Beside the Point

Nothing by Design

Of the untold thousands of recent Austin transplants, one stands out for me: my mother. No, I'm not singling her out for "Best of Austin" consideration. Not yet, at least – she's only been here about six months – but I'm happy to have her close. Sunday she skipped church, and we wound our way Downtown, to Las Manitas. Parking was nonexistent, so we parked a few blocks away, at a spot I know about – the garage under City Hall.

It was there last week, one floor above, that one of the smaller, but telling, moments in the remaking of Downtown happened. Council was ready to select a firm to create and implement the Downtown Austin Plan, the overarching framework for the neighborhood's growth. Covering hard-and-fast tracks such as layout, development, and financing but also the urban aesthete's concerns of design and the new buzzword de rigueur, "iconic preservation," the plan is no light undertaking. But on such a high-profile project, there was also no shortage of souls ready to reach for the brass ring.

Unfortunately, the process was fraught from the start. As Katherine Gregor reports elsewhere today, new, abruptly implemented conflict-of-interest rules precluded anyone with property Downtown from applying (see "Developing Stories," p.22). Despite the rocky start, last Thursday, the three remaining finalists – San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group; Portland, Ore.'s Crandall Arambula; and Denver's EDAW Inc. – were each slated to present to council. Only two showed. "I'm told that perhaps two of the three finalists will be here this afternoon," Will Wynn announced.

Crandall Arambula had decided to save its frequent flier miles, as it didn't think it stood a chance. Why? It may have been ROMA's track record around the city: Since scoring the Mueller redevelopment, they've gone on to land design deals for the Saltillo district, the Seaholm redesign, and the apple of council's eye, the 2nd Street District flanking City Hall. And there was yet another reason – in another nefarious first, the staff matrix grading each of the firms was released in advance of the presentations, effectively stacking the deck for the winning firm. Which, of course, was ROMA.

Questions of the firms were the type you'd expect – affordable housing ranking high among council members' concerns – until Mike Martinez shattered the polite fiction surrounding Second Street, the city's model for Downtown design. "What I see right now is a Second Street corridor full of businesses that most folks who are living in an affordable-income range could only afford a cup of coffee," Martinez said. That is, $200 designer jeans and $7 gelatos are nice at the price, but do they the future of Downtown make?

Martinez's fun-crush continued as council moved to approve staff's ROMA recommendation. After Brewster McCracken gushingly christened it the "Edwin Waller Plan 2" in footage inevitably destined for a mayoral-campaign highlight reel, Martinez drove home his concerns. "I feel like we were given a 15-minute presentation from each team, and now we're being asked to make a $600,000 decision over a plan that is extremely vital to the entire community, and not just Downtown," he said. With Martinez abstaining, the contract was awarded 6-0-1.

"I think we have a flawed process," Martinez said afterward, referring to the tangled path to the plan. "First we stopped in midstream, asking for new proposals [after the downtown firms were disqualified]; then we post their scores." While saying he didn't doubt ROMA's ability or staff's recommendation, he was nonplussed by a process that left council approval for window dressing. "Unfortunately, we make mistakes like this all the time that cost us time, money, and integrity on how we work as a council."

Back to breakfast – after our migas, Mom and I made it back to the car, ogling along the way the $3,000 sofas and $800 chairs for sale on Second. Offering free parking ever since it opened, City Hall has been quietly subsidizing the high-end shops abutting Second Street. And we're in for more of the same. I wonder if they'll still be offering parking there when that new Second and Congress Marriott I've been hearing about opens its doors.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

urban planning, city council, downtown, development, Mike Martinez, ROMA Design Group

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