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Alter wants Austinites to be ‘captains’ of city’s growth

Tuesday, January 3, 2017 by Jack Craver

Compared to City Council Member Sheri Gallo, the lifelong Austinite whom she is replacing on Council, Alison Alter is definitely a newcomer to the city. But these days, a person who has lived in town for five-and-a-half years is barely considered new in America’s fastest-growing city.

“I do think that there are a lot of people who are new to Austin and care deeply about Austin and have comparative references that could be very valuable to the city,” said Alter in an interview with the Austin Monitor. “You don’t have to have lived here your entire life to make a difference.”

Alter will represent the West Austin District 10 after triumphing over Gallo in a Dec. 13 runoff election. Gallo ran far ahead of Alter in the Nov. 8 general election, taking 48 percent of the more than 36,000 votes cast to Alter’s 35.5 percent and falling just short of the outright majority she needed to avoid a runoff. However, Gallo was unable to get many of her supporters to the polls for the second round, and Alter ended up taking 64 percent of the 14,820 votes cast on Dec. 13.

Alter’s campaign was largely driven by those who saw Gallo as being on the wrong side of two contentious planned unit developments: the Grove at Shoal Creek and Austin Oaks. While Alter and many of her supporters have not argued against approval of either development, they have pushed for changes resisted by the developers.

There’s not much Alter can do about the Grove at this point, however. Council approved the PUD three days after her election victory, in spite of her calling on her future colleagues to delay the vote until she joined them on the dais.

Alter is disappointed that she didn’t get a chance to weigh in on the PUD.

“I think the people spoke very loud and clear, and I think it was unfortunate that they chose to move forward despite the election,” she said, adding that she believed Council could have done “much better for the city” by continuing to address neighbors’ concerns about the massive mixed-use development.

Although the final PUD that was approved included a number of concessions to the neighborhood coalition that had organized to oppose the initial plan, Alter suggested the city did not demand nearly enough affordable housing or traffic mitigation from the developer, and she worries that it will set a bad precedent for future developments.

But, she added, “We can talk about the Grove until we’re blue in the face, but it passed, and now we have to make sure that it’s the best possible development and that (the developers) follow through on the commitments they made.”

Alter struck a similar tone on Austin Oaks, which has still not been approved. Among her concerns are traffic, the potential loss of heritage trees and the height of the buildings proposed, which she said could set a precedent for taller buildings along MoPac Expressway.

She also hopes to preserve Lions Municipal Golf Course, the city-operated public course that sits on land owned by the University of Texas, which is considering leasing the prime West Austin real estate to a more profitable tenant, such as a commercial or residential developer.

Alter called MUNY, as it is nicknamed, “the lungs of Central Austin” whose preservation is important to neighbors in the area.

Alter insisted, however, that she is not anti-development.

“I’m not saying don’t grow and don’t build. But we have to have infrastructure that supports the density that we’re putting in,” she said. Rather than merely coping with the inevitable growth of a booming city, she said, residents must be proactive in shaping the growth and “being the captains of where it leads.”

A former member of the Parks and Recreation Board (appointed and later removed by Gallo), Alter said that Council must confront both the lack of parks in certain parts of the city as well as the poor maintenance of existing parks. She would like to establish a strike fund for city green spaces.

Alter said she hopes Council can deliver property tax relief to homeowners but that it is not “fiscally sound” to approve homestead tax exemptions – as Council has done two years in a row – without identifying budget cuts to make up for the lost revenue.

A supporter of the $720 million transportation bond that voters approved in November, Alter said the city needs a multi-pronged approach to solving its traffic woes, including road improvements and more public transit. She is concerned about the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposed new bus plan, which could result in fewer buses in District 10.

“We’re asking (District 10 residents) to shoulder more density but taking away the service that makes it more livable,” she said, pointing out that Capital Metro’s proposed plan would scrap the bus line that serves the future site of the Grove.

As for rail, Alter is in favor of it, but said the city needs to come up with a plan that voters can support.

Above all, she said she hopes to keep up the grassroots fervor that drove her campaign and direct it in ways that will benefit her district and the city.

“There are lots of pockets of District 10 that are really mobilized right now,” she said. “I see part of my role as a Council member as helping to channel that into activities that can be productive.”

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