Done Deal

Amending the CSC Deal

The what-ifs are important, by the way. Though they don't have to lead to ditching the project, they can be used to make it better. And they have. Councilmember Beverly Griffith, a critic of the plan from the start and the only councilmember to vote against the initial resolution back in December authorizing the city manager to negotiate with CSC, knew she was beaten when the plan came back to council April 1. So in return for her vote (and the beautiful memory of another 7-0 vote on a monumental Austin project), she asked for a couple of amendments. Designed to "protect the general fund" of the city from excessive financial liability, the Griffith amendments removed the city's open-ended liability for traffic improvements, and called for an independent third party, not the city, to build and lease the retail space that is slated for the ground floor of the three CSC buildings.

Griffith's amendment states that "a third party would finance, construct and operate the retail component of the project subject to the reasonable consent of CSC," though if such a party could not be found, the city would regain its role as prime retail developer. Futrell said the financial effect of removing the project's retail component is "basically a wash for the city." Though the city will miss out on revenue the retail would have brought, it also isn't liable for the costs of developing that retail, or for the financial losses if it's not a profitable venture.

The readiness of everyone to accept Griffith's amendment about retail exposes one of the downsides of CSC. Some of this was cooked up too quickly, even haphazardly. Another example was incorporating the Hobby building into the plan without bothering to consult the folks who actually own it, which happens to be the state of Texas. This is the kind of over-confidence -- assuming that all things will work in your favor -- that sometimes comes before a fall, or at least before a boondoggle.

"This is a city where we expect a lot from municipal government," Futrell said, at a presentation answering citizens' and councilmembers' questions about CSC. Futrell would know as well as anyone, being one of the driving forces behind the public/neighborhood "education" effort, as well as the Liberty Lunch relocation effort, which was praised by its owners at the public hearing. "I'm not here to criticize what's going on," said Mark Pratz, co-owner of Liberty Lunch. "I think it's a great thing downtown, and I think it's long overdue." Pratz was teary-eyed, especially while recounting his 21 years with the Lunch, from bouncer to owner. "I'm sad tonight," he said. "It's such a part of me that is going down over there. ... Smart growth smarts for some, but I think it's a good idea what you're doing, and I say go ahead with it full steam. ... [Liberty Lunch] was born terminally ill. Every birthday [upon] our lease renewal, we were told, 'Well, this is it. You don't have more than six months, we're going to build this, or we're going to build that,' and it never happened, and it never happened, and it was kind of like walking around with a disease all the time. Mostly I want to thank the city of Austin, because they just let it happen. I think it was benign negligence."

As a nod toward the preservation of Austin history, Pratz called for saving some of the wood, metal (from the old Armadillo), and pecan trees, in remembrance of the Lunch. Pratz's partner, J'Net Ward, echoed his feelings, as well as his praise for the city. "Liberty Lunch has always been a public/private venture. Once again, the city is going to help," she said in announcing the relocation of the club to Ninth and Red River, just north of Stubb's. The city will provide the Lunch with a low-interest, $200,000 loan, as well as help with development fee waivers.

What About Other Folks?

Despite their unanimous support for the project, councilmembers did agree that some elements had been left out of the CSC plan. "The other thing we need downtown with all the mixed use," said Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, "are places for children to be." Goodman "invited" CSC to delegate a representative to the Child Care Task Force. Another loose end is the Homeless Resource Center, which -- still without a new home -- has not received the satisfaction Liberty Lunch has, but has received the repeated assurance of councilmembers that the center will be a priority. Several advocates for the soon-to-be displaced day labor site came to ask the council to include their interests, too (see "Naked City," p.18).

Councilmembers Willie Lewis and Gus Garcia expressed their concerns that minority contracting standards for CSC, the AMLI/Wooley apartment projects, and the Austin Museum of Art would not comply with, but be "consistent with the intent and spirit of the city ordinance." Garcia said, "I don't know what that means. That's just not the way I understood it. ... I had thought they were going to comply." Clearly, for a city that claims a commitment to diversity in city contracting, the words "intent and spirit" aren't much of an assurance.

Lewis and Garcia have long bemoaned the fact that the city's goals for hiring minority and women contractors remain just that -- goals. Lewis routinely admonishes city staff for awarding contracts to firms who aren't subcontracting to the women- and minority-owned firms registered with the city. But privately, council sources say that anything stronger than the current ordinance (i.e., anything that smacked of quotas) would not stand up to a legal challenge.

All told, what this city administration has lacked, throughout the CSC process and in general, is a loyal opposition, willing to look carefully and criticize constructively. One negative consequence of the new coalition and peace in the land is that any criticism of the (established order) seems harsh, and people start taking political disputes personally. If the Watson council is as good as many suspect it is, then it should be able to withstand some honest scrutiny. But the council got little last Thursday, as it approved one of the biggest city projects in memory, and adjourned at the unusually early hour of about 9 o'clock. And with that, the council repaired to a private victory celebration at the Bank One building's Headliners' Club, hosted by CSC executives.

This Week in Council: The Forum PUD has reared its head again and is back on the agenda, along with a 6pm public hearing on the mitigation land development policy that would allow clustering of impervious cover limits in the Barton Springs zone. Also, the council will consider awarding a contract for the rowing concession at Town Lake.

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Council approves spending $15 million on the Convention Center Hotel; City Manager Jesus Garza presents the Draft Policy Budget; and Roma Design Group announces its vision for the south shore of Town Lake.

Kevin Fullerton, July 7, 2000

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The council approves on first reading an East Austin apartment complex 500 feet away from a plant where toxic chemicals are stored, but some council members are promising to scuttle the project if it comes back for final approval.

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