Their Reputations Precede Them
Run-off rivals Galindo and Morrison set the record straight
Even before the general election last month propelled them into the June 14 run-off, caricatures of Place 4 City Council candidates Laura Morrison and Cid Galindo had congealed (in their detractors' minds, at least): that as former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and co-chair of the McMansion task force, Morrison midwifed anti-density, affordability-constricting decisions and that Galindo, an opportunist emerging from a Republican dynasty, cloaked his developer plans in groovy green building and New Urbanist garb from his perch on the Planning Commission.
Speaking directly with the candidates basically dispels such crass notions, as both Morrison and Galindo are more nuanced in their backgrounds and positions than their opponents would have you believe. They're waging their campaigns on their visions for the Austin of tomorrow, delving into future growth, neighborhood compatibility, and comprehensive planning for the city. The concerns have culminated in a debate over whether the so-called Galindo Plan does enough to address the breakneck regional growth Austin's experiencing and whether Morrison's push for comprehensive planning is a progressive or bureaucratic response to the same phenomenon. The Chronicle chatted with Galindo and Morrison regarding these heady issues – and other accusations or rumors they'd like to dispel.
Not a NIMBY
"There's a meme out there: The neighborhoods, or Laura, are no-growth, anti-density, against any changes. And that is absolutely not true," says Morrison, rattling off a list of redevelopment projects she supported in her own Old West Austin neighborhood: redevelopment of the former Pok-e-Jo's site on West Fifth and the nearby Goodwill on Third and Lamar. "Did you hear about any of those when the zoning changes were going through council?" Morrison asks. "No, because they all went on consent [without opposition]. People are just plain wrong when they say that I or neighborhoods are fighting against things. We're just looking for ways to do it in a very productive manner that's compatible."
Morrison co-chaired the city's McMansion task force and worked with the city on its Vertical Mixed Use standards, but her political credentials come largely from leading the Austin Neighborhoods Council. During the seemingly interminable candidate forums on the campaign trail, neighborhoods were held high as seemingly interchangeable and inherently good things. But since Hyde Park's needs and priorities, for example, are clearly distinct from the Eastside's, what does it mean to be a neighborhood advocate? Morrison says she and the ANC tried to be "a resource," helping neighborhoods understand the intricacies of the city's planning process. She'd strive to act similarly on council, "to make sure everybody understands all the different priorities and try to find a solution everybody can live with."
During the May general election, Morrison's television ad inadvertently mirrored one of the ANC's internal skirmishes. The ad, criticizing the City Council's speed in selecting a developer to buy and redevelop the Green Water Treatment Plant site Downtown, predicted ominous, looming towers. It recalled ANC's 2005 objection to the Spring condo tower, under construction at Third and Bowie. Over the wishes of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, the ANC opposed the tower. So when Morrison's ad raised the specter of tall towers, it raised the corollary question: If you can't build densely Downtown, where can you?
"Let's take a look at that case," says Morrison. "The sense of the neighborhoods was that the Central Business District [Downtown's boundaries] should not be coming all the way up to Lamar; we need to make those kind of decisions within the fuller context of a Downtown master plan." She also says, "When someone is going to be enjoying a huge increase in the entitlement on the property," like the height allotment Spring received, "there should be significant community benefit to that, instead of just handing it to them on a silver platter." She credits ANC's noisemaking with kick-starting discussions on density trade-offs like affordability incentives in new developments, noting "our part of the conversation on that case has really helped to move the city forward." And if ANC has clashed with individual neighborhoods, she says, "The thing is, people are gonna disagree sometimes."
To Galindo, the Spring episode is illustrative of ANC's position in the growth wars. "I think there's an ANC leadership position – definitely – and it doesn't always agree with the neighborhoods," he says. Citing the ANC/DANA dispute, he says, "Neighborhoods are not this monolithic, 'everybody-agrees-on-everything' thing – but Austin Neighborhoods Council leadership generally takes a philosophically, shall we say, consistent position on certain types of cases."
Morrison is proud of her neighborhood service, but she finds it a narrow categorization, declaring she's not "merely a neighborhood candidate." She hopes to broaden the voters' perception of her – and draw distinctions between herself and Galindo. "I would say that I am the pro-neighborhood, pro-environment, pro-taxpayer candidate, the grassroots candidate to represent the community."
Your Papers, Please
"I knew it was coming," Cid Galindo says of the darts he's dodged in the campaign. "I knew there was going to be a 'Republican developer lackey' attack, the 'wolf in sheep's clothing.'" Here Galindo specifically referred to "Concerned Travis County Democrats" (Morrison supporters) whose open letter upbraided him for past Republican affiliations, including his father's close ties to the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank. "I think we made a right choice in not responding to that," Galindo says. "We just said, 'Let it sit there, and let's see if it grows legs.' And it didn't."
Others slam Galindo on an arguably more relevant front: that he calls himself an urban planner and green builder without the required accreditation or experience. "He claims to be a planner since 1995," says Mark Yznaga, a community activist and prominent Morrison supporter. "That's clearly not the case." On Galindo's website, he lists steering the Galindo Group Austin from 1995 to the present, describing his work as "urban planning and green building specializing in traditional neighborhood design." Yet, Yznaga notes, Galindo "has no planning background" other than being on the Planning Commission. "Are the people who are real planners criticizing me for that or people who are not planners themselves?" Galindo asks. "I am not an uneducated person. I'm an economist, I'm an MBA. ... Do I not have a degree in urban planning? Guilty as charged. But I have been able to bring this other set of skills I have to this discipline." As for the green building complaint, Galindo says: "You're right – until my buildings get accredited, I'm not a green builder; I just say I'm a green builder. But we are going through that process now." Galindo's sole Austin development, two recently completed East Austin condominiums on Riverview Street, are awaiting both Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and Austin Energy Green Building certification.
Instead of campaigning solely on the defensive, Galindo wants to run on policy. "No doubt my love is problem solving, and policy. I'm running for council because I want to be able to apply commonsense solutions to the problems that face our city." The tool he's used to pitch his policy vision has been the "Galindo Plan" – which is really the Sustainable City Initiative, developed at the city while Galindo served on the Planning Commission. While he sees the plan as part of the solution to the region's expansion, Morrison's convinced only a new comprehensive plan for the city will work.
Man With a Plan
In that spirit, Galindo has consistently pushed what he calls the Galindo Plan as a framework for future regional growth. In person, he's quick to emphasize the plan is really the work of the Planning Commission. He served there four years, the last two as Comprehensive Plan Committee chair overseeing the Sustainable City Initiative (aka the Galindo Plan). Having repeatedly reiterated the plan as "his" in ads designed to achieve "name recognition and idea recognition," he now speaks of softening that. "I led the work behind it, but I don't take ownership."
On the Planning Commission, Galindo reflects, he saw "how dysfunctional" the neighborhood planning process was. Without a "preconceived understanding" of the future growth each neighborhood would be expected to absorb, "it was adversarial from the beginning. That was what got me thinking, 'Well, we need a bigger plan.'"
Enter the Sustainable City Initiative. It divides the region into three sections. First is a western, drinking water protection zone of aquifer lands, where growth is to be kept at a minimum. "We're not going to stop it, but try to move that somewhere else." On the other end of the map is the eastern, desired development zone. "That is where we want most of the growth to go," he says, alluding to what's received the most coverage in the proposal, half a dozen or so town centers scattered along the SH 130 corridor. In the center is the urban zone, encompassing the whole of Central Austin, "where we really have the majority of our neighborhood planning process happening." There, Galindo's first proposal is to examine existing density to ascertain what additional growth areas can handle – between 1.5% and 2.5% – in most cases, he says, falling below the growth rate for the entire region. "What we want you to absorb is not infinite," Galindo's pitch to the neighborhoods goes. "We're not talking about doubling it; were not talking about tripling it or 10% growth per year. We're keeping it below the average growth of the city." Then, he proposes closer examination to ascertain "areas of stability" and "areas of opportunity" in neighborhoods. While the former would remain untouched, the latter would be slated for growth, without zoning changes, if possible.
Apprehensive, Not Comprehensive
Galindo's opponent doesn't share his enthusiasm. "His framework starts with a real estate development concept," Morrison says of the town centers. "And my framework is to say: 'Let's start with the community vision; let's look at different scenarios; let's do a fiscal impact analysis of different scenarios.' Up front, we need to be integrating in our choices for transportation. I think that's a huge difference."
One thing the candidates can agree on is the need for a new comprehensive plan. As set out in the City Charter, Austin is required to have a comprehensive plan, overseeing growth, development, and transportation, as well as issues like housing. But this plan has not been updated since the Austin Tomorrow Plan of 1979. "It is not a comprehensive plan, because it does not address the elements a comprehensive plan really needs to in an integrated fashion," Morrison says of Galindo's plan. She specifically finds its housing plan – or lack thereof – wanting. "Unless you find some mechanism to ensure affordability ... chances are it's not going to happen just by the market. ... My concern is we'll then have these upscale centers, and the people who are going to work in the centers, in the stores, the service industry, are going to sprawl out around them, because they won't be able to afford to live there."
Galindo responds that the Sustainable City Initiative is to be used in tandem with an update of the city's revised comprehensive plan – which is currently in draft. "If we are going to deliver a forward-looking, comprehensive plan, where do we start?" he asks. "Well, let's start with this work the Planning Commission has been doing."
Morrison also characterizes Galindo's as "a top-down approach – 'Here's what I see for the community.'" Responds Galindo: "There's been this accusation of being autocratic and anti-democratic in the evolution of this plan. This is a plan that has been under development for over two years, with monthly meetings open to the public, which have been attended by Laura Morrison and all the ANC leadership. ... She's trying to draw the contrast that she's the consensus builder and I'm the autocrat, and it's not true; I'm not going to let her do that."
Let the Truth Be Told
With two candidates well-versed in urban planning, it's not surprising that issues like land use and neighborhoods have played so prominent a role in this election. However, on the continuum of other issues – affordable housing, environmental protection, and other sensitive areas of the Austin body politic – Galindo and Morrison do not fall so far apart. Both favor some form of single-member districts; despite continued Republican grumbles, Galindo has called for a 10% increase in the city's funding of social-service agencies to cover funding cuts from United Way. Morrison encourages the Town Lake Animal Center to stay put instead of moving (as the city plans) eastward and has called for council to work with the University of Texas in redeveloping its Brackenridge Tract responsibly; she says, "Comprehensive planning is only one piece of what we need to be doing, the kind of leadership we need on council."
While often heated, the debate between Galindo and Morrison has certainly been more substantive than, say, the Jennifer Kim vs. Randi Shade Place 3 contest. It's not being fought over who-said-what or personality-based issues – it's being waged over policy questions – like who offers the best solutions to Austin's growth problem. Simply put, the run-off has narrowed the six-person Place 4 field to its two biggest wonks. "Let's make this a discussion about policy," says Galindo, in a sentiment that would certainly be echoed by his opponent – "about things that really are gonna make a difference in people's lives moving forward."
The two candidates running for retiring Betty Dunkerley's Place 4 seat on the Austin City Council
Cid Galindo, 45
President, Galindo Group Austin, a development firm focusing on what he calls "urban planning and green building specializing in traditional neighborhood design."
• City of Austin Planning Commission (2004-2007)
• Director, Downtown social-service agency Caritas (2004-present)
• Treasurer, executive committee member, Envision Central Texas (2005-present)
• Board member, Downtown Austin Alliance (2006-present)
Laura Morrison, 53
A former engineer educated in the University of California system, Morrison is currently a disaster management and community preparedness consultant.
• Austin Neighborhoods Council president (2006-2007)
• Co-chair of single-family Residential Development Regulations (McMansion) Task Force (2006-present)
• Board member, Commercial Design Standards (Vertical Mixed Use) Task Force (2005-2007)
• Board member, HousingWorks affordable housing subcommittee (2007-present)