Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Life After Smart Growth: No matter how poor we are now, we can't afford to be stupid

Austin At Large
OK, Smart Growth is dead. Everyone says so -- the mayor, city staff, the developers, the neighborhoods, the daily, and me. Amazing, really, to think that less than five years ago our fair city was home to a highly publicized nationwide gathering of the Smart Growth tribe, at which Kirk Watson's Austin was held up as a model of intelligent regional planning. Beauty is but skin deep.

Actually, according to city staff, Smart Growth is not really dead. The city may still give incentives to projects that exemplify intelligent and sustainable planning and design, but only if those projects first meet more pressing needs -- like creating jobs and spewing forth tax receipts. Of course, with the first project out of the box -- the Domain mixed-use urban neo-mall across from IBM in Northwest Austin -- the city agreed to give back truckloads of those tax receipts, which doesn't sound so Smart to me, but who am I?

The incentive package for the Domain is worth up to $37 million, which is about six times the value of all the completed Smart Growth deals combined, and which will be paid out in real cash money, not with fee waivers and other accounting tricks. For taking the trouble to point out some of these facts, Council Member Daryl Slusher -- who, say what we will about him, is at least Smart -- was met by eye-rolling in the daily and a profane tongue-lashing by the developer's wife (see "Naked City," June 27).

Sure, even I -- an Award-Winning Urban Design Writer -- think it's more fun to write about Slusher getting bitched out by Amy Rudy than about pedestrian friendliness and the proper role of the automobile in a city of tomorrow. But let's get our priorities straight; we all, as citizens of Austin, are now in intimate congress with Amy Rudy's husband. The Domain deal is a good old-fashioned boondoggle; City Hall has brought your wallet into bed with a well-connected developer, and only now, in the harsh light of the morning after, do we hear the rudiments of a "policy" to explain such fiscal looseness. Some may argue that the Domain is a good boondoggle, just as I think the Waller Creek Tunnel is a good boondoggle. But a boondoggle it remains.

"Prosperity" or Justice?

The CSC deal was likewise a boondoggle, and we see how well that tryst worked out; on the campaign trail, Brewster McCracken claimed the off-the-grid deals like CSC, and not the projects duly run through the Smart Growth pipeline, were the only ones that went awry. But if we learned anything from Smart Growth, it's that nobody gives a damn about the details. The most basic premise of Smart Growth -- that it targeted already planned projects that would have been built anyway, but in less attractive places -- was lost on the masses, who saw public money going to (often unworthy) rich people, and on that basis alone formed a harsh judgment. On that score, the Domain is six times worse, no matter how "back-end" and "performance-based" the deal might be.

Smart Growth was crushed to death under a mass of fussy detail. It's easy to say that once Watson took a powder on Austin -- a year before actually vacating his office -- Smart Growth lost its "advocate." But Watson was never a great advocate for the principles of sustainability that were then, and are now, and will tomorrow be the proper basis for Austin planning politics. The citizens did not, I think, agree to go along with a Smart Growth Initiative so we could have benches and awnings around high-priced Downtown condos. The big picture, too often ignored even at the peak of the boom, is fully obscured now by the (exaggerated) sense of financial panic.

Before any more deals get done, we need to decide: Do we care what gets built here, and how? Are we willing to let the market take its course and supply Central Texas with one big-box mall after another, in the interest of "economic prosperity"? Or will we say, again, but louder this time, no to wasteful sprawl that treats land as disposable, no to growth that daily makes a mockery of our "comprehensive plan," no to land use that forces us to build groaningly expensive highways, and no to income-segregated, ill-built housing that forces citizens to burn up good money in their gas tanks instead of investing it in their homes? These are hardly dry, sterile issues that only engage planners and their groupies. This is about justice.

We Are What We Build

Second question: What are we going to do about it? Carrots or sticks? So far, the city has offered sugar-coated Bon-Bons disguised as carrots. Carrots are healthy, and I have no problem with healthy incentives. Eat your carrots and you can have dessert. Stop building big-box bullshit over the aquifer, and you can have your treats at the Domain. City Hall thinks it can't possibly regulate development in a meaningful way, so it micromanages details to the annoyance of the locals and lets the things that matter slide. Many would be less inflamed by the very words "Land Development Code" if they saw proof that City Hall cares in deed, not just in word, about protecting the environment on both sides of town, building more housing and less redundant retail, or making sure everyone, and not just suburban drivers, has a "choice" of where and how to live.

It may be too much to ask the City Council to actually advocate for responsible land use, on both the neighborhood and regional level, as a social-justice issue; somebody else (Liveable City? Envision Central Texas?) is going to have to do that. But it's not too much to ask that City Hall actually use the powers granted to every city -- zoning, road planning, urban renewal -- to support the cause. It was when Smart Growth got severed from real life that it died on the vine. We can throw as much money as we want at the Domain and its progeny, and it will not change the future of Austin one bit unless we treat "community values" not as decorations, but as the reason for public life. end story

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Smart Growth, Kirk Watson, The Domain, Daryl Slusher, Amy Rudy, Kirk Rudy, CSC, Brewster McCracken, Land Development Code, city planning

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