Austin controversy serves as parable for Park City
January 31, 2007
Reduced to bare bones the storyline of the Sundance Documentary "The Unforeseen" goes like this:
Ambitious developer dreams of building a perfect residential/commercial community. Savings and Loan crisis plunges overextended developer into bankruptcy so he partners with an international conglomerate. Conglomerate proposes enormous new development to maximize profit. Local environmentalists go crazy and convince city council to deny developers’ rezone request. Developers go crazy and take their case to state legislature. Legislature passes law that ties local governments’ hands. A Democratic governor vetoes the law. A Republican who makes private property rights a campaign issue ousts the incumbent governor and reaffirms legislature’s earlier decision in favor of the developers.
Fortunately, the filmmakers Laura Dunn and her husband Jef Sewell, take their time telling the tale, one that has become familiar to growing communities all over the country. In doing so, they provide a valuable case study for Park City and Summit County.
As a camera pans over a bustling Austin, Texas city skyline, the outcome of the film is foreshadowed by the poet Wendell Berry. "What had been foreseen was the coming of the stranger with money," he reads. But the ominous tone dissipates as the filmmaker introduces Gary Bradley, a disarmingly optimistic developer who plans to build an ambitious residential/commercial project.
Bradley, confides that he grew up among ranchers but knew all along that his future was elsewhere. "I didn’t want to be a cowboy or a farmer. You can’t win being a farmer," he says.
Instead, he discovers a knack for developing raw ground. "When I am at my best, all I need is water," he boasts.
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As Bradley describes his plans, Sewell illustrates them with a series of blueprints and maps digitally animated with a fast spreading overlay of roads, utilities and houses — a convincing special effect used throughout the film.
The future for Bradley’s project looks bright until the sudden savings and loan crisis in the 1980s that forces him to partner with the international conglomerate Freeport McMoran..
With no ties to the community and a checkered history of environmental transgressions, the new investor ups the ante by proposing an even bigger project, one that has the potential to infringe on Barton Springs, a popular recreation area and important watershed near Austin.
Caught between bankruptcy and a voracious corporation, Bradley is skewered in the local media as Austin’s public enemy No. 1, but Dunn paints a more complex portrait. Through a series of interviews conducted over a four year-period she portrays Bradley as a well-meaning entrepreneur who starts out with the community’s blessing.
The appearance of Freeport McMoran and the expansion of the project toward Barton Springs triggers alarms in Austin’s environmental community leading to an all-night city council meeting an amplified version of many of the meetings Park City and Summit County residents have attended over the last two decades. Facing a huge and emotional audience, the council downzones the property and residents hold a celebration at their revered springs.
But Dunn isn’t done with her story. That is just the film’s midpoint.
The developers retaliate by hiring a lobbyist who successfully lobbies the Texas Legislature to grandfather the property’s pre-existing zoning. They also band together with other property owners to ensure that local jurisdictions can’t tamper with private property rights in the future. Texas Governor Ann Richards, however, vetoes the legislature’s bill and the citizens, once again, rejoice. But not for long, due in part to her veto, a younger George W. Bush defeats Richards in her bid for a second gubernatorial term and who promptly puts the developers back in the saddle.
According to Dunn, the most important lesson she learned in researching "The Unforeseen" is that it matters who is in power.
"As a ‘GenXer’ I got disillusioned with the political process but through the course of this film I learned it matters tremendously who is in office," said Dunn between screenings at Sundance last week.
"It is important to get people in office who represent your views&who signs the legislation is where the rubber meets the road," she added.
Along that road Dunn and Sewell interviewed several articulate Texas notables including Willie Nelson, former Governor Ann Richards and Austin-born Robert Redford. She said her interview with Ann Richards, one of the last the late-governor granted before she died of cancer, was especially poignant. "She was very reflective and so self possessed during that interview," said Dunn.
Another lesson learned , Dunn said, was about the similarities between biological growth and social growth. Toward the end of the film Dunn and Sewell make a vivid correlation between over-development and cancer. Sewell’s animated maps morph into rapidly dividing and spreading cancer cells.
As to Redford’s participation, Dunn said she was hugely grateful but she hopes the film stands on its own.
Dunn said she came to Sundance hoping to secure theatrical distribution for "The Unforeseen" but she wondered whether the story was too local. After several q&a’s during the festival though, she gained more confidence in the story’s broad appeal.
"It is a modern day Citizen Kane, to me it is a metaphor for America," she said.
"The Unforeseen" is tentatively scheduled to air on the Sundance Channel in 2008.