Downtown Austin Alliance executive director to step down after 17 years
Many of downtown Austin's most prominent projects were mere proposals the year Charlie Betts started as the Downtown Austin Alliance's executive director.
Seventeen years later as Betts prepares for retirement, which he announced May 14 during a DAA board meeting, many of those projects have become reality.
In 1997 the DAA's top concerns included building the Waller Creek tunnel project, creating a vibrant Second Street retail district, retrofitting Palmer Auditorium into a performing arts center and expanding Austin Convention Center.
While not every long-term DAA goal from Betts' first year was met—the organization's 1997 annual report also recommended solutions for better access in and out of the west side of downtown—many past goals remain relevant today for the downtown advocacy group, which works with area residents, business owners, property owners and government officials to help advance various improvements within the city's central core.
"That year, in 1997, DAA passed its first resolution in support of light rail, proceeding [with] a referendum in 2000 calling for a billion-dollar light-rail system," said Betts, who will remain with the organization through the end of the year. "That  referendum failed by an eyelash. If that had passed, we'd be enjoying a terrific light-rail system that would serve our community well."
What is the most important thing you hope to accomplish before your DAA tenure ends Dec. 31?
My retirement date was influenced by the fact that this [urban rail] referendum will occur in November. I wasn't about to leave before that. That's a watershed date for downtown and the culmination of 15 years of work of downtown interests and the Downtown Austin Alliance.
Aside from the proposed rail system, what are the most vital projects currently underway in downtown Austin?
The DAA is very much involved and extremely interested in what the mayor is calling the Innovation Zone. Of course, that was kicked off by the advent of the new [University of Texas] teaching hospital and medical school. Urban rail will tie that together. It will be the transportation link for the innovation corridor, and along with that will be the Waller Creek flood tunnel completion. Waller Creek's beautiful chain of parks will be the common amenity all up and down the innovation corridor.
Then, thanks to state Sen. [Kirk] Watson's leadership, we have a very real possibility of making improvements to I-35, which now includes depressing the interstate below grade through downtown. That would be a wonderful thing for downtown from an aesthetic standpoint and from stitching our community back together. No longer would there be that physical and psychological barrier right down the middle of our community.
What does downtown Austin's long-term future look like?
In the next 10–20 years we will see private companies coming in and building their research and their products based off The University of Texas research, particularly in the medical area. Then combine that, too, with the consolidation of growth at the state government level, particularly with state land north of the Capitol Complex, and there's some tremendous things happening. I think our boat is loaded with that northeast section [of downtown] the next 10, 20, 30 years.
And the thing about it, that northeast quadrant has been pretty stagnant, while all the exciting development has been in the southwest quadrant. Now we're going to have something similarly exciting in the northeast quadrant.
What possible pitfalls could slow progress in downtown Austin?
I see two danger points. The first one is simply the economic cycle. That's not something we can control, and it won't stop. It can delay some of what's happening in downtown. The building cycle we're on now is really tremendous, but we know it'll cycle down. So it'll delay progress to some degree. The other thing we do have some control over. We've long believed—first in 1997 and we believe it even stronger now—that one thing that could have economic development plane off is the lack of transportation access to downtown. It is much more of a problem now than it was in 1997, and every day it becomes more of a critical problem. That's what urban rail is designed to address.
How much does the issue of affordability factor into downtown's success?
Affordability has to be addressed two ways. We supported Capital Studios, a 134-unit project that came about because of a strange real estate deal that didn't make sense for private developers but did for affordable housing. Building affordable housing downtown is especially challenging because of the cost of land downtown.
The only other answer is in transportation. If we can build a better transit system, then affordable housing can be built further out into the suburbs.
Any other initiative you'd like to cross off your wish list before leaving?
I'm very hopeful the city will move ahead with historic Sixth Street improvements. We have not treated our historic Sixth Street kindly, and it's such a wonderful, historic street that could be a huge asset to the city and something all of the citizens of Austin could take pride in.
If the city moves ahead with plans for utility replacements and street and sidewalk rebuilds, we think that will encourage private property owners to restore their historic facades and make it the street we have the most pride in.