As Austin and Texas battle, city leaders look warily at partnership


State officials are asking Austin for $6.9 million in fee waivers and other assistance for a Capitol Complex.

The $581 million state project would make Congress Avenue north of the Capitol into pedestrian green space.

On this third week of June 2017, Austin leaders found themselves paused between two legislative sessions seeking to overturn city regulations and curtail efforts to raise taxes, and City Hall is both suing the state and being sued over immigration enforcement policies.

So it might be an awkward moment for the state of Texas to ask for a $7 million favor.

But that’s exactly what the City Council is asked to approve this week: An interlocal deal to grant $6.9 million in fee waivers for a Capitol Complex master plan, plus expedited permitting, conversion of 16th, 17th and 18th streets to two-way traffic and appointment of a city project team. The $581 million state project plans to transform Congress Avenue north of the Capitol into pedestrian green space, anchored in later phases by new office buildings at 16th and 18th streets for state workers.

“Do any of these phases include some kind of improvement that pumps the smell of freedom into the air?” asked Council Member Delia Garza.

The pointed barb — an apparent reference to Gov. Greg Abbott saying earlier this month that leaving Travis County means breathing “the smell of freedom that does not exist in Austin, Texas” — largely set the tone for a council briefing on the state’s request Tuesday.

RELATED: How could Abbott’s ‘war against cities’ special session affect Austin?

Council Member Leslie Pool said she didn’t want to make a decision until she had a fuller understanding of the costs of both the fee waivers and manpower. She emphasized that the state is seeking the agreement at the same time it’s seeking to reduce the amount of revenue the city could bring in through taxes.

“The money that would be coming out of the city of Austin revenues in order to waive these costs, given how tightly our hands are being tied this year by the very same Legislature … searching for the funding will be really hard,” she said.

Pool also noted concern about a portion of the plan that requires removing two heritage trees — trees of a certain size protected by a city ordinance that lawmakers are seeking to overturn. She vowed to go see the trees personally before making a decision about whether to remove them.

“The governor has put the heritage tree ordinance on his hit list for the special session because he doesn’t think the city of Austin should have any influence … in what happens to trees that are well older than any of us in this room,” Pool said. “That is a really hard pill to swallow.”

RELATED: Gov. Greg Abbott’s bone to pick with Austin’s tree ordinance is personal

Mayor Steve Adler sought to temper the tension surrounding the Capitol plan.

“There’s a lot of things happening at the state Legislature that we’ve all been involved in, a lot of positions the state Legislature takes that we’ve taken issue with,” he said. “On something like this, though, we need to be neutral arbiters of processes, the same way we expected the state to do that on the Loop 360 money it gave us.”

Council members indicated they would likely postpone a vote on the item Thursday to have more time to consider it.

Peter Maas, deputy executive director of the Texas Facilities Commission, said after the briefing that he wasn’t surprised by the tension, but hoped council members would want to partner on the plan once they knew more about it. His agency is not part of the legislative politics, he said, and plans for the pedestrian mall date back to the ’50s.

He added that the state paying to convert four blocks of Congress north of the Capitol into green space is beneficial to the city, providing another city attraction and a civic space for shows, festivals and races.

“Our position is that there is an exchange here, there’s a partnership,” he said. “If we’re creating a nice space that can be enjoyed by all, is that not a value?”

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has been involved in the development of the master plan since 2013, and served on the committee to oversee its first phase. He said in an emailed statement that the complex would provide a venue for the Texas Book Festival, improve office conditions for state workers and free up valuable downtown real estate now being leased for state offices.

“We have the opportunity here to transform the Capitol Complex into an open and inviting public space akin to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “There are a lot of things about which the city and state don’t see eye-to-eye. But the Capitol Complex shouldn’t be one of them.”

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