The Austin Chronicle

Council Watch

It All Went So Fast: Of Council Actions Past and Future

By Jenny Staff Johnson, January 7, 2000, News

It was a year of highs and lows, to be sure, and it all went by so fast. Take a walk down memory lane as you recall the year in City Council with this list of some of the high- (and low-)lights.

1. LCRA Water Deal. Chinatown it wasn't, but the collaboration of all the powers that be at the city with outgoing Lower Colorado River Authority honcho Mark Rose in cooking up the future of Austin's water supply was enough to drive some hard-core greens to distraction. Whether or not we eventually become, as some have predicted, wealthy water dealers to parched surrounding communities, at least we won't have to go begging ourselves. Good thing for us water doesn't spoil.

2. SOS/RECA/GACC agreement. It was a doozy of a challenge they undertook, but they did it (they being Save Our Springs Alliance, Real Estate Council of Austin, and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce): The odd bedfellows proved they could reach significant common ground, the kind that has the potential to bring positive change to a long-deadlocked area of Austin's public life. Now if the Texas Legislature would only cooperate and accept their hard-won compromise.

3. Lege Passes 1704 Anyway. From their end, the Texas Legislature proved it doesn't care what Austin wants for itself. Even if our town's conservatives are signed on to the vision, the Lege just doesn't care. The measure, which allows developers to build under lesser water-quality guidelines in place at the time they filed for permits, presents new challenges for local business, environmental, and political leaders: How to lead in an environment like this? Would we rather just throw in the towel and ask for some kind of Congress-Washington, D.C.-type stewardship?

4. East Austin Overlay. Will it finally undo the damage that was done when city fathers relegated light industrial zoning to the place where the brown people live? The council tried to work into the city code its stated commitment to justice in zoning decisions, with varying degrees of success depending on whom you ask. But it brought Eastside land-use questions to the forefront, a much-needed first step.

5. Gotham Condominiums and the Town Lake Overlay. Beginning as a simple zoning case, the Gotham project took on a life bigger than itself. This one will ramify way into the new year. The delay of Houston developer Randall Davis' deal says that, however progress-happy this city and this council may be, concern for the consequences of certain kinds of progress still holds sway.

6. Council Elections. The May City Council elections, with the re-election of Council Members Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith, and Jackie Goodman, extended the reign of the Watson Council for at least one more year. Though the unity and the unanimity that marked the previous years were not as prevalent in 1999, the re-election of the three incumbents allowed for needed continuity in a time of speedy change. How would council wannabes Chad Crow, Amy Wong Mok, and Amy Babich have voted during the last year in council? The world may never know.

7. New Cultural Facilities at Town Lake Park. If executed as planned, it will have a profound effect on the way we enjoy our town. Notable for the relative smoothness of its planning and design, at least to this point. Note to city planners: Close Riverside Drive!

8. CSC. It was no April Fool! Though they have been talking layoffs of late, all systems seem go for the Computer Sciences Corp./City Hall/ Austin Museum of Art/residential complex, and demolition is well underway. (If you don't already have your relic from the Liberty Lunch wall mural, it's too late, but maybe you can still grab a piece of history from the Electric Lounge.)

9. Mitigation/Forum PUD. According to some factions in the SOS Alliance, clustering impervious cover to allow high-density development like the Forum PUD shopping center approved by the council for William Cannon and MoPac undermines the spirit of SOS and endangers the aquifer. Others say it's a smart tweaking of principle to achieve a greater good (and if the Legislature is appeased in the process, we're all the better for it). Time will tell.

10. Day Labor Relocation. Proof that the city will appease downtown leaders at the expense of neighborhoods' safety? Or confidence that without distractions like the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless factoring in, the day labor scene could get its act together, doing an honest day's work for an honest day's pay and minding their own business? The council seems to have gotten lucky on this one: Day labor appears to be prospering, and all the attention helped to clean up the Rio Motel.

Agenda 2000

As if all that and the big A2K bash weren't enough, we've got a whole new (and old) passel of issues coming right at us. Consider this your cheat sheet, a quickie guide to the year in council that will be. Top 10 Issues in which the Austin City Council may figure in 2000:

1. Transportation. SH 130 and the light rail vote: Will land speculators clean up on the location of the new I-35 "bypass"? Will it really cause all those nasty trucks to bypass Austin? Will light rail pass? If it does, will it leave South Austinites stranded below the river? Will that and traffic problems caused by downtown construction conspire to create a veritable Austin Wall, whereby no crossing between the north and south sides will be possible or permitted? Long live the Republic of South Austin.

2. Air Quality. We are really on the brink with this one. Look for the mayor's history leading the Clean Air Force to come into play as he tries to work some magic with the city's air quality (and with the EPA, which will almost certainly designate us a non-attainment city next summer). Also look for Gus Garcia to deliver more lectures on air quality and continue denouncing SUVs from the dais. Fun for everyone.

3. Council Elections. Will the forward march of the Watson Council (minus the retiring Garcia) continue? Will Council Members Willie Lewis or Bill Spelman be considered vulnerable enough to draw serious opposition? Will this opposition be backed by the same person or persons who have put Statesman editor Rich Oppel up to his recent council-bashing ways? Will the progressive establishment step up in unified support of the two incumbents -- or, as some have rumored -- leave at least one hanging in retribution for past infidelities? Stay tuned.

4. ARA. When dirt actually turns on 11th and 12th streets, which may or not happen within this calendar year, one of Austin's most ambitious urban renewal projects will finally be underway, to the relief of many. But the stage the project is now in, with the recent council approval of the $9 million in seed money, is the most crucial: Who gets the dollars, and to build what? One to watch closely.

5. Gotham/Town Lake Overlay. Process rules, charrettes are cool, and we have charrettes, our favorite tool! Who will ultimately decide the future of the south shore of Town Lake? Evil developers? Civic-minded developers? South Austinites? The Austin City Council? Or some happy combination of all of these, brought to miraculous consensus by the almighty process? That last one, we wearily hope, is it.

6. Austin Energy/Electric Deregulation/Holly Power Plant. Is Austin Energy engaged in an evil plot to take over the world? Is part of the program keeping Eastside Austinites down through means including the continued operation of the Holly Power Plant? Will sudden, corporate-profit deregulation be sprung on our city without the benefit of public consideration or consumer advocacy? Not even Jesus knows.

7. School Quality. The mayor's task force to assist in the search for a new AISD superintendent may prove to be only the first step in an effort to more closely link the AISD bureaucracy to a much smoother running machine; that is, Austin City Hall. If things don't change over at AISD, sooner or later it will take the shine off the city for all these wealthy new high-tech arrivals. Savvy city leaders no doubt understand this.

8. Airport Redevelopment. Another hot spot for potential positive change -- or gross financial mismanagement -- on the Eastside. With the state out of the picture, the financials are shaky but the world is our oyster as far as the 719 acres are concerned. Movie studio, housing, office space -- it can all be ours. In the meantime, a good place to hold raves.

9. Waller Creek and Rainey Street Redevelopment. Here comes the new creekside promenade, the Convention Center hotel, the MACC (Mexican-American Cultural Center), new downtown housing, and more, all to an underdeveloped corner of downtown near you. How will it look? No Riverwalk, please.

10. One that may not be hot, but should be. Land Development Code Rewrite. The well-intentioned (and often well-executed) policies of this council should be translated into city code, in order to protect the city from the wicked excesses of unknown councils to come. That's the conventional wisdom, anyway, about the rewrite of the Land Development Code and various other codes, but it's a goal that's turning out to be much easier said than done. Here's hoping this is the year it all comes to sweet fruition. end story

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