Senator Kirk Watson responded in the comments to my criticism of his bill to incorporate the Congress Avenue Overlay into state law. I don't get many comments from elected officials, much less state senators, so the comment rates its own post.
Thanks for opening this discussion about the bill I've filed with Rep. Howard to preserve the most famous view of one of our most famous and important buildings in Austin. A couple of points I think I need to make:
First of all, this legislation would preserve what the City of Austin has done - it reinforces what the city has passed and implemented, and it acknowledges the variances that the council has already passed. That's the opposite of Austin-bashing bills that seek to undo a city policy or program. This aligns state law with city policy, and it helps ensure that the legislature won't work to actually undermine that policy in the future to help projects that the city doesn't want.
Beyond that, let's face it: the Capitol View Corridor is a technical name for something that the people of Austin place enormous value in. The view of the Capitol, and this view from Congress in particular, is an iconic part of the Capitol City - you see that every time someone stops when crossing Congress (hopefully with the walk sign) to take a picture of the Capitol up the street. It's been a vital part of this city since Edwin Waller first laid out the streets for our downtown in 1839 and designated this part of the city for the Capitol.
I remember the complaints in the late-80s about how new high-rises were blocking the view of the Capitol, and the grim jokes about how developers were going to start building in the middle of the street. How would Austinites react if 21st Century high-rises encroached on their Capitol view even more? No other Texas city has this wonderful downtown resource; it can't be the first thing we sacrifice in the name of making things easier for certain developers and property owners.
Furthermore, keep in mind, this beautiful building is in Austin, but it belongs to all of Texas. Legislators from other places like that they and their constituents can see it. It's much, much better to get rules in place before there's a problem than to deal with repercussions after a problematic project goes up.
One other point that needs to be made: there's no question that there should be opportunities to enhance our 24-hour downtown. But the notion that a lively downtown requires huge new buildings that encroach on the Capitol view and violate longstanding city policy is simply wrong. The Warehouse District, Sixth Street, South Congress and the Second Street Retail District - to name just four - all speak to that.
So it's a false choice to say that we have to choose between creating a vibrant section of downtown or preserving a famous, beloved view of the Capitol. Instead, what Rep. Howard's and my bill declares is that developers have to conform with Austin's figurative view of its downtown and our literal views within downtown. The bill rejects piecemeal development that's done on-the-cheap and variance-by-variance. And it ensures our community's face and its future aren't made subservient to private-sector profits.
I understand there are problematic properties on Congress that are difficult to develop under these long-standing rules and policies. But it's not the responsibility of the people of Austin and Texas to sacrifice something we hold dear and fundamental to our identity simply to solve the problems of the private sector. And don't forget, even if this bill passes, any indisputably good development can still come to the legislature and get exempted from this law.
So this bill doesn't end development on Congress. It simply limits bad development that encroaches on something Austinites hold dear, and it helps us preserve this thing that makes Austin special.
I appreciate the response and will put up something later responding to a few of these points.