Naked City

The Austin City Council is back from their winter break, and they have a full schedule ahead of them.

Naked City
By Doug Potter

Council Watch: Full Plate

The Watson Council has a busy schedule for the next few months. It will continue to move forward on its vaunted "economy, environment, equity" package of projects, while trying to pick up the pieces after a messy autumn.

The redevelopment of the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, now the site of the one of the city's most prized and pampered Smart Growth initiatives -- will be occupying even more time and attention this year. With the redevelopment plan finally passed by the council in December and San Francisco-based Roma Design Group's Mueller master plan officially approved, Mueller is ready to get off the runway. Almost ready, anyway. An item sponsored by Council Members Beverly Griffith and Will Wynn on this week's agenda would direct the city to send out an open call for design firms to put themselves in the running to be Mueller "master developer." Under the Roma plan's selection process, two or three of the firms who submit qualifications will be invited to submit proposals, and the final developer will be chosen from those.

Although it's relatively innocuous on the surface, the search for a master developer may heat up if the city decides to use part or all of Mueller as a bargaining chip in a settlement, still pending, with Stratus Properties. As some council members envisioned the trade, the city would swap some part of Mueller's 711 acres -- or, at the very least, development rights on those acres -- in return for property Stratus owns and planned to develop over the environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer. What role -- if any -- Mueller should play in a Stratus settlement was hotly debated in council chambers last December. While a motion passed 4 to 3 to consider bringing Mueller into settlement negotiations, the fight is far from over.

"I think the prospects for [a Mueller swap] are becoming bleaker, though by no means do I think it's dead," says Wynn's aide Mark Nathan. Griffith, opposed to the swap since the idea's inception, still stresses the importance of finding a master developer who is experienced with the New Urban redevelopment style the city wants for Mueller -- which would knock Stratus right out of the running.

For now, the council seems to be deadlocked. Public hearings on the Stratus proposal, which were postponed until at least January 18 at the Nov. 30, 2000, meeting, do not appear on this week's agenda.

One Smart Growth staple, neighborhood planning, made uneven progress last year. While the Chestnut neighborhood plan and related zoning changes passed relatively peacefully, East Austin residents played a three-way game of tug of war with the city over the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan. Residents who supported the plan pleaded for its passage in council, while opponents called it a "land grab" that would "open the floodgates of gentrification."

"Without the mechanism and commitment for ... community participation, it's just more of the top-down decision-making that can be so polarizing on even the smallest of issues," says Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who during the last bond election proposed creating a neighborhood planning department separate from the Development Review and Inspection Dept. "The thought behind an additional commission for neighborhood planning and code amendments that support neighborhoods' plans is to do more than talk about those choices, and to provide the support that brings more neighborhoods into the process now."

In his list of goals for 2001, Council Member Danny Thomas includes ensuring that "neighborhoods that have adopted neighborhood plans have the funding and priority given to initiate the plans." Thomas also promises to "bring before the council a Gentrification policy that protects the residents of developing areas." Details are not forthcoming as of yet, though if Thomas can pull off this conjuring trick, he'll be the first.

Other items on Thomas' list include other Eastside revitalization measures like improving wastewater lines and other infrastructure in the historically neglected part of town, and promoting "public/private partnerships that encourage employers to relocate in blighted areas."

"I remain very concerned about the state of East Austin," says Thomas. "Prolific slums and blight, high unemployment, crime, environmental decay, and inadequate city services continue to plague this area of our city."

The Bennett Tract, located in East Austin just across the highway from downtown, typifies the city's past and current attempts to revitalize East Austin. In 1991, the tract was zoned for development of a million-square-foot shopping mall, which, it was hoped, would bring jobs and commerce to East Austin. But the project developer failed to break ground for the mall within the two-year deadline imposed by the council. Riata, the development firm that now holds an option to buy the land, proposed an office park on the property last spring, but by that time, the accepted definition of "revitalization" had changed. Some neighborhood leaders now would prefer affordable housing to the often elusive promise of new jobs, but Riata says that housing won't enable it to turn a profit on the land. With the number of postponements well into the double digits, the vote on the fate of the tract, scheduled in October for this week's meeting, has been pushed forward indefinitely again while negotiations between Riata and the neighborhood continue.

Another issue pressing on the council is the ongoing search for a solution to worsening traffic problems in the wake of light rail's narrow failure in the November referendum, as well as the issue of what to do with all the money that would have been spent on light rail. A plethora of pedestrian plans, bike-friendly plans, "live/work environment" plans, and other proposals to encourage Austinites to get out of their cars and seek alternative transportation methods are being developed.

Now is also the time to start thinking about the upcoming bond elections, council members are saying. In fact, Griffith is pushing for the creation of a Citizen's Bond Committee within the next few months, to coordinate and oversee what gets included in the bond proposals this fall. A few samples of what council members would like to see in the bond proposals this fall: a new central library, affordable housing, more parks -- and the list is sure to stretch as the elections get closer.

Though the council is itching for a home of its own, a storm may be brewing over architect Antoine Predock's plans for the new City Hall. A briefing on the designs was pulled from the agenda early this week, and consensus seems to be that the plans need to be reworked, at the very least. Among the complaints are the size of the building the plans propose -- one council member calls it "dinky" -- as well as the diminutive size of the building's central plaza/ performance space/ "living room of the city." Expect retooling of the plans to go on for some time, though the council must be anxious to get a place of their own. Currently, the council meets in several locations around town, including the headquarters of the Lower Colorado River Authority.

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City Council, Smart Growth, Mueller redevelopment, Stratus Properties, Beverly Griffith, Danny Thomas, Will Wynn, Mark Nathan, East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan, Bennett Tract, Riata, city hall design

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