Reflecting on the Deal

What do local community activists and political leaders think of the CSC proposal? We asked several what they thought of the new deal and the process by which the plan came together to win City Council approval last week. Here are excerpts of responses we gleaned from people willing to comment for the record:

Sabrina Burmeister, Neighbors of Triangle Park: "In the case of the CSC deal, the process by which the vision was developed should not be criticized. Many specific aspects of the plan have been around for some time -- for example, the museum -- and the broad vision of a compact, sustainable city is what Smart Growth is all about. The process by which the deal was developed is a different issue. On the one hand, if you support the city working with private interests, then you should support the city's decision to begin negotiating with CSC ... On the other hand, while the details are yet to be determined, the basic economic aspects of the deal are already in place -- and that's the scary part. It is a complex deal, and I don't know if anybody was given the time to fully understand it. Certainly, we elected our City Council to make judicious decisions on our behalf; however, council should take every reasonable step to open their decisions to scrutiny. Did they take every reasonable step in this case? I'm not sure."

Robert Barnstone, former city councilmember: "There's no substitute for the integrity and good judgment of the council ... they're not corrupt and they're not stupid, and that's rare. I'm saying this looking back through the prism of a lot of bad deals ... It's perfectly good business to agree to this set of terms because of [CSC's] ability to perform ... The non-speculative value of this is of great importance."

Beverly Griffith, city councilmember (who voted against CSC proposal): "Last year, City Council created the Downtown Development Advisory Group (DDAG). The group's purpose ... is to advise the council on projects involving city-owned assets in the downtown area and to 'ensure that the interest of the citizens of Austin is preserved and public-private cooperation proposals receive public review.' The details of the CSC proposal were released late in the day on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and the City Council was asked to vote the following Thursday. Clearly, there was insufficient time for any real review of the proposal or analysis of its impact on the public's interest, and DDAG passed a resolution that stated as much.

"Normally, a city with several prime contiguous blocks of downtown waterfront land with such clear redevelopment potential would commission a master plan and incorporate competitive bidding into the redevelopment process. While this approach might miss out on some fast-breaking opportunities, it also guards against the planning for a critical district of downtown being driven by the needs of a single corporation. The Robert Mueller Airport redevelopment master planning process, which is nearing completion, shows how Austin can use public participation to make sure the redevelopment of the citizens' land truly reflects community values.

"The proposal passed by the council last Thursday is really an offer to CSC rather than a starting point for negotiation. As the city manager and his staff indicated at Thursday's council meeting, negotiations between the city and CSC had been ongoing for weeks before the proposal made it onto the council agenda. The specific dollar amounts of the developer subsidies in the resolution passed by the council reflected the results of these negotiations. Whether the deal that has been put together will ultimately benefit the city is the question we needed a 30-to-45-day review period to answer."

Cecil Pennington, urban planner and Citizens Planning Committee member: "I am truly excited to see the ideas of downtown revitalization move beyond rhetoric to become reality. I was very tired of seeing the public's ideas to build a better city sit on shelves and gather dust while staff remained stagnant. This council had the opportunity and acted to take advantage of it. It is about time.

"About the Process: This is somewhat of a new happenstance for Austin. The council is basically implementing policies that have been discussed for years, presented to numerous bodies, and received wide public support. Those policies to bring employment to downtown, direct major development away from the aquifer, encourage residential and retail uses downtown ... preceded what we now call Smart Growth. The CPC, the Heritage Society, Austin Neighborhoods Council, central city neighborhoods, the Downtown Austin Alliance, and others have been wanting action on these issues for years. The goals were no secret.

"What wasn't widely discussed was the exact particulars of this deal. And still, most people don't realize that the particulars of the deal are not settled but actually have just begun to be negotiated. Government is so process-bound and methodical, while development is generally dynamic and opportunistic by nature. I believe that council did about as well as it could to take this widely supported public agenda and utilize the unique circumstances of CSC, AMLI, the Museum of Art, and the State to make a tangible difference in the downtown. These participants fit together their individual agendas to create an urban district that is far greater than their autonomous projects. The city should get credit for both creativity and guts to get things off dead-center.

"The process, however, could have been better. The city has always, is, and will continue to be developing, redeveloping, or leasing real estate as a matter of course. As with so many other things, a balkanized departmental approach is taken. A central asset management board that reviews and comments on these projects could provide the clearing house of information and forum for the public. If we had a formal office of neighborhood and community affairs such as those in Portland, the information [about CSC] or at least notice, couldhave been disseminated in advance throughout the city. In short, this is a good but complex undertaking. It's only a precursor of the efforts that will be needed to meet our city's potential."

Bill Bunch, Save Our Springs Alliance counsel: "We were impressed by the boldness of the proposal, and how it appeared to meet many more needs than just finding a home for CSC. We agree that the public participation has not been what it should have been. This is clearly a significant downside to the proposal. One point of mitigation is that most of the pieces of the proposal are consistent with past planning efforts for downtown and a new City Hall ... We generally believed it was up to councilmembers to honestly determine whether slowing down the process to allow for increased public participation would truly jeopardize the plan and to weigh that against the benefits of the proposal and their own comfort level with the details. From our communications, councilmembers are acutely aware that they will be held accountable by the voters if the plan does not work out or hidden costs later come to light."

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