Beside the Point: Riptide!

Fast-moving development deal on deck

Green Water Treatment Plant: council’s in the tank.
Green Water Treatment Plant: council’s in the tank. (Photo by Wells Dunbar)

City Council members are used to wading into rough decisions midstream. Why, I remember those fresh-faced froshes Sheryl Cole and Mike Martinez weighing in on the decades-long controversy of Water Treatment Plant No. 4 after riding the dais for literally minutes. (OK, with its aborted starts and multimillion-dollar price tag, maybe WTP 4's not the best example – but it's the principle of the thing.)

It's illustrative, because no one's going to argue that the newest members of the council – as of June's inauguration, Randi Shade and either Cid Galindo or Laura Morrison –would find the ambitious Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopment plan much more daunting than the rest of the gang. Granted, it is the largest urban infill project Downtown ever and all, but we expect our council members to arrive attuned to decisive action. (Except for those who want them to do as little as possible –you can't please everyone.) Instead, it's obvious from the expressway lane Green is hurtling down that this specific council is eager to approve the project on its own watch – otherwise, why the rush? Judging from the rather muffled reaction to the plans presented by five competing developers May 22, it's not quite the controversy célèbre – but it would be nice if council just admitted it wanted to bang it out on the quick, instead of going through the motions. It's one thing to trumpet keeping the five rival project presentations on display through the end of the month at City Hall – another to note that said cessation of the month comes, for all intents and purposes, a scant five days later, on the heels of a three-day holiday weekend.

Real transparent, that.


Whose Benefit?

Those presentations were unveiled during an interminable speculator extravaganza last Thurs­day, riddled with grandiose visions and marquee names – if not for the public at large, then for the Austin Skyscraper Forum set, at least. Architect (if not Harry Potter villain) Sinclair Black! "Good" (meaning not universally reviled) developer Perry Lorenz! This kaleidoscopic mash-up of similar if competing visions for the prime waterfront spot unfurled like a fevered ream of Katherine Gregor developer fan fiction. So while fellow Chron scribe Gregor reported on the nuts and bolts and beams of each plan (see "Green With Ambition"), BTP caught up with those who pointedly won't have a say – run-off opponents Morrison and Galindo – to see how Green their Downtown grows.

To Morrison, who's made the redevelopment a central theme of her campaign commercials, the key word is "benefit." "Let's look at what the community considers a benefit. And that's why, from my point of view, we've got the cart before the horse." Since making the run-off, Morrison has more explicitly called for a slowdown in the process, saying the selection's been rushed through sans significant public input. "It's a backwards process," she says. "Rather than figuring out the kind of vision the citizens of Austin might have for [Green], it's already been dictated. It might be at maximumscale, like the council has dictated in their resolution, or it might be it's dedicated to much more of a gathering place, with community plazas. And those things might be part of it, but the whole point is, we haven't had community input on that."

"What we build there has to send a signal to the world about what Austin wants to be for the next 100 years," Galindo says with characteristic ambition. "I think it's the single most important urban development project of our generation." Although offering a more optimistic take than Morrison on the existing proposals (saying he was "very impressed" with what he'd seen so far, pre-unveiling, and they look "much better than what we have there now"), he also, like Morrison, would prefer more community buy-in. "There needs to be a community discussion – to use Laura's terms – about: What is the theme going to be? What do we want this project to say about Austin to the next generation?"

However, Galindo did qualify similar remarks to In Fact Daily, saying that "the real process of incorporating community values into the project doesn't really happen until the partner is selected." Interestingly, IFD goes on further to quote retiring Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, revered – BTP thinks, mebbe a hair too far – as council's budget maven, describing the procurement process as "exactly like we did with Stratus," the reviled, aquifer-baiting developers of Block 21, directly behind City Hall. Yet as Galindo pointed out to the Chronicle, Green is "not like Block 21 was, where Stratus Properties came in and offered $5 million more than the next bidder, end of discussion. In this case, it's not about the money. It's about meeting those values that were set out in the [request for proposals], including affordability, including green building, including a number of other things."

True. But maybe it's a little about the money.


Greenhorns

So lo and behold, contrary to what their detractors would have you believe (that's Morrison as the rabid NIMBYist and Galindo as the developer in New Urbanist garb), the Place 4 hopefuls aren't as opposed over the values Green should embody as you'd think – just how we're going to get there. It should also be noted, however, that neither Morrison nor Galindo has explicitly proffered what form, exactly, the highly exalted community-input/citizen-feedback/stakeholder-task-force consensus, et al., should take.

But, as we mentioned earlier, their opinions are seemingly for naught anyway, as they're not on the dais right now. One self-described firebrand is, though. Jennifer Kim earned her reputation staking out contrary, controversial positions – and it's partially what cost her her seat. So if people truly are up in arms over Green – which, judging from the sleepy-by-Austin-standards response, they're not entirely –then maybe Kim could further demagogue it from the dais before she leaves. Again, that's if Austin's so-called "terminal democracy" –personified in that whopping 8% turnout of registered voters in the May elections – can even muster a yawn. Any more terminal, and we'll need some defibrillators.


It ain't easy being wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Green Water Treatment Plant, City Council, Downtown, Laura Morrison, Cid Galindo

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