Up With Downtown

All the buzz around here these days is about how Austin is on a winning streak. Unemployment is low, property values are high. Oh, and Fortune just named us the No. 1 city to do business in, in the whole entire country. Why, then, do we have to offer $8.1 million in infrastructure and $700,000 in fee waivers to get a desirable tenant downtown, on Town Lake no less?

It's a foundational principle of Smart Growth, its partisans say: Because doing business downtown costs more than doing it in the suburbs, to direct business into downtown and away from the suburbs, the city has to defray the cost. Furthermore, downtown is still in transition; it's been among the last sectors of town to benefit from the boom.

The Hobby Building

photograph by John Anderson

Because CSC is a major primary employer, says Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell, the company is not subject to a formal application of the Smart Growth matrix, which evaluates how well the given development meets the SG goals. But as for the factors the city looks for in deciding what kinds of development to encourage, Futrell said CSC scores "off the chart." It's a good force for stable economic development, too. If Austin were to be hit by a recession, she said, CSC, which expects to increase its workforce to 3,500, is "the kind of company that pulls a town through it. Like a Dell." But most of us know Dell; until a few weeks ago, did Austin really know CSC?

Watson is right to insist that 30 years is too long to let that land lie fallow, but his characterization of those asking for more time to study the deal (among them the Sierra Club and the Austin Neighborhoods Council) as traditional Austin stallers is unfair. (His frequent joke about the 30-year delay is, "At this rate, it would take us 4,000 years to redevelop the Mueller property"). The CSC proposal has barely been on the table 30 days, let alone 30 years. Even the Downtown Development Advisory Group (DDAG), created by the council "to advise the council on specific projects as well as long-term policy decisions regarding city-owned assets in the downtown area," declared the proposal too complex to evaluate in the short time available.

The council created the DDAG 13 months ago, at the kickoff of its"downtown revitalization plan," which included the council's commitment to bring infill, residential, and retail development downtown (starting with the announcement of the AMLI Residential apartment project which is now part of the CSC plan). As such, DDAG's charge is to advise the council on projects just like this one. When shown the outlines of the CSC proposal, the DDAG allowed as how it looked good from a distance, but "there [was] insufficient information to comment further," according to a DDAG statement.

Councilmember Griffith, who has been in commercial real estate for 20 years, said although there have been several attempts to put the downtown land to good use (see "Land Rush," p.22), "what we have not had is the community process we're having now" for other parcels like Mueller Airport and the Triangle. The kind of public input process that has become the norm in Austin "didn't exist then." Now, she said, "the way it could work, is that we could have a community values-based public process. And then, we could implement it. It works."

Remember the Triangle (on which there was a presentation at last Thursday's council meeting; see "Naked City"), which, though it was a monument to excruciating process, got better with every manifestation? (Word has it that Triangle developer Tom Terkel is now a born-again New Urbanist, bringing the zeal of the convert to his high-density, mixed-use cause.)

Could the CSC/downtown deal benefit from some Triangle-style tweaking? Certainly. Do we have the luxury of two years to do this dance with CSC? Maybe, maybe not. While raising the specter of the Triangle brings thoughts of progress through the process and neighborhood empowerment to some, others see it as a monument to obstruction and bureaucracy. The last thing CSC wants is to become another Cencor (Terkel's development company that did serious battle with the Triangle neighbors before finally reaching an accord). And Austin officials don't want Austin to become known as the place where downtown development, like watershed development, is hard to accomplish.

Griffith said she doesn't understand "why some believed the 30-to-45-day review would not be acceptable to the [CSC] board."So there was no ultimatum, no do-or-die command from CSC? "I never heard one," said Griffith, nor did she ever see a letter containing an ultimatum. The CSC board members "are excellent business people. They will take the time they need [to analyze the deal], and would ultimately expect us to do the same." (Long an advocate for "the process," Griffith last year proposed adopting a policy that would mandate a competitive bidding process for the leasing of city-owned land.)

What Now?

Though the council and CSC have agreed to begin contract negotiations, the deal isn't signed. Watson, Futrell, City Manager Jesus Garza, Financial Services Director Betty Dunkerley, and architect Matt Kreisle flew out to CSC's parent company in California this week, presumably to put the hard sell on the CSC board. How firm are the details listed in the resolution passed by the council? In response to criticism that the deal is already sealed, Futrell says that "in some ways it's a term sheet. Someone has to lay a proposal on the table. Can you picture me bringing something forward without numbers on it?"

She said much misinformation has circulated regarding the proposal, such as the rumor that the new City Hall design had been limited to three stories, presumably to preserve the view of the river from the six-story CSC building across the street. Futrell said the three-story number was not a limit, just the size which city staff used to run the numbers on the deal.

One of the scarier unknowns is what the new development will do to the traffic situation downtown. Futrell is quick to point out that the traffic generated by CSC (10,000 trips per day at the most) will be much less than that generated by the planned Sixth and Lamar Marketplace development (about 29,000 trips per day). What this doesn't account for, of course, is that the two developments will not be on different planets, but fairly near each other. What about the cumulative effect of these two projects? Just for kicks, throw in the road construction that will likely occur around the Lamar Street Bridge, the Auditorium Shores rehabilitation, and the redo of Barton Springs Road, and you have a vision that should have downtown and near-downtown residents, especially those south of the river, suffering from traffic nightmares and seeing orange pylons in their sleep. Futrell says not to worry: Public transportation, including a proposed Cap Metro van-pooling program, is on its way.

The plan is a major step forward in the advancement of the New Austin. The dispersal of live-music institution Liberty Lunch, the day labor site, and the homeless center will be a loss. Even though the city seems committed to relocating all three, the slightly seedy corner -- a particularly Old Austin confluence -- will not likely be re-created. But maybe these are the concerns of 'fraidy cats, people who fear change. Maybe this now-or-never kind of leadership (the public process be damned) is just what we need to snap us out of the stupor that so much growth and change has startled us into. If Watson is right, if to delay is to risk getting nothing downtown, to continue the passivity that got Austin into such a precarious position with suburban sprawl, then all it takes to achieve his goal is simply to trust him, and go for it.

The Entertainment

At last Thursday's public hearing on the proposal, metaphors for what the CSC deal means to Austin were thrown around like Mardi Gras beads. Homeless advocate Richard Troxell was there, wearing a medieval-looking blouse, talking of the king (Watson) who pursued his grand, sparkling vision for the kingdom (Austin) while the lesser subjects of the land (the homeless) perished from neglect.

But the winner for best performance of the night went to activist Paul Robbins, who told the council of a strange newspaper he found on his doorstep, dated December, 2004: The lead story reported that Mayor Gary Bradley had sold the lakefront City Hall to Freeport McMoRan. In Robbins' scenario, U.S. Senator Kirk Watson, reached by phone at his office in Washington, is dismayed; getting the City Hall built was his proudest accomplishment as mayor.

And there's no doubt that's how the mayor wants this to be. Neither he, nor the councilmembers, want to do anything to tarnish the sterling legacy they've built up for themselves. Let's hope that, in their haste to act, they haven't.

This Week in Council: We'll finally get to find out what all those highfalutin lobbyists will be doing come January, as the city approves its legislative program for the 76th Legislative session, which starts Jan. 12. The council will also approve a budget of just over $23,000 a month for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and consider a $50,000 contract to a yet-to-be-named firm to "aggessively market the expanded Convention Center." At 7:30pm, a public hearing takes place on the proposal to change the name of Maple Avenue (extending from East 12th to Manor Road) to O.T. Arnold Avenue.

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Kirk Watson, Beverly Griffith, Computer Sciences Corp., Csc, Downtown, City Hall

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