A Lone Star city rises in brilliance at sensible speed
Austin, Texas — At 9 o'clock each morning Archie Green struts out of his one-bedroom Austin apartment and treks a few blocks to work. Usually shirt-sleeved, he plucks a few pecans off the trees canopying the streets along the way.
''I love Austin,'' said the rumpled professor of folklore from his book-choked office at the University of Texas, cracking a pecan with a piece of Texas red granite. ''I like it for its laid-back quality, its small-town features.''
Water, hiking trails, rolling hills, sailing--yes, even pecans--these are what have helped make Austin one of the country's most appealing midsized cities.
But it is also assured a place as one of America's new-styled urban frontiers , whose information-age economy can bank its future on the growth of high-technology companies, the intellectual power of the University of Texas, and certain eminence as the capital of the Lone Star State.
A swatch of green in a state better known for tumbleweed and dust bowls, Austin is finding that word of its allure has been leaking out. Its population has been spiraling upward like a Texas twister, and businesses are snapping up pieces of its rolling real estate.
Today, as a result, a number of Austinites are crying, ''Whoa!'' Worried about everything from fouled water reservoirs to longer lines at the tennis court, they are battling to maintain their city's small-town charm against the onslaught of more urbanization.
''Austin is a unique city at a very important crossroads,'' said Larry Deuser , an environment-minded city councilor. ''I just don't think we should open the floodgates and say the heck with Austin.''
Some slow-growthers here jest about issuing bulletins pinpointing, foot by foot, Houston's urban ooze toward Austin some 150 miles away.
This compact yet cosmopolitan city has become one of the first in the burgeoning Sunbelt to seriously question growth. Residents are searching for the middle path between preserving Austin museumlike for eternity and becoming what most here believe to be the ultimate in urban excess, Houston.
Others prefer the open-range policy to growth. ''There is just no way you can stop the growth here,'' said Freddie R. Miller, president of the Austin National Bank, the city's only billion-dollar bank.
In 1981, for instance, commercial real estate transactions (from shopping centers to office buildings) in Austin climbed 38 percent over the year before, more than double the increase of any other major Texas city, according to Dresco Inc., a Dallas-based real estate investment firm.
''We had predicted that San Antonio was to be the sleeping giant of the 1980s ,'' said Betty Roddy, Dresco vice-president. ''It looks like Austin is going to be.''
The city owes part of its charm to a freak of nature. Austin sits on a geological fault line, giving it a wrinkled surface in a state better known for table-flat plains. The Colorado River (unlike its Western namesake, this one flows east of the Continental Divide) kinks its way through the city and has been dammed to create a series of lakes, framed by miles of parks and jogging trails.
For businesses, however, there is more than greenery here. Austin just happens to be a likable place in a state that many consider to be one of the last great bastions of free enterprise. There is no corporate or personal income tax here, the work force has proven relatively union resistant, and a dollar still stretches farther here than in most cities.
On top of this, Austin is home to the University of Texas, a pool of Sunbelt brainpower which has lured many companies, particularly high-technology ones, to the Austin area, and developed some new ones of its own. IBM, Motorola, Texas Instruments, and Tracor Inc. have plants here. A string of others are coming in, adding to Texas's rise as a ''silicon prairie.''
Unlike many budding high-tech centers around the country, Austin has an unusual mix of idea people and widget builders. ''Here we've got the research and development, entrepreneurs, as well as the production facilities and marketers,'' said George Kozmetsky, dean of the University of Texas Graduate School of Business.
What's more, the university is moving strongly into the technologies of the 1980s-- robotics, energy, biotechnology, microelectronics, telecommunications-- which should give the area an edge over some other communities.
Chase Econometrics forecasts Austin's job growth in the 1980s at 3.8 percent per year, sixth highest in the country. (Three other Texas cities ranked in the top 10: Dallas-Fort Worth, El Paso, and Houston, the highest.)
No need to remind residents here of that. They watched their ''town'' grow faster than any other city in Texas in the 1970s, to 345,000 people. By the year 2000, the metropolitan area could top 1 million.
In 20 years the city has transformed from a university and state government town into a thriving business center in its own right. The city's jobless rate has been running at less than 3.5 percent, although in January it swelled to an unheard-of 4.6 percent. But the figures do not reveal the level of underemployment: It is not uncommon to find people with PhDs parking cars or waiting tables.
In manners, Austin seems unsure whether it wants to be big or small. On the one hand, it has changed in 20 years from a steak-and-movie town into something of an urban sophisticate with restaurants from Russian to Lebanese to Italian. Its symphony is well respected, and local ballet troupes draw enthusiastic crowds. The city has no major areas of urban decay, although it does have its sections of ramshackle tin-roofed houses. In the downtown the closest thing the city gets to a skid row, Sixth Street, is being revived with small cafes and boutiques.
On the other hand, there is its hometown feel. Hearty ''howdies'' can still be heard from people on street. Open-collared shirts are OK in even the best restaurants. Cab drivers, after taking your fare, will tell you not to work too hard, and mean it. A few of the honky-tonk bars that once throbbed with the music of local boys like Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker still produce some original country ballads.
Austin, in short, is a blend of pin-stripe suits, cowboy boots, and book-toting students. It is out of this social soup that the city is trying to shape its future.
Founded in 1839 by five horsemen dispatched to find the best place to locate the state capital, Austinites seem as worried today about their appearance as they did then. In recent years a hodgepodge of neighborhood groups, environmentalists, and a few paradise-seeking newcomers have tried to slow the city's slide toward urbanization.
In 1979 the slow-growthers helped discourage the Michelin Tire Corporation from locating a $100 million manufacturing plant here. Last summer, Motorola was given the go-ahead to set up an electronics assembly plant in an environmentally sensitive part of the city--but only after a tussle and several votes in city council to secure services.
More recently, in the face of a record half billion dollars in new building permits issued for the city in 1981, movements have been under way to limit the height of downtown buildings to avoid marring the view of the city's chief landmark, the pink granite Capitol. Next week Austinites go to the polls to vote on the latest growth issue: whether to extend a major highway on one edge of the city.
Amid the ''No Vacancy'' bumper stickers and a light-hearted fund drive aimed at building an ''escape-proof fence around Houston and Dallas,'' some city planners see one immediate concern: coming up with the necessary sewer, water, and other services to meet the expanding population. The anti-growth backlash has helped defeat three bond packages in the last few years. Another is slated for later this year.
''The challenge we face is keeping up with capital improvements and being able to politically change so we don't end up like Houston,'' said Carole McClellan, the city's three-term mayor who wants more (but planned) growth. ''The majority of people in Austin are for responsible, reasonable growth. We have a very vocal group that wants to shut the town down.''
A chief worry among those advocating a go-slow approach--which includes several on the city council--is water. Some residents worry about pollutants showing up in area watersheds and reservoirs, including the coveted Barton Springs, a spring-fed outdoor pool where residents can swim year round. Others fret about the impact of growth on tightly knit neighborhoods and the loss of local control to ''outside financiers'' (defined as money from California as well as Canada).
''The growth in Austin, Texas, is occurring around us and through us--but not with us,'' says Paul Hernandez, executive director of the East Austin Chicano Economic Development Corporation.
Yet this approach has bumped headlong into the can-do spirit sweeping much of today's Texas. Many business and civic leaders, in something of a backlash to the anti-growth backlash, see the Austin dynamo continuing to roll along. As they see it, the goal should be to guide it, not stop it. Stifling growth will only lead to a patchwork planning, higher costs, and fewer services.
Still, out of the Austin potpourri of potential and protest could come a new approach to growth management. The city is more politically active than most, and some believe the underpinnings of corporate-community partnership are there. ''The potential is there in Austin to do something different,'' said David C. Perry, a professor of government at the University of Texas. ''It is up for grabs at this point. But it could give us a new model.''
If so, the blueprint would probably differ from those drawn up in Boulder, Colo., and Portland, Ore., of an earlier era. In Texas laissez faire is the catchword. The people of Austin, says Kent Mathewson, an urban affairs expert at UT's Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs, are trying to ''find a way to put their house in order without a whole lot of stringent governmental controls.''
Other cities are looking on.