Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

The City of (Bad) Ideas

Austin At Large
Okay, no more teasing. Giving a Catholic hospital responsibility for reproductive health care for poor women? Great idea. Giving a highly cyclical software firm control over prime city real estate for 15 years? Fabulous idea. Boy, them folks in City Hall sure is keen.

No, really, here in the City of Ideas, the marriage of city-owned Brackenridge Hospital and the Catholic Seton Healthcare Network, and the ceding of three blocks of city-owned land to Computer Sciences Corporation, were great solutions to thorny problems. They were, unfortunately, the wrong problems. We should find another city with this affliction -- one of our international sister cities, perhaps -- and see if our ideas solve their problems, and vice versa.

Wrong Problem No. 1

Let's go back to 1995, early in the career of outgoing City Manager Jesus Garza, under the reign of Bruce Todd (who?), our mayor once removed. Todd demanded, and got, the head of former CM Camille Barnett ("Ph.D.") on a platter, after a "meltdown" at Brackenridge Hospital that cost the city many mil. Said "meltdown" involved boneheaded accounting errors and some unfortunate gluttony at the public trough by certain Brack executives -- none of which called into question the city's ability to actually run a hospital, as it had done since 1903.

But thanks in great measure to Todd, the city's strategy became to unload Brackenridge, with the result being the Seton deal. Those nuns, after all, knew how to run hospitals. Great idea. Wrong problem. The real problem was -- and is -- paying for a hospital that, by law, has to provide indigent health care, in a community where that need is large and growing.

The Seton deal allowed Austin to rather sloppily shove this burden onto a nonprofit, which naturally came at its own price. Now that, per instructions from the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, Seton must banish reproductive services from its sight, the city has to buy back a floor of its own hospital so it can create a separate facility for pagans and heathens who want health care to which they're legally entitled. A hospital taxing district to fund Brack would have solved our real problem without putting us in this awkward position.

Wrong Problem No. 2

At least Seton, after a fashion, is trying to spare the city undue embarrassment. Those CSC folks, by contrast, must be laughing all the way from here to El Segundo -- or would be if their stock price hadn't dropped by half since the end of 1999, when their deal with the city to build the corporate HQ in the Warehouse District was still fresh. Hard economic times have led the back-office software giant to settle for just two, rather than three, buildings, so they're returning the empty Block 21 to the city -- for $4 million.

Can't blame'em, because what the city mindlessly gave them was a valuable asset -- effective control of development rights on Block 21 for 15 years, no visible strings attached. One would think that "We don't want it any more" would be sufficient to render the original deal moot, but no. One would also think that cutting this kind of (long-term) deal, with this kind of (somewhat mercenary) company, in this kind of (highly volatile) industry, was an idea that would have impressed folks at the city with its badness. But no.

Because it wasn't such a bad idea -- if the problem, as defined by Mayor Wonderful Kirk Watson in the best Bruce Todd tradition, had been that the city didn't know how to do anything useful with its downtown land. (We'll leave aside the getting-CSC-off-the-aquifer part; since sticks are now high in the air over Barton Creek at the Terrace PUD, any gain there would seem to be marginal.)

Next Leap, Look First --

We won't go so far as to say that here, as with Brackenridge, the city had clearly proven otherwise. But the real problem was that the city, despite years of talk about revitalizing downtown, had (and still has) no idea what it wanted downtown to be when it grew up, and no mechanisms in place to decide this little matter of public policy. How to do it is not really the issue. The parallel Robert Mueller Municipal Airport redevelopment project would seem to be a fairly decent model of process, and there are others. The New Mueller started with a vision born nearly 20 years ago, embraced by the community, and little changed since -- and the process was designed to make sure that was true before wasting everyone's time and money. Every such vision for downtown has either been hitched to one or another sweetheart deal or else ignored -- and thus we've wasted both time and money in abundance.

Like public health for poor people, urban planning for the heart of town is not something that the city should franchise out, at fire-sale prices, to corporate citizens whose ultimate loyalties lie elsewhere. Luckily, perhaps, the problems that Seton/Brack and CSC didn't solve are still problems, and indeed emblematic of the biggest problems facing Austin -- social equity and growth management. Maybe we can now find the really good ideas that actually solve them.

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Seton Health Care Network, Brackenridge Hospital, Computer Sciences Corp., Jesus Garza, Camille Barnett, Bruce Todd, Kirk Watson, Block 21, urban planning

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