Looking toward the Governor’s Mansion for their lead, members of the Texas House last week killed a worthy provision that would have applied local zoning rules to public-private development projects on state land.
The provision echoed the requirements in a separate bill by Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin and would have protected local governments and residents from the state imperiously imposing its will on cities and neighborhoods. Experience tells us that when the state works with local officials and residents, better projects follow and everyone benefits.
Unfortunately, House members allowed themselves to become tangled in puerile concerns that the state was abandoning its sovereignty to cities and towns. Or, as state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, phrased it in a report by the American-Statesman’s Laylan Copelin, its “absolute, unfettered right to move forward with a project that the state deems appropriate and necessary to conduct state business.”
Encouraged by Gov. Rick Perry, Copelin reported, Dutton pulled the zoning provision he had crafted from a bill setting the future and power of the Texas Facilities Commission. State representatives and senators hold differing views on how much authority they should grant the commission. Senate members of a conference committee could persuade House conferees to reinsert the zoning language. It’s unknown whether such a move would provoke a veto from Perry.
Under the leadership of Terry Keel, a former Travis County sheriff and state legislator, the Facilities Commission has shown an unfettered zeal for public-private partnerships. It’s troubling that the House version of the commission bill exempts public-private “work product” information from public disclosure laws. It’s not clear what “work product” means, but there’s reason to fear the exemption is ripe for abuse should it remain in the bill.
Watson’s bill also allows cities to apply local zoning rules to public-private developments proposed on state lands outside the Capitol Complex. If the state disagrees with a zoning decision, the bill says, it can appeal to a review board whose majority membership will be weighted toward the state and whose decisions will be final. We expressed support for Watson’s bill in an editorial published in February. It passed the Senate unanimously in April. The bill’s fate in the House is uncertain.
The five-year fight over the development of the Triangle in Central Austin informs Watson’s bill. Watson was Austin’s mayor during the heated years of the Triangle debate, which offers a lesson in how local input and city rules can vastly improve a state-promoted project.
As originally planned, the development of the state-owned 22-acre field bordered by Guadalupe Street, Lamar Boulevard and 45th Street featured a 62,000-square-foot Randalls grocery store, a multiple-screen movie theater and a 20,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble bookstore. Residents in nearby neighborhoods protested that the suburban-style proposal was incompatible with the area.
The state, represented by the General Land Office, and the developer showed a willingness to listen and a flexibility to learn during negotiations with city officials and neighborhood residents. Negotiations dragged on, and the project almost died several times, but the result was a more residentially dense, mixed-use development that fit Austin’s future, not the strip shopping center past in which the proposal originated.
None of the improvements to the original Triangle plan, from the jettisoning of the large stores and their surface parking lots to the setting aside of a half-dozen acres for a trail, pond and park, would have happened had the state proceeded autocratically. The Triangle development contrasts sharply with the nearby state office buildings built in previous decades — all of them mercilessly uninspired products of a state exerting its development sovereignty.
A developer’s proposal — received unsolicited by the Facilities Commission — to build residences, offices, shops and a large H-E-B grocery store on state land along Bull Creek Road and 45th Street has drawn opposition from nearby neighborhoods worried about how well the plan fits the traffic-challenged location.
As the Triangle experience shows, when the state forgoes playing sovereignty hardball, and commits itself to building consensus with cities and neighborhoods, superior, more appropriately scaled developments follow. It’s hard to see in the proposed Bull Creek-45th Street development a compelling state interest that would trump the interests of the neighborhoods around it, or of the city, which would be left to deal with mitigating traffic created by the development.
The convolutions of the legislative process may yet place a local zoning bill on Perry’s desk. If so, Perry should sign it, and place a check on the state’s sovereign power to do locally what he complains happens all the time to Texas federally.