Austin @ Large: Running Scared
Time waits for no one at the City Hall sausage factory
All these hot hits might make a good soundtrack for replays of the Dec. 5 meeting, which might have also been better broadcast on the Food Network. But the council confirmed Bismarck's aphorism that making law is like making sausage -- it's better not to watch. It would seem our council members are all vegans, too squeamish about handling the pig's innards to actually make sausage. Instead, they just kick the pigskin. Two-way streets? Punt! Austin Music Network? Punt! Lance Armstrong Bikeway? Punt! (Noise ordinance? Where did that ball go?)
As you may have heard, the council decided not to decide to make Downtown streets two-way, yet. They will study the issue some more. They will also study the proper routing of the Lance Armstrong Bikeway and of Cesar Chavez. They will come back in February and have another three-hour public hearing and find, I suspect, that nothing has changed. Also sometime next spring, they will decide what to do with the Music Network, which has been given three months of funding to tide it over while there is more study of the same issues that have clouded around AMN for seven years.
That's not as long, though, as the decade that the city of Austin has spent discussing and studying and saying it supports two-way streets, the Bikeway, and other Downtown transportation strategies. The "near-term" transportation package considered by the council on Dec. 5 has been in the works for more than two years and its ideas have, all things considered, changed little over that time. It was ready to serve to the council back in July, but has now been postponed four times. Its contents have been no secret to the council, although you wouldn't have known that from watching the council. Some of its 15 construction projects and 10 policy-type items are noncontroversial and could have been approved long ago. Some, in fact, had been approved long ago. But the council, many moons ago now, asked staff to turn its Downtown projects into one big plate of sausage. On Dec. 5, the council proceeded, in a welter of confusing motions, to dismantle the package it had ordered.
The Nineties: A Lost Generation
Now, there has never been and never will be "consensus," which this council seemingly requires before it can decide what shoes to wear each morning, on two-way streets or any other move that restricts vehicular mobility. This is an issue that will always have two sides. What has changed is that, during the boom of the 1990s, the momentum was with the Smart Growth side -- most vocally the Downtown Austin Alliance -- that wanted to change things, presumably for the better. Now, with the economy and the Downtown vacancy rate in a much nastier place, the momentum has switched back. Under stress, people become conservative. And so now the side that thinks two-way, or any deviation from the status quo, is a ludicrous idea -- vocally, the Real Estate Council of Austin -- has the upper hand, and has cowed the council into running scared from what has been Official City Policy for nearly a generation. They've been able to use the fact that the status quo isn't working, that Downtown is slumping, to advocate against change, which is a pretty neat trick.
But it gets worse. Though I support two-way conversion, I would be satisfied if the council had simply had the fortitude to vote it down in the absence of "at least a moderate consensus" (as Council Member Will Wynn put it) and direct city staff to rewrite the official Downtown script accordingly. But to punt it forward for more study is as gutless as the pig destined for sausage. To his credit, Council Member Daryl Slusher moved approval of the two-way plan, citing 10 years of city precedent, even after a long line of angry Downtown types voiced their scorn. When Wynn -- a vocal supporter of two-way, but also a former DAA chair who would like to avoid hacking off Downtown neighbors and supporters -- moved instead to punt, Slusher said "If we're just killing it by delaying it tonight, I don't want to do it."
That is, of course, exactly what they did. The mandate given to city staff on two-way streets -- and to the Music Network -- is much like that given by Bush to Saddam Hussein. There will not be consensus. Two-way streets are doomed, and so is the Music Network, which has been set up for failure from its inception by a City Hall for which AMN has never been anything but a symbolic device to show how much Austin really supports the music industry that it doesn't understand and often goes out of its way to thwart. With the new keep-Austin-weird mandate of Wynn and Betty Dunkerley's economic task force, City Hall may finally get a clue about how the industry works and why it's important. Of course, by that time AMN will be dead.
Death by Consensus
Now, killing the AMN and two-way streets might earn City Hall plaudits from the daily or from Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy -- both vocal, and in the Statesman's case stunningly mendacious, critics of both items. And with a city election coming up, that might count for something. (If AMN wants to buck up its ratings during its three-month walking of the plank, it could televise the Eddie Wilson/Mike Levy Celebrity Death Match.) Certainly Will Wynn, often expected to be Austin's next mayor, must pay heed to such views, which may be why he, lucky guy, ended up wielding the stick on the Music Network only two weeks after he got lots of ink urging City Hall to preserve Austin's cultural vitality.
But all citizens, even ones who believe what they read in the Statesman, should expect to hold the council accountable for meaning what it says about a vibrant Downtown, about pedestrians and cyclists, about the music industry (the reason Downtown is vibrant), about all those things that keep Austin you-know-what. About anything, really. If times have changed and Smart Growth is now dead, it deserves a decent burial. (I expect we'll soon be saying the same thing about neighborhood planning, at least as it was originally conceived.)
But even more than that, the council needs to know that part of its job is, in fact, to make decisions. It is cowardly and unfair to send city staff, contractors, and citizens through endless gyrations and generations of study and dialogue because council members are too scared to substitute their own leadership for a pre-existing, sweat-free community "consensus." It won't be any easier in February, or a year after that, or five years after that, to make the hard votes. Time waits for no one.