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  NEW TOWNS
FALL 2005
 

A Man With a Vision -- the Texas Legislature's Mike Krusee

Mike Krusee is a member of the Texas House of Representatives from Austin. He describes himself as a "conservative Republican ...basically pro-free-market, pro-low taxes, pro-life ..." He is also a new urbanist who sits on the board of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

That may surprise some people.

One might imagine, Krusee explained, that a conservative Republican might be turned off by the term "new urbanism" -- as though it could be a cousin of "Smart Growth" and other programs which, in the view of many conservatives, give government more control, hurt the free market and pile on regulations.

According to Krusee, who minces no words, the truth is just the opposite.

New urbanism peels away the layers of government regulation and bureaucracy, he says.

Krusee has been a representative in the Texas House for 13 years. In his early years in office, he focused on education reform and worked closely with then-Governor George W. Bush to enact the "No Child Left Behind" school program, which, he says, "is working for us."

Today his focus is not primarily education. He is chairman of the powerful House Transportation Committee. He is involved with public transit (rail) and roads and he sees the value of transit-oriented development.

In his mid-40's, Krusee is a father, husband and successful businessman. Naturally, as one would assume, he is quite busy.

After "No Child Left Behind" passed and began to work, Krusee shifted his primary focus to devising ways to encourage and manage healthy development.

In his growing-up years, Krusee was part of a military family. His dad was in the Air Force. The family moved often within the United States and abroad.

The result for Krusee was always a sense that he had no "hometown."

During one of his undergraduate years at Georgetown University in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Mike Krusee found himself alone over a long holiday.

With his row house college roommates gone home for the break, Krusee eased into the life of his neighborhood as an individual -- in a way he could not have done in the course of a regular school semester when the local student population explodes, and life revolves around campus.

He loved being a citizen with a part in a community. "That time is one of my fondest memories. When I went to the coffee shop, they knew me [and they knew me in other local places as well.]"

The sense of belonging in a traditional community is the kind of memory that sticks with folks. People who grow up in traditional towns and neighborhoods often embrace opportunities to live in such places again.

Many other people, who have only experienced sprawl, seem to have a sense of missing something, and so -- when confronted with the opportunity to live in a traditional neighborhood -- they often jump at the chance.

For Krusee, that 10-day break in the Georgetown neighborhood was an experience that radiated decades into the future, to a time -- today -- in which Krusee is in a position to encourage and enable the development of traditional neighborhoods -- both in-fill and new, and means of transit -- both in roads and rail -- in Austin, Texas, where he lives, and the rest of the giant state as well.

He was first exposed to new urbanism on a visit to the Kentlands community in Gaithersburg, Md., a few years ago.

Rep. Krusee was pleasantly surprised -- maybe even taken aback -- by the community.

"I didn't know you could build those things," he explains.

Today Krusee lives with his wife, Leigh, and their five children (ages 18, 15, 14, 1l and 9) in what he calls, in a matter of fact way, "typical suburban sprawl."

Seeing Kentlands and learning about new urbanism turned a light on for Krusee.

Then he realized something. "I couldn't live [in a new urbanist community] if I wanted to" because there were no places like Kentlands in Austin.

Further, he states, building new urbanist communities in Texas requires a major educational campaign aimed at public officials, legislators, builders, developers, land owners, and the public to impart the essence of new urbanism -- and then saying, "This is what has to be done to make it happen."

Krusee is hard at work on the educational campaign -- imparting key information by bringing developers, and landowners, and government people to Kentlands.

Most recently, on July 14, Krusee brought close to a dozen people from Texas to Kentlands to tour and listen while its planner/designer -- Andres Duany of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company -- described both the community's planning and the nuts and bolts of what it took to actually get Kentands to happen.

That nuts and bolts stuff is another significant challenge, Krusee says.

A "problem with new urbanism," says Krusee, "is that under most city codes in the region, it's illegal."

He adds that although new urbanism may not be the development format for everywhere -- "it should not be illegal to build such a development."

Krusee likes the pedestrian orientation of new urbanism -- and he also enjoys cars.

In fact, he emphasizes: "Don't get me wrong -- I have nothing against cars -- I love cars."

But, being able to drive as well as walk comfortably around a traditional town or neighborhood, adds to quality of life, he explains. "I want the opportunity to meet people by accident," adding wistfully, "there is no happenstance [in the suburbs].

"There is no 'happenstance' in the suburbs. I want the opportunity to meet people [in the neighborhood] by accident.... I want my kids to have the opportunity to raise their children [in a traditional neighborhood.]"

He has his work cut out for him. Because of the rapid rate of growth in population, employment and land area affected by development, in just "Central Texas" -- a huge region that includes the city of Austin, Williamson County (part of which Krusee represents) and much more area -- the management of growth, development, transportation and related issues are agenda items Krusee will grapple with every day.

According to the city of Austin's official website, the population of Austin grew from 465,000 in 1990, to over 650,000 in 2000. By 2010 Austin's population is projected to reach 800,000 (an increase of almost 19,000 people per annum.)

Regional projections are even more dramatic: A tri-county area that includes Williamson County, which had a combined population of 1.16 million five years ago, is projected to have a headcount of 1.4 million by 2010.

In addition to chairing the House Transportation Committee, Krusee is a member of the Civil Practices Committee, the Redistricting Committee and the Select Committee on School Finance.

As chairman of the Transportation Committee, Krusee today focuses much of his energy on the creation of a passenger rail system in Central Texas that is integrated in a meaningful way with the roads. "Texas has always depended on roads, but now Texas is starting to build passengers rail systems." Some in the Texas media have described Krusee as having embraced new urbanism "with the zeal of a convert."

Perhaps they are right.

To make it work here, he says, "two things have to happen: developers and elected officials (city and county) have to know it exists." And, "they need to know what it will do." Krusee is a conservative Republican leader who decides about things based on its merits, takes a stand, and works hard to bring changes for the better to fruition.

Well over two decades after his Georgetown experience in neighborhood 'belonging' -- and today a busy husband, father, businessman and elected representative immersed in life in the "traditional" suburbs -- the memory of a period of life in a traditional community might have blurred a little but it did not vanish.

The Krusee's Austin home is not far from the public schools his children attend. He says he'd like them to be able to walk to school but that walking is not possible. The last street the children have to cross en route has recently been converted to a four-lane divided highway. Fifteen years ago, he might have simply accepted the situation as part of normal life in the suburbs. Today he embraces new urbanist principles.

"It's a shame we don't plan things better than that," he observes, shaking his head.

"I see how [over time] everything just developed into specialist fiefdoms -- schools, the developers, the traffic engineers ...

"Somebody [in community design] should be saying 'the school ought to be in the middle of all this.'"

Today, some somebodies are saying just that, and one of them is Mike Krusee, who, as an Austin news writer recently observed -- "arriving at a political crossroads some years back took the road less traveled, so to speak. And, as in Frost's poem, 'that has made all the difference.'"