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Harper-Madison looks to spark D1 civic involvement in 2023

Thursday, December 22, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

After completing her fourth year in office, City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison wishes she’d known from her first day roughly as much as she knows now about the workings of city government. Her thinking: There should be an apparatus that teaches basic process and procedures to residents who want to know more about their city, as well as a more robust orientation and education track for newly elected Council members.

To that end, Harper-Madison sees 2023 as a transformative year for her office with the creation of a sort of incubator pilot program that will bring hopeful public servants in for limited full-time stints to try to remedy a problem or need in their neighborhood.

“Basically I’m going to take people as a small cohort and come in. You want speed bumps in your neighborhood? Great. Come on in and figure out how to do it. Talk to (the Transportation Department), get your badge, do what you got to do. Work for City Hall for 12 hours, really see how this works. I think if we’re lucky, we’re going to get my successor and their successor in this program that I’m going to pilot out of my office.”

Harper-Madison talks with urgency about the need to show citizens how many responsibilities are involved in public office, and how long the time horizons will be for the work of Project Connect and other ambitious city projects to come to fruition. Her hope is to “build the bench” of potential civil servants sourced from District 1, so East Austin will have improved public engagement and a say in policies affecting the area.

“To some degree, the folks that I’m legislating for are 5 years old right now. They won’t see what I did for 20 years,” she said. “What I’m trying to do to get it organized is think about the big bullets. The biggest thing we do that’s the most important are things that are around 200-year infrastructure, I-35, Project Connect, and housing, housing, housing, housing.”

In reviewing the past year, she said actions such as the increase in the city’s minimum wage, increased housing supply including affordable units downtown, and work on major east side corridors such as East 11th Street are among the most important. She takes pride in getting the Colony Park development project approved to begin construction, despite an $83 million funding gap that was discovered over the summer and nearly put the project on hold again.

Instead, by way of ongoing questioning of nearly all significant city expenditures that were possibly taking resources away from the development, city staff restructured the deal with Catellus Development Corp. to remedy the financing issue and move it forward for final Council approval.

“I had to not let one meeting transpire that talked about the city making any investment where I didn’t say, what about Colony Park? I quite literally said it at every meeting, even if it had nothing to do with development of residential communities. I said, oh, OK, we’re talking about money. What about Colony Park? I made a nuisance of myself is what I did.”

With that long-gestating project finally moving forward, Harper-Madison has turned her attention a bit farther east toward the enhancement plans for Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park, which she said has the potential to be the “Central Park of Austin” if the city can devote the proper resources to it over the next decade-plus.

That would likely mean voter approval of a substantial parks bond in 2024 that Harper-Madison said could also address the needs of major local fixtures such as the Palm School and the Travis County Expo Center, which sits on land owned by the city.

“The bond vote has to involve all of our critical spaces in the city, and there’s some discussions happening,” she said. “I want to make enhancements to the Millennium (Youth Entertainment Complex), Walter E. Long park, which is another giant parks asset, and some other adjacent assets that folks don’t even know we have,” she said. “They’ve been languishing and in disrepair and people don’t even know about some of the amazing assets that District 1 has, but I’m going to change that.”

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