I think there's still a level of discomfort about the "need for speed."

KW: Part of the reason people say "speed, speed" is because the way you kill things, even good things, is by attacking on "it's moving too fast." That doesn't have to be correct, that doesn't have to be legitimate. You just say it. And what happens is the media immediately will pick that up because that's the controversial thing. So what happens is that what gets covered is not the elements of the deal. It is "What's the fight? How's the mayor handling the fight?"

AC: Let me ask you this question: Why does [the civic center] have to be $26 million? They were going to build an Ice Bats4 arena and do all kinds of stuff for $11 million or something like that.

KW: That's part of the reason I was so willing to move [away from the Ice Bats] to another idea. We were running into great difficulty figuring out how you build [an Ice Bats arena] and meet the needs of the current users [of Palmer] at a budget level that the Bats felt comfortable with. [The Ice Bats] have been tremendous in trying to work with us. On the $26 million [for the civic center], we are going to put in some bells and whistles.

AC: Like what? Because I know the city's been wanting to build civic facilities for quite some time, so are we going to see a new council chamber, maybe?

KW: No, this has nothing to do with anything like that. No, this will be a community events center, but it's going to be 95,000 square feet and it's contiguous kind of space.

AC: Does $26 million build the parking facility?

KW: No. The total package is around $40 million.

AC: So we're donating Palmer, which is like $50 million minimum --

KW: Okay, I disagree with the way you say that.

AC: Well, you know I'm not the only one who says it that way. [City Councilmember] Gus Garcia says it that way.

KW: Yeah, but Gus is for this. ... We're not donating. For example, [University of Texas] President Larry Faulkner just wrote a letter talking about the inability to have all the [performing arts] dates at the University of Texas. We need a special events center. We have a couple of options. One is to do nothing. And the second option would be build a brand new [performing arts center]. Well, all the projections are that [building a new one] would be $100 million, and where do you get the money to do that? So the third option is you look to existing facilities.

AC: I assume that the whole Sami5 contingent isall for this idea.

KW: The only concern that they've expressed publicly, which is the only concern that I'm aware of, is they worry about where the parking garage will be put in relationship to the community events center. Their concern is that when people come to buy things they want to be able to walk it right out to the car. I told them to get involved in the design process because that's exactly the kind of input that needs to be involved.

AC: Was this the thing where you were talking about having parking under and over [the building]? Is that a possibility?

KW: Yeah, we talked about it, but it's too expensive. It's about $20,000 a space to build underground, [but] $8,000 [a space] to build a structured parking facility.

AC: People who are reading this article are not going to believe it's that expensive. So, explain why it's that expensive.

KW: Because you have to dig and you've got water table problems and things like that. The sheer cost of the excavation adds. And if you have structured parking, your bottom floors have to be retail. Well, obviously that adds to the cost also. And the good news about that is that it adds to your ability to pay back the debt on the thing.

AC: I have an idea. They should all be skate parks, after hours and on the weekends.

KW: Skate parks ... well, that's not a bad idea.

AC: Well, it's a great idea, actually, in my opinion.

KW: After hours I'm hoping that you're going to be building such a downtown that they're going to be making money and you don't want kids skating there.

AC: You know, you get a ticket if you skate[board] down Congress or Guadalupe; there's an ordinance against it. Why?

KW: We don't want them killed.

AC: Okay, but is it any more or less dangerous than bicycling?

KW: Well, I don't know. I don't know the clear answer to that. I would argue it's more dangerous.

AC: They're not going as fast.

KW: They're not going as fast, but that's part of the reason I think it's more dangerous.

AC: Also, why should skateboarding be illegal if rollerblading's not illegal?

KW: Are you saying skateboarding is illegal and rollerblading is not?

AC: Right. And bicycling's not.

KW: You understand I was one of the losing votes on the helmet law.6

AC: Yeah, that's right. I remember that. Well, you're the tort lawyer.

KW: I guess I'll go back to one of my concerns about that is they pull out in front of your car and you injure them through no fault of your own.

AC: Obviously the same exact argument could be made for bicycles.

KW: Well, and I do.

AC: So bicycles shouldn't be downtown?

KW: Well, I'm not saying that they shouldn't be downtown, but that's one of the reasons that I voted for the helmet law. ... One thing that hopefully will happen is that the Great Streets7 money is not just limited to making it mobile for cars, particularly in the downtown area. It helps with mobility for pedestrians, bikes.

AC: How does it help?

KW: For example, if somebody is redoing a road [and] you have sidewalks that need repair at the same time, or widening, or medians that will make it safer, that's the time to do it.

AC: Does that [Great Streets] money help turn streets two-way?

KW: No, if you're laying it out for the first time, my personal thought is that you would end up with two-way streets. [But] I'm not convinced that in Austin now it will work. We've looked at this thing -- in Austin fashion -- now twice and came to no conclusion.

AC: Didn't [the city council] vote for Brazos, Colorado, and Tenth [to go two-way]?

KW: Well, we've now put it all back on hold. I think we just need to park it or drive it. And I think it's probably park it. I think one of the things that's occurred is, we're in a situation now where the Downtown Austin Alliance8 can't make the call on what ought to happen on this.

AC: Yeah, they spent a lot of money studying it already.

KW: They sure did. And part of the reason is you've got some difficulties where you've got buildings that were built based upon one-way streets. And they would have to completely retro-fit their garage entrances to allow for two-way entrances at huge cost. So my thought is, let's figure out how to make great streets and just leave them one-way.

[Getting up to leave High Life]

illustration by Jason Stout

AC: All right. So, you're saying that the Great Streets money -- which is how much?

KW: Don't hold me to these numbers, my memory is we put $5 million in and then we also said we're going to pay off the [new] parking meters this year and then we would dedicate certain amounts of [parking meter] money, like $3 million a year, directly into Great Streets. Then of course you've got a whole bunch of [additional bond election] dough in road maintenance.

AC: Okay, like, specifically where? Just potholes and stuff?

KW: I don't know that each street's been identified. In some instances you'd be reconstructing roads. But, also in that [road money] is sufficient money to synchronize every light9 in Austin, Texas.

AC: $20 million, right, for synchronization by itself, wasn't it?

KW: About that, yeah.

[At this point we strolled out of the High Life, down Seventh past the Salvation Army homeless shelter10, and then down to Waller Creek behind Stubb's. Afterwards, we headed for Sixth Street.]

AC: So, you were giving me an update on what was going on with [the homeless shelter] when we were interrupted.

KW: We call the homeless initiative an Initiative on Self-Sufficiency and Responsibility. We now have a proposal for legislation that would help us with folks who are habitual Class C misdemeanor11 violators. Because what we're seeing is a large number of people that are running in and out of our system. We've been all over the country looking at community courts12 and how we can do a better job with our municipal court system on getting people into social services and we are going to have laid out, probably this week, a proposal for what we might can do in this area [around Seventh and Red River] to create buffers and conditional overlays13 [around the homeless shelter]. For example, one of the things that I think runs contrary to what we're trying to do is you can buy liquor out of the bottle --

AC: And there's Twin Liquors [across the street].

KW: Well, it's been there forever and we're not going to put anybody out of business or anything like that, but you need to have some conditional [zoning] overlays [to prevent the sale of alcohol]. One of the things you can also do -- and I don't like to use the word enterprise zone [walking under the porch of Atomic Cafe Nightclub], but that's really what you're talking about is that kind of concept where you create incentives for certain types of development to occur [around the homeless shelter] so that the value of property doesn't become overly depressed.

AC: Yeah, well, this is very depressed. Right here.

KW: But it's been this way a long time.

AC: OK, but a decade ago this was a very thriving corner right here. Also, I was told that the real estate value here, where we are right here, is something like 14 times less [than the rest of downtown]. It's $900,000 per [block] as opposed to $10 million the farther you get away from this homeless facility.

KW: I think that's why you have to address [homelessness] with the alternatives and you get into the responsibility aspects of it. And, what I'm suggesting is, the only way to address the problem is, you have to address it where the problem is. And what that means is making sure that you have the responsibility elements. You have the community court. Try to get the change in legislation for Class C and at the same time we make sure that we do the kinds of things economically that have not been done.

[Standing in front of Stubb's]

AC: But, OK, then how does that match up with spending $20 million onWaller Creek14?

KW: They're not mutually exclusive.

AC: OK, why not?

KW: I disagree with the premise that what we're attempting to do on the homeless situation is going to create a problem. I believe it will reduce the problem.

AC: You do?

KW: Or I wouldn't be doing it. Otherwise we just all throw up our hands and quit. I mean, no one has been able to give me a solution that solves the problem. That's the question you have to ask, Kayte. If somebody says, "Why are we going to spend money on Waller Creek when we're going to do something for homeless single men?" And my response is, we're doing that because of what we're doing on Waller Creek. It is a disconnect to argue "Look at this problem we have" and then say "I don't want anything done about it." Or what I want done about it is you to move it somewhere else.

AC: I don't know if I should bring up Reicher Ranch15 or not because I don't want to get out of downtown too far with our discussion. But, there are some other options being discussed about other places the homeless facility could go and I guess your feeling is [the homeless] are here now, so deal with them here. But I've also heard there's a certain opportunism here, that the Salvation Army wants to be a part of this, therefore we're going to use them. Because they're here.

KW: Well, let me address all that because those are good points. First of all, what you know from other cities is that the homeless come to the downtown area. So if you say let's put a shelter way out in the middle of nowhere because we don't want to be near these people -- which is what is also implicit in that -- then one of the thoughts is, that's not where your homeless are. And if what you're attempting to do is create a mechanism where you have a port of entry, which we don't currently have, where you bring people in and can get them into services, the place to address that and where it's been most successful is where you have the problem. Now you have to have a healthy component of responsibility to that. And Reicher Ranch has some additional problems. I know that [House the Homeless's] Richard [Troxell] keeps mentioning Reicher Ranch, but Reicher Ranch has problems up to and including endangered species problems.

AC: Well, we've gotten around those lately.

KW: Well, but the difficulty is that I wish there were someplace else that you could put it where it was near no one. One of the things that people keep mentioning is Mueller Airport16. Take 'em out to Mueller. You know Mueller has now become the place --

AC: Yeah, the place to put everything.

KW: To put everything.

AC: Right.

KW: Even if you don't talk to somebody about it first. [laughs] And the idea is that we don't want any sort of addressing of the homeless situation in our backyard, so why not put it in the backyard of the people of East Austin? Well, that doesn't work.

AC: And Hyde Park. I mean, you can't ignore that [Mueller] is in the backyard of one of the best neighborhoods in town.

KW: But, you see, that's the difficulty. What I've decided is that there is no easy solution. I wish there were.

AC: But, let's just say, theoretically, there was some magical place we could put [the shelter] and it disappeared from downtown. All this property would go up to $10 million dollars per [block]. There's nothing that is going to make Hyde Park property be that valuable. So why should [the homeless facility] be depressing the most valuable property in town?

KW: Well, I'm not sure I agree with the premise of that. You're going to make it more difficult for people to get to services. [Walking up Eighth Street to Trinity, along the side of the Salvation Army.] There is little question that you could make decisions purely upon "I'm going to play with this economics and that economics." But then how do you make the call on whose property?... The easy thing would be to do what we've been doing, which is nothing. And I have decided not to do nothing on this. This is just a hard one.

[After a short stroll down Sixth Street, we decided to go play pool at the Ritz. The first open table got the mayor a doubles match against Kurt and James of Corpus Christi. The mayor's partner was Kurt's girlfriend, Wendy. The mayor lost the first round, but managed to come up swinging for a second-round win.]

"Good shootin', Your Holiness," jokes Watson's new pal Kurt, a cop from Corpus Christi.

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

KW: He's good.

Kurt: Did you see that?

KW: I did see that, you're good.

Wendy: He's my man.

Kurt: Your Honor, what's your name?

KW: Kirk. With a K.

Kurt: Mine's Kurt. With a T.

Wendy: But he's a police officer.

AC: He is?

Wendy: And you're the mayor.

AC: A police officer?

Wendy: Yeah, in Corpus Christi. We live in Corpus Christi. I'm with him.

AC: Oh, are y'all just up for the weekend?

Wendy: Yeah, well actually we've been on vacation for three weeks, and this is our last night of vacation.

AC: And you got to play pool with the mayor of Austin. That's pretty cool.

Wendy: I guess. What are you doing here anyway?

KW: I'm out of my mind.

Wendy: The mayor of Austin. What are you doing here?

KW: Oh no. Okay, we're stripes [referring to the pool game].

Kurt: So are your cops happy in this town, Mayor?

KW: My cops are happy. And generally they like their mayor.

Kurt: Well, and that's an excellent deal then. See, I work a really tough neighborhood and sometimes in my town cops are not real happy with our mayor, you know what I'm saying?

KW: Overall, we just got a new police contract --

Kurt: I work in a really tough neighborhood. People in my 'hood don't give a fuck about who the fuck the mayor is.

KW: Yeah, OK.

Kurt: You know whose name they know? Mine.

KW: Sure.

Kurt: Because I'm the guy that keeps the neighbor from shooting them. I'm the guy that brings their children Christmas presents at Christmas time. And goes around to all the churches to get gifts and my mayor ain't got a fucking clue what I do in my 'hood, you know what I'm saying?

KW: Right.

Kurt: If he went with me for one day ... At Christmas time, I drive my police car...

KW: I ride with our cops.

Kurt: Let me tell you something. Don't ever forget the guy that's driving around in the police car. Because let me tell you something, brother, he's working a neighborhood that you would not live in.

KW: Oh, that's right, I know.

Kurt: And every day he's in the neighborhood that you would not send your children into. You know what I'm saying.

KW: I try to be very supportive of the police officers.

Kurt: And so that kind of really pisses me off about my mayor.

KW: Remind me of your mayor's name.

Kurt: His name is ...

Wendy: You're up, Mayor.

KW: There ain't nothing here [regarding the pool table]. You left me with nothing! [Watson shoots and the table goes to Kurt.]

Kurt: Your Honor, you didn't leave me shit.

KW: Well, I didn't have much to play with myself [Kurt shoots]. That's good.

Kurt: What I'm telling you is you got a lot of policemen out there doing a fucking hard goddamn job.

KW: I know it.

Kurt: And nobody fucking appreciates it.

KW: Well, I do.. ... We just got a new police contract that everybody's real pleased with.

Kurt: Well we're not real fucking happy with ours.

KW: Really? You know, the new vice-president of [CLEAT, Combined Law Enforcement of Texas] is an Austin police officer -- a guy named Mike Lummus -- who was president of our local group that endorsed me in the election. A good friend of mine.

Kurt: Well, why don't you call our mayor, his name is Lloyd Neal.

KW: Oh, that's right.

Kurt: Why don't you call my mayor up and tell him to get his fucking shit together?

[break in conversation for pool]

AC: [to Mayor] Now how often do you get out? Do you ever get out?

KW: I don't get out. Liz and I will try to get out every now and then.

AC: What's the kind of things y'all like to do?

KW: I've gotten to where if we get a babysitter then we'll go to a movie or go to some nice ... some music we like to listen to, that doesn't keep you up real late. My schedule is such that we will try to stay at home with the kids and rent a movie. ... It's been a while since I came out and shot pool [KW shooting]. Oh! Missed it by a mile! My dad was a great pool player. I can remember as a kid my dad and my uncle taking me and my brother and my cousins and we would all go down to a pool hall there on Jasper Highway and play pool. My aunt and my mother would be upset that they were taking us to play so late. It was kind of a family event.

Even the Mayor has to show ID at the Ritz on Sixth Street.

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

AC: You know, one of the reasons I wanted to bring you out is because it just seems like there's a fundamental disconnect between the political community and this community.

KW: See, I don't think so.

AC: For one thing, they're not as involved as they could be. But for another thing, political people don't really party too much, you know?

Wendy: I think you should, like, clear the table, your Honor.

AC: Good plan.

[Watson shoots and misses.]

KW: I've shot that ball twice now and blown it twice.

[Kurt clears the table and finishes the game.]

Wendy: Did you see that?

KW: That was a great shot!

Wendy: I thought you were gonna clean the table, Mr. Mayor.

KW: Oh man!

Wendy: It's time for you to call a rematch now.

KW: All right, let's play one more game.

Kurt: For 20 fucking dollars!

AC: Nope, no betting, no betting.

KW: We're gonna win this one. You ready? [to AC] See, my office is on Sixth Street ...

AC: Where?

KW: In the Littlefield Building. So I'm down here a bunch, particularly during the day. And while I may not come down here like I used to, we'll eat at Louie's [106]. But I don't think there's as big a disconnect. I think what's happened is that there's a feeling of disconnect because a couple of people were so angry and so loud on the homeless campus. And I think you have a continuing difficulty about how you make sure the noise ordinance plays out right.

AC: There's also a lot of concern that if you bring residents17 down here it [will] completely change the fabric of the nightlife that exists here already.

KW: I think it'll add to it. That's what you see in other cities.

AC: But I don't know if you can transplant another city onto Austin.

KW: Well, you're not trying to. But if you've got more people coming down, people coming to visit. And you create other opportunities for destinations, like if we could get the Ice Bats [to come downtown], you have more people that are already down here looking for things to do. I don't think you change [downtown], I think you enhance it. Now you may have some changes, because that's part of the history of this whole area. That as music tastes and different things have shifted, you've seen shifts.

AC: Yeah, but one of the most powerful types of organizations you can be in this city is a neighborhood association. And if you get a neighborhood organization down here --

KW: Well, you have one.

AC: Yeah, but, if you get 3,000 residents down here making decisions for this community --

KW: Well, but they're choosing a totally different type of community. If you choose to live in the downtown area, then you are choosing a fundamentally different lifestyle than if you are living out in some other neighborhood. I mean, clearly you'll have different things happen if you have a lot of people living downtown. But, you know, if you choose to live downtown you don't have some of the same ability to complain.

AC: But once you get 3,000 people --

KW: Well, who is to say that the differences that you will have aren't going to be the kinds of things you want to happen? What you're pre-judging is that everything you've got right now is almost nirvana and we don't want to change that.

AC: [laughing] No. But one of my problems with all the [downtown residential] developments is that they're all upper income and that the city18 could have chosen to do something to bring a varied kind of people down here.

KW: And we're trying to bring a varied kind of thing, but it doesn't meet your specifications. And I know that.

AC: The people who are going to move down here, they're going to be rich.

KW: You're going to have some money. And only after you start getting some critical mass is when you start getting the economics19 where you have the ability to change that. Otherwise you do nothing.

AC: I don't know.

Mayor Watson hits the air hockey table at the Ritz.

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

KW: Kayte, what you've argued for tonight, so far, is we should have no homeless services, we should have no people living downtown, leave these bars to do whatever they want to do. You shouldn't have cops on Sixth Street --

AC: Oh, I actually didn't mean to say we shouldn't have cops on Sixth Street. I think we should have lots more. Lots.

KW: But don't close off the street.

AC: Don't close off the street.

KW: And let the noise be whatever it is. That's what you've argued for tonight.

AC: Well, no, but I did know that I was going to get lawyer-ed by you and I just did. That was your closing argument.

KW:[continuing to play pool] I screwed that one up, didn't I?

Kurt: It's still good shootin', Your Holiness.

[Watson makes a great shot and everybody hoots and hollers. He only has to sink the 8-ball to win.]

Wendy: Okay, Mr. Mayor, you are not gonna make this because I already talked shit bad about you.

KW: [laughs, drops 8-ball in the hole, winning the game] There we go. Thanks for the game; I enjoyed it.

We head away from Sixth Street and pile in the mayor's car to drive to the Electric Lounge, west of downtown. It is only 10:30pm, so there isn't much happening at the club. We take a walk down to Blondie's to hear several high school bands and hang out with the kids.

Soaking up the scene at Blondies on Rio Grande.

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

AC: Not a big night on Sixth Street. But there's not a whole lot of music going on tonight, I have to say. Ice-T is down at Liberty Lunch and we may make it down there.

KW: I used to go to Liberty Lunch quite a bit.

AC: What would you see there?

KW: Well you see, I remember when Marcia Ball used to play at Hut's. In fact, I can remember watching her saxophone player, and he also played with a guy named Michael Mordecai and they had several people in their group and then Tomas Ramirez and those guys. But come to find out that the sax player that used to be with Marcia Ball that I liked so much is married to Jamy Kazanoff, who is the public information officer for the new airport.

AC: Oh. Gee.

KW: Yeah.

AC: OK, so, what we were talking about is residential downtown and that's basically the whole point of going to Electric Lounge. And tonight's not going to be a great night for it because there's not a real exciting thing going on down there tonight. But when there is, the parking that they use is the new site of the apartment building there.

KW: They park where?

AC: They park right on the whole area where the apartment complex is gonna be. That's like the only parking down there.

KW: So your argument is, the taxpayers shouldn't make money off their property down there?

AC: No! That's not my argument. The only thing I was surprised about is that not a whole lot of consideration was given to [the Electric Lounge] when you began talking about [building an apartment there]. I don't say that it's a bad idea. I just think that [the Electric Lounge] should be a part of the planning process.

KW: What would you suggest should be done?

AC: Well ...

KW: You've got a private business using public property for parking.

AC: Well, for one thing, if there wasn't public property to park on down here, there'd be no parking.

KW: I understand, but my question to you is, what would you have done? The piece of property right now is a waste of taxpayer dollars.

AC: I agree. I'm not saying it's a bad idea. I just was surprised that with just about anything else happening in this town, neighboring things get consulted and brought in. It just to me was surprising that Electric Lounge was this sort of non-entity in the discussion. And [the Electric Lounge] has been extremely successful.

After their set at Blondies on Rio Grande, Watson hangs with the band Lucidus.
photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

KW: Yeah it is. After you asked me about it, I looked into it.

AC: I mean, it's one of the top venues during South by Southwest, that's for sure, and one of the things that they do at SXSW and have done for several years is that they have the outside tent where they have shows and they have the inside thing so they're able to be two venues at once. And I can't see how they'd be able to do that outside thing if there was an apartment complex there. Because it's loud for sure. But there's nobody down there now to complain. Is there a plan for the Marketplace20 parking?

KW: Yeah, the Marketplace has to provide parking.

AC: Did we give them subsidizing for that?

Todd V. Wolfson (photographer) : What's traffic flow gonna be like down there when you build all of that?

KW: Whew. It's gonna be a lot of bad traffic problems. There's just no question, no way around it.

AC: Particularly while they're building.

KW: That's part of the difficulty in building downtown to begin with, is you have such limited space. On things that you're referring to as a subsidy, it's in the form of fee waivers or in the form of accelerated infrastructure. And that creates the incentives for them to go ahead and build stuff. Now they've wanted us to build additional parking. They're going to meet the parking needs that are required by law, but they wanted [the city] to add additional spaces. Austin's not to the point yet where it considers adding additional spaces. I probably would ultimately favor doing things like that because you're going to need the parking and it could meet other needs.

AC: Is there going to be a roundabout built right there at Sixth and Lamar21?

KW: I don't know.

AC: It's a huge problem, isn't it?

KW: It is. It's a bad problem.

AC: It's like, the last thing in the world you want is to have to go down [to Sixth and Lamar] at rush hour. ... Since we're talking about fee waivers and things like this... The possible convention center hotel22, I've been told that the city is not excited about helping them out with any of these same kinds of things. But the problem with that is that if you don't have [a hotel] and you expand the convention center, you can't have a successfully expanded convention center.

KW: Well yes and no. You can not have as successful, but you can have a successful expanding of the convention center without the convention center hotel. But there is little question that you add to the success of your convention center by having a hotel. One of the ways you go about doing that is put 'em through the [Smart Growth] matrix23 that we're doing.. ... You may want to look at things like consolidated parking. We're going to have to do parking for the convention center [and] that may be one of the ways of helping with that too. And again, I think that you can help with things like additional infrastructure, additional sidewalks, things of that nature. I don't think you want to do anything that is money that you pay out. The smart way we're doing it now is with things like fee waivers. Money you don't have.

AC: Right, it's money you're not going to miss too much [pulling up to the parking lot at the E-Lounge]. Well, [the Electric Lounge] doesn't look as slow as I thought it would. But normally this is where people park and this is, basically, right where the apartment is going to be, as I understand it.

KW: We're working with the railroad on right of way so that this [dirt lot along the railroad tracks] will be a nicer road. I mean, you're not going to be able to park up and down there, but --

AC: Well, any kind of a decent show spills out of this parking lot in about five seconds. And this is where, during SXSW, this entire parking lot becomes a venue. And then the whole entire area is parking. And it's going to be loud. It's not resident-friendly at all. And, this is the kind of on-the-spot question that I know you can't even answer really, but what happens then?

KW: Well, I don't know. We'll have to see. The question you have, of course, on many things is what sort of balance do you strike? You've got a club here. It's a popular club, but looking across the street here what I've got is a waste of taxpayer dollars in a place where I'm trying to make it where people are down here where you're buildinga vibrant downtown. And you've got Shoal Creek that runs right over there. And part of what you do when you [build this apartment complex] is you're going to revitalize [Shoal Creek].

After walking back from Blondie's, we head to Liberty Lunch only to discover another let-down with the doors locked and a sign saying Ice-T was canceled. After walking up to the roof of the Waterloo Brewing Company, we decided to drive to Katz's but discovered that parking was scant. At 11:30pm the Mayor decided to throw in the towel and head home.

AC: There's nothing going on tonight.

Wolfson: There you go. Here I am standing in this dead area of downtown.

KW: [joking] I think [my point] has pretty well been made for me tonight. Kayte's worried that I'm going to turn downtown into a ghost town. What we haven't talked about tonight, we have not talked about the history of what's happened to the clubs down here before now. You know, since 1981, I have seen a big turnover in clubs. La Zona Rosa is a good example. La Zona Rosa is open, but it's been through how many different owners?

Wolfson: It's been through five different managers.

KW: You know it started with Gordon Fowler and it started off with these kind of macabre murals, and it's gone through so many different incarnations to be what it is now. Snavely's, like I said, is where Rusty Wier and Michael Martin Murphy and others played in the Seventies, and Nanci Griffith was there in the early Eighties. It doesn't even exist anymore. For that matter, the happening restaurant in the early Eighties was Jorge's and it doesn't exist anymore. But it hasn't died, the music scene. It is my theory that Austin is seizing a new identity and that doesn't mean you kill off the old identity. And in fact we should not. We need to be sensitive to that. But as we seize new opportunities, like a performing arts center. I need to back up, the example I use is Austin is like 25 years old and it is still trying to feel its way to where it's trying to be when it hits 40 and beyond. And when you're 25 you tend to say, "Well the only way this will still be a place I like to live 15 years from now is if we maintain and hold onto everything I have right now." Your concept of quality of life is the clubs you enjoy going to today and, my God, if you can't preserve those, don't do anything, don't change anything. The fact is that you can preserve the music scene. In fact, you will enhance the music scene, I believe, if you are bringing more people to the downtown area and at the same time you're creating additional and new quality of life opportunities like being able to live downtown as opposed to having to live out in the suburbs.

AC: Well, there used to be a whole type of living downtown here in the early Eighties -- for example, all the way up until '91 or so there were places to rent above the stores on Congress, all up and down Congress. And, then, you know, I think a lot of people who live in the Bouldin Creek24 and Barton Hills neighborhood feel that they do live downtown. But they might get priced out of downtown.

KW: Well, actually, the Bouldin Creek people fought hard to not have the south side of the river called downtown. You want to cause [City Councilmember] Jackie Goodman heartburn, call that downtown. And frankly, part of my disagreement with some of the people in Bouldin Creek has been "Guys, other than apartments downtown on this side of the river, you've chosen to live in the most urban neighborhood you can live in." That means certain things come along with that. Lots of conveniences, lots of niceties. But also some things that aren't suburbs.

Wolfson: Flipnotics just sent out an e-mail to everybody recently about how they're just not going to fight all these neighborhoods anymore and they're not going to do music outdoors anymore. And they have soft music. It's never loud.

KW: Really? Which one is that?

AC: Flipnotics?

KW: Which neighborhood would that be?

Wolfson: Barton Hills . ... They're pretty much throwing in the towel on having music on their porch anymore.

AC: I mean, maybe [residential downtown] will push [the music scene] out to a different neighborhood and the whole thing will rearrange itself. Maybe so. I mean, you like to frame it like I'm saying "Don't do anything" and all that. But that's not what I'm saying.

KW: You understand that I can't build apartments downtown with the cost, right now, where I don't spend more money than I make by leasing more than a certain percentage.

AC: Well, but, you didn't necessarily have to build Spanish Villa-type six stories. You could have built straight up and, you know, had more [apartments] and then with the volume been able to do some lower-priced --

KW: Yeah, and I would have had, maybe not you, but somebody else telling me what a bunch of junk that is. You need to build quality if you're going to do it. If you want it to be there 50 years from now instead of being something that gets torn down.

AC: Well I don't mean build a slum.

[Driving around Katz's]

KW: There's no place to park here.

AC: No place to park. Here we are in Austin's downtown and there's no place to park. We could keep going. I mean, normally, you have to walk.

KW: I tell you what, let's just call it a night. By the time we find parking and get in there... What the city is doing on its land is, it is going to set aside a certain percentage of that property for affordable housing. The only way, because of some of the expenses in providing housing downtown, you run into some real difficulty in being able to provide more. And some people will criticize us, by the way. Some people will say you ought to be maximizing, if you're going to do this, you ought to maximize all the dollars you can get. You also want to build it where it's quality, and by that I mean you want to build it so that it is not something that gets torn down in 15 to 20 years so that what you get is a big skyrise. In fact, what some cities do is they will actually go in and rezone it.

AC: [passing Pease School] Is this a real school?

KW: Yeah, it's Pease School.

AC: That's one thing that people were saying to me is "If he puts all these people downtown, where are they going to go to school?"

KW: [exasperated] Well, the same way they do now. Gaw-lly. If you put all these people in a neighborhood, where will they go to school? I mean --

AC: Build a new school?

KW: Yeah, I mean, you end up with schools. Bottom line is, the market has to play a role. And you're not going to get people living downtown unless the market lets them live downtown. So what that means is, it's not going to all be affordable, in terms of the definition of affordable, but that's because you build in certain other things. First of all, you're not using [the land] for its highest and best use. If it were its highest and best use, you'd be building an office building, commercial. Second, we're going to require that it be built in a way that it have certain quality factors in it that add to the price. Now that's what we're doing. Some of the things that you might see will be, as you get more of a critical mass and there's more of a demand. Right now you don't have the kind of demand you need. Because you don't have the number of people living downtown, and you don't have the kind of retail.

AC: Well, one of the things that I'm worried about is, if you put a lot of high-priced residential down here, then it drives up the property values, drives up property taxes, and then the only kind of thing you can have down here is high-priced resident --

KW: Well, that's the box you get put in all the time. "Help me vitalize and increase my tax base." The minute you do that you get "Woah, woah, woah, now you've driven up the price." It's like, I got one letter from a guy that wanted Cinema West25 [on South Congress] to stay a pornographic theatre because it kept his property taxes low. You know, we might could not have been able to agree on how you get rid of it, but the one thing I thought we could agree on was that it would be better not being a pornographic theatre.

AC: The other part of that is not just higher apartment prices down here, but one of the great things about Austin clubs is you can get amazing musicians to come to town and it only costs $5 to get in the door. Or $2. Or free. And in all the other cities, the ones that you admire and that have these huge vibrant residential and commercial downtowns that are 24-hour downtowns, it's $20 to go out and do anything.

KW: Yeah, I worry about that too. And, um, and I'm not sure exactly how you can fix that.

[The mayor is dropping me off at my car]

AC: Well, Kirk, thank you. I don't think you're going to regret this nearly as much as you think. The whole point for me is to get people who don't normally read about city politics to get interested in city politics. And I think the way to do that is to talk about stuff that they're into. Know what I mean?

KW: Sure.


1. City Coliseum: This facility, a quarter-mile from Palmer and considerably smaller, was proposed as an alternative site for the current users of Palmer, but it is not large enough. Thus, a proposition to demolish the Coliseum and build a $26 million Civic Center has been placed on the Nov. 3 ballot.

2. Palmer Auditorium: A nonprofit group called Greater Austin Performing Arts Consortium, an amalgam of Austin Lyric Opera, Austin Symphony League, and Ballet Austin supporters, has pledged to raise $50 million dollars to refurbish Palmer Auditorium into a lavish performing arts venue. The city's contribution would be the existing $50 million building itself. Current users of Palmer -- such as art shows, dog and cat shows, and the Junior League's "A Christmas Affair" -- would no longer be able to use the facility.

3. May 2 bond election: Prop. 2 of the May bond election dedicated $65 million to buy conservation land in a designated sector of Southwest Austin.

4. Ice Bats: Austin's minor league hockey team iscurrently housed in the Travis County Expo Center. An attempt was made to combine the Bats' desire to build an arena downtown with the city's need to build a civic facility for Palmer's current users. After a much-publicized debate, the deal fell apart, but Mayor Watson is still holding out hope of getting the Bats to move somewhere downtown.

5. Sami: Sami is the host company for many of the current arts and crafts shows at Palmer.

6. Helmet law: This past spring, the City Council repealed an ordinance that required people over age 18 to wear helmets while bicycling. The mayor was one of two votes against repeal.

7. Great Streets: Part of Proposition 1 on the Nov. 3 bond ballot which designates $5 million to the reconstruction of streets and pedestrian infrastructure in the downtown area, in addition to $5 million in promised matching funds from private and public sources. After it is created by the bond issuance, the Great Streets fund would be fueled by revenue from downtown parking meters and other state and federal funding sources.

8. Downtown Austin Alliance: A Public
Improvement District (PID) which governs the use of a $1 million annual budget, garnered from a 10% additional property tax paid in the district, for improvements and security in the downtown area.

9. Light synchronization: The Nov. 3 bond ballot includes $26.5 million to synchronize traffic lights all over the city, in order to improve traffic flow.

10. Homeless shelter: Currently the only homeless shelter downtown is run by the Salvation Army at the corner of Eighth Street, between Red River and Neches. The Salvation Army has long wanted to expand its services, and is currently working with the city to double the size of the facility, expanding to the block of Seventh Street, between Neches and Red River. If the plan goes forward, the city would contribute $12 million to the project, but the Salvation Army would own and manage the facility.

11. Class C misdemeanor: Since 1994, the city has had an ordinance prohibiting camping in public places, a Class C misdemeanor. In the 1999 state legislative session, the city is planning to lobby to increase the maximum fine for Class C misdemeanors from $500 to $2,000, in the belief that it will further curb homeless violators of the camping ban.

12. Community court: Another part of the city's homeless plan is an effort to institute community courts to handle all Class C misdemeanors. Such courts would keep camping ban violators from clogging the municipal court system, and would also have a greater latitude to offer alternative punishments such as drug treatment and job training, as opposed to jail time.

13. Conditional overlay: Part of the plan for expanding the Salvation Army is a proposal that a zoning overlay would prohibit the sale of alcohol in the area surrounding the facility. Such an overlay would not effect existing businesses.

14. Waller Creek: Prop. 1 of the May 2 bond election designated $25 million toward building a flood-control tunnel under Waller Creek in order to make commercial development along the creek more viable. The hope is that Waller Creek, which runs within a block of the homeless facility, would become a thriving restaurant and retail district -- sort of a small-scale version of San Antonio's Riverwalk.

15. Reicher Ranch: Homeless advocate Richard Troxell is staunchly opposed to the mayor's homeless plan. He has an alternative site in mind called Reicher Ranch, where he envisions a multi-pronged approach to helping the homeless, including on-site drug treatment, job training, and housing.

16. Mueller Airport: When Mueller closes next May, 900 acres of central city land is going up for grabs. Among the hundreds of plans tossed onto the table are calls to move the homeless facility and/or the Ice Bats to the Mueller site.

17. Residential downtown: As many as 3,000 apartments and condominiums are planned for construction in Austin's downtown during the next three years.

18. City of Austin apartment developments: Among the apartments planned for downtown are two developments on property owned by the city of Austin. One is located on Bowie Street, directly across from the Electric Lounge. The other, at Second and Colorado, will be built in conjunction with a private development at Third and Colorado. Construction on both is set for 1999 [see map above].

19. Affordable components: Only the Bowie St. site offers "affordable units" -- 5% of the development (that's 11 apartments) will rent for $850 per month for a one-bedroom.

20. The Marketplace: A shopping center at Fifth and Lamar which will house, among other things, a 10-screen movie theatre and a Target department store.

21. Sixth and Lamar: Among the many solutions proposed for traffic at Sixth and Lamar is the construction of a roundabout in the center of the intersection, eliminating traffic lights and improving pedestrian flow between the four commercial centers on each corner. No decision has yet been made on improving this intersection.

22. Convention Center hotel: Expansion of the convention center was approved in the May 2 bond election. Currently there is no hotel downtown which can house all the attendees of large conventions such as South by Southwest or Comdex.

23. Smart Growth matrix: "Smart Growth" is a catch-all term to steer development out of the environmentally sensitive Southwest and into the northeast sector of town. The matrix is a scorecard of Smart-Growth-friendly aspects which developments can meet to garner support from the council.

24. Bouldin Creek neighborhood: This neighborhood South of Barton Springs Road between Riverside and Lamar actively protested the plan to move the Ice Bats arena onto the Coliseum site, for fear that increased traffic would cut through their area.

25. Cinema West: An adult theatre on South Congress which recently closed amid controversy over whether the city or a private developer should purchase the property.

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