Austin @ Large: Saving Austin Now -- and Tomorrow

Circle C sprawl violates the law and the city's future

Austin At Large
It's my guess that there are plenty of Chronicle readers who would rather ponder Stephen Moser's Botox injections than anything more in this space about local enviro-politics. (They're gonna need double shots of Botox down at City Hall, what with all the frowning and furrowing over Stratus -- although I've found that sitting through Austin public hearings paralyzes my facial muscles quite effectively.) But there's more, always more, that needs saying.

Bill Bunch is right.

Whether the Save Our Springs Alliance leader can win the Stratus battle is a different story, one I touched on last week. (It's politics. That's what I do. I write about politics.) Bunch may not be right about how Austin City Hall works, or should work, or how Austin's left wing should work with it. But for the most part, he's right about Stratus, which makes the imminent passage of that deal more tragic than it needs to be -- both because City Hall is wrong (not evil or corrupt, but mistaken), and because SOS has been unable to do more than simply be right.

There should be no large-scale commercial core at Circle C at all, not only because it's over the aquifer, but because such growth flies thick in the face of the city's comprehensive plan, Austin Tomorrow, adopted in full in 1979 (some parts are even older) and supposedly revived by the Smart Growth Initiative. As a place for people to live, Circle C may not be quite so offensive. But as the hub of an edge city spurting forth its own sprawl (destroying mobility, affordability, and social equity as well as air and water quality), it makes no sense at all, and the city is right to have a comp plan that discourages it.

Enforce the Law

Austin Tomorrow was on the books when Gary Bradley conjured up Circle C in the early 1980s, when the SOS Ordinance was passed in 1992, when Austin annexed Circle C in 1997, and it's still on the books now. Yet the city seems to think that zoning Circle C to conform with Austin Tomorrow -- as is required by Article X, Section 1 of the City Charter, and by Chapter 211, Section 4 of the Texas Local Government Code -- would instead violate Stratus' rights under Ch. 245 of the same code, née HB 1704. We ignored Austin Tomorrow when we signed the Circle C contracts with Bradley in 1984, the council thinking seems to be, so we must ignore it forever more.

In my view, conceding to Stratus some Ch. 245 right to guaranteed future zoning and density, which is what City Hall appears to be doing, is so timid as to be neurotic -- especially since the Circle C contracts explicitly did not (and could not) guarantee such rights to Bradley. But, rudely impatient with Bunch and those who object, City Hall wants to "hold" Stratus to only 1 million square feet of commercial space, along with a couple thousand new homes and apartments, on its 1,300 acres, and declare victory.

The rudeness may be in part Bunch's fault, which is a shame. But I suspect the city would still want to deal with Stratus even without Ch. 245 -- not because City Hall is a nest of vipers, but because our leaders think good government and the popular will require the singing of "Kum-ba-yah." If this is true, then Smart Growth and Austin Tomorrow -- you know, statements of principle -- really don't matter, and the city should have the guts and decency to adopt a new comp plan that accepts the reality of a Southwest Corridor stretching in big-box splendor halfway to Fredericksburg.

Council: Put Up or Shut Up

Conforming with Austin Tomorrow would be a better move, and buying Stratus out would be better still. (Indeed, one may lead to the other.) Yes, the land is expensive and the city is poor. But not too poor to give Stratus a $15-million-plus incentive package. How much land could the city buy outright, or put under conservation easement, for $15 million? The two largest Circle C parcels on the Travis County tax rolls, a combined 950 acres, are valued there at $16.1 million total. In its 2001 annual report, Stratus values all its real estate assets at $108 million; that includes built projects as well as acreage, and only about one-third of its raw land is at Circle C.

And how much will it cost Austin taxpayers to provide services to a built-out Circle C and beyond? Add in those costs, and buying out Stratus looks fiscally responsible. Irresponsible, on the other hand, is a Smart Growth city that gives incentives to anyone, for any reason, in any context, to build in the Drinking Water Protection Zone. Agreeing to negotiate with Stratus, as opposed to dragging Circle C and Stratus' shares on the NASDAQ through another few years of litigation, should be enough of an "incentive."

Of course, the Stratus land would be cheaper if its value weren't propped up by the company's postulated claims under Ch. 245. The city, regrettably, has not challenged those claims, nor the law itself, in court -- or, more aptly, let Stratus file suit to press them, as Ch. 245 itself requires. If SOS were the creation of some City Hall drone, then there might be some magic number of lawyers who could settle the issue by not taking the case. But SOS was born of a vote of the people, and that should call for any means necessary. Along with a comp plan that reflects its actual attitudes toward growth, perhaps the City Council should amend (or repeal?) the SOS Ordinance itself -- which it has the power to do -- to reflect its actual attitudes toward enforcing it, and face the consequences.

There comes a point when being right is not enough, which is why SOS should have gone to court sooner than it did. If you're going to play, you have to play to win, and for too long SOS has played the political game -- which is the reason for its existence -- in ways that almost guarantee it will lose. (If influencing City Hall is not the point of SOS, then a lot of people have showed up at City Council meetings for no reason.)

But Bunch is still right.

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Stratus Properties, Barton Springs, Save Our Springs Alliance, City Council, Stephen Moser, Bill Bunch, Circle C, Austin Tomorrow, Smart Growth Initiative, Gary Bradley, SOS Ordinance, Ch. 245, HB 1704, Drinking Water Protection Zone

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