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George Austin: The end of an era
George Austin leaves a rich legacy as the city's top planner

This article originally appeared in Isthmus on Sept. 19, 1998.

The first time George Austin appeared on the cover of Isthmus was May 20, 1983, as the freshly appointed director of Madison's Department of Planning and Development. It was not an opportune moment for the 30-year-old wunderkind, who had toiled to good notice in the backwaters of Madison's public-housing, work-training and block-grant programs, to step front and center.

Isthmus' top story -- "City Planning: A Loss of Vision?" -- detailed a laundry list of problems bedeviling the department, which had been awkwardly merged four years earlier with building inspection, real estate services and public housing. A departing principal planner, Anthony Frey, fulminated over how planning was rudderless and malfunctioning, at the beck and call of high-handed alderpersons who directed staff to work on their pet projects.

"No one has set priorities," Frey complained.

Austin, taking over the reins, pledged to complete the reorganization, stabilize the operation and bring new leadership. It was a safe, almost tepid response.

But Austin has delivered the goods in remarkable fashion. Fifteen years later, as he prepares for a new job on Sept. 28 with the arts-minded Overture Foundation, Austin can claim success -- an expanding city and a resurgent downtown that sparkles with new housing, office, visitor and retail opportunities.

"The mid-'80s were terrible," Austin recalls. "Article after article talked about the lack of vision, how the downtown was dead. Jim Carley, Kenton Peters and others said it was disgraceful. It was hard because we all agreed where we wanted to go."

That Austin succeeded is a testament to his managerial finesse. He isn't another Robert Moses, the public-works czar who built New York to his own imperious dictates. Rather, Austin is the quintessential Wisconsin-style civil servant -- knowledgeable, honest, scrupulously fair-minded, and not intent on working the system to advance his own agenda.

When Austin discusses the nature of leadership, he talks in terms of "effectiveness," not "power." The key, he says, is being "at the table" when important decisions are made.

"It's not that people agree with you, but that your opinion is being asked -- not personally, but organizationally -- and it's being weighed," he explains. "You're providing data, analysis and alternatives that the policy-makers can choose from and move forward."

Later, Austin adds, "Things don't happen because of one person, ever. They do happen if you have a committed team focused on a common objective, and there is a good leadership. You've got to develop patience, yet keep your eye on the goal."

It's these very traits -- demonstrated so well in the endlessly complicated task of building the Monona Terrace convention center -- that prompted Overture's Jerome Frautschi to tap Austin to lead the effort to build a $50 million downtown arts district.

How good is Austin? A few weeks ago, while county officials were bemoaning the threatened demise of the trouble-prone Regional Planning Commission, one of the officials, despairing at what could be done, uttered: "If only we could hire George Austin."

Downtown is mostly on his mind as Austin assesses his accomplishments.

"The future of downtown Madison is not one of blight and decay but one of being the premier environment," he boasts. Construction of Monona Terrace is clearly the capstone of Austin's 15 years of work -- "a statement of hope for the future," as he puts it. But his legacy is much greater.

The Austin years were marked by Madison's embrace of public-private partnership. While the bellwether '60s project, the "urban renewal" of the Triangle -- i.e., its bulldozing -- was solely a product of federal money, virtually every project accomplished in the Austin years saw a mixture of entrepreneurial and public money.

Notably, the Community Development Authority has issued about $250 million in tax-free bonds for housing and redevelopment projects since 1985. "This was a public investment strategy that changed the face of the downtown," says Austin.

Projects that might otherwise not have happened broke ground because the developer's borrowing costs were significantly reduced. This offset the higher land and structured-parking costs that often make downtown projects uneconomic compared to their suburban competition.

Austin points to Urban Land's impressive block-size mixed-use project now rising on the south Square. The bonds were key to building the parking underground so as to maximize the use of the land in what seems likely to become a landmark project.

"We've really become more sophisticated in financing revitalization projects," says Austin. "It's one of the things I'm most proud of."

The benefits, he adds, have spread to neighborhoods. He cites the successful revitalization of Atwood Avenue as an example of where city money has been put to good use -- for housing for the elderly, Monty's Blue Plate, the Barrymore renovation, street trees and more. Similar assistance has put Williamson, Monroe and Regent streets on the revival track.

Clearly, Austin's heart lies with this work in the city's older neighborhoods. In the course of a long interview, he has little to say about growth at the city's edge.

But when it's suggested to him that Madison has really pursued a two-pronged approach to growth over the past decade -- upgrade the downtown and neighborhood environs, while simultaneously playing ball with "big box" commercial projects at the city's edge -- he readily agrees.

"We decided to be a player on the edge rather than watching it occur," says Austin. This momentous decision, formalized in the 1989 Peripheral Area Development Plan, laid out in exacting detail the city's ambitions for long- and short-term growth in the metropolitan area.

In this context, the annexations for American Family, Hovde and numerous other projects made perfect sense. "The edge of the city is going to grow whether the city of Madison wants it to or not," says Austin. "The question wasn't how do we stop it, but how do we manage it."

The boundary accords with the cities of Sun Prairie, Middleton and Verona, the village of McFarland and the town of Middleton all grew out of the city's plan. (Conversely, the absence of such pacts with the towns of Burke, Blooming Grove and Madison explains much of the remaining rancor in metropolitan planning.)

Looking to the future, Austin says the city needs to stay growth-minded. With the downtown in particular, he feels there should be no letup in the city's revitalization efforts. "The East Washington corridor is ripe for a significant planning effort as we think about the extension of the central business district."

As for his own future with arts-district planning, Austin remarks, "I think my experience in these types of projects can be brought to bear immediately in terms of getting ourselves organized."

No doubt he's right

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