Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
Work Wiser, Not Smarter: A Few Modest Proposals for the Buzzwords of Tomorrow
We have been treated, if that is the word, to copies of an e-mail spat (not the first) between Council Member Daryl Slusher and Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch, on the topic of whether, and how, and when, they supported Smart Growth. Since we inadvertently started this madness ("I Once Was Smart, but Now I'm Dumb," Sept. 14), let us be the first to say: enough. No more long-winded tendentiousness and flagrant ass-covering about who did what before the good times went bad.
The fact is, most of us support something -- neighborhood planning, corner stores, destination parks, conservation easements -- that has been dubbed Smart Growth. And most of us oppose something -- corporate welfare, towers on Town Lake, SH 130 -- likewise dubbed Smart Growth. And for awhile, many of us held our tongues about what we didn't like in the service of the greater good.
And now it's 2001, and the greater good didn't happen, so our tongues have been loosed, but the city is still no better for it. Out of the busted parts of Smart Growth we could -- well, must -- build a new public policy about how to guide Austin's further expansion (which is inevitable) in a way that hurts as few Austinites, and even fewer Austinites who are already hurting, as possible. Call it Wise Growth.
Back when Smart Growth was so fresh and clean, we heard a lot about the "three Es": environment, equity, and economy. We did an okay-but-not-stellar job on the first one, a horrid job on the second one, and, as it turned out, a less than inspiring job on the third. For the new era of Wise Growth, let us instead enshrine the three Ps:
Planning: Neighborhood planning has come a cropper because it can't be expected to produce what the city really wants and needs, which is an honest-to-God comprehensive plan that reflects, and respects, the city's physical, political, and cultural geography. What the city is calling "neighborhood planning," as of this week, is more like drive-by planning, with city staff behind the wheel, but that's not such a bad way to produce a real city plan -- which Austin has not done since Kirk Watson was in high school.
An even better way would be to start with a broad vision for the entire metro area, as is being advocated by the nascent Regional Vision Project, and as is already being done piecemeal in areas like transportation. We could then focus on the city's geographic sectors, to locate the parks and schools and shopping centers and police beats, and then turn to this and that parcel in this and that neighborhood once we know the big picture. But we may be too far along to turn back now, so whatever it takes to get a real plan is worth supporting. If the city spent enough money to meet our actual need for planning, we could have a new comprehensive plan, reflecting public input, before the next regular mayoral election in 2003.
Pragmatism: It may have been Smart, but it was not pragmatic, to invest heavily in the most vulnerable sectors of the technology industry, which is what the city did by using public sugar to (needlessly) inflate the downtown bubble. The alternative would be to diversify our portfolio, perhaps bringing (horrors!) manufacturing and industrial-trade jobs into the central city, or throwing incentives toward housing, transit, and services tailored for the state workers and UT students who will always be here come boom or bust.
Likewise, making older neighborhoods in the Birkenstock Belt safe for zero-lot-line condos is not pragmatic; the opportunities for such infill are few, the costs high, and the resentful neighbors many. But city muscle could, without too much expense or controversy, help turn marginal commercial property (of which there is plenty) in the urban core into either housing or (horrors again!) employment centers that, truth be told, have no reason to be either downtown or in the hills. We could live without a few of our mini-malls, convenience stores, sleazy motels, tilt-wall warehouses, and tint-and-alarm specialists. If need be, they would be easier to relocate than Liberty Lunch.
Power: To the people, that is. When Austin tosses around that moldy phrase "quality of life," we mostly mean another P-word, pleasure: the beautiful green hills, the groovy live music, the tangy barbecue sauce. What would really improve quality of life is more power to shape public policy. Our love for yet another P-word, process -- an enemy of Smart Growth -- is our attempt to secure that power through the laughably clumsy channels of a city government designed for a town one-third our size.
Yes, it would help if people voted, as we urge often in this space. Perhaps people would vote if they felt their leaders would, or even could, be accountable after being sworn in.
Perhaps they would feel this if we had a sufficient number of council members, elected from single-member districts. Within those districts, we could get real, real gone and have elected district councils to tackle problems now manhandled in interminable board, commission, and council meetings in chilly rooms at LCRA and One Texas Center.
Skeptics raise the specter of "ward politics" creating civic civil war, but at least we'd have battles among equals in which everyone had a stake. Right now, most Austinites are like the little people fleeing through the streets of Tokyo whenever Green Machine Godzilla takes on West-of-MoPac Mothra.
We are at a juncture where all of these P-proposals -- or other ideas you and your neighbors may care to offer -- could actually happen. Just as the last bust gave Austin the chance to put real, if imperfect, environmental protections in place, this downturn may afford the chance to save not only our springs but our city. Or at least our sanity.