The Watson Way

Where Does Austin Go From Here?

The Watson Way
Photo By Jana Birchum

Though he officially has three opponents in the May City Council election, Mayor Kirk Watson already has his mind on his probable second term. From all indications, the next term is going to be just as eventful as the first, with the further implementation of the all-conquering Smart Growth ideology vying for dominance with clean-air and cost-of-living issues. After spending the past three years fast-tracking a number of programs, most of them growth-oriented, Watson acknowledges his need to finish some things he started.

Topics Watson highlighted in a recent interview with the Chronicle included air quality, transportation, and housing, as well as his ideas about the role of the Austin Independent School District and how Austin's workforce figures into the new global economy. Speaking of globalism, Watson also commented on his recent experiences promoting Austin industry in Asia, and the likely results thereof.

What does the future hold for Watson after the mayor's office? Though staying coy about his future political ambitions, Watson admits to a strong affinity for public service and friendships with the likes of Vice President Al Gore that could well propel him into even brighter limelights. In the meantime, he says, he's running for the mayor of Austin, and that's it. For Watson's views on single-member districts, living wage issues, and the future of regionalism in Central Texas, read on.

Austin Chronicle: What bands did you see at SXSW?

Kirk Watson: The problem with spring break and young kids is, you don't get to do SXSW the same way. [Watson and his family took a road trip to New Mexico over spring break.]

AC: Ifyou are re-elected, what will be three important issues for follow-through?

KW: That's one of the important reasons I'm running for re-election -- is that we have moved at such a rapid pace, there's a need to make sure we can get things where we feel like they're solidified, and that is across the board. Three things I'll mention: One, growth management in the broad sense, what historically is referred to as Smart Growth. We have done an unprecedented thing. For the first time in my lifetime, the community is talking in terms of a Water Quality Protection Zone, and meaning it. The results of that are Tivoli, Motorola, Dell, CSC, Intel [locating in the Desired Development Zone]. I want to follow up on the purchase of land. And a key component of that is the part I have been most critical of how we have done in Smart Growth -- making sure neighborhoods feel like they are participating in Smart Growth and it actually benefits them. That's what it was intended to do.

Second, air quality. The Clean Air Act created some weirdness, because what it does is requires that before you have the authority to do some things you may need to do, you have to be declared [a non-attainment area]. And that creates problems. We have not sat on our hands. But the fact is, we are going to have to ratchet up [our] efforts and actually become a leader in the way the region deals with air quality.

Third, downtown. We have so much going on downtown, starting at Waller Creek -- the voters have voted to do that and we need to make sure the financing is taken care of -- to the Convention Center and Convention Center Hotel, to CSC, to City Hall, to Post Properties to Palmer, to AMOA, you just start naming it, and there's so much happening downtown.

AC: What is your proudest accomplishment in your first term?

The Watson Way

KW: I wouldn't say a specific thing is my proudest accomplishment. I would say that at the time I ran, I said that I believed we could change the way we're doing business in this community: We can achieve the goals of environmental protection, we can achieve the goals of enhancing the quality of life, and we can do it in a way where we're managing our growth so that current taxpayers get extra benefits. With some exceptions, I think we have achieved that. So much has been achieved in the past two and a half years that people said was not possible three years ago.

AC: How has campaign finance reform affected council races?

KW: It reduces the number of candidates. I understand the sentiment, and I agree with the sentiment. We need to have some mechanism to reduce the influence of money in elections, but we need to take care that we don't create unintended consequences. I'm proud of my record over the past two and half years, but frankly, I don't think I could have been elected under this provision. The fact is, I had to have a way to get my message out in this very large city. I think anybody who has lots of name identification, just by virtue of serving, has a distinct advantage.

We ought to recognize the goal, and evaluate how we could redo it in a way that achieves the goals of campaign finance reform but doesn't have the same level of unintended consequences. Sadly, nobody really wants to lead on that because nobody wants to be labeled as anti-campaign finance reform, and since it was originally passed as anti-corruption, that somehow you're going to be corrupt. But I think we're going to go through two election cycles under it now, and I think we ought to consider whether there is [another] way to do it and take it to the voters some time in the near future.

AC: What about single-member districts?

KW: I have always favored single-member districts. I favor them for more reasons than just diversity, but I do favor them for diversity. I think that done right, it can come closer to assuring diversity, and that certain voices are heard. But I also favor them for campaign finance reform. We are now a very large city. I think you would increase the number of people who are willing to serve in government if it didn't cost them so much to run. If you had neighborhood districts, you really could be in a situation where it might be silly to buy TV, but you could walk door to door, and do mailouts, and that sort of thing. And from a planning standpoint, the thing about single-member districts is, even if you have a set of elections where you throw all the "bums" out, people are elected from those neighborhoods, you would assure that somebody would be elected from those neighborhoods, so there would be some consistency in terms of long-term planning.

AC: Is there a parallel there with community policing?

KW: Absolutely. We do it with community policing, we do it with community prosecution, but we don't seem to do it with community government.

AC: What priorities of the council still need to be codified in order to ensure their continuance after you're gone?

KW: We need more work on some of those things, but it needs to be done in ways where we recognize some of the problems and the unintended consequences and the fears that have been created, and make sure we don't rush to get those done, because I think that exacerbates things. We have run very fast in the past two and half years and I think one of the unintended consequences is that neighborhoods don't see some of the advantages Smart Growth can bring them.

AC: What about the Land Development Code rewrite, how's it coming?

Watson wants to follow other cities' tracks to light rail, such as this one in Sacramento.
Watson wants to follow other cities' tracks to light rail, such as this one in Sacramento.

KW: It's one of those tough deals in Austin where you throw out an idea and both sides don't like it. We do need to get some things codified, but there's still work that needs to be done to get to that point. It's not the kind of thing you rush to get in just to say you've got it codified.

AC: How successful has Austin been in protecting its environment during your term?

KW: We've had more success in terms of water-quality protection than ever before. One, since SOS has been passed, you've had a lot of legislative activity that has made it difficult. But I'm proud to say that this council has done a couple of things that even address the legislative difficulty. When you go and purchase the kind of land based upon science that we did, then 1704's not an issue any more, Water Quality Protection Zones are not an issue any more. Plus, we've put our money where our mouth is in terms of Smart Growth, in terms of major employers. What we have done is said, "We really mean this in terms of a drinking-water protection zone and a desired development zone and here's what we will do to help you go elsewhere. So those are concrete examples -- maybe I don't want to use the word concrete -- those are specific examples of how we provided protection that will be long-term.

AC: How does the Gary Bradley settlement fit in?

KW: It fits in squarely. We are trying to do more planning, instead of just reacting to things that pop up. First of all, what this means is we are going to plan 3,076 acres of land. ... It eliminates long-term risks in a way that is entirely consistent with what this community has been telling us they want to see us do.

AC: What's the prognosis for regional planning?

KW: We're still so early in making the prognosis, I'm still a believer that we're going to be successful. We as a region have figured out that we are going to sink or swim as a region. I don't think there's an elected official in this region who doesn't understand and appreciate that, who doesn't appreciate that we have to figure out mechanisms to do things together that benefit the entire region. The difficulty we run into is that, when we spend our days working, we end up working most of the time within jurisdictions that in many instances, the lines were laid out when we were a republic. Cities and regions are organic. They don't grow based upon these lines that were put on a map 160 years ago.

One of my least favorite headlines was a headline that said "Austin's bad air may affect region."

Well, that's absolutely backwards. It should have said, "Region's bad air may affect Austin." Air doesn't pay any attention to these lines. Water doesn't. Neither do people, where they work and where they live. I'm one of those guys who, though I'm the mayor of the largest city in the region, I believe we need all those other places. That offers choices for people who may not want to live as urban as I do. We've got to get beyond using the term regionalism as a word that is a weapon. In other words, if you disagree with me, people will say, "Well, you're not for regionalism. If you were for regionalism, you'd go along with what I'm suggesting."

Instead, we've got to manufacture ways, that maybe have never been invented, to come up with how we work together on certain things. CAMPO [Capital Area Metropolitan Organization, the region's transportation planning group] is one example. I've visited with other mayors about a couple of things, on how we might share information and do things together. I think we know what the requirements are, we know what the results are if we don't engage in it. The question is, how do we overcome this old way of governing that doesn't pay a whole lot of attention to true regionalism? I truly believe that this century will be the century of cities. This will be the urban century. What that means is, you don't need to be a port, to be a great economic engine, you can be a portal. You don't need large masses of people or land, you can access capital, markets, labor, virtually, from anywhere in the world. Because of that, regionalism is going to become even more important.

AC: What about when the goals are different, like Hays County?

Austin has fast-tracked a number of downtown development projects under Watson.
Austin has fast-tracked a number of downtown development projects under Watson.

KW: That's part of the difficulty we have with jurisdictional lines. In this specific instance, you've got at least two things. One is, the city of Austin has certain regulatory powers. And we need to take care, and I am right now retreating back to that jurisdictional line, because we have a constituency that expects us to utilize in a responsible manner our regulatory authority to meet the needs of our community. In addition to that, we have a situation where we've got a specific lawsuit with a specific guy, and we've got to deal with that. And sometimes that runs counter. We're visiting with Hays County officials tomorrow [March 22] with regard to all this.

AC: What will be the effect of recent Capital Metro withdrawals, such as Pflugerville and Cedar Park, on regional transportation planning?

KW: I was disappointed in that. I think that will create more difficulty than it will help. I think there probably will be [an effort to get them back]. Because transportation is one of those issues where retreating to jurisdictional lines is not going to get us where we need to get.

AC: What about the effect on light rail?

KW: I could argue that it will end up benefiting the passage of light rail, because it'll be a smaller universe of voters, and voters that I think recognize that they will receive benefits from that.

AC: Will the future see more connection between AISD and city government?

KW: That already is occurring. There's little question that nothing that I'm doing as mayor of this city isn't impacted by what's happening in AISD. It's one of the reasons I decided to involve myself in the selection of the superintendent. Dr. [Pat] Forgione is very open; he and I talk frequently. He doesn't move on stuff that he thinks will have a direct impact on the city without first calling -- not to ask permission, but to say, "Here's what I'm doing. I want you to know, and do you have suggestions?" I think you ought to anticipate that I will be working closely with Dr. Forgione and the board to find ways that city and the schools can work more in conjunction.

AC: Are good public schools an antidote to sprawl?

KW: There is no way to control sprawl if people feel like they need to move outside of the urban core in order to educate their children. We cannot maintain this extraordinary economic boom that contributes to our quality of life if we're not educating our young people in a way that they can actually participate. Public education ought to be the big equalizer. Plus, how do you keep Austin, Austin? One of the ways is you make sure that you have a wide variety of people wanting to live in Austin. And if what you've got is young people who don't yet have children and like the clubs, and you've got older people whose kids have gotten out of school, and a lot of people in between are going elsewhere, you've changed the entire dynamic of your city.

AC: What to do about clean air?

KW: We've got to focus on where we know we've got the problem, and the biggest part of our problem is cars and off-road vehicles. One of the things you ought to anticipate is the city of Austin leading and setting an example and seeking partners in private industry in reducing vehicle miles traveled. That's just got to occur. That means everything from flex hours to telecommuting to pooling, those kinds of things. We need to be working very closely with the state, so that we don't have unintended consequences of the state doing things in attainment areas. For example, off-road vehicles -- construction equipment -- are less efficient, and they're going to have specifications placed on them in Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth. I have a great fear that you've got heavy equipment in Houston and DFW that's no longer used; it's got to go somewhere. And if those statewide rules don't apply here, it's gonna come here, and it's going to make it harder for us to clean up. It's a regional non-attainment problem. We also need to make sure that our cars are operating efficiently. And in my conversations with the chair of the TNRCC [Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission], I think we need to be looking at reasonable approaches to inspection programs -- emissions testing -- to make sure that our cars are running clean. We need to also focus on businesses in ways that are flexible for those businesses. We need to be real clear and careful that we don't say, x, y, and z must happen, when x, y, and z cost a lot of money but get you little bang for your buck. What we ought to do is say to these businesses, how do we get the biggest bang for the buck in the least expensive way?

Water quality is still a top priority, and a controversial issue.
Water quality is still a top priority, and a controversial issue.

AC: We heard your law office was once the headquarters of Al Gore's Texas campaign. What is the nature of your involvement with that campaign?

KW: You're not entirely accurate. We rented space to a fundraising effort that they had. I'm going to focus on what I'm doing. I'm not real involved in the presidential race. I'm going to go to the county [Democratic] convention, but I don't have any role as such. I support Al Gore, I just don't have a formal role in his campaign. I'm not sure I've got the time.

AC: How well do you know George W.?

KW: I know him pretty well. I know both of them pretty well. It's going to be a fun race to watch. I've known Gore for quite some time. Gore has been very good on city issues. Bush I got to know really only after I was mayor. Very shortly after I was mayor, I made a trip over to introduce myself.

AC: Rumors of your future political aspirations have you challenging everyone from Phil Gramm to Gonzalo Barrientos. Which of these are true?

KW: None of them are true. I hear them also. I'm very flattered that people think that highly of me that, at one point or another, I think I have been rumored to be running for every office available. I will say this: I like public service, I enjoy very much the opportunity it gives me to come in contact with people, and on a daily basis. I can't think of many other jobs other than public service that give me the opportunity to do things for people and touch people, so we'll see how things play out. But I'm running for mayor right now.

AC: You've been doing a lot of international travel. What has come out of that?

KW: It has allowed me to recognize a role that Austin can play in this global economy that enhances our people right now. Austin has the potential, with its diversity, to be a major global player. That's been something I had not counted on when I ran, was getting that learning process. For example, I think it has opened up communication for potential markets in China. I know that is the case with regard to Japan. Same thing with Korea. I think those will turn into partnerships, where Japanese and Korean industry that wants to be linked with partners in the United States can use Austin as a portal. Having me be willing to go and visit and meet with some of these officials -- and frankly, in some of these instances, that's what they want, they want the mayor, they want the elected official -- you're starting to see things open up. What we know is occurring, is some of our startup companies don't have the infrastructure to get involved in the global economy. What we need to do -- frankly, I'm disappointed I haven't already gotten this off the ground -- is to have a globalization initiative, and part of what all this travel has done is given me the basis for calling for that. Right now, in Austin, Texas, as hot as this market is, we don't have good infrastructure for our smaller companies to be involved in the global economy. We don't have it in the chamber of commerce, we don't have it in city government.

AC: What else should we expect from your second term?

KW: I think people should expect me to speak strongly on air quality, particularly now that we're going to be in a situation where we're going to be allowed to do even more. Some of our imagination can actually be put to use in ways that it couldn't before. [Non-attainment] will allow us to do some things that are really meaningful. For example, I can't stand the idea that I know of kids that by the time they make it to second base, they need a nebulizer -- in my city. Austin's always been a water city -- that's how we've always conceived of ourselves. But we've never really considered ourselves an air city, and we now must do that.

AC: What about minimum wage?

KW: What I want the [social equity] steering committee to look at is, how do we make sure this works overall? One [issue] is wage disparity; there's no question about it. But at the same time we have to make sure that we don't create unintended consequences. For example, in the hospitality industry, which we know is not a high-wage industry, people might go in, and without looking at all the parameters they might, say, raise the minimum wage to x number of dollars. The problem with that is, that is one of the best entry-level industries ... one of the few places where you get some very basic skill training. So what you don't want to do is create a difficulty with those entry-level positions. What ought to be explored is that some of these people are getting double and triple whammied. For example, the single mom who is going into this entry-level job, has children and also can't find affordable child care. So there's a low wage, and also unaffordable child care. And then she has transportation needs. You get whammy, double whammy, and triple whammy. But clearly wage is part of it, as is child care, as is housing. You will see me talking in great detail about housing during my second term. We should never lose sight of the fact that we used to be a lot more affordable in part because we were broke. The market took a dive, and that made things very affordable.

Right now, the market's doing just the opposite. But there are things we ought to be smart about doing. We've never explored the possibility of using Tax Increment Financing Districts -- for some reason, TIFs have always been a nasty word in Austin, but maybe now with some of our successes in other areas of affordability issues, now we can make that work here. You could use TIF in an area where you have lots of commercial, for example around [U.S.] 183, you get the increment to put back into an area, you can then help the market so it's cheaper for development to go in there.

We have a big opportunity on over 700 acres in a little place called Mueller Airport. I think if we are smart, 25% of that could be reasonably priced housing. We also need to seriously consider affordability impact statements, just like an environmental [impact] statement. If we really want it to be a priority, let's make it a priority, and let's look at whether we are creating problems by taking certain actions. If we can do something that costs that guy $25,000, but instead, it's costing him $250,000, that just went into the price of those houses. That's just some quick examples. end story

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