The 7-0 Itch
When, oh, when will the 7-0 honeymoon end? That's what City Hall watchers were starting to wonder, after being lulled to sleep by a new City Council that in its first three meetings exhibited even less divisiveness than the previous council. Promoting downtown growth through multimillion-dollar incentive packages, the primary business of late, seems to have devolved into the "no-brainer" category, for better or worse.
But council insiders have been promising more fireworks, and a couple of fuses were lit this week in preparation for the first council meeting since June. Council Member Beverly Griffith, resuming her past habit of tugging on Superman's cape, has proposed tacking $125 million onto Mayor Kirk Watson's vaunted transportation bond package to invest in parks and housing. And freshman Council Member Danny Thomas has flung a handful of incendiary items on the table -- apparently without seeking backup from his fellow council members -- including proposals to distribute settlement money from the 1998 Cedar Avenue lawsuit directly to plaintiffs, and to re-name Rosewood Avenue for Eastside activist Dorothy Turner. Both of those items challenge the mayor and veteran council members to reverse decisions they made in the past.
Behind the scenes, Griffith and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman are negotiating additional dollars for the city manager's proposed $15 million Sustainability Fund, currently focused primarily on road improvements and Economic Expansion, to fund programs filed in the lower-case "e" categories: equity and the environment. In that same spirit, Council Member Raul Alvarez hopes to expand the city's youth programs and promote greater conservation of electricity and water.
So the upcoming month promises some good ol' push-and-shove between the council's activist spirit and the mayor's heady rush to build the Next Great Metropolis. To date, the few split votes from this council have been primarily over contract awards, though after each uncontested approval of a downtown investment, speeches have invariably demanded that the ensuing revenues, when they arrive, be channeled into the housing trust fund and other services for low-income residents. Now a day of reckoning may be dawning -- when council will have to show whether it truly intends to stand up for those for whom it isn't such a great day to be in Austin, Texas.
The budget and the bonds will be the obvious first point of contact. Griffith's proposal to add $100 million for parks and $25 million for housing initiatives to a $150 million transportation package slated for the November ballot will be a high-profile test of cooperation. Griffith's added cargo could get jettisoned for fear of sinking the transportation ship, or perhaps for interfering with the mayor's mission to recruit the private sector to help out with the housing crisis. Or it could be included as a welcome addition to what the council could now dub a "livable city" bond package. Thomas and Alvarez indicate they're behind Griffith's proposal, but other council members have been more standoffish, preferring to mull the details. One concern is that a giant bond deal now leaves the city with no bonding capacity in the future.
Another test of the council's commitment to equity will come from the bumper crop of mixed-use and residential developments that will come to fruition in the next few months. To give credit where it's due, the Smart Growth matrix has largely removed controversial projects from atop the aquifer, landing them instead in Northeast and Southeast Austin. That's quieted the arguments about impervious cover limitations, but the question now is whether the council will enforce promised affordability requirements.
The Reuse and Redevelopment Plan for the vacated Robert Mueller Airport, released just last month, calls for at least 25% of the housing eventually built there to be targeted to families earning under 80% of the median family income, or about $44,000. Council also hopes to place the same kind of restrictions on Post Properties' planned development on the Triangle. But there are a host of others to consider: the 650-acre Interport Tract, recently annexed by the city, a new Traditional Neighborhood Development east of Slaughter, and the revitalization of Rainey Street. The council will also have to decide whether and how to commit revenues from a proposed hotel and golf course on Lake Walter E. Long to city services.
Meanwhile, council members will continue to slog through the details of planning infrastructure and connectivity for all these new developments, a task already being made difficult in Shady Hollow, where residents are resisting an access road connecting a new development by Milburn Homes to Brodie Lane.
The good news is, neighborhood plans, already completed in the Chestnut and East Cesar Chavez neighborhoods, may help mitigate some of the internecine warfare that has traditionally broken out over infill developments, the brouhaha over the ECC plan by the El Concilio neighborhood organization notwithstanding. How much influence council has over development planning, however, has typically been limited by how much the developer has relied on city cooperation. The Smart Growth incentive packages have hooked more developments into the city's control, especially downtown, but builders of luxury homes don't necessarily find the lure worth chomping at. Will the council be willing to lay down more far-reaching ordinances to enforce sustainable, affordable neighborhoods? The next few months may give us a clue.