Austin @ Large: Austin at Large
In Through the Back Door: City Hall's m.o. and the sins of Vision Village
That's what we called it back in 1996 -- "we" at the Chronicle and on the neighborhood scene. All due respect to Wilhelmina Delco, but Vision Village was never more than a good idea, and Austin is awash in good ideas that grow stale and die without attracting millions of dollars to be spent, wasted, and now allegedly embezzled.
When the law gets involved, hindsight is often clearer than 20/20. But from 1996 on, I remember a lot of people having a lot of concerns about Vision Village that never went away. Disturbing as it was two weeks ago to watch the Rev. George Clark plead guilty to a felony, who is surprised that Vision Village turned out a disappointment, then a failure, then a scandal, and now a criminal case?
Not us. And not the Statesman, who deserves credit for consistently holding fire to the feet of Vision Village boosters, and for bearing the inevitable riposte of "Racism!" with a certain grace. Vision Village is not about race; the victims and the critics were just as likely to be black and successful as the perps and their enablers. Or just as unsuccessful, if we remember (as we should) the people who went unserved by Vision Village, or the solid and savvy nonprofits who could have used its $5 million of public and private funding.
We should also remember the context in which Vision Village sounded so ... visionary. "Imagine a master-planned community," former legislator Delco and then-Council Member Eric Mitchell wrote in a Statesman op-ed in 1996, "where resources are pooled to take care of the needs of our young and old alike." Whatever else Vision Village was, it was intended to be multigenerational; the prospect of synergy, to use that grievous term, between young and old is what motivated Delco to put her considerable reputation on the line.
That vision is still cloudy in Austin. Age segregation, by policy or by market practice, is ruthless; truly multigenerational neighborhoods, whether master-planned or not, are enabled by chance and discouraged by design. If the sins of Vision Village now justify Austin's pulling back from efforts to create and support mixed-age communities -- "We tried that once, and it didn't work" -- then we are all the poorer.
And whose sins were they? If it's not stunning that Vision Village ended in felony indictments, it is sobering that Vision Village was allowed to fail so badly for such a long time. This is a city, after all, where "accountability" is the civic religion.
Rev. Clark pled guilty to a felony count of, basically, not paying attention. We could be glib and say he was not alone, but it ain't true. Lots of people were paying attention. The media knew, City Hall knew, community leaders knew, and other housing advocates knew that Vision Village was clearly lame and potentially shady. Something could have been done, perhaps even before the alleged commission of some of the crimes recounted in the indictments, and certainly before the wastage of millions of scarce dollars.
"We feel terrible about this," City Hall's Mike McDonald told the Chronicle last week. No doubt. In truth and fairness, most Austin leaders will hold themselves harmless; they weren't in charge (like McDonald), or they raised objections that went unheeded (like several City Council members), or they've taken steps to undo the damage done (like city housing czar Paul Hilgers). It was "the system" that failed -- or, more precisely, was waived to Vision Village's benefit.
Jumping the Queue
And that is a dynamic we see all the time in Austin, in all manner of public-policy contexts -- like, say, neighborhood planning or city arts funding, as well as housing. The city has well-scrubbed processes for handing out money and power -- needs assessment, diligent evaluations of all options, review by the relevant boards, consensus-building, la-de-da -- so that City Hall, swaddled like a baby in accountability and hygiene and efficiency, can make good government go.
You can go through these processes -- or you can call your favorite people at City Hall and pitch fits or mount dog and pony shows and get what you desire, which is what Vision Village did in 1996. The back door it chose led to Eric Mitchell's office, which is enough to make a lot of city observers (including me) squint. But as we itemize the sinners of Vision Village, Mitchell is pretty far down on the list; he did not create the back door to City Hall. It gets opened far too often, letting in the flies.
And it remained stuck open for Vision Village. The city declared the project in default in 1998, but gave Clark and Co. another chance ... and another, and another, and even agreed to pay the feds back on Vision Village's behalf, before finally tossing the potato to the DA and APD in 2001. We can probably give Mitchell's successor-once-removed Danny Thomas credit for finally pulling the door closed.
Nobody's Hot Potato
Three years is a long time, and $5 million a lot of money, to spend waiting for someone else to do the dirty work. If, indeed, that was the problem -- that, despite the common rolling of eyes when Vision Village came up, nobody at City Hall wanted to take the "risk" of actually pulling the project's plug. (That would have been Willie Lewis' job, one supposes.)
But despite the sensitivities involved, Vision Village wasn't that untouchable politically, was it? It endured through several changes of power at City Hall and within the black community, which points to inertia, rather than fear or greed, as the cardinal sin of the Village. If, God forbid, City Hall is used to such things happening, and couldn't see that Vision Village was a debacle of exceptional proportions, then somebody -- like the voters -- needs to nail the back door shut.