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New DAA president talks Austin

Friday, March 20, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

After a month at the helm of the Downtown Austin Alliance, president and CEO De Peart says he has gotten to know Austinites and their issues a bit better.

Peart moved here from Pittsburgh, where he was executive vice president of economic development and public affairs at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, president of the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

He spoke last week with the Monitor about his impressions of Austin — so far — and what sets the city apart from other places.

“The city is so young,” said Peart. “You can really feel the difference. … (It’s) not necessarily the age of people, but that’s part of it, and there are a lot of young faces. But just the way that everyone acts … even people from my generation act much differently here, in Austin, than they do in the Midwest.”

He says that vibrancy is the reason he wanted to come to Austin. “There is an energy here that is unlike a lot of the places you see in this country right now,” Peart said. He sees how that youthful energy contributes to the growth of the city.

“I think it’s a town that wants to be a city. … The people who have been here for a while may not see that, but there’s a lot of things that Austin can do to really help it become one of the best cities in the country.

“Everyone has a chance to shape what this place is going to become,” Peart continued. “It’s still in that transition. A lot of places around this country — Cleveland, Pittsburgh — are trying to remake themselves. Austin is making itself. That is exciting.”

Though it is exciting, Peart notes that “making” a city has its own issues. Unlike cities that are remaking themselves and managing decline, Austin has to manage growth. That growth, and how to accommodate it, are what he sees as the biggest challenges to the city. As a result, he says, transportation and infrastructure are primary concerns.

“You need to be planning for that growth decades in advance. If you aren’t planning for it, if you don’t have a strong regional plan, you’re not going to be successful in matching the demands,” said Peart. “Whereas in a city that is basically remaking itself, you’re trying to unwind some of those investments that were made many decades ago — maybe a century ago. It’s a whole different set of issues.”

Of course, there is also the city’s development process. One of the biggest complaints Peart has heard is that developing downtown is “extremely challenging” compared to other places.

“It’s the codes; it’s the requirements; it’s the permitting process and working through the whole system. There is certain streamlining that can be done,” said Peart. “Now, granted, there is a lot of construction that is going on here, so the system is a little bit taxed. It’s overburdened. So how do you solve some of those issues?”

CodeNEXT, he said, is the right step to be taking, and the DAA is involved with that ongoing work to revise the city’s Land Development Code. However, even that undertaking will not solve some of the more interesting challenges to downtown development, like the Capitol View corridors and other development hurdles.

“At the same time, having strict requirements improves the quality of what you are building, so in all of this you want to make sure … you have the highest quality development that is going to last and make the place a special place where people want to be,” said Peart.

Though this will be his first experience with South by Southwest, Peart was enthusiastic about the festival just before it began. He said it has helped put Austin on the map, globally, and brand the city in a way that is recognizable nationwide.

Peart sees balancing downtown events and construction with a quality of life for downtown residents as both a challenge and an opportunity.

“Most cities around this country would die to have the problems Austin has,” said Peart. “They would die to have the numbers of young people, smart people, moving to their town. I think we all need to welcome that, accept that, and just figure out how to work together to make it the best we can.”

 

 

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