Naked City

Triangle Squared Away

Naked City
By Doug Potter

By the time you read this, the City Council may already have waved the newest, most improved Triangle Square, with its $5 million-plus in public investment from the city coffers, through its gates. Despite what you may have heard, there is no real opposition to Triangle, Act V -- indeed, at this point the council would rather put out its own eyes than take the rap for killing the Triangle.

The parcel between 45th, Guadalupe, and Lamar, which three years ago was the site of the most vigorous citizen uprising since SOS, will now be the locale of the first genuinely New Urbanist and Smart Grown mixed-use project, and the first real product of community-based planning, in Austin history. Everyone is and should be very proud of themselves. A few million is a small price to pay for the vast field of political hay the Triangle has become.

The deal could have likewise passed through Planning Commission on consent Tuesday night, but nothing seems to ever "pass through" the increasingly high-strung PC. By the time they got around to the Triangle -- two weeks behind schedule -- the familiar cast of characters (developers, neighborhood leaders, city and state staffers) had cooled its jets for three hours, during which time commissioner Betty Baker had already broken into tears and chair Art Navarro had already lost control of parliamentary procedure.

But that was just the opening act for the real star of the show -- the soon-to-be-very-much-ex-commissioner Susana Almanza, whose once ample political credibility has all but vaporized within the last month. Almanza's every attempt to cast the future Triangle as a yuppie enclave, unworthy of public investment, was gently but firmly rebuffed by the facts. No, actually, commissioner Almanza, the green space is really public parkland accessible to all. No, actually, the funding is really money that couldn't be used now to fix Ramsey Pool. No, actually, the low-end residential rents really are affordable.

And, most importantly, no, actually, the Triangle deal really will be dead if the city doesn't help pony up for the urban public space that citizens and council so adamantly forced the General Land Office to force upon Cencor Realty's Tom Terkel. "We're being asked to create an urban product type in a place that isn't really urban today," Terkel says. "If you're going into downtown, you already have the streets, the utilities, the parks, the stormwater detention, [so] the developer could instead pay for the other amenities that make urban projects attractive. And in the suburbs, you don't have public streets or parks to pay for -- if we're developing a suburban product, we don't need the infrastructure. But if we're developing an urban product, something has to give."

Indeed, anyone who thought the Triangle was going to get built without any public investment was smoking wacky weed. (We choose the word "investment" for a reason -- once the Triangle gets built, what is now a dead spot on the city tax rolls will start pumping out a million or so in city revenue a year.) "We didn't know how much it was going to cost," says the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association's Jennifer Vickers, one of the four neighborhood reps on the official Triangle stakeholder group. "I doubt even the developers understood the level to which public investment would be required ...

"If you're asking communities to accept intense densification -- which this is -- you also need to provide the infrastructure and open space," Vickers continues. "There needs to be a balance, and this is a model for how you can achieve that balance. This shows how we can have collaboration between all the stakeholders on how developments get done. If we can go from complete hostility to a solution everyone is basically happy with, that's a huge accomplishment."

As it turned out, Vickers and the other citizen types didn't have to make their pitch. After presentations and briefings from various city staff, and from Terkel and Collins, as the PC debated (naturally) whether to limit the podium time for several pro-Triangle speakers, both Baker and Navarro let slip that (in Baker's words) "we could make a motion and pass this thing right now."

So, when Vickers led off the citizen parade, she asked the PC to do exactly that, and they did, and it passed 8-1, which is what would have happened had the vote been taken two weeks ago, and Almanza spent 20 minutes after the vote further haranguing the project.

And everyone went home. "Wasn't that fun?" someone asked one of the most powerful supporters of the new Triangle. "No," was his reply. "That was bullshit."

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