Point Austin: Busy Being Born ...

Leffingwell celebrates Austin and its future

Point Austin: Busy Being Born ...
Photo by John Anderson

Mayor Lee Leffingwell was inevitably upbeat in his annual State of the City speech Tuesday – for a public official to acknowledge bad news in a ceremonial oration generally requires a natural disaster within the previous 24 hours – but indeed he had plenty of reasons to celebrate Austin's good fortune. He acknowledged that our strong economy and good prospects (relative to much of the U.S.) are partly consequences of natural and historical blessings: "A city of great natural beauty and temperate climate – most of the time – on the banks of a great river, with probably the best swimming hole in the nation." But he argued that Austin is not just "well-placed," but "well-positioned" by public investments and progressive politics; that is, "as a city, we have worked hard; we have invested wisely; and for the most part, we've been ready to try new ways to protect Austin's special quality of life."

As such speeches go, it was no barnburner. The mayor began in his characteristically self-deprecating way ("my reputation for delivering electrifying, inspirational, even life-changing remarks has preceded me"), counseling his audience that if anyone did get too excited, a registered nurse – his wife, Julie Byers – was close at hand. If he hadn't indicated some of his own applause lines ("By the way, that was one of the speech's exhilarating moments") – his Four Seasons/Real Estate Coun­cil audience might have missed them. But his love for his birthplace and home is genuine, and the occasional edge in his remarks had to do with differing visions of how we should sustain Austin's successes while addressing its real problems.

Leffingwell's primary theme was change – its inevitability and how the city should meet it, and indeed embrace it. He insisted that "if we want to remain the envy of other cities around the world and enjoy a truly special quality of life over the long term, then we must. Keep. Changing" (his emphasis), citing the words of the "Jewish philosopher," Bob Dylan: "He not busy being born is busy dying."

Taking Big Risks

In that context, he cited three major initiatives: the medical school, redevelopment of northeast Downtown, and urban rail. He thanked Sen. Kirk Watson for leading the successful campaign for the Central Health tax increase enabling the med school, which he described as opening the door for opportunities in "health care, biotech, and the life sciences," and he linked that project to the redevelopment effort. As for the redevelopment, he said it should overlap with the current Waller Creek project, and combine city, university, and state efforts, for what he called an "innovation district."

Those efforts have developed their own momentum. The same is not true of urban rail, and Leffingwell described the slow overall progress on transit as the "direct result of the special ability we have here to deny that change is happening around us," and consequent opposition to necessary infrastructure. He called that failure "a deadly serious threat to our quality of life" that demands a multimodal response, and most immediately, urban rail. He promised, "I will work on this issue every single day while I am mayor, with the goal of having a public vote on urban rail before I leave office." When I asked him if that meant this year, he said no – but that by then he "expects to have a plan for financing of construction and operations in order to go forward from that point." That would include both local funding from bonds (in 2014, if voters approve) and right-of-way, to draw down federal matching funds – though he emphasized that the local money would not be spent should that matching money not eventuate.

Yes or No

Of course, not all Austinites welcome our persistent growth – the relatively modest 20% city rate over the last decade was dwarfed by a regional 37% – and some blame the "growth lobby" at the Chamber of Commerce or RECA for seducing all those immigrants from all directions. The mayor told me, "It's not a matter of saying, 'We're not going to seek growth, and therefore it's not going to come.' ... The question is, is our economy going to keep up with the growth that is inevitable?"

In his speech, he welcomed the expansion of tourism and was defiant on the still heated issue of Formula One. He granted the understandable opposition to state subsidies, but said: "Ultimately the race was everything that most supporters hoped and nothing that most opponents feared."

I asked him if he's concerned that too much emphasis on tourism threatens a "split economy" – wealthy tourists served by low-income service workers. In fact, he argued, the city's focus on recruiting high-paying, high-tech jobs has put us "in the opposite situation – we need entry-level jobs as well. It has to be mixed, with jobs at all levels." In his speech, he pointed proudly to our "almost unbelievable" unemployment rate of 5%.

In short, this was an occasion to celebrate Austin's successes, and the mayor was not about to be derailed by skepticism. Austin has entered a "golden era," he told his audience, and he believes we can maintain that success primarily by vigilant attention to what happens next. He applauded Austin's argumentative political traditions – "I think that's fundamental to who we are" – but he reiterated that if we are to continue to flourish as a community, we must be ready to change. "I believe," he declared, "Austin needs to be a city that starts every conversation with 'yes' – instead of starting with 'no.'"

Follow @PointAustin on Twitter. For more from the mayor's address, see "State of the City Highlights," Newsdesk, Feb. 5.

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Lee Leffingwell, City Council, State of the City, Austin, traffic, Formula One, urban rail, change, med school, Waller Creek, University of Texas

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