Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Where's Captain Kirk? The Watson Era Ends -- Not with a Bang

Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
Illustration By Doug Potter

As hard as we've been ragging on Kirk Watson these past few weeks, it was hard not to feel sorry for the guy on November 1, on the occasion of his last "real" council meeting. The main event, as expected, was the hotly debated and already delayed zoning case for the proposed Villas on Guadalupe, a condo complex that's too big and too close to suit the adjoining North University Neighborhood Association, which had asked for another postponement.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, presiding while Watson was off the dais, all but agreed to this, and further directed the three sides -- the developer, NUNA, and the University Area Partners, the business organization for the Drag -- to go to mediation. Simple enough. Except that Watson's good friend, attorney Richard Suttle, speaking for Villas applicant Mike McHone, wanted the council to proceed with the hearing anyway because his side was ready, after all, and most of the NUNA folks were available as well. So the council made it so -- except they still weren't going to vote until the end of the month.

By the time Watson took back the gavel, the Villas hearing had gone on for more than an hour, and it would go on for nearly another two hours on his watch -- for a case that won't be decided until Kirk's name has been removed from the city letterhead. Nor did he and his colleagues then get to go home; another contested zoning case -- regarding an affordable housing project on Dessau Lane -- followed, along with various moves to postpone agenda items into the Garcia administration.

The punch-drunk council even bantered with Watson over whether he and his vote wanted to still be in office when those items were finally considered. "I'm going to be accused of wanting to be here ... whatever position I take," the mayor grumbled. While the Nov. 8 meeting was originally supposed to be brief and largely ceremonial, there may be some lingering business that forces Watson to work before retiring his gavel. Both the Villas and the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan battle cloud Thursday's agenda with possible but unlikely decisions -- despite serious back-room pressures to settle, the terms just aren't on the table.

What Watson Wrought

And so the Watson era, the Can-Do Council, ends not with a bang but with a whimper -- or, more accurately, a fatigued groan that accompanies business-as-usual in our fair city. Look at the ever-lengthening list of cases, issues, and projects that have run into the ditch in the past two months -- Hyde Park vs. the Baptists, the Villas, the Seton/Brackenridge deal, the Dawson and Hyde Park Neighborhood Plans, and now the plans -- whatever they were -- for shutting down the Holly Power Plant. (Briefing the council after the Halloween fire at Holly -- the fourth in the past decade -- City Manager Jesus Garza, somewhat cavalierly, noted that current plans are to shut the aging Eastside plant down in eight years.) Go back further -- say, to the beginning of the mayor's second term -- and the wipeouts (remember the Stratus settlement?) outnumber the achievements.

So, about that Watson legacy. On balance, he was a lot better than a lot of mayors have been, and while the boom years of Kirk Watson's tenure will go down in history as a time of missed opportunities, they have not been as thoroughly destructive of what-makes-Austin-great as some have argued. Mostly, since the collapse of the tech bubble, and certainly since 9/11, it's become clear how much of Watson's glory was simply the reflection of our once-shiny town on his once-shinier brow.

This should come as no shock unless you believed (or still believe) the first-term hype: that Kirk Watson was a once-in-a-generation leader who made it rain and rewrote the Austin story. Those believers are the same people who blame Slusher, Goodman, and Beverly Griffith for the state of the city today. But -- as we said last year when we didn't endorse him in the mayor's race -- Watson's putative accomplishments were likewise scored because of, and not in spite of, the rest of the council and community, who served as wise counsel and reality checkers for the mayor's brio.

Now those accomplishments look rather less accomplished, but let's forget about the ruins of the Temple of Intel and the Initiatives -- Smart and otherwise -- to rewrite city policy for good and all. If Kirk Watson was supposed to be good for anything, it was for his power to change the way Austin did business. That's why the techies thought he was such a sterling public servant -- he offered a way out of Austin's addiction to public process and to talking issues into the afterlife, and he promised a government that worked more like their adrenaline-pumped businesses.

The Long Goodbye

This part of the Watson rep is more or less true -- whether or not you like what he did, he was a can-do guy, and even when he didn't get his way, things still got done. Perhaps the ever-less-inspiring and entertaining performance of the Austin City Council in his second term, when his own attentions have been on his leap toward statewide office, proves that he really is a leader worth following.

Be that as it may, this stuff should still piss you off: Love him as you may, Kirk Watson has not, for the past 18 months, delivered the goods that made him really useful. At the very least, Watson waited too long to quit. It's questionable whether he should have run again in the first place, since his desire to be the Texas Something-or-Other was already a laughably open secret. (When we first heard the rumors, Watson was supposed to be outta here before Thanksgiving 2000.) So even if we feel sorry for him having to sit through zoning cases he won't get to vote on, there's some justice in the door of City Hall hitting Kirk Watson in the butt on his way out.

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Kirk Watson, Villas on Guadalupe, North University Neighborhood Association, NUNA, Jackie Goodman, University Area Partners, Richard Suttle, Mike McHone, Holly Power Plant, Jesus Garza, Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith, Smart Growth, Intel, City Council

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