That Was the Year That Was
Impatience Is a Virtue
It was his clout with both the business and environmental communities that built a bridge across Austin's enduring political divide and allowed much of this stuff to happen.
And most of the time, he has made it look easy.
It was only when things started looking a little too easy -- when the multi-million dollar CSC downtown deal he put together passed the council a mere week or so after the public got wind of it (through a leak to the Austin American-Statesman, no less), and on the day of the only public hearing on the issue -- that people started asking questions.
The mayor argued persuasively that the land, vacant for 30 years, has been a drain on taxpayers and a blight on an otherwise busy downtown. But in a city that loves to talk things over before acting on a new idea, especially one that includes a new City Hall, a new museum building, two private apartment buildings and the relocation of our beloved Liberty Lunch, not to mention the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, as well as the 100-year lease of the last vacant land on Town Lake to a big software company for its corporate headquarters, the mayor and council should have expected skepticism, and indeed they got it. Watson has stuck to his guns, and the claim that this plan is the best one for Austin taxpayers. Clearly, this deal merits a close watch as the new year begins and details start getting ironed out.
The CSC plan, with its Liberty Lunch-moving afteraffects, is the move that finally alerted old-guard Austinites, some of whom are too busy attending shows at Liberty Lunch (or working, or just hanging around) to follow city politics, about just how fast things are changing around here, and the parameters of the New Austin vision the mayor has sketched out for us. Some of these people may pay a little more attention to City Hall's workings in the year to come.
Elsewhere in the World
The politics of downtown revitalization aren't the only things that bode less peace and harmony for the council in 1999. Here are more potential challenges :
- The 76th Texas Legislative Session: Some of the public servants who will gather as members of the Texas Legislature this session, to be called to order in a matter of days, are not only disinclined to work with the city that hosts their legislative shindig; they are its sworn antagonists. There's a long history of ill will between the city and state types who view the city's insistence on water quality protection and quality of life to be obstructionist and retrograde. The city's shiny new lobbying team should help matters; so also should the mayor's pledge that legislators will not receive city of Austin parking tickets. Maybe if he promised we won't book 'em for soliciting prostitution, either, things would be even cozier between City Hall and the Lege.
- Council elections for places 1, 3 and 4: In 1998, the council was allowed to conduct its business without the distraction of people angling to take their jobs. But in May of 1999, councilmembers Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith, and Daryl Slusher will stand for re-election, and it will be the job of their respective opponents to scrutinize their every vote and official action, looking for weakness to exploit. From the annexed areas, from the suburbs, and from the central city they will come, staking their claim to future civic power on their ability to unseat a member of Austin's most successful council in ages. (For details on who's running and who's rumored to be, see last week's "Council Watch.")
- S.O.S. Strife: "Mitigation" was the buzzword in 1998, as developers offered to keep certain sensitive tracts undeveloped in return for exceeding S.O.S. impervious cover limits on other tracts, and sold it as a "modification" to S.O.S. But Bill Bunch and company railed against the concept, warning that an acceptance of the principle would bring a return to the days when any developer, as long as he had money for lawyers and other "experts," could bring a proposal to City Hall, to the exclusion of smaller landowners, who had to abide by the rules as written. Bunch is probably right. The Lost Creek/Club Corp. Settlement and the first-reading-only Forum vote, in which councilmembers posited that new, developer-crafted plans were "better than" S.O.S., may well have intrigued a number of developer types with designs on watershed land, who now see a window for "creative modification" of S.O.S. rules. The council has eked out the first few cases on the trust and goodwill of Austin citizens, but in 1999 they'll have to start proving that the modifications aren't sellouts in disguise.
- Reality Sets In: The downside to the remarkable run of initiatives passed by the council in 1998 is, in fact, the remarkable run of initiatives passed by the council in 1998. As all the big projects start actually moving forward, there will inevitably be setbacks and delays, and miscalculations in planning will come to light. These will have been unintentional, but the sheer magnitude of the changes set in motion by the council in 1998 is bound to include some grand plans that don't happen after all, and some that do happen that we will wish hadn't. And even some of those good plans that are realized -- on budget and on schedule as the saying goes -- will involve lots of road construction, and create lots of traffic. This is likely to make people cranky and impatient, and critical of their leaders.
Here's hoping the council takes all this in stride. The good news is that none of this has yet transpired, and the council still has the opportunity to respond to it in a way that will make things better instead of worse. (This year, the council became so used to success that some members, and city staff as well, have become rather touchy and defensive, quick to lash out at the first sign of criticism.)
Despite their tendency to get snappish, though, the Watson council is a largely likable bunch. Since the holiday season is the time for goodwill, let's take a moment to reflect on some of the reasons we (usually, at least) appreciate this group: Gus Garcia, for his philosophic tangents on Austin and its history; Goodman, for her consistent application of common sense; Griffith, for her willingness to oppose the majority; Willie Lewis, for his inscrutability; Slusher, for his suspicion of big corporations; Spelman, for his studied wonkishness; and Watson, for wanting what's best for Austin and trying like hell to get what's best to materialize. If we disagree with him on what exactly the best is sometimes, well, at least they're honest disagreements. Happy New Year, everybody.
Council next meets on Thursday, Jan. 7.