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In Fact Daily

Monday, October 22, 2001 by

Jim Walker, neighborhood advocate

By David Ansel

Jim Walker’s stock-in-trade is consensus building. As president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC), Austin’s only citywide neighborhood coalition, he summarizes his approach to consensus building by saying, “Consensus has no endpoint. It’s the process of decision-making, not a decision. To maintain consensus, you have to figure out how you’re going to continue to work together for a long time over multiple decisions. It’s all about keeping people at the table.”

ANC is a non-profit corporation that was formed in 1973. With the help of leaders like Walker and former president Will Bozeman, the group’s role has been to help Austin’s neighborhood associations figure out how to deal with the pressures brought about by the high growth rate. “ANC seeks to help support neighborhood associations to comment on issues of citywide relevance, when a land use issue comes up and sets a precedent across the city,” says Walker. ANC supports the concept of neighborhood planning in the areas of land use and transportation design. “The questions become, ‘How do you get there?’ ‘How far do you let residents go?’ ‘When does a neighborhood association ask things that the city just can’t deliver?’ A constant tug-of-war happens in planning, and that’s how it should be done.”

He defends the ANC against criticisms that it is the wellspring of NIMBYism (NIMBY: not in my back yard). “I think NIMBYism is a natural reaction to fast-paced growth. Is that the only reaction? No. Can you get beyond that? You have to try to get beyond that. You have to say, ‘Whoa. Slow down. Let’s look at this some more.’ The hard part is to figure out how to shape the growth such that we would want it in our backyard.”

With his involvement in his own neighborhood association, Cherrywood, he was able to employ proactive, non-NIMBYist neighborhood planning to ameliorate the neighborhood’s growth process. “We realized we were going to have commercial encroachment, so we prepared ourselves. If you’re not planning, then your reaction is to say, ‘No, we don’t want to lose any residential.’ You wait until the development comes and you go oppose it. Instead, we developed the guidelines ahead of time, so if you’re seeking zoning in our neighborhood, you’ve got to meet eight requirements that the neighborhood has laid out.”

He describes Cherrywood’s interaction with Austin Energy regarding a proposed substation: “Instead of the knee-jerk, ‘No way,’ we asked them to prove to us that this has to be in our neighborhood. Now we are working with them and their architect over where it’ll go and how it’ll look. Rather than just fight it and push it off into someone else’s neighborhood, we can work with them to shape growth in an acceptable way. Plus, it occurred to me how nice it is to have a municipally-owned utility. AE was great to work with. It would be very different with a private utility.”

Walker maintains that the ability to present a united, businesslike front is of vital interest to the city’s neighborhood associations, and he hopes to take the ANC in a direction that can support that effort. “What I’ve been wanting to do is to have the ANC grow into a supporting service organization, an umbrella for neighborhood associations, coordinating advocacy for them. Rather than have the fight be between individual neighborhoods and developers, we can help provide a unified front.” Indeed, ANC’s motto is “Strength and Unity.” He continues, “If a problem comes up in my association and I don’t know how to deal with it, I can come to the ANC and say, ‘Has anyone else dealt with this?’ That’s where we need to go as the city gets bigger.”

Mueller airport neighborhoods leader

Walker is also the spokesperson for the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition and Chair of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Commission. The coalition, consisting of the leadership of the fourteen neighborhood associations that surround the former airport, has worked closely with the planners, ROMA Design Group, since 1996. “The coalition’s role has been to make sure that as we implement the plan, we are holding true to the vision and process and goals. My main goal is to keep us at the table.” Walker describes the evolution of such large-scale projects and the coalition’s limited ability to steer the process: “The Master Plan is a snapshot in time, a starting point. The vision [of the 1996 RMMA Redevelopment Task Force] says it’s going to be a world-class pedestrian-oriented development. But in looking at the Master Plan, you can say it is more car-oriented than it has to be. It’ll always evolve, and it’s better to try to evolve toward the vision than against. We’re there to make sure that the entire thing goes in the right direction.”

In addition to his volunteer duties, Walker is Director of the Central Texas Sustainability Indicators Project (SIP). The project is intended to increase regional awareness and commitment to sustainable community development. According to Walker, “It’s a response to the condition that we’ve literally outgrown the luxury of solving problems one at a time. Our region has to work with other people in the region to solve common problems, to look at trends in an apolitical way.” When asked how the project maintains an apolitical stance, Walker responded, “Data is collected from as sound a source as possible; the data is not politically motivated. We don’t tell people how to interpret the trends. There’s debate about how much interpretation we should do as indicator people. We’ve chosen to interpret less, in the interest that more parties will apply the data to their issues.” Formerly hosted by the City, SIP is now being hosted by ACC. “It’s a natural fit for ACC, as they face the same issues and questions that started SIP. They serve a large, eight-county area with changing workforce and education needs.”

Consensus building, according to Walker, is an inextricable part of sustainability philosophy. Walker points out that one of the main tenets of sustainable thinking is that it is long term. “Consensus building, at the smallest scale, is you and your next door neighbor. You can have a knockdown drag-out about the fence he’s putting up, but that’s not the last time you’re going to interact. We’re all, by necessity, going to be working together for a long time. There’s never going to be a single project that’s worth sacrificing a relationship you’ll be having with someone. As long as the relationship is maintained, that person can stay at the table. Consensus is messy. Community building is messy. The more people at the table, the harder the decisions. But it’s a good problem, a necessary problem.”

There are some who doubt Walker’s intentions and consider his attempts at consensus building to be a smokescreen. He defends himself, saying, “Some would say that I just figure out what I want to have done and try to make it happen. There are certainly people that say I don’t walk the talk [of consensus building]. All I can do is continue to have the table be big enough and the only thing I control is my interest in listening. Consensus is where you have to be willing to talk something through, instead of figuring out how to convince other people that you’re right.”

Walker is from Eugene, Oregon. He attended graduate school at UT’s Community and Regional Planning Department, where he met his wife, Scheleen. He spends his scant free time considering what home projects he might complete with more free time. Describing his unified life theory, Walker says, “There are three things in life that all activities seek to achieve: making a living, making a difference and making whoopee. It’s gotta be fun, gotta be enjoyable.”

Garcia campaign raises $100,000

Relaxed front-runner concentrating on turnout

Mayoral candidate Gus Garcia has raised about $100,000 for his race, according to campaign manager, Paul Saldaña. Garcia seemed relaxed and confident Sunday as he described the field to a gathering of supporters at a Central Austin home. “We have Leslie (Cochran), Jennifer (Gale), the electrician and the Breadman. It’s a cast of characters that would make Mel Brooks real happy.”

Garcia said his biggest concern about the election is turnout. Saldaña told In Fact Daily that the campaign would have two rounds of phone calls to 20,000-25,000 households during the next two weeks.

Garcia noted that during his second race for City Council, which was in 1994, he ran unopposed. In 1997, he said, he decided to switch from Place 5, which had become the traditional spot for Hispanics on the Council, to Place 2, hoping to create an opportunity for an additional Hispanic to serve. That did not work out, he said, and he decided to retire last year and give another Hispanic a chance on the Council.

Garcia spent most of his time talking about issues, such as air pollution, disposal of solid waste and making the streets more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly. He also said he would like to put offices for neighborhood affairs in various neighborhoods, as is done in Portland, Ore. Asked about the Travis County bond election, Garcia said he was supporting the bonds. He said he had met with environmentalists before Frate Barker Road was removed from the package and learned that they opposed the road’s extension. Subsequently, he said he talked to County Judge Sam Biscoe and urged him to take Frate Barker off the ballot. Once that was done, Garcia said, he took a position in favor of the bonds.

Early voting begins today and continues through Nov. 2. The election is Nov. 6.

Rather explains position on bonds

Environmentalists must deal with traffic challenge

Environmentalist Robin Rather told In Fact Daily that she was “very severely misquoted” in the Sunday American-Statesman concerning the Travis County bonds. This is what she really wants to say: “First, traffic is a quality of life problem for almost everyone in Central Texas. We need lots of transportation options for people to choose from. I’ve supported SH-130 since it was moved to the eastern alignment. I-35 is a deathtrap and a traffic nightmare. Getting trucks, hazmat vehicles and NAFTA-related through traffic out of the central downtown district is important. SH-130 won’t solve all the problems associated with I-35 but it’s a start. We need light rail, very intensified alternative transportation solutions such as telecommuting and other demand-reducing mechanisms as well as these roads. No one thing is going to work. We need all the options we can get.”

“ SH-45 North is also badly needed. Most of the other drainage projects, etc. are worthy and I have no problem with soccer fields. More than 90% of these bonds are for infrastructure improvements in the Desired Development Zone. If we want to move growth away from the aquifer, we’re going to have to get used to the idea of investing in infrastructure in an easterly direction. I vehemently opposed Frate Barker because it was a) right over some of our most sensitive environmental assets and b) it cut through conservation land already paid for with bonds . . . The words ‘protect the environment’ and ‘create less traffic’ should not be mutually exclusive. As an environmentalist, I want to be practical. Until we come up with a plan to either stop growth in Austin or stop people from driving, we’re going to need multi-modal traffic solutions for people to choose from.”

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

City Council returns this week . . . Thursday could be a long day, with numerous items requiring discussion. The Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan is once again on the agenda, although it could easily be postponed again. Representatives of the Hyde Park Baptist Church and the neighborhood planning team are scheduled to meet again today to try to iron out their differences. A planning team member told In Fact Daily that she feels more hopeful about resolving their differences than she did previously . . . More money for City Hall . . . The Council is being asked to approve a resolution to amend the city’s contract with architects Cotera Kolar Negrete & Reed for up to $200,000 in additional cost estimating and engineering services for the design of the new City Hall, Public Plaza and Parking Garage. If amended, the total contract would be about $5,383,000 . . . Wimberley hires expensive help . . . The Village of Wimberley has hired Stephen J. Harrison to be part-time city manager. Harrison is currently city manager for Kyle and the owner of Harrison & Associates, a management and security consulting firm in Dripping Springs. One city official said Harrison has agreed to compensation of $55,000 per year . . . Ready, set, vote! . . . Early voting for Mayor of Austin and for Travis County bonds, as well as some state constitutional amendments begins today. Most polls will be open from 7am to 7pm Monday-Saturday and noon to 6pm on Sunday. You can vote downtown at the Travis County Courthouse. There are numerous other polling places, including H.E.B. stores on E. 7th St., in Pflugerville, at Four Points, S. Congress, William Cannon, Ed Bluestein Blvd, Oak Hill and Bee Caves (Highway 71 West). Early voting ends on Nov. 2 for the Nov. 6 election.

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