By Bill Oakey – May 2, 2021
Today, as we emerge from the pandemic, Austinites look to the future with both hopes and fears. We hope that our fun times will soon return – live music, outdoor festivals, meeting friends at favorite restaurants, and enjoying our city’s special quality of life. Our fears go well beyond what the pandemic did to the economy and our iconic local businesses.
People are scared that their neighborhoods will be transformed into super-dense vertical villages, where you have to look up to see the sky. We worry that the over-hyped promise of a sleek mass transit system will be bogged down with huge cost overruns, and a downturn tunnel system that nosedives tens of millions into debt, before going bust. And we are scared that our tax appraisals will soar to San Francisco levels, while retired folks and middle income workers struggle to get by. We actually wonder whether City leaders are serving us at all, or just the people they are recruiting to replace us. We even face the twisted notion that trying to preserve our neighborhoods is somehow divisive and racist.
Now, let’s turn the clock back 38 years, and read what the New York Times wrote about our fears back in 1983:
BOOMING AUSTIN FEARS IT WILL LOSE ITS CHARMS
By Robert Reinhold, The New York Times – October 8, 1983
This appealing college town set in the lovely Texas hill country is rapidly becoming a major city with a high-technology economy, and many an Austinite is wondering if that will spoil a good thing.
As a growing number of computer, aerospace and other high-technology companies like Motorola, I.B.M. and Lockheed discover Austin’s charms, many here are asking whether the city will become ”another Houston.” That grim catchword symbolizes for Austinites the worst of Texas’s unbridled urban development: clogged freeways, sprawl, pollution and garish commercial strips.
Widely regarded as the most ”livable” of Texas cities, Austin long got along on just two economic legs: the University of Texas and the state government, a mix that made it a politically liberal and socially tolerant pocket in a conservative state. Now it is becoming a formidable industrial center, too.
Last May, Austin was selected over 57 other places as the site for the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, or M.C.C., a joint research venture of 11 major American computer makers to compete with the Japanese in building the next generation of information technology.
The Chamber of Commerce predicted that the ”multiplier” effect of M.C.C. could turn Austin into the country’s foremost high-technology center. It is a vision that has not been greeted with uniform enthusiasm by Austinites, many of whom remain uneasy about its consequences. But few believe growth can be halted.
”They’ve gotten away from the notion it is possible to stop growth, so now the question is how to manage it,” said Michael Levy, publisher of Texas Monthly magazine, headquartered here. ”What motivates people is fear of becoming another Houston. Every other household has a growth-management expert in it.”
Robert Lane, president of the InterFirst Bank, the largest here, said the city’s ”paranoia” about growth had led it to neglect roads and services. He believes the city must devise a long- range ”road map” to see beyond the weekly battles over zoning and development that consume the City Council.
”Austin really has the last good chance to manage its growth to maintain the quality of life we have,” he said.
Whether Austin can rein in the powerful economic and social forces at work is problematical. For better or worse, there are already signs that it has outgrown its small-town charms. On Congress Street downtown, a half dozen major office buildings are going up, including One American Center, a 32-story complex that has stirred outrage among many because it will block the view of the State Capitol from many neighborhoods. On the outskirts, commercial strips along Highway 183 and Ben White Boulevard are as garish and congested as anywhere.
Barton Springs, a spring-fed swimming hole longer than two football fields that many Austinites consider the town’s greatest natural treasure, is often closed because of bacterial pollution after heavy rains. The closures started after development began in its watershed.
Meanwhile, despite a city ”master plan” that discourages it, developers are inexorably carving up the limestone hills to the west of town to accommodate growing demands for housing there, raising fears about pollution of the Edwards aquifer below ground that supplies the city’s waters.
For years the city tried to limit its growth by denying water and sewer services to developers and by refusing to annex surrounding land; the voters repeatedly turned down bond issues. But this approach backfired because developers got water from the Lower Colorado River Authority, meaning development was occurring anyway and Austin was losing control of it.
As a consequence, the no-growth battle has been given up. Roger Duncan, the strongest environmental voice on the City Council, said: ”We’ve lost that battle. We have not been successful in controlling development in environmentally sensitive areas by utility controls. Now we are trying other things.”
He said he was now in favor of extending utility services to developers in exchange for stiffer landscaping, environmental and zoning standards.
By the same token, the pro-growth forces have begun to compromise politically with the environmental forces. The newly elected Mayor, Ron Mullen, an insurance broker, was a voice of business for years as a Council member. He has since changed his views, he said, and now believes development should proceed in ways that do not damage the aquifer and Austin’s natural beauty.
”I am much more concerned than I was about keeping that quality of life as good or better than it is,” he said, praising his erstwhile environmental foes as ”good consciences for the community.”
An example of the city’s new approach to ”managed” growth is Gary L. Bradley’s plans to develop the old Circle C Ranch, 3,600 acres of cedars and live oaks southwest of the city that is in the aquifer area and outside Austin’s ”preferred” growth corridor. Mr. Bradley, a 34-year-old West Texas native who has been in Austin since 1968, is negotiating with the city to provide him water and sewer lines by approving a municipal utility district with authority to issue bonds for his project, which would ultimately have 7,000 homes and apartments.
In exchange, Mr. Bradley has offered to build special retention dams to reduce runoff pollution and to limit paving and density.
”The city does not have to extend utilities to me,” he said. ”But they want to because they do not want me to buy water from the river authority.” Moreover, he said, he is cognizant of what he affectionately calls the ”granola army,” environmentalists who ”can beat you without money.”
”We’ve got a town with a conscience,” he said. ”We will not have another Houston. We have too many safeguards.”
Others are less hoepful. ”I don’t see any way of avoiding the fate that awaits us,” said Kenneth Manning, a 38-year-old lawyer and environmental leader who used to work for Mr. Bradley. He said the city was unable to take a strong hand in channeling development because ”it is extremely difficult to get the City Council to tell a developer ‘no’ once in a while.” All six Council members and the new Mayor ran with contributions from developers in April’s elections. The Best of All Worlds
Austin in a way has the best of all worlds: the fine restaurants, theaters and good bookstores of urban life, yet a small-city layout with lots of parks that lets you get home from work in 15 minutes. Many of its residents are Texans who came to study at the university and stayed, many of them professionals who have sacrificed more lucrative careers elsewhere. Many artists, writers, poets and artisans have also gravitated here.
It is just these things that have brought high-technology businesses seeking refuge from the high costs and congestion in California’s high-technology area and wanting an agreeable setting to help recruit staff. Austin’s population swelled from 254,000 in 1970 to 345,000 in 1980. The chamber estimates its has since grown to more than 367,000, and some estimates say the metropolitan area will exceed a million by the year 2000. Over the last decade, the number of passengers using the municipal airport has grown from 600,000 to more than 2 million yearly. The growth is accelerating. Since 1979 2.6 million square feet of office space has been built; 2.3 million more is now under construction.
Frank W. McBee, a native Austinite who heads the pioneer technology firm here, Tracor Inc., welcomes all this. ”If I want to come into Austin I could put my plant in Elgin, Buda or Georgetown and not pay the city any taxes,” he said, referring to nearby towns. ”The city needs to embrace growth, manage it and benefit from it.”
Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, U.S.N., retired, head of the new M.C.C. venture who is a former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, agreed, saying, ”I think the fears are greatly overstated.”
In 1979 the City Council adopted a master plan to encourge growth along a north-south axis on the theory that new development would be most efficient where there are aleady utilities and transportation lines. But people prefer to live on the hills to the west, and nothing has been able to stop them.
The Council is devising new, more stringent zoning and building codes, and pressure is mounting for strict new rules to limit density in the ecologically fragile Lake Austin watershed to the west. Many, too, are urging the city to annex aggresively lest nearby towns hem it in, even though annexation means that the city must supply services. Over the next few months voters will be asked to approve more than $1 billion in bonds for water, sewer and electric service.
The watchword is low density, but that means high cost. Austin’s population is about 20 percent Mexican- American and 10 percent black, and Councilman John Trevino, son of a Mexican laborer, has his doubts about managed growth.
”Low density development eliminates most minorities,” Mr. Trevino said. ”Are we building an elitist community? Yes, we want to enjoy the environment. But none of my folks will be able to move in.”