Austin @ Large: Out Into the DAMP

Downtown Mobility Plan has everything except an advocate

Austin At Large
To begin somewhat far afield: Last week Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley announced that he would not, despite months of speculation, run for governor of Maryland. National media found this interesting, because O'Malley's opt-out clears a path to the statehouse for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of RFK and the first Kennedy woman to hold office. We noticed it for other reasons: The brash, dynamic, reformist, not-yet-40 O'Malley has obvious affinities with Kirk Watson, and Maryland has a fair claim to the title of Birthplace of Smart Growth. (It definitely spawned the name "Smart Growth," later taken up by the Urban Land Institute.)

O'Malley, still in his first term as mayor, noted that if he made a statewide run, he would leave behind a lot of unfinished business in Baltimore. Oh, that. We know about that. We call it Smart Growth. And come next month, the City Council will have its first real chance to vote on Watson's unfinished legacy, when city staff's Downtown Access and Mobility Plan -- known by the piquant acronym D.A.M.P. -- comes before it for approval.

The campaigns just past featured lots of talk about where and how the city's Smart Growth Initiative went wrong, with the now-altered CSC deal and now-abandoned Intel project as key examples. But those efforts went off the tracks because of decisions made at the firms' California headquarters, not at Austin City Hall. Though political wisdom, as expressed by last month's election winners and losers, holds that the Smart Growth Initiative as we knew it is over, nothing has really changed at City Hall. (The current fiscal crisis has cast a cloud over high-dollar incentive deals, but that's a different matter.)

Since the boom went bust, the City Council has had two chances to "vote against Smart Growth," both zoning cases: the Lumbermen's tower on Town Lake, and the Villas on Guadalupe. Both times, they split 4-3, on the Villas in favor of the Smart Growth side, on Lumbermen's against. But neither was a very good Smart Growth test case; while they brought density to the central city (a Smart thing), they weren't consistent with, or the products of, community planning (not a Smart thing).


High Density and Mixed Use

The D.A.M.P. is a different story, being the product of both laborious community planning and an official, specific City Council mandate. In itself, it's just a traffic study, highlighting ways to improve mobility within, and access to, downtown, not just now but in the future, when millions more square feet have been added to the central business district. (When the D.A.M.P. was initiated in April 2000, when Watson was still the Best Mayor Ever, the estimate was six million, but some of those projects -- like Intel -- have been downsized or abandoned.) But the D.A.M.P. is also the tip of a whole iceberg of transportation projects for the Central Business District.

In December 2000, the council asked staff to take the ideas and proposals floating around -- the Great Streets Master Plan, the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, the New City Hall retail corridor on Second Street, the Seaholm District plan (see "You Call This a Plan?," p.24), the Downtown Parking Study, Capital Metro's bus and rail plans, and more, as well as the D.A.M.P. -- and turn them into one coordinated package of improvements. And, in doing so, staff was instructed to make the package consistent with the adopted Downtown Design Guidelines -- which call for CBD plans to account for the needs of pedestrians, transit users, bicyclists, and drivers, in that order.

How very Smart. This whole process, including the D.A.M.P. itself, has taken a year longer than originally proposed, during which (as we all know) some of the specifics have changed. But the idea itself -- replanning downtown as a proper Smart Growth high-density, mixed-use, ped-friendly destination -- has not changed, because that's the official policy of the city of Austin.

And therein lies the trouble.


DAMPening Enthusiasm

The D.A.M.P. has caught flak from both sides of the divide that the Smart Growth Initiative was supposed to bridge. On the left, bike-and-ped advocates and parks people, as represented on city boards and commissions, object to its call for Riverside Dr. to remain open -- as a "meandering" two-lane road -- through the new Town Lake Park. On the right, the Real Estate Council of Austin has blasted the D.A.M.P.'s recommendations for making many downtown streets two-way, prohibiting peak-hour left turns off Congress and off Lamar at Fifth and Sixth, and reducing on-street parking.

On both sides, one finds specific objections to specific ideas, and city staff has been and surely will keep tinkering with the plans. But on both sides, one also finds a healthy amount of resistance to the official Smart Growth vision the D.A.M.P. honors and explicates. Town Lake Park has been a redoubt for community interests fighting Smart Growth-inspired Downtownization of the south bank and of the city's parkland, and the completed TLP will be a lot less "urban" than was the Auditorium Shores area before, when it was the city's designated space for big crowds. The idea that cars will be allowed to drive through Town Lake Park at all rubs many the wrong way, even though it's in the middle of a huge city.

But that's mild compared to the firebreathing of RECA, which says the D.A.M.P. will decimate downtown and drive its "primary" users -- that is, businesses and their workers -- to the suburbs by making the CBD hostile to their cars. We think they're overreacting, but the point of the D.A.M.P., and the Downtown Design Guidelines, and Smart Growth, was to make the CBD less auto-dependent, and more hospitable to users other than businesses and workers. This was no secret, so we trust that RECA is not, in fact, surprised by the plan's proposals. The RECA folks have proposed that the city study downtown mobility for a couple more years -- by which point we'll have a new mayor and council.

One imagines that the City Council can come up with a way to tweak the D.A.M.P. further, or delay it for a few more political cycles, to avoid the inevitable: Either they approve it and hack off a bunch of people who vote, or they shoot it down and, finally, officially, vote against Smart Growth. We can speculate that such a scenario wouldn't happen if Kirk Watson were still mayor, but who knows? As city observers in Baltimore noted when Martin O'Malley decided not to pull a Kirk of his own: It's easier to quit while you're ahead than to actually finish the job.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Martin O'Malley, Maryland, Baltimore, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Kirk Watson, Smart Growth, city council, Downtown Access and Mobility Plan, D.A.M.P., Downtown Design Guidelines, Town Lake Park, Riverside Drive, Auditorium Shores, RECA, Real Estate Council of Austin, Ce

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