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Riley cites transportation, WTP4, Formula 1 among top 2011 issues

Thursday, January 5, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Council Member Chris Riley cut his teeth on policy making at the City of Austin’s Planning Commission. There, he was known for delving into the details of cases in such a manner that might keep his colleagues up into the wee hours.


So it should come as no surprise that Riley counts progress on a number of corridor plans among the highlights of a very busy 2011. “One thing that I’m especially interested in is the progress that we are making on major transportation corridors,” he said.


Like most of his colleagues, Riley also suggested that action on the city’s Water Treatment Plant 4 project, the settlement of the wrongful death law suit brought by the family of Nathaniel Sanders, and the city’s dance with a potential 2012 Formula 1 race as other key moments.


Listening to Riley, one realizes just how many corridor plans circulated through city departments in 2011. “The Airport (Boulevard) corridor is one that I’m especially interested in,” he said. “I’m very proud of the progress that we’ve been making there in working with the community towards a vision for bringing new life to the corridor—and setting a model for transforming corridors across the city.”


The Airport plan calls for a form-based code redesign of a segment of the region. Riley’s office spearheaded that effort, which would rezone the area using a holistic approach that would incorporate existing structures and future goals.


Riley rattled off a host of other corridor projects. “We’ve also seen some exciting progress on some other corridors,” he continued. “We continue to work on East Riverside, as well as new efforts on corridors like North Lamar, Burnett, and MLK—as well as I-35. There’s even some interesting work going on on MoPac Boulevard.


“Basically many of our very significant transportation corridors are seeing a level of attention that they haven’t gotten in a long time.”


He links it all to the coming Imagine Austin comprehensive plan. “It gives me hope that the work we’re doing with the comprehensive plan could lead to a meaningful shift in the way we approach development in Austin,” he says. “From a long-term perspective, that shift may prove to be one of the most significant things going on right now.”


A portion of Riley’s time on Council since 2009 found him locked in on the perpetual losing side of the Water Treatment Plant 4 debate. When former planning commissioner Kathie Tovo defeated now-former Council Member Randi Shade, local plant detractors hoped that the event might signal a political shift.


Indeed, Tovo’s presence allowed Council Member Bill Spelman to bring forward a request for city management to vet the costs of halting the project for five or ten years. In the end, that equation proved that it would make more fiscal sense to finish the project. For Riley, that didn’t end the issue.


“What made that issue so hard for many of us…were the questions it raises about water conservation,” he said. “That problem hasn’t gone away. In that respect, resolving issues about Water Treatment Plant 4 doesn’t make the problem any easier. We still have got to focus on water conservation.”


Riley’s position on the Sanders case was complicated. Before Shade’s defeat, he voted with her, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, and then-Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez to kill a potential settlement with Sanders’ family. With Tovo installed on the dais, he changed his mind—even though his vote wasn’t necessary to pass the settlement.


“There were differences between the vote we took this year and the vote we took the first time,” he said. “One significant difference to me was that we settled both cases at the same time, essentially.”


The second case was a suit brought by the family of another young black man shot in the same incident as Sanders. “We had actually settled the Sir Smith case just before we had settled Sanders…The first time that we were presented with a potential settlement on Sanders—I’ve said many times before, and I’ll say it again—at the time, it was the hardest decision that I’ve made,” he continued. “One factor in the consideration was that settling the case at that time would not have actually put the case behind us because we knew that the Smith claim was still out there and settling the Sanders case at $750,000 would likely have driven up the value of the Smith claim that was still out there—that’s what we were hearing.”


Smith ended up with a figure north of $100,000. Riley added that the question of “whether the city was assuming responsibility for errors” in the Sanders shooting “made it difficult at the time to settle for that amount given that there had been no actual finding of wrongdoing on the part of the officer.”


“This year, we had a somewhat different decision to make,” Riley continued. “Not only had the case been pending for a somewhat longer time, but we actually had an opportunity to bring closure to the case with the Smith case (also) being resolved. We now had an opportunity to put it behind us after what seemed like a very long time. To me that shifted the whole issue.”


The Formula 1 race was another big issue for Riley. He worked behind the scenes to come up with conditions that would eventually be attached to the city’s endorsement of the event that would aim to make it a key component of the city’s push for sustainability. “We’ve helped create a foundation for an event that is consistent with the image that we’ve worked hard to achieve over the years as a leader on environmental issues.”


Still, Riley noted that the team behind the F1 project had yet to meet the city on its environmental goals. “We really expected that they would be hiring staff that would include a point of contact on the environmental stuff, that work would continue right up through the event,” he said. “That didn’t happen. And, in fact, (while) the event was in limbo for months, there was no forward progress on any of the environmental stuff.”


In Fact Daily’s Year in Review continues tomorrow.

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