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Downtown puzzle up for vote Thursday

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Consideration of Mayor Steve Adler’s complex “downtown puzzle” resolution will apparently move forward on Thursday despite doubts some of his colleagues have expressed about the timing and about a key piece of the plan: expansion of the Austin Convention Center.

When the item came up at Tuesday’s work session, Adler called on City Council Member Ann Kitchen, the fifth sponsor of the proposal. Kitchen proposed a Council working group composed of the mayor and four other Council members.

That group, Kitchen said, would work on understanding all the complicated issues implied by the downtown puzzle, including expansion of the Hotel Occupancy Tax, creation of a tourism public improvement district and possible extension of the Waller Creek Tax Increment Financing Reinvestment Zone.

All of these mechanisms are part of the proposal to generate funding to help the homeless, support the local music industry, preserve Latino and black culture, and preserve historic sites.

Council Member Delia Garza said that she intends to propose changes to the resolution on Thursday to make clear that Council is not endorsing expansion of the convention center or the other financial tools described in the resolution.

Kitchen told Garza she shared her concerns and wanted the working group to work with staff to figure out the best way to move forward with the process of analyzing each piece of the puzzle.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who has also expressed skepticism about expanding the convention center, said the puzzle resolution “made it sound like we had already taken a vote on expanding the convention center and that we were all in support of that, and we actually haven’t even had that conversation.”

She continued, “We’ve talked about all the different things that we might be able to do with money that might flow at some undetermined time at some unknown amount and we have not gone straight in and talked about does this dais agree that we should expand the downtown convention center? And I think for transparency and accountability that is a question that we have to take up, which is why I am real supportive of pulling out and severing the various different elements so that we can deal with each one individually with all their unique pros and cons.”

On Monday, the Austin Monitor reported that Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Ora Houston, Alison Alter and Pool had all posted messages on the City Council Message Board expressing their discomfort with moving forward on Thursday without a work session or additional chance to review the puzzle and its various pieces.

Alter wrote, “I sense that there is discomfort over more than just the process here. Fundamentally, we have not had a chance to craft either the frame nor the elements of the vision for downtown together as a Council. Nor have we examined some of the underlying assumptions. … In my view each component of the puzzle merits its own work session and perhaps more.”

In response, Adler wrote, “An amendment is under consideration that would allow the process to move forward, but would also allow Council Members to be a part of it so as to be able to continue to ask questions, test concerns, and refine the concept.” He was obviously referring to Kitchen’s working group.

But Alter seemed unconvinced Tuesday as she asked Interim City Manager Elaine Hart, “What is the direction that you need at this point? … I want to hear from you on the kind of direction that you need to keep the ball moving on these and would a working group be useful – would it just be another extra thing that you have to staff, that is not going to move things forward?”

Hart replied, “Frankly, another working group would slow our work down as staff. We typically bring a package work as we finish it and what this (resolution) did was put a framework around it. But we need time to work on these projects. And as we would get the work done we certainly would bring them back to the Council or a work session or for whatever briefings and answer whatever questions the Council would have. I think that’s what we’ve been doing all along. … I think that the direction we need is that y’all would like to see all of this addressed and we’ll start working on all of them.”

Kitchen clarified that the working group was not intended to help staff, but help Council with vetting process. If Council does not want to do the work group process, she said, “that’s fine,” but because of the complexity and importance of the different parts of the puzzle, “we’re going to have a lot of questions.”

Adler said the point of having the working group was to keep monitoring the staff to make sure that they were working on the questions that Council has about the various parts of the puzzle.

Garza then asked the mayor whether he would be open to changing the wording in the resolution directing staff to bring back “as soon as is timely and practicable, ordinances, agreements and any other tools necessary,” for Council to “assemble the Downtown Puzzle plan.”

Eventually, Adler seemed to agree to some changes to the wording, but it’s not clear what that will look like. After the meeting, Garza told the Monitor that she would be working with Tovo on proposed changes to the resolution. Tovo was not at Tuesday’s work session because she was in Denver on city business escorting a group touring the city. She has also expressed reservations about the downtown puzzle, particularly expansion of the convention center.

Council Member Greg Casar asked Adler to call up his item regarding convening a stakeholder process to get feedback about paid sick leave for private employers “after dinner” on Thursday. Adler agreed and told his colleagues that he expects the downtown puzzle item to come up after dinner also. He said he expects considerable interest in the item, an indication that the downtown business community will be working hard to pass the resolution.

By Dtobias (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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