Naked City

Up in the Air

So when are we going to have these City Council public hearings about the city's proposed development deal with Stratus Properties, anyway? Those looking forward to a reprise of the marathon City Council meeting 10 years ago, when the council rejected FM Properties' bid to build a massive development in the Barton Springs watershed, were disappointed on Nov. 30, when the first scheduled hearing was postponed, ostensibly to give more time for input from boards and commissions. One imagines, however, that the council knew they'd be taken to the woodshed by dozens, if not hundreds, of citizens and decided they'd rather spend their evening somewhere else.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the city decided to settle a Stratus lawsuit over Municipal Utility District reimbursibles for $6.3 million without tying the suit to land-use policies, which are still on the table.

While a Stratus hearing is on the council's agenda this Thursday, Dec. 7, both the city and citizens expect it to get postponed again, since the boards and commissions don't move as fast as the city's and Stratus' lawyers. Both the Environmental Board, which has heard Stratus before, and the Water and Wastewater Commission met Wednesday night; the Parks Board, which apparently weighed in on an incomplete version of the deal, and the Planning Commission have yet to act. This means it's possible that at least one, if not both, of the hearings will be a month from now, since there are no council meetings between Dec. 14 and Jan. 18.

Now, lack of input from the boards and commissions hasn't stopped the City Council before, so the loyal opposition thinks something else may be afoot. "It was represented to us by a council member that the public hearing would not happen if the mayor could not count four votes for a specific deal," says Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch. "So a cynical interpretation would be that the deal wasn't done, so it wasn't yet time to hear from the peons.

"A more favorable interpretation," Bunch continues, "would be that the council is actually considering ... requests to scrap the deal-making in favor of a more comprehensive planning process with full participation by neighborhoods and environmental organizations."

Well, not exactly. Newcomers to Austin politics would be surprised at the amount of time the council spent on Nov. 30 discussing an item that wasn't happening, but this was council members' chance to stake their claims to truth, justice, and future mayoral endorsements.

What is happening this week -- even assuming that the public hearing is postponed -- is a vote on the so-called Mueller option. Under that option, the city would give all or part of the land or land rights at the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport -- whose four-years-in-the-making redevelopment plan, calling for a mixed-use Smart Grown urban village, was finally "accepted" by the council last week -- to Stratus in return for its compliance, or near-compliance, with the Save Our Springs Ordinance over the aquifer. An agenda item brought by Council Members Daryl Slusher and Will Wynn would direct the city manager "to enter negotiations ... to discuss the transfer or exchange of development rights from property owned by Stratus Properties Inc., in southwest Travis County, to city-owned property in the Desired Development Zone, including but not limited to the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, and to report back to the City Council on the status of those negotiations in 45 days."

SOS, among others, took issue with what they characterized as Slusher's dramatic turnaround since last month, when he issued a statement to the effect that all negotiations on Stratus, from that point forward, should be "totally [in] the open." By authorizing the city's lawyers to consult with Stratus on a land deal, they say, Slusher is reneging on his promise to keep all negotiations in the open. Slusher counters that the council won't be discussing Mueller in executive session; and that there's little harm, anyway, in instructing the city's lawyers to talk to Stratus' lawyers and report back to the council in public. "By putting an item on the agenda, we're trying to bring this out into the open," Slusher says. "And we get accused of trying to take it back into the back room."

What Slusher and Wynn are proposing is a little more not-a-done-deal than, say, "Authorize negotiation and execution of one or more agreements, including development agreements and leases with Computer Sciences Corporation ... for the development and use of downtown properties ... of the original City of Austin." That was the item the council passed on Dec. 3, 1998, before it held a single public hearing or received input from a single board or commission on the CSC/City Hall deal (which was not officially "approved" until April 1999). But it's hard to argue any more that a Mueller swap is just an idea floating around and nothing is decided and don't get your knickers in a twist.

At the Nov. 30 meeting, it fell to kickoff speaker Slusher -- whose transcribed comments ran 18 times longer than the Gettysburg Address -- to offer a personalized defense (including readings from these very pages) of the emerging council party line, which is:

  • Stratus CEO Beau Armstrong is a nice man.

  • The council will not approve the current term sheet, no way, no how.

  • We're only going to get full SOS compliance from Stratus if we give them something in exchange.

  • Mueller is that something, at least until something better comes along.

    Of course, Council Member Beverly Griffith does not agree; she wants a full scientific study of the state of the aquifer before we approve any kind of development deal there, and she wants someone with more experience than Stratus -- which would be just about anybody -- in doing Smart Growth projects like Mueller. If we forgo a nationwide search for that developer and instead jump the broom with Stratus, she says, "you've got somebody trying to ride a horse that's never ridden a horse, and you've got a horse that's never been ridden." On Tuesday, Griffith proposed a substitute motion that would "direct the City Manager to develop a community process to resolve development issues with Stratus and other property owners in the Barton Springs Zone," among other things.

    But Griffith and her dependable ally Danny Thomas -- who issued a statement on Tuesday opposing any land swap between Stratus and the city -- are only two votes, and Slusher, Wynn, Watson, and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman are all on record supporting a Mueller option, as long as any development at Mueller is subject to the just-accepted RMMA master plan. (No. 7, Raul Alvarez, seems to be leaning against a Mueller swap if it already has four votes for passage.) So it would seem that hearings on the standing Stratus term sheet are moot; after the council votes on whether to throw Mueller on the table, that's where the discussion will be.

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