Lessons from the Rose Fellowship: Rodney Gonzalez

 In All News, Program Reflections

Rodney Gonzales is Deputy Director of Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office in Austin, Texas. The ULI Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership had the opportunity to talk to Gonzales about his work and his personal experience as part of the Daniel Rose Fellowship program.

Rose Center: As your fellowship concludes, is your greatest takeaway from your time as a Rose Fellow?

Gonzales: I was able to form a long-term connection with the other fellows, fantastic individuals such as [Department for Economic Growth and Innovation deputy director] Patricia Claire and [Mayor’s Deputy Chief of Staff] Mary Ellen Wiederwhol from Louisville, as well as [Department of Community and Economic Development director] Ricardo Noguera from Tacoma. We’ve been swapping emails and sharing information, learning from each other. We’ve been through the same fellowship and we’ll always have that connection.

It began at the study tour [in San Juan, Puerto Rico], the first event that brought all the fellows together. It was a real ice-breaking event where we could get to know the other cities, who the other fellows were, and what particular land use challenges they faced.

In San Juan, you had the opportunity to tour a lot of historic public spaces. How has that influenced your work in Austin?

The nice thing about San Juan, being one of the oldest cities in United States territory, was that we got a historical perspective of city planning. The city was built in the 1500s — looking at the way the town was modeled, you see how it was based upon a network of narrow streets that weren’t built for cars. They were built for pedestrians and wagons and so on.

Retail is on the ground and residential is on the top floor, and everything is pedestrian-oriented. If you look at that, and then look at some of the New Urbanism planning principles that have been developed in the last 15 to 20 years, interestingly you can see the parallels. The roots of New Urbanism are in how cities of the past were developed.

What does New Urbanism have to do with old urbanism?

We talk all the time about the five-minute rule. Everything oriented towards the pedestrian, a five-minute walk. If you want a development to be vibrant, well laid out, well used, you have to look not just at the planning principles from today, but planning that was done back in the early days of city planning.

Another component of New Urbanism is identifying public interest sites and including space for community activities. We had a guided tour of some of those things in San Juan, like the Iglesia de San José, a beautiful church built in 1532. It was the focal point for the city, serving as a community gathering place and even a hurricane shelter.

Then we went to the Condado District, a corridor of mixed use activity, and then the Plaza del Mercado Santurce, an old historic market that’s been brought back to life. Public markets can bring new energy, new life, new vibrancy to the community.

We all have really interesting historic places like that, and with just a little bit of reinvestment you can bring that place back to life.

How has Austin benefited from the fellowship?

None of the fellows or other expert guests had any stake in our city’s land use challenge. They committed and volunteered their own personal time. The fascinating thing is, because they don’t have a stake in [what happens] and they came as an independent party, they were able to open our eyes to things we hadn’t seen.

They helped us refine our message. You really need to embrace everyone, including your skeptics, get them the information they need on a timely basis — full transparency. I think it took an outside team to bring those kinds of sensible recommendations to the table.

What is Austin’s land use challenge?

In a nutshell, it’s how to propose an urban rail solution — but without losing sight of the fact that there are other transit options available.

How do you propose an urban rail solution in concert with other mass transit options? Austin leads Texas cities in a shift away form motor vehicle use. Of the largest 100 urban areas in the country, Austin has the third highest decrease in the percentage of people commuting to work by private car or van. Between 2000 and 2011, 4.5 percent of Austin area commuters stopped driving to work. Some of that demand is for bus rapid transit, and bicycles.

We have been in the throes of an economic recession. We haven’t seen as much transit-oriented development as we’d like to see. We saw this in San Juan, where some of the Tren Urbano stations appeared overbuilt, some of the areas around them not developing as anticipated. But I feel confident that [both San Juan and Austin] will see some of the development they’ve anticipated; it’s just going to be slow.

Is Austin’s growth ever going to stop?

We hope not. Either you’re growing or you’re dying, there’s nothing in between.

The growth that were seeing in Austin has been pretty consistent for as long as Austin has been a city. Two or three percent each year.  How are you growing in the throes of a global recession? That is a question people ask. It has a lot to do with the organic growth that we’ve had, and the economic growth engines that we have in place, like the university, or our status as a capital city – some things you just can’t replicate. But it also has a lot to do with the economic development programs that we’ve laid in place to make sure that certain economic sectors are supported.

We’ve got a music office – we’re one of only a few cities in the country to have that. We have a cultural arts department, focused on the creative industry sectors in the city. We’ve got a strong film program, continually incentivizing – but not with tax dollars – the growth of the film industry. We have a business expansion arm that provides tax rebates for companies that decide to relocate to provide employment in Austin. We just completed a family small business loan program, so we can lend money to businesses that want to grow, using a very low interest rate. We don’t have a redevelopment authority like many cities. Our well-rounded economic development program has made us somewhat recession-proof, even if not 100 percent.

This interview was conducted by Timothy Boscarino of Issue Media Group.

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