Naked City

Austin Stories

Just when a land swap between the city and Stratus Properties was starting to look about as likely as downtown rent control, City Council Member Daryl Slusher made a last-ditch effort to revive the proposal, sending an astonishing 13-page letter (see to hundreds of Austinites in favor of a deal with the company. In the letter, an obviously wounded Slusher -- who was, you will recall, castigated in ads and letters in these pages for supporting "secret, back-room deals" between the city and Stratus -- makes the case for swapping land or development rights at the former Mueller Airport for property Stratus wants to develop on the Edwards Aquifer. Without a deal, Slusher says, Stratus could build "from double to quadruple the impervious cover permitted" under the SOS Ordinance. "The consequences of not discussing such a swap," Slusher warns, "could be tragic."

Not so, says SOS Alliance chair Mark Tschurr, who points out that the amount of development Stratus wants -- some 4,000 acres of commercial, residential, and retail space -- is denser even than the reviled Barton Springs PUD, which inspired SOS's formation back in 1991. (Tschurr, on his own and on behalf of SOS, was behind two of the ads that have Slusher so hot under the collar.) Tschurr says there's another way out. "We would hope ... that on a supposedly 'green' council, the city would challenge some of the developments under 1704 for health and safety reasons" -- one of the challenges allowed under the state law -- based on the fact that such developments "are polluting the water supply." SOS has plans to fight the deal with or without the city, and chances are it won't be the former.

This isn't the first time Slusher, a former Chronicle editor, has defended himself against charges of jumping in bed with developers, but it is by far the most public -- not to mention the most incendiary: In his letter, Slusher calls his critics' allegations "a mangling of reality," "amazing even by City Hall standards," and "very shallow ... and conducted on a very low plane." Although Tschurr says Slusher has taken credit for bringing the Stratus negotiations out of the backrooms without acknowledging how much of the deal was done in private early on, Slusher calls the secret meetings charge an "outright distortion." In conversation last week, Slusher declined to speculate on the motive for the allegations, but added, "I do question what good it does for the environment. I think, if anything, it hurt the cause of protecting the environment by casting aspersions on the land swap that shouldn't have been there."

Last week, the council set a deadline of March 22 for an RFQ (Request for Qualifications) for a Mueller master developer, making a straightforward swap look less and less likely before then. One of the members proposing the item, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, would likely be a swing vote on Mueller and is rumored to be leaning against a swap, especially if a developer experienced with high-density, mixed-use projects (like the one called for in Mueller's master plan) steps forward. Meanwhile, settlement talks with Stratus have, by all reports, sputtered to a stall. It could be that we'll have to wait for a new council and mayor before finding out how this long story ends...

In the wake of announcements of layoffs, sales slumps, and hiring freezes by Vignette, Intel, CSC, and other formerly high-flying high tech firms that were set to "revitalize" our sagging downtown, some skeptics are wondering whether the glittering, steel-and-glass towers that were supposed to be filling the central city will exist, come 2002, only in architects' renderings. Some frameworks that arose downtown on a foundation of tax abatements and city subsidies may remain just that -- skeletons -- if CSC (more than 300 workers fired, 36 of them last week), Vignette (150 laid off last Wednesday), and Intel (an anticipated sales slump of 15%) don't fulfill their obligations to bring workers and tax dollars downtown. Tschurr, who took out ads in the Chronicle opposing Vignette's $25 million deal, says subsidies have failed at their primary mission -- protecting the environment. "If you don't want growth, the last thing you want to do is give them subsidies to move here," Tschurr says. "Saying, 'we're environmentalists because we're moving downtown' is like saying 'we're contributing to clean air policy because we're going to have 15% fewer people driving to work.'" Although few at the city -- save, perhaps, Beverly Griffith -- would agree vocally that money the council spent then to keep companies off the aquifer is proving a bad investment now, it's clear that, for the foreseeable future, the era of big subsidies is over...

When it comes to criminal defense, few cases are less popular -- and more poorly funded -- than capital cases. Often, competent capital defense attorneys and investigators are forced to choose between doing an insufficient job on a minuscule budget, or volunteering their time for free. That means sloppier cases, fewer hours spent on investigations, and, defense advocates say, more innocent people in jail and on death row. A new organization, the Capital Punishment Investigations and Educational Service, aims to put a dent in the problem by offering training, working on investigations, and providing support to defendants' families. "We're hoping that through private donations we can help supplement capital investigations," says Tena Francis, CPIES's director of investigation and training. For more info on CPIES, call 214-366-4830...

Campaigns for People, the latest Texas avatar of campaign finance reform, is following up on an interim Lege report with a push for specific legislation this session. Rep. Debra Danburg, D-Houston, and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, are carrying bills that would require full and timely disclosure of all political contributions, which Campaigns is endorsing in connection with its "Open Campaign Initiative." The group's second annual fundraising party will be Thursday, Jan. 25 at Threadgill's World Headquarters, from 5-7:30pm. For more info, call 472-1007...

Last spring, while trying to explain the budget burden placed on Austin ISD because of its newly acquired "property rich" status (which means it has to fork over millions in tax revenues to poorer districts), an emotional Superintendent Pat Forgione said the state's "Robin Hood" law, which redistributes funds from richer school districts to poor ones, doesn't allow AISD to spend what it needs to on education. Not surprisingly, raising the cap on how much tax revenue wealthy districts get to keep is AISD's highest legislative priority. Also not surprisingly, the district has a friend in Shapiro, whose hometown school district in Plano also chafes at its property-rich status. Shapiro has filed a bill to raise the wealth cap from $295,000 worth of taxable property per student to $320,000, which would let AISD keep the millions it now sends to the state. That little "fix" would cost the state about $1.5 billion, because the Legislature isn't going to let wealthy districts keep more money unless it ups the amount of state money it sends to poorer ones. Dan Casey, consultant with Moak, Casey, and Associates, which frequently does work for AISD, recalls that "[Lt. Gov.] Bill Ratliff and [Senate Public Education chair] Teel Bivins were there for the crafting of the current system that got the state out of [the Texas Supreme] court" in 1989 -- and again in 1993, when the state's inequitable funding system was declared unconstitutional -- "and they don't want to go through that again." But raising the cap will be a tough sell, now that redistricting has pushed the issue to the back burner for both Ratliff and House Speaker Pete Laney. They plan to appoint a joint committee after the session is over to discuss the Robin Hood dilemma...

-- Contributors: Kevin Fullerton & Jordan Smith

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Daryl Slusher, Stratus Properties, Barton Springs, Mark Tschurr, Jackie Goodman, Vignette, Intel, Beverly Griffith, Capital Punishment Investigations and Education Service, Campaigns for People, Austin Independent School District, Pat Forgione, Robin Hood, Dan Casey

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