City Counseling: Best Laid Plans

Best Laid Plans

Mayoral candidates and City Council Members Lee Leffingwell (l) and Brewster McCracken speak at a Feb. 23 forum hosted by the Austin Bar Association.
Mayoral candidates and City Council Members Lee Leffingwell (l) and Brewster McCracken speak at a Feb. 23 forum hosted by the Austin Bar Association. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Candidate forums are all about staying on message. But Lee Leffingwell may have made news Monday in his first face-off against Brewster McCracken – at the Central Texas Democratic Forum – when he announced opposition to awarding the contract for designing a comprehensive plan at this week's City Council meeting. McCracken agreed, calling the process flawed – suggesting a councilwide lack of will to proceed.

Council had seemed set to name the crew that would oversee the project, with city staff recommending a group led by ACP Vision­ing+Planning, a New York-based firm that led city planning for the World Trade Center site and Lower Manhattan after 9/11. However, both McCracken and Leffingwell cited a lack of public input leading to the decision; in an all too pathetically common instance of shortsightedness, the city only allowed a five-day period (including the weekend) for citizens to comment on the three finalists' proposals. (Behind the scenes, there's also an argument simmering that the city's scoring process for applicants – including a heavily weighted, subjective survey – may have excluded other qualified firms.) Leffingwell also said he hoped to convene a citizens group to identify the parameters of the plan.

A comprehensive plan, in the city's own words, "contains the City's policies for growth and development," and the fact that the last comp plan was drafted way back in 1979 has been derided by neighborhood advocates, environmentalists, and progressives. Yet judging from the lack of outcry over the proposed delay, it may well take a little longer to get the plan right.

Finally, the council members running for mayor shouldn't mind punting it for the moment; the $1.3 million price tag, arriving in the midst of $20 million of planned cuts at the city, is just one more invoice to dodge. It's likely we'll see the plan return – just maybe not until after the election.

Incentive Invective

The council is apparently making good on its promise to take a closer look at economic incentives to businesses – the cause célèbre of the Stop Domain Subsidies crowd last election. Incentives would be more tightly regulated under an ordinance before council this week (Item 15). A mash-up of two previous city resolutions – one from December 2007 and another passed after the unsuccessful SDS charter election – the ordinance would amend Austin's Economic Develop­ment Program by eliminating "economic development incentives for large scale mixed use projects that include a retail component." However, it wouldn't stop the city from developing public land "in ways that promote community values, including historic preservation, affordable housing, and transit oriented development," nor would it stop Downtown revitalization projects including retail components – wiggle room protecting undertakings such as the Seaholm and Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopments.

A separate proposal (Item 22), sponsored by Laura Morrison, calls for the city manager to create an "enhanced process" for reviewing proposed incentives, directing the city manager to work with groups including the Capital Area Council of Governments, local chambers of commerce, Austin Interfaith, and Liveable City in assessing incentives' "direct and indirect" costs. The item would also make any upcoming incentive adhere to a timeline allowing ample time for public input. What's not to like?

Free Association

Briefings dominate the agenda this week: City Manager Marc Ott will formally make public his "action plan" for the 2009 city budget in a 10:30am presentation – the centerpiece is some $20 million in cuts. The biggest question is whether a $500,000 slash to the Library Department, resulting in an additional 9.5 hours of closure a week at each branch library, will remain on the menu, as it's garnered widespread opposition. At 2pm, a briefing is scheduled on staff-recommended regulations for outdoor music venues, a process that's proceeded (so far) with the blessing of musician and club-owning members of the Live Music Task Force.

Won't somebody think of the homeowners?

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City Council, Lee Leffingwell, Brewster McCracken, Central Texas Democratic Forum, Economic Development Program, Laura Morrison, Marc Ott

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