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Neal Kocurek's legacy: outstanding public service

Tuesday, March 30, 2004 by

Praise unanimous for community leader, who died at 67

Dr. Neal Kocurek, whose resume, awards and areas of endeavor spanned multiple decades as well as pages, died unexpectedly yesterday at the age of 67. He had suffered a stroke on Sunday evening. Kocurek, President and CEO of St. David’s Health Care System, was known and respected by Austin leaders in the areas of education, transportation, energy and economic development. “Today Austin has lost as fine a citizen as we’ve ever produced,” Mayor Will Wynn said. “His presence will be missed throughout this community.”

“I was fortunate to get to know and work with Neal first as a board member of Vision 2010,” Wynn added. Along with that project of the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Mayor later worked with Kocurek as one of the co-founders of Envision Central Texas. “His commitment to this community came across so loud and clear no matter what the specific project may have been,” Wynn said. “It’s remarkable what he’s done for health care, but the same thing can be said for planning, transportation, youth sports, business; it’s just all across the board. His commitment was absolutely remarkable—I would say without equal.” Wynn said the Council would not meet until noon on Thursday so that Council members could attend Kocurek’s funeral, which is scheduled for Thursday morning.

Praise for Kocurek’s dedication came pouring forth from all segments of the community on Monday as word of his passing spread across town. Because of his involvement in a wide variety of issues, almost every important civic leader had encountered Kocurek over the past 25 years. He was a charter member of the City of Austin’s Electric Utility Commission, serving side by side with Shudde Fath for the past 27 years. “I’m devastated. I couldn’t say enough good things about him,” Fath said yesterday. “He was everything . . . intelligent, hardworking, honest, civic minded. I don’t know of anybody who did as many diverse things for the community.”

In retrospect, the breadth of Kocurek’s commitment over the years to various civic causes is quite remarkable. Most recently, he served on the Hospital District Steering Committee. “Neal was a vital member of the steering committee, a great contributor to its vision for what health care ought to be,” said Steering Committee President Clarke Heidrick.“Neal was just a great human being and had great insight, great intellect, great energy.” Other leaders in the health care field praised Kocurek for his efforts to ensure medical care was available to the entire community. “The thing I remember most clearly about Neal is that whenever the community needed something done that was complicated, difficult and needed sustained effort, people turned to Neal,” said Charles Barnett, president and CEO of the Seton Healthcare Network.

Barnett noted that Kocurek had worked closely with Pat Hayes of Seton on various health-related issues, including increasing the numbers of nursing students at Austin Community College. “A year ago they were recognized nationally for the work we’ve done collaboratively,” he said.

And while Kocurek’s involvement in the Hospital District campaign and boosting the number of nursing students might seem to be a natural for an executive with a major health care provider, his involvement in public life reached far beyond those issues which touched directly on his employer. He served as a board member of Envision Central Texas, and those closely involved in the regional planning process say it could not have been as successful without his guidance and perseverance. “It was a blessing for us to have Neal,” said ECT Executive Director Beverly Silas. “His insight into the region was just so vital for this project. In addition to that, his insight to people was just invaluable. I don’t know of anyone else who could have brought all of the stakeholder groups to the table and been successful at it.”

Kocurek’s ability to deal even-handedly with people on both sides of contentious issues is a common theme among those who worked with him on some of the most divisive debates that have faced Austin over the past three decades. “The Convention Center was as notorious as the airport in terms of unproductive and failing votes,” recalled former Mayor Bruce Todd. “Even on the last try, there was a great deal of dissenting opinions on several areas, including locations. Neal was the one person who had the intellect, perseverance and properly perceived credibility to bring different viewpoints together and decide on what was a successful vote on a very successful Convention Center.”

Todd also noted that Kocurek’s position as a community volunteer, along with his obvious dedication, meant that parties on both sides of a controversial issue could freely consider his ideas. “Neal sort of embodied the concept of trustworthiness. With advice from him, you would have zero doubt that it was intended for anything but the best interest of the community,” Todd said. “I cannot think of a community leader who was involved in more aspects of the community than he was.”

At Monday night’s AISD Board Meeting, Superintendent Pat Forgione paused to remember Kocurek’s service to that organization and the children of Austin. He served as a Co-Chair of AISD’s Comprehensive Planning Process, was a board member of the A+ Coalition serving Austin’s schools and a board member of the Partners in Education program. “Neal has been a strong advocate and crusader for public schools and our children all of his life,” said Forgione, who was visibly shaken. “Neal was an advisor, a mentor for district leaders, a personal friend and a friend of the district. He gave so much—always of himself—to our schools. The success of our students will be his living legacy for the years and years to come.”

Along with his efforts to improve education and the community, Kocurek was just as active in local business affairs. The founder of environmental engineering service firm Radian International LLC (now part of URS Corp.) held a PhD in Electrical Engineering from UT. He was a long-time volunteer with Leadership Austin, and recently served as a board member of the Greater Austin Economic Development Corporation as part of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce effort to bring new jobs to Austin. And he was a two-term president of the Austin Area Research Organization. “He was a great man, a friend, a mentor, a teacher,” said AARO Executive Director Barbara Johnson. “He transformed AARO from being an organization that would, in good faith, research and study issues to one that was proactive about doing something about it. And as part of that, he galvanized the membership to be actively engaged in helping to both formulate and shape and change public policy that was going to affect the long-term quality of life for the region.”

Although Kocurek never ran for elected office, his influence was felt by those who did. Former Mayor Kirk Watson recalled his first-ever meeting with Kocurek at a community function. “I was mesmerized by him; first by his depth of knowledge . . . and the role he thought service should play in people’s day-to-day lives,” said Watson. “I remember at that point thinking ‘I’ve got to know this guy better.’ I learned a great deal from him. I’m honored by the fact that I got to spend time getting to watch him work and be involved with him.” Former City Council Member Brigid Shea shared that sentiment. “I’ve certainly followed what he has done and admired his incredible devotion to the community and community issues,” she said. “I’m just in awe of the amount of time and energy and dedication he had on any number of issues.”

The Board of Director’s at St. David’s Health Care System has named Carol Clark as Interim President. An attorney at the firm of Graves Dougherty Hearon and Moody, she has been a long-time counsel to St. David’s and will take a leave of absence from the law firm to step into her role at the health care system. “We are deeply saddened by the loss of this extraordinary person, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family,” said Alfred King, chair of the St. David’s Health Care System Board of Directors. Kocurek is survived by his three children, his wife and his parents.

Commission begins work on design standards

The Design Commission had a wide-ranging discussion last night of proposed site and building design standards for commercial development in the city.

The recommendation from the Transportation, Planning and Sustainability Department circulating among commissions is still more of a conceptual approach than a detailed proposal. The first draft includes a mission statement and an overview of a possible framework. A list of required development standards and a menu of building design options are also under review.

Last night, the Design Commission hashed out some of the broad concepts and approaches for commercial development. Many of the commissioners attended Council Member Brewster McCracken’s briefing on the potential standards last Wednesday. The commission has appointed a subcommittee to draft recommendations on the design standards.

The staff’s approach is a “form-based code” that responds to both form and scale, depending on where a building is located within the city ( Drinking Water Protection Zone or Desired Development Zone), within a district or neighborhood (neighborhood plan or overlay district) and its location along a particular type of roadway.

The thorny issues that concerned the Design Commission are the same issues being tackled by city staff, said Planner Katie Larsen, who facilitated last night’s discussion. “Where do you have pedestrian orientation? Where do you have automobile orientation?

We’re trying to figure out where each occurs,” Larsen said. “We’re talking about design standards that are based on roadway type.”

Commissioners were fairly unified in their desire to see development fit the scope and scale of the surrounding architecture. Less conclusive was whether the city should be prescriptive and define the exact kind of stone or paint that might be required for development to “look like Austin.”

Commissioners were much more comfortable with design guidelines dictated by function, rather than specifying a particular look for Austin development. But Commissioner Girard Kinney noted that it was not a bad idea to have a certain Austin “brand” to commercial development, not unlike what is occuring in Phoenix.

According to the preliminary proposal from city staff, development regulations such as setbacks and heights would be measured against the type of roadway. The roads would range from highway, urban roadway, premium transit corridor and environmental roadway. Each has a different set of standards.

The urban roadway would be inner city arterials or collectors. Environmental roadways would be those city-designated scenic roadways or any roadway crossing environmentally sensitive land. The premium transit corridor, where mixed-use development would be maximized, is still undefined. The general idea, however, would be to include corridors with mass transit options on the scale of Burnet, Lamar and possibly Riverside Drive.

Members of the Design Commission generally appeared to support zoning based on roadways and keyed into some of the staff arguments. Larsen said it made no sense to require pedestrian orientation on a street that would clearly get no pedestrian use. Commissioner Phil Reed noted that pedestrian development along suburban roadways might not always make as much sense as development along urban roadways.

Commissioners discussed issues such as setbacks and site plans. Commissioner Eleanor McKinney explained that the site plan was often as important as the building plan. She asked whether the city should be offering more site play layout assistance prior to filing. She noted the new Home Depot on Brodie Lane as one example of how the placement of a large building on the site could make a development more palatable to the community.

If the Council agrees with the roadway approach during a briefing on April 22, then the Transportation, Planning and Sustainability staff will be faced with the work of specifying roadways and designating specific guidelines for consideration. This month’s feedback will be analyzed and a final presentation of design guidelines will be presented this summer, Larsen said.

No city meetings today . . . This is the fifth week of the month, so neither the Planning Commission nor the Zoning and Platting Commission, which alternate meeting during the first four weeks of each month, will meet tonight. No other city meetings have been scheduled . . . City Council meeting . . . The Council will meet at noon this Thursday, instead of at the usual 10am, to allow Council members to attend the funeral of Dr. Neal Kocurek (see above) . . . Chamber delegation looking for dollars . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher, City Manager Toby Futrell, Commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Gerald Daugherty and State Rep. Mike Krusee are among those visiting Washington, DC this week in search of money for transportation projects. This week is also the beginning of the district’s National Cherry Blossom Festival. Festival organizers expect nearly one million people to participate in this year’s festivities . . . Community Connections . . . Capital Metro has invited more than 100 civic leaders to a Community Connections workshop on Saturday, from 8:30am to 1pm. The event, which is intended to show how transit investments can enhance a neighborhood or business district, will be held at the Thompson Conference Center at the University of Texas. Spokesman Sam Archer said Capital Metro invests at least $2 million a year in amenities. The workshop is intended to prioritize those investments.

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