Swap Meet

The City Council Stumbles Toward a Mueller-Stratus Trade

Swap Meet
By Doug Potter

That loud sound you heard coming from the west on December 7? No, it wasn't a re-enactment in honor of Pearl Harbor Day; it was the sound of a well-intentioned political gesture backfiring in the City Council's face.

See, the council -- specifically Daryl Slusher and Will Wynn -- thought they were doing a nice thing, so they say, by prompting a vote, in public, to formally bless the Stratus-Mueller option as the council's Plan B, now that the previous round of discussions and proposals was dead, dead, dead. If the city was going to talk to Stratus Properties, the largest landowner in the Barton Springs Zone, about giving up a piece of the city's former airport in exchange for keeping some of the pavement off the Edwards Aquifer, then the council wanted to do it in the daylight, and not just give the city manager marching orders in executive session.

And it's just talking, the two sponsors told the restive crowd over and over, not dealmaking. "There's not going to be a term sheet," Slusher said five or six times, referring to the terms of Stratus' original proposal, rejected by all seven council members. The city just wants to gather information to make good policy, they said, not buy off Stratus or bail out on Mueller. Nobody is going to be deciding anything in the back room. Nobody is going to back away from the elaborate Mueller redevelopment plan -- which would transform the ex-airport into a Smart Grown urban village -- that the council had only accepted just the week before. Trust us.

In return for their trouble, Slusher and Wynn, as well as their proposed resolution, got roughly handled both by their colleague Beverly Griffith and by the 100 or so enviros and neighborhood activists in the audience. Not that they didn't ask for it; Wynn and Slusher both began their comments by leveling harsh rhetorical fire on Griffith. She had transgressed against green Council decorum by sending out and lobbying for her resolution, via mass e-mail, to her growing base of fans in the activist community, instead of working out her differences with the council in the hallway, as is traditionally the case.

So let's just say things got ugly, with Slusher serving as the target of a lot of bottled and imported activist wrath, much coming from his growing cadre of former friends. This made Slusher the bad cop to good cop Wynn, who watered down his already watery resolution as much as he could lest it totally dissolve in Griffith's hands.

Originally, it was a simple request -- ratifying something that's already more or less begun. Since a potential Stratus-Mueller swap is already on everyone's mind, the resolution called for the council to direct city staff to "negotiate" with Stratus. Then that verb got changed to "evaluate and discuss," lest the city be caught in one of those "secret back-room deals" that a generation of progressives (starting with Slusher, in his previous life, including his writing/editing stint with The Austin Chronicle) have turned into the raw meat of citizen outrage. By the end, that got melted down into a call for staff to help the council decide how to decide whether it would swap any land in the Desired Development Zone with Stratus -- or, presumably, with anyone else.

At the same time, the city will convene a 21-member über-commission, with three reps from each of seven existing city boards, to discuss whatever emerges from the city's discussions with Stratus, presumably to make some recommendation to someone on subjects to be named later. And the city will gather up all the previous studies of water quality in the Barton Springs Zone, so it can decide whether it needs to do another study of water quality there.

These last two measures were Wynn's half-responses to the poison pills Griffith inserted into her substitute motion. Griffith, and nearly everyone in the audience, wanted the city to convene a facilitated open and public process involving all stakeholders, as an alternative to those chimerical, sleazy back-room deals. (People think this is a corrupt government? What sheltered lives we lead.) And this process would do what? Griffith never elucidated, but presumably it would involve discussing a set of development controls on Stratus' properties, though how this could be done without Stratus isn't entirely clear. (In endorsing Griffith's motion, Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch said "All negotiations with Stratus must cease.")

But wait: There's already been a facilitated process with all the stakeholders -- or at least those who have bothered to show up -- to plan the Mueller redevelopment, and that process has taken four years and still isn't entirely done. Surely Griffith suspected that a genuflection to pure process, devoid of product, would sound really good to the audience of likely voters and really horrid to her colleagues.

Griffith's other deal-killer was to suggest embarking, right now, on a study to decide once and for all what the city needs to do to save Barton Springs. This is lest we find out that, after giving away the city's assets at steep discounts to people like Stratus and, before them, CSC, we still haven't done what we need to protect water quality. That makes sense in the abstract, but only in a simulated city would warring political interests all throw down their weapons and accept the conclusions of "the best science." This has long ceased to be a debate about science, and the idea that any such study -- which could cost millions and take years -- would actually settle anything is, shall we say, wishful.

After six hours of discussion, the council ended up voting exactly the way you would expect it to -- 5 votes to 2, with Griffith and Danny Thomas on the bottom end, as often happens these days on council votes. Which would suggest that the entire Dec. 7 grind was a waste of time. Except it's actually worse than that. Whatever it is that Slusher and Wynn were groping toward, and Griffith away from, it wasn't an obvious and agreed-upon policy goal.

Consider: The original Stratus term sheet is dead, and the legal case that was being settled, to which the term sheet was attached, isn't even about development controls, but rather money owed Stratus by the city. Both parties decided to settle the money matter and leave the development stuff until later. So right now, there is no particular reason, and certainly no particular urgency, for the city to talk to Stratus.

Nor is it clear why the city needs to negotiate with Stratus or anyone else, an objection raised by Griffith. Such talks would make more sense if the city's main focus was not Barton Springs but Mueller, and the city wanted to prime the pump by locking a developer in place. This was initially implied but quickly jettisoned in the Slusher/Wynn motion, and of all the council members, only Jackie Goodman has publicly suggested that a swap might be good for Mueller as well as Stratus.

Instead, the council swore on a stack of term sheets its fealty to the Mueller redevelopment plan, which clearly outlines an implementation strategy that makes no mention of land swaps or Stratus Properties. So Slusher and Wynn were proposing that the city talk about, or at least think about, but not really, a policy direction that's irrelevant vis-ô-vis Stratus and contradictory vis-ô-vis Mueller. And Griffith was asking that the council not think about that direction, but instead head toward another destination that the city can never reach.

It might help if someone on the council simply said that, Lord willing and the creek don't rise, the city wants to swap Mueller with Stratus and would be disappointed if the deal didn't work. At this point, the council may instead be thrilled if that were so. end story

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