With early voting set to begin this week, District 10 Council Member Sheri Gallo and challenger Alison Alter sparred at a forum Tuesday evening over how best to manage Austin’s explosive growth and its effects on traffic and housing costs.
Gallo cast herself as a pragmatist willing to make the hard choices, while Alter continued to accuse the incumbent of being too close to developers to represent the city’s best interests.
“Experience does matter, when you are running the 11th largest city in the nation and managing a $3.7 billion budget,” Gallo said at the lightly attended League of Women Voters-sponsored forum at City Hall, where she reeled off a list of endorsements from the city’s public safety unions and former mayors. “It’s about finding a balance as we struggle to house our exploding population.”
“Our priorities are different,” Alter countered. “We see the world through a different lens. Ms. Gallo is a Realtor and she sees the world through that lens.” Alter later added: “I ask you to consider who you want to be in there, fighting for your environment, fighting for your neighborhoods.”
Early voting starts Thursday and runs through Dec. 9. Election day is Dec. 13.
The debate over growth largely focused on two controversial projects planned for the West Austin district: The Grove at Shoal Creek, where developer ARG Bull Creek hopes to build 1,700 residences and 360,000 square feet of office and retail space on 75 acres on the southeastern edge of the district; and Austin Oaks, where developers hope to turn an older office park into a mixed-use development.
Neighborhood activists have vigorously opposed The Grove, citing concerns about traffic and compatibility with surrounding developments. City engineers complained officials downplayed their concerns about The Grove’s traffic, emails obtained by the American-Statesman show. The main neighborhood group, the Bull Creek Road Coalition, and the developer are currently in mediation.
“It is my hope that we’re in a direction to hopefully mediate it. An agreement can come out of this and I think that would absolutely be the best result,” said Gallo, who has voiced support for the development in the last.
Alter, a longtime opponent of the project, said she too was hopeful the mediation would be successful, but reiterated her demand that the commercial components of the project be scaled back.
The fight over Austin Oaks differs: There, the developer and the major nearby neighborhood group struck a deal that downsized that development by roughly 25 percent. However, many activists, including Alter, remain opposed to that project.
While both candidates repeatedly said the contest is focused on local issues, Alter explicitly noted President-elect Donald Trump’s recent win and said the city should be prepared to oppose him.
However, later in the forum, Alter illustrated the conundrum posed by the New York developer. If Congress approves Trump’s bid for a massive infrastructure bill, she said, the city should seek funding to help repair its aging storm drainage systems.
“The bottom line is we need to do very specific things, but a lot of it is going to require investment and we’re going to have to find a way to fund that,” she said. “Perhaps, if under the new administration… there is this big push for new infrastructure, Austin can place itself (in such a way) that it will be in the queue to get some of that funding.”
The race between Alter and Gallo is the only City Council contest this year heading to a runoff. Observers say Gallo is entering the runoff with the edge.
She won 48 percent of the vote in the four-person November election, just shy of the majority needed for an outright win but ahead of Alter’s 36 percent of the vote. Gallo also beat Alter in the money race, raising nearly $50,000 more than her challenger.
However, a Statesman analysis of city campaign finance data found that Alter had more in-district donors than the incumbent. The challenger’s campaign argued that shows her supporters may be more enthused to return to the polls to support Alter in the Dec. 13 contest.
District 10 runoff election
Early voting: Thursday through Dec. 9
Election Day: Dec. 13
Check out our interactive database of the City Council candidates, including biographies and short videos, at apps.statesman.com/council-candidate-explorer/election/2016/.