Naked City

Despite the many good arguments in their favor, Beverly Griffith's parks bonds and Raul Alvarez's housing bonds get shot down at council; meanwhile, Kirk Watson's $150 million transportation proposal glides through with nary a hitch.

Naked City
By Doug Potter

Council Watch: Parks Pogrom

As airplane pilots know, flying into a headwind is no big deal, but running into a powerful wind shear can be deadly. Council Member Beverly Griffith's parks bond proposal -- which would have asked voters to authorize $95 million in spending over the next 10 years for trails, recreation centers, and open space -- went down in a fireball early this week, broken up in a barrage of dissent from all directions. Council members argued that it was risky to tie up bonds for parks when other heavy public investments may soon be needed; they said the public hadn't had time to set priorities, that other critical needs would go unmet, that they had better proposals to address land conservation. Hours and hours were spent, both on the dais and off, taking apart a proposal that drew more than 100 supporters to council chambers last Thursday, was opposed by virtually no one save the downtown real estate crowd, and was a good bet to win at the ballot box.

Through it all, Mayor Kirk Watson said little publicly, dropping occasional reminders that the city approved more than $75 million for parks and $65 million for land conservation in 1998, and stating that a vote against Griffith's bonds was a vote for fiscal prudence, not opposition to green space. And Council Member Will Wynn repeatedly pointed out that setting investment priorities for the rest of the decade with only three weeks to debate looked like slipshod policymaking (The deadline for placing propositions on the Nov. 7 ballot is today, Aug. 24).

But supporters of Griffith's proposition could perhaps swallow those arguments more easily had they not just seen the mayor's $150 million transportation bond package pass without a hitch through the same short process, having never once been run past a board, commission, or task force. Wynn unintentionally drove that ironic barb in deeper with his suggestion to form a new bond advisory committee to parcel out the leftovers in the bond pot, about $22 million through 2004, that will remain after Watson's funds are scooped out. The council is willing to wave through a massive roads package, some noted, but then turns fiscally conservative with soccer fields, libraries, and watershed buffers, saying there hasn't been sufficient debate.

In fact, some of the mayor's critics recall, a 1998 bond proposal to expand the Convention Center became public only 50 days before the May election day. And how long did it take to get the council's approval to relocate Computer Sciences Corp. downtown? A month? After Thursday's meeting, before council members could leave their seats, an angry Danny Thomas chided them for suddenly turning "real picky" when social equity issues were at stake. "It's a sad indictment on all of us," Thomas said to his stunned colleagues.

But Council Member Daryl Slusher, who voted for the mayor's bond proposition and against Griffith's, said that no one had challenged the need for the road money. On the other hand, it's difficult to criticize the package, since it's not clear exactly what projects the $150 million will build. Slusher hopes to present an item today, Thursday, August 24, that will attach covenants to those bonds, prohibiting road-building over environmentally sensitive areas and requiring cost-benefit analyses on roads extending outside city limits.

Still, the Transportation Debate of the Century feels to some like a Transportation Slam Dunk by the mayor and his Chamber cotillion. Austin Neighborhoods Council president Will Bozeman said at Thursday's meeting that his group may not support a package whose impact on neighborhoods hasn't been addressed. And environmental leaders, lately at odds over whether to accommodate the city's compromising positions with developers and the downtown crowd, were united in their support for a comprehensive bond package that would preserve open space as well as build roads.

Throughout the week, Griffith demonstrated that the city has the bonding capacity to issue the mayor's bonds, spend on parks, and still have more than $140 million in bonds for other projects through 2009. After the council rejected her original proposal, with only Thomas and Raul Alvarez supporting her, Griffith tried to sell her package in increments, eventually asking only for $12 million to improve the Eastside's Colony Park. But her reiterated challenge to commit to at least one equity investment got no takers. Later, Slusher reinstated a proposal he tendered in conjunction with Wynn last week that $13.4 million in 1985 bond proceeds relinquished by the Austin Museum of Art be used as a challenge fund to spur private investment in conservation land over the aquifer. Slusher said after the meeting that even though $13 million was far less than Griffith's proposal, the money was in the bank and could go to work immediately. Slusher's motion will likely be approved today, which would go on the ballot in November. (Of course, that covers only part of Griffith's program, and does nothing to address Thomas' social equity concerns.)

Meanwhile, a $25 million bond proposition for affordable housing died a quieter death, with original sponsor Alvarez pulling his support in favor of a plan that would direct more city revenue into housing incentives. The plan, which the council will consider next week, would dedicate about $4 million annually from the General Fund and 40% of tax revenues from developments on city land for lot acquisition and gap financing for housing projects. It would also create an incentive program to encourage banks to lend money for home repairs to low-income residents. Housing activists said Alvarez's plan seems acceptable, though questions linger as to how securely revenue streams can be tied to housing assistance.

This Week in Council:

The Gotham Lofts are back, minus the goth and now called Mirabeau, but as big as ever. The council will consider zoning approval today for the controversial condominium tower proposed on the lakeshore at 200 S. Congress -- which at 108 feet is much taller than recommended in the recent Town Lake Corridor Study. But the Mirabeau developer could persuade council to overlook that transgression if he can get the neighbors to go along. Also on today's agenda: the Chestnut Neighborhood Plan.

  • More of the Story

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    Funders gather at Kirk Watson's House, a new campaign finance reform group is born in Austin, and Club DeVille goes Republican.

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    Vignette discusses its options for a planned move downtown.
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    Local singer-songwriter Lourdes Perez has become outspoken in the fight against the US bombing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

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    Council members announce Planning Commission appointments that promise to calm the harsh political winds that have blown through the commission of late.

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    The Triangle Square plan gets approved at council, raising questions from Eastside activists about the fate of similar projects in their neighborhoods.

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Beverly Griffith, transportation bonds, Kirk Watson, parks bonds, Will Wynn, housing bonds, Raul Alvarez, Danny Thomas, Daryl Slusher, Austin Neighborhoods Council, Will Bozeman, Austin Museum of Art, Gotham condominiums

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