Book explores the shadows over Austin’s development

Austin’s business and real-estate community don’t hold an unusually strong influence on the region’s evolution, according to the author of a new book on the city’s development.

If anything, said Eliot Tretter, the vast volumes of urban, social and economic research suggest that the powerful influence of business on urban development is very much the norm.

Yet over the years, Austin has featured two unusual factors in its development, Tretter argues in his newly released book, “Shadows of a Sunbelt City.” The first is the influence of the University of Texas at Austin, which more than most universities has brought federal, state and local funding and interests to bear on its place in the city.

For an example, look no further than the cranes that rise above the new Dell Medical School and the early plans for an innovation district to go along with it.

The effort to get the school established, spearheaded by Sen. Kirk Watson, was nothing if not fully upfront about its efforts to draw public revenue in support of the project. And Travis County voters ultimately voted for an increase in their own property taxes to indirectly fund the school.

“There’s a long precedent for the university to connect its own desires for growth … to what the local government and the local business community is doing,” said Tretter, a former University of Texas lecturer and researcher who now is a professor at the University of Calgary.

The other phenomenon, Tretter said, is a general ignorance of how deeply ingrained business and developer interests have become in the region.

“What is impressive to me about Austin is just the complete kind of denial of the ways the business community, through its various principal organizations, is able to control power,” he said.

That doesn’t reveal itself in an outright dominance over city and county leaders, he said. In fact, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce officials noted last week that they haven’t brought a single corporate subsidies package to the Austin City Council in two years, mainly because of the city’s tighter restrictions on such incentives.

That powerfuly influence moves in more indirect ways, Tretter said, such as bond elections, the rewriting of the city’s land-use codes and other avenues. Government leaders adopt policies that never quite come to fruition, he said, and rather than recognizing the business community’s sway in that, residents tend to blame the council as ineffective.

“There’s a weird way in which the left and the right have a unified position, an anti-government position,” he said. “So what ends up happening is you always end up blaming the political leaders for the failure of certain policies to mature, rather than looking at how the power structure in the city organizes itself to succeed in certain agendas.”

State law inhibits many inclusionary initiatives that Austin might otherwise use, both in zoning and other policies. But the city also has few examples of a coalesced, countervailing force that can rival the business and development community.

In Austin, Tretter notes in his book, one of the few examples of a broader, community-based response against developers came from Save Our Springs and the fight to limit development over the Edwards Aquifer.

But ultimately, he writes, even those efforts were pulled into an odd sort of alliance with the development community. Environmental concerns came to include only the non-human environment, with less consideration given to other, disadvantaged communities in the city.

And in that sense, Tretter argues, a co-opted environmentalist was integrated into the broader, established interests that hold sway over much of the region’s development. Efforts to build equity and inclusion remained one-off battles outside the mainstream.

“Something like growth is sort of seen as this endless continuum of good, where these little fights are seen as little skirmishes,” he said last week. “If you have a bigger picture of that bigger process, then it begins to fit into a narrative of affordability, inclusion and the types of development we want or don’t want.”

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