The well spring of the modern Austin environmental movement is June 7, 1990. But almost 22 years later, we’re still planning and debating what we’ve accomplished in dirt and tone.
Beginning as that June afternoon faded, the birth of a movement carried on almost until dawn the next day. An estimated 1,000 people railed at the City Council, most saying they didn’t want a huge development in the West Austin hills (Barton Creek); rather, Austin needed stronger protections for the natural water system in that area.
It took petitions, council turnover, litigation and years, but the outcome was the Save Our Springs Ordinance limiting the open land to concrete ratio over a wide, beautiful swath of Austin.
And it had a much wider impact. That protective philosophy led to everything from condominium high rises dominating the downtown skies to a wider conversation about types of transportation outside pickup trucks.
Build-as-fast-as-you-can city officials were replaced by ground level activists. Three — Jackie Goodman, Brigid Shea and Daryl Slusher — became city councilmembers.
Today, more than two decades later, Austin still struggles to find a happy marriage between growth, development and the protection of its natural beauty. The most extensive current effort is the Imagine Austin plan, touted as the blueprint for the future.
It has as its predecessors study after guideline after ordinance, many of which can be found on some city shelf for review if you blow off enough dust.
In between, questions and arguments continue as to what plans — even ordinances — accomplish in terms of protection for the special quality of life that is Austin.
Since that 1990 marathon meeting, huge office developments have sprung up all along the stretch of MoPac between Zilker Park and the Hays County line, and along State Highway 360. Despite incentives and public pressure to build in Desired Development Zones to the east, Advanced Micro Devices’ headquarters sits on a hilltop looking down on the lower hills and aquifer around it. Thousands of homes have been built in there too, along with dozens of golf courses.
But there are also tens of thousands of acres in the same area purchased by governments and preservationist organizations with vows to keep that land pristine and feeding clean, fresh water to iconic places like Barton Creek.
“As a community, it is our greatest accomplishment, but it is also our greatest failure,” Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs (SOS) Alliance, says of the modern environmental movement. “It’s a failure because it could have been so much more.”
Robin Rather was board chair of the SOS Alliance in its most volatile days. She breaks down the recent efforts into water conservation and clean transportation with a grade of “F.” But she gives an “A” to green buildings and open space conservation. Maybe most telling, she gives an “A” to planning “all kinds of things,” but an “F” to implementing those plans in any serious way.
“I could give a long litany of reasons for some of these failing grades,” Rather says. “One of the most consistent reasons is the utter failure of Envision Central Texas (ECT) to step up and actually advocate for anything and instead be content to simply convene nice lunch discussions.
“The ECT vision is excellent, the caliber of the board has been world class, but the performance has been abysmal in terms of on the ground impact, and much of our region's potential progress has been squandered as a result,” Rather says.
“Effort alone is not enough. We have to measure ourselves in terms of actual impact on the ground.”
Former councilmember and one-time Austin Chronicle city hall reporter Daryl Slusher now works for the City of Austin’s water utility. Noting a staff member shouldn’t comment on city policy controlled by a council and city manager, Slusher says he can still stand by comments made in an article a decade ago in The Austin Sierran, the newsletter of the Austin Sierra Club.
In that piece, written during his council tenure, Slusher pointed to MoPac development as a failure of Austin's environmental movement, but also said it had “successfully institutionalized environmental consciousness into city government.”
Bunch says any philosophical shift has been watered down by now with the huge influx of people in the interim who have no idea of battles of the past.
Slusher also says there is a different challenge than directly over the waterways.
“There are more threats outside the city’s jurisdiction, in surrounding jurisidictions,” Slusher says.
Shea, who recently announced her intentions as an Austin mayoral candidate this year, did not respond to written requests concerning the success or failure of the modern movement.
There is also a question about the tone of environmental efforts today.
When SOS came into play, there was so much high volume name-calling that many considered it a political war. One of the top pro-development attorneys was and still is Richard Suttle. At one point, the left-leaning Austin Chronicle ran a cartoon of Suttle with devil horns and tail to pinpoint him as development evil incarnate. In his biography, current State Senator Kirk Watson (D - Austin) says one of the main reasons he ran for Austin mayor in the mid-90s was to broker a peace treaty between the environmental and development camps.
Such a treaty was reached and the rhetoric cooled some. But the area that considers itself a national leader on environmental issues moved forward on a water treatment plant directly in some of the most sensitive hills in the northwest, much to the continued vocal consternation of environmentalists, and questions have been raised about the new Formula 1 racetrack.
Behind the scenes, some of the top lobbyists and players in the development scene use the term “counting to four.” It means there is no need for community consensus, that it’s only important to convince four of the seven city councilmembers.
Rather, who was crucial to the peace negotiations of the ‘90s, doesn’t hold with the philosophy that the talks have just faded with time. She proves that in her grading system for the interim.
“In moving from total all out ‘war’ mode to diplomacy, dialogue and solutions mode, A+,” she says. “By the way, I give Austin's business/development community the same grade and at least half the credit.”
Bunch gives a bit of an incomplete to the long years of environmental debate. He says there are still large swaths on a fulcrum.
“They’re not developed and they’re not preserved,” he says. “It’s that situation that keeps the movement alive,” Bunch says. “We’re still making a difference so we’re still doing it. It could have been a whole lot worse.”