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Riley seeks to transform city by combining jobs, environment

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 by Austin Monitor

When native Austinite Chris Riley helped form the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association in 1997, he did not intend to become one of the city’s prominent neighborhood activists or run for city council. Instead, Riley, an attorney for 19 years and downtown property owner, wanted an organization to meet the needs of his neighborhood.


But his involvement with downtown issues led to seats on both the Planning Commission and the Downtown Commission, and helped Riley see how the city’s infrastructure and economy could grow in a sustainable way. And now he’s running for Place 1 on the Austin City Council.


During an interview in his campaign offices, Riley said his top priority if elected to the Council would be to help the city create and attract new jobs. “The number one thing that overshadows everything is the economy and trying to find ways we can help create jobs,” he said. “It really is a crisis.”


To that end, Riley proposes focusing on “green-collar” jobs and bio-technology, both of which match Austin’s environmental values and existing high-tech sector. But he says that green industries grow blue collar jobs too. “There’s a lot you could do to improve the efficiency of our homes and buildings. Those jobs are not high-tech jobs; a lot of it is using a caulking gun. It’s simple stuff,” he said. “Austin Energy is already working with ACC on green building, we could expand that.”


Although he has made citywide issues the focus of his campaign, he is still interested both in planning and improving downtown. “If your whole assessment of the situation is based on an eyeball view of the skyline, then I can see how you would say that ‘downtown is doing fine’ because you still see work going on. The reality is, the pipeline was cut off some time ago. We are definitely at a pause in the cycle. We are not seeing new projects coming up through the pipeline.”


While some have called for the city to postpone work on a new downtown plan, Riley believes the lull in new development is the perfect opportunity to craft a new long-range vision for downtown’s growth. “When the cycle does come back around and projects do start coming up through that pipeline, we’re ready for them and we don’t have to tackle each one on a case-by-case basis,” he said.


Riley supports the energy audits that are currently required for homeowners in the process of selling their homes but is not calling for mandatory home improvements to reduce energy usage.


“We’re going to have to start being more creative and aggressive in reaching out to homeowners to convey to them the importance of doing these energy-efficiency improvements,” he said. “It doesn’t just have to be at the point of sale. In New York, you’ll get inserts in your utility bill comparing your water electric usage with that of your neighbors. We’ve talked about doing that sort of thing here, but we really haven’t done it.”


In the high-tech sector, Riley believes the Austin Technology Incubator will play a key role in boosting the city’s economy through research into solar energy and bio-technology. “There is a big need within bio-tech for wet lab space. That’s not going to be cheap, but the city could help identify ways to work cooperatively with UT to make some wet lab space available,” he said. “I see a lot more cooperation with ATI to meet the needs of the tech community in a way that could create some jobs.”


Riley shows a special interest in environmental issues. He remodeled his home to meet green building standards and travels by bike, not car. He was involved with the Community Land Trust Committee and served on the city’s Water Conservation Task Force. He also hopes Austin will take advantage of a growing trend toward sustainable food to craft new regulations promoting community gardens and reduce the amount of waste headed to the city’s landfills. “It does seem like we’re behind the curve right now in support for our local food supply,” he said. “The city could be offering some kind of tax benefit for urban farms.”


At the same time, he wants the city TO study ways of diverting more organic waste from the landfill to more productive uses. “There’s a nationwide interest in moving toward zero waste. I like the idea of curb-side composting pickup,” he said. “The long-term vision could be a network of community gardens and urban farms providing a local food supply. The organic materials that are generated…I think it would be cool in the long term if…in every neighborhood there was an urban farm or community garden within a few blocks of a community composting center. It seems like there’s some poetry in that, some efficiency.”


Riley is currently focusing his energies on his Council campaign. He has been an attorney for almost 19 years and served as a staff lawyer for the Texas Supreme Court before joining the Rusk Law Firm. He has been active with the ACLU of Texas and served on the Individual Rights & Responsibilities Section with the State Bar of Texas. He also owns some downtown apartments.


If elected, Riley said, he would not practice law while serving on the City Council. “I want to be able to devote my full attention to my duties as a Council Member,” he said.

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