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A deal's a deal! Austin is a hard place to do what people don't want done. Is that so bad?

By Mike Clark-Madison, October 17, 2003, News

Local business "leaders," including the designated boosters behind the Chamber of Commerce's forward-into-the-past Opportunity Austin economic recovery project, are spitting mad about Mayor Will Wynn's deployment of City Hall muscle to drive Wal-Mart off the aquifer. The city made a deal with the property owner way back in 1996, cries the real estate elite, allowing for a project of this size and nature on the MoPac and Slaughter tract. To jump in now and say, "But not a Wal-Mart, please," is going back on the deal. "Austin, Texas, needs to understand it must honor its agreements [and] honor a predictability to process if we hope to rehabilitate our reputation as a great place to do business," Gary Farmer, the honcho of Opportunity Austin, told the Austin Business Journal.

Hmmm. As I know I've mentioned before, "contract zoning" is not allowed in this state. If the city under Bruce Todd cut a deal that, seven years and three mayors and one boom-and-bust later, forces Austin to accept a Wal-Mart Supercenter at MoPac and Slaughter -- as opposed to another user that generates less traffic, requires less parking, isn't open 24 hours, creates better jobs, etc. -- then that deal was, um, illegal. (It's been suggested that the deal was illegal for other reasons; if something as bad as, or worse than, a Supercenter fills the void left by the Beast, expect legal action to ensue.)

While we don't know what went down behind the scenes, the city took no official action on this particular Wal-Mart project, one way or the other. Citizens of all stripes expressed their outrage, Wynn and his Wynn-ions talked about their options, and Wal-Mart took its everyday low-priced butt to a less inconvenient and unpopular locale. This sounds more like Civics 101 than like "tortious interference with a contract" (as the threatened lawsuit from the owner will likely allege) or some other sort of Austin-specific betrayal of business virtue.

But never mind all that. According to the land pimps and camp followers who think Austin is chronically misgoverned because it allows citizens to influence public policy, a deal is a deal. Let us see how much good news we can find there.

What's the Deal?

This new commandment, for example, should put the instant kibosh on further discussion of aborting the Waller Creek Tunnel, or not building a new central library, or keeping the Holly Power Plant open just a little bit longer, or giving away Mueller piece by piece.

More topically, we can safely forget the revived plan to turn the future Town Lake Park into a commercial complex that would, in turn, subsidize the fiscally malnourished Long Center project. In the abstract, this isn't such a bad idea, but we do not live in the abstract. And admittedly, the real estate types who most vocally support the "Palmer plaza" idea, both this time and in its previous incarnations, are not the same real estate types who can't imagine why a City in Crisis wouldn't roll over for Wal-Mart. (Some of the latter group are themselves involved with the Long Center, which has now, not once but twice, been reamed by well-meaning citizens trying to swing some form of civic bailout.)

In the real world, there is a deal -- a very complex one -- allowing the Long Center's private backers to take possession of city-owned Palmer Auditorium, and hiking the rental-car tax to pay for the Palmer Events Center (and its oversized, overpriced, anti-urban parking garage), in return for turning the acres of dedicated parkland around Palmer, much of which lay under asphalt, into a real urban park. This was actually approved by the voters, unlike the deal Bruce Todd and Jesus Garza hatched with the owners at MoPac and Slaughter. (Voters have on several occasions and in several contexts voted against sprawl over the aquifer, I note unnecessarily.) And a deal is a deal.

Unlike the absolutely inane (and insane) proposal to bring back drag-boat racing on Festival Beach -- which has already been withdrawn -- a Palmer plaza could have merit, depending on one's views about urban design. Should Town Lake Park be a more "natural" or "architectural" environment? Should it be a destination in itself or a linkage between other urban landmarks? Does Town Lake run through the middle or along the southern edge of downtown Austin? You can count me among those who think the defense of the Town Lake status quo -- the drive to make the lake as nonurban as possible -- tends toward the knee-jerk.

But there's a big gap between wanting Town Lake to be more urban and wanting it to be an outdoor shopping mall -- especially when (as Michael Barnes so aptly pointed out in the Statesman) there's plenty of, shall we say, suboptimal development on the south shore that could stand to be reinvented without encroaching on public parkland. (Like, say, the ugly office building that's now home to the Chamber of Commerce.)

Democracy Works

In any event, it's not like park backers haven't thought about this stuff before; the urbanization of Town Lake has excited some citizens and threatened others for decades now, and the latter group usually wins in a fair fight. To change the public's mind about the highest and best use of Town Lake will require a broad-based project of public education, advocacy, and activism. You know, like what happened to Wal-Mart. I'm happy to offer up any civic deal for reconsideration when it no longer responds to the community's values or needs. That seems to describe the MoPac and Slaughter agreement -- or, dare I say, the Long Center itself -- better than it does Town Lake Park.

For Will Wynn made a deal, too, y'know -- with tens of thousands of people right now, not with an anonymous property owner back in 1996. Pro-business he might be, but Wynn's support of Smart Growth and opposition to sprawl (anywhere, but certainly over the aquifer) is hardly a secret. (Yes, I know, he voted for Stratus, which I think was a mistake, but the City Hall line remains that Stratus represents managed growth.) Voters had not one but two more resolutely "pro-business" candidates to choose from -- I doubt either Marc Katz or Brad Meltzer would be looking to buy the Beast off. Yet Wynn won by a landslide.

And that result was, yes, predictable, just as vehement opposition to a Wal-Mart over the aquifer was predictable. It is predictable that ideas that offend active citizens' community values will be unpopular and vigorously fought, and boosters who pimp for such ideas do so at their peril. Austinites are more skilled at fighting back than are citizens of other locales, but our motivations are not unique. Basically, Austin is a really difficult place to do things that people don't want done. Why is that a reputation we need to "rehabilitate"? end story

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