Point Austin: Villamusing
Have we got a deal for you!
That was essentially the position the City Council found itself in last Thursday, as representatives of Villa Muse – the colossal film studio, concert venue, and film set as residential development proposed for eastern Travis County – insisted that unless the city immediately releases the land from its extraterritorial jurisdiction, the project cannot go forward. Faced with those terms – and the reluctance or inability of those same representatives to explain exactly why those are the terms – council quite properly said no.
Nobody opposed the project. Instead council voted, 4-3, to keep the conversation going, but to try to negotiate a solution that would keep the project in the ETJ, on terms satisfactory to the developers as well as the city.
How did the developers respond? The next day they released a broadside denouncing council in language that seemed calculated to burn any remaining bridges, even shamelessly pandering "the kids of Del Valle" as the real beneficiaries of this yet-to-be-financed wannabe studio mogul's pipe dream. "What a terrible message to send on the eve of South by Southwest, that the creative industries in Austin aren't worth creative policy-making by the city," declared Villa Muse CEO Jay Podolnick. "Moreover, this is a huge blow to neighboring communities, like the residents of Webberville and the kids of the Del Valle School District, who stood to gain enormously from building Villa Muse outside of Austin's ETJ."
That was followed by an echoing screed from District 46 state House Rep. Dawnna Dukes (who began shamelessly flogging this project last spring). Dukes informed the four council members who voted to keep the development in the ETJ that they had failed their city and acted imprudently. Yet Dukes, too, abjectly failed to explain why the project can't go forward under Austin's purview. "Your decision ... takes certain financing options off the table, thus making the project financially unfeasible."
One might think Dukes, at least for a few months, would prudently refrain from giving financial advice to anybody.
Give Us Our MUD
Dukes' utterly vague language echoed that of Michael Whelan, who presented the Villa Muse case to council, beginning with photos of fields and cows, and ending with ... not much else. The developers argue the land is "a hay field in the middle of a floodplain," and therefore their grandiose Hollywood-in-a-cow-pasture project is essentially a no-strings-attached gift to Austin – that is, if only they can be quit of Austin for a "temporary" 30 to 40 years.
The Muse presentation was full of rhetoric about "creativity" and "job creation" and "stimulating industry growth" and "Facilities + People = Sparks" – yet the project team could not answer direct, fairly simple questions posed from the dais. Mayor Will Wynn asked, if the problem is Austin's potential annexation, "Why not make these exact same proposals in our ETJ with an agreement not to annex?" The response referred vaguely to "timing" and the "marketability of the bonds." Trying to help the Musers, Brewster McCracken (who supported the release) asked more than once, "What would be the [financial] impact" of being inside or outside the ETJ? "We've been asked to look at quantifying that," was the response, "and we're just not prepared to do so at this time." An attempt by Betty Dunkerley to elicit an explanation of the bond timing also got nowhere.
There were all sorts of winks and hints about "charter amendments" and "past litigation" and "minimizing risk" (to investors, not to Austin) but no straight answers to be had. The real gist of the problem seems to be: After a year of very big Villa Muse talk, unnamed and mysterious investors still do not want to risk $300 million upfront on a massive, extremely speculative project, if potential municipal oversight might get in the way of a quick buck – or as the Muses put it, "The investor is looking for the most effective, fastest way to get that reimbursement." That means external, unregulated municipal utility districts – and if there's one thing this city knows from bitter experience, it's the consequences of runaway suburban MUDs. If this deal goes forward as is, with no municipal oversight, there is a real possibility the city would eventually be left to clean up an unholy and perhaps literal mess left for it by a herd of starry-eyed, foolhardy, and bankrupt "creatives" – who are already throwing a shameless public tantrum because they didn't get exactly what they want.
It Ain't About the Landfill
By the time the environmental issues that have generated most of the public comment were raised (by Jennifer Kim and Lee Leffingwell), the unanswered financial questions hung as thickly in the air as the odor of manure. The Musers plan to move tons of aggregate into the floodplain for construction base (vowing to push future floods ... elsewhere). They insist Austin can trust them to follow the city's environmental standards (although the only regs will be those of the stickless county and the feckless state) and that the whole faux Titanic won't simply slide into the Colorado in the next big gullywasher. Yet they don't return that trust – and the staff, which very circumspectly noted the contradiction, recommended against releasing the land, since the project overwhelmingly fails to meet the city's standard criteria for such a release.
Council narrowly agreed – and bully for council.
In the wake of this quite rational decision, Dukes, County Commissioner Ron Davis, and other officials who should know better are loudly complaining that since council proposes, several years hence, to put a landfill and wastewater facility near Webberville, it should also submit immediately to the unreasonable and utterly unjustified demands of the Villa Muse developers to get their own enormous, private playpen near the same site.
If they think the Webberville facility is a bad idea, then oppose the Webberville facility. But the last thing they should do is use one bad idea to justify another, and on a much more colossal scale. Nobody in western Travis County would accept this Technicolor and CinemaScope pig-in-a-poke on pure speculation and promises. Nobody in eastern Travis County should be expected to do so either.
To read Dawnna Dukes letter to the City Council click here.