Austin @ Large: The Fall Season

Will the City Council schedule bring breakout hits or fabulous flops?

Austin At Large
It's back to real work, sort of, for the Austin City Council this week, after a curious summer much different from the usual rerun-driven fare. For a few years running now, the annual city budget smackdown has been an all-encompassing attention-grabber, with other policy issues taking a hiatus during the warm season. This year, we saw the reverse; the budget – with more than $10 million in General Fund spending cuts, yet – was adopted without breaking much sweat, and all the real comedy and drama was happening on other channels, and not just ACTV and the Austin Music Network. The summer's dustups over toll roads, commuter rail, the hospital district, and the school bonds all have had, and will continue to have, profound implications for City Hall, but so far they've only had a tangential relationship with the City Council itself. (Well, except for this, y'know, recall thing.)

Despite the ugliness, it may be comforting for some at City Hall to see other policy-makers (finally) get scrutinized and take some heat on issues that normally get pinned right to the City Council's collective forehead. But alas, summer is over, and it's time for the council to return to the spotlight – finishing up its old storylines and starting new ones. The season is short – there are only eight meetings between today (Thursday) and the end of the year – and the schedule is already crowded, and at least until Nov. 2, not so many people will be watching, given the other political dramas heading into their last acts. But there's still a lot to see.

Ducks in a Row

This week's agenda, unsurprisingly, features thrilling (!) climaxes to some of the last year's more enduring soap operas. Will the council finally dispense with the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan? Will it finally take action on overhauling the city's historic preservation program? And will it finally – and, literally, at the 11th hour – approve a deal to create a new, improved, more politically popular successor to the Austin Music Network? Or are they just teasing us again?

Action, or lack of same, on those three items will probably tell us much about how the fall season is going to go – that is, about how prepared the City Council is to make decisions that nobody else can make. Weeks and months and maybe years of community deliberation and stakeholder input and blah-blah-blah have made all three issues ready for prime time; there's not much more room for consensus to be built, and it's pretty clear in all three cases what the City Council wants to do. Now they just have to do it.

The world will not end – even for Channel 15 – if the council finds a reason not to wrap up these issues this week, but there's more pressing stuff on the horizon, with weightier ramifications for the city as a whole, that deserves some less-divided attention. For example, next week's agenda – speaking of long-running soap operas – is likely to feature a public hearing and possible action on redevelopment plans for Rainey Street, the embattled historic Downtown neighborhood that has been waiting for this moment for, Lord, about a decade now. What the council does with Rainey will tell the citizens, and other local policy-makers, a lot about how Austin currently feels about economic development, growth management, and the state and fate of its urban core. It's a message the community is eager to hear.

Likewise with the final touchdown for the Mueller redevelopment project, as the council this fall finally gets to (presumably) approve its agreement with Catellus Development to reinvent the old airport. This is the biggest real-estate deal the city's ever undertaken, so it might be good that the city has taken a, shall we say, deliberate approach and pace here. But City Hall long ago acquired a bad habit of allowing the council to spend week after week refereeing the same minor disputes, and then presenting it with massive slabs of critical policy – the police contracts, the Austin Energy strategic plan, the Domain deal, the Seton/Children's Hospital deal – that need to be consumed and digested in a hurry.

Wanna bet that's what happens with Mueller? When the citizens finally get a look at what this nine-digit deal entails, it will still be warm from the copy machine, and the council will be asked to vote on it that day. As an on-the-record Mueller booster, this wouldn't bother me so much, because I kinda know what to expect. But clearly it's not the kind of last-minute action the locals like to see, regardless of their ideological persuasions – this summer's dramas have reminded us all that "all accountability, all the time" is the first commandment of Austin politics.

Unfinished Business

Simply dealing with these must-do, overdue decisions, if done with the council's typical, uh, vigor, would consume much of City Hall's fall-season schedule, which means other storylines go unattended. For instance, Capital Metro is now going to the voters for the second time with a rail plan without much help from City Hall. Sure, council members support rail as an idea, just as they did four years ago. But we can safely say that any effort to balance our dependence on cars and roads with transit – any transit – is going to depend on city policy as much as it will on Capital Metro.

It's up to City Hall, and nobody else, to create goals and strategies, as opposed to wishes and hopes, for transit-supportive land use, and to back up those strategies not only with regulatory power but with actual cash money. Yes, we know the city has very little of the latter, but it has enough to give tax rebates and incentive deals to the Domain and to Home Depot, and likely soon to Son of Sematech and Freescale Semiconductor, and investing in transit-oriented redevelopment (not just at Mueller) offers its own opportunities for job creation and economic growth. At what point does it become obvious that if Austin really wants to promote urban density, close-in affordable housing, and non-auto friendliness, it's going to have to pay for it? When the City Council says so. Is it possible it will say so before Nov. 2?

Probably not. But Nov. 2 is not the only election that matters when previewing the council's fall season. Come the new year, we'll be into the next city election cycle, with open seats and everything, one that's likely to realign City Hall's balance of power. The council's performance over these next eight meetings will set the stage for the campaigns to come – which will in turn decide for us which of City Hall's current stories get renewed and which get canceled. end story

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city council, Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan, historic preservation, ACTV, Austin Music Network, Rainey Street, Mueller, Catellus Development, Capital Metro, transit-oriented development, commuter rail, tax incentives

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