Point Austin: Gift Horse

A rich guy wants to give AISD $7 million. What's the catch?

Point Austin
Largely below the public radar, for many weeks the Austin Independent School District's large Citizens' Bond Advisory Committee has been diligently working to present to the board of trustees an interim bond package intended for a May 10 vote. Last night the CBAC held its final meeting, hoping to whittle down about 300 million (or more) dollars' worth of school needs into a total closer to $200 million, including: new schools, new infrastructure, technology upgrades (a surprisingly big hit of $70 million, for technical and curriculum reasons), and that's hardly all of it. Also on the wish list, for several years now, is a much-needed districtwide performing arts center, location yet to be determined. Indeed in 2004, voters approved $8.8 million for a center – but made it dependent on the raising of matching funds that never appeared, while simultaneously, construction costs exploded.

With the freestanding construction estimates now closer to $30 million, the CBAC explored a $20 million proposal to expand the Long Center to accommodate district needs, but in recent days that already uncertain proposition appears to have imploded – there's just no room to build it at Long. So out of the gloom rode a rich man with a big idea: Developer/philanthropist Dick Rathgeber has offered to "donate" to the district a tract of land at the Mueller neighborhood development (and a couple million dollars more) to site and jump-start the project.

There are, alas, more than a few small problems with Rathgeber's offer: 1) The math only works if the gift can still be considered "matching" funds for the 2004 bonds, which likely will require the attorney general's review. 2) Would the location be part of the new bond vote – and if the site doesn't work out for any reason, does the bond crater again? 3) At this very late date in the bond process, how are the CBAC and the board and the public supposed to evaluate this (admittedly very well-dressed) pig-in-a-poke?

The most curious and comical obstacle is one that has been entirely missed in the early public spinning of Rathgeber's offer: Rathgeber does not own the property he is so generously offering to donate to Austin's schools.

Shakespeare They Ain't

I was alerted to that last, rather significant detail by Mueller neighborhood advocate Jim Walker, who was hung out to dry last week by the Statesman's editorialists, falling all over them­selves to applaud "Rathgeber's opening act" and to denounce Walker as an obstructionist. In its cutesy-poo Jan. 17 editorial literally casting Rathgeber as "the protagonist" and Walker as "the antagonist," the daily insisted that the district should simply take the money and run and not bother with any of those tedious public processes that have been the hallmark of the Mueller master plan. In their scramble to endorse Rathgeber's unilateral determination that a Mueller tract of his personal choosing is the best place to put the center ("There is no doubt that a venue that provides live music, dance, and theater would enhance the Mueller redevelopment"), the editors somehow failed to mention that "the protagonist" doesn't even own the land – rather, he's proposing to buy it from the current owners, the city of Austin, via the Mueller developer, Catellus, just as soon as AISD and everybody involved can agree, pronto, that wherever Midas puts his golden thumb on a city map is where El Dorado must be.

That's me talking, not Walker, who instead generously described the largely undefined Rathgeber proposal as "a good idea terribly misplayed." At length and with some irritation ("You know me; I'm the guy that hates kids who play instruments"), Walker ex-plained several of the more obvious pragmatic problems with the proposal: The Mueller areas dedicated for "regional" uses have always been on the opposite, western side of the development; the land in question is planned for schools/residential, with limited road access, not for a 1,200-seat public venue in heavily trafficked use for more than 200 events a year; the complex CBAC bond proposal was nearly completed when this personal, private bombshell was dropped, and now everybody is expected to genuflect.

"It's not a deal that Dick can make," said Walker bluntly. "He knows there's a process." (Rathgeber has been indirectly involved in Mueller plans through his land donations for the "children's village" of social service agencies to be located nearby.) Walker is justifiably proud of the communitywide public involvement in planning and creating Mueller, and he's speaking from long experience when he says, "You can't have a community process just when it's convenient."

Welcome to the New School

Catellus apparently agrees with Walker. Last week the developer sent a letter to Muel­ler residents noting that Rathgeber would have to buy the land before he can give it away and continuing, "In keeping with the history, vision and spirit of the community, Catellus will not contract for or agree to a facility of a performing arts center until there is a thorough public process that is open to residents, neighbors and other stakeholders in order to properly weigh the local impacts of this type of facility." That seems simply rational and also requiring enough community time and effort that it can't instantly be plopped on a ballot as a "done deal" ready for rubber-stamping by Austin voters.

But in prematurely promoting the proposal through a frankly misleading (and blatantly unfair) Statesman editorial, somebody has once again decided that the Usual Suspects should lead and the rest of us politely get in line. "This is 'old school' development in action," said Walker. "Somebody gets a bright idea, decides unilaterally what should happen, and wherever the shit falls, someone else has to clean it up. ... For years, we have had a community-driven plan at Mueller that is creating a diverse, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. We cannot allow the old school way of developing to undermine that."

Nobody wants to gainsay Rathgeber's generosity. If there really is "no doubt" that a performing arts center plunked down willy-nilly into the middle of an unsuspecting neighborhood is a good idea, then it will be obvious to those neighbors when they get a real, thorough chance to consider it. But if not, maybe the folks at AISD should get cracking on that fundraising they explicitly promised when they first put this matter before the voters in 2004.

Maybe they can even persuade Mr. Rath­geber to kick in.  

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