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AUSTIN-Kirk Watson, in his four years as Austin’s mayor, generated more change than a $100 bill tendered for a 5-cent piece of gum. The city’s downtown, for example, looks a lot different now–with new office buildings and a new city hall complex under construction–than it did several years ago.

“He’s made progress that nobody’s been able to make in the past two or three decades and that’s going to help steer Austin for the next two decades,” says Fred Higgins, a broker at NAI/Commercial Industrial Properties Inc. “He has really brought to the surface a sense of purpose of keeping our city centralized.”

At the same time, Watson unfurled a blanket of stability by brokering, if not peace, then at least a truce in the age-old Austin war between environmentalists and developers. “Since Kirk’s been here, it’s been a lot more stable and people have known the rules and that you develop in the environmentally sensitive areas at your own risk,” real estate lawyer David Armbrust tells GlobeSt.com. “I think he’s helped clarify where the dividing line is between what’s an acceptable area and what’s not.”

Watson Tuesday notified the city that he would resign as mayor in order to run for the Democrat nomination for Texas Attorney General. If he makes it to the general election in November 2004, he probably would face the current attorney general, John Cornyn.Before Watson became mayor, it seemed as if pro-development city councils and pro-environmental councils switched seats on the city hall dais every election cycle. Each contingent would try to right the perceived wrongs of the previous administration, causing wide swings of direction.

Of course, things were never that black-and-white, but with Watson city leadership seemed to take a more centered approach. Neither side got all they wanted, but they got enough as initiatives, such as Smart Growth and Digital Downtown, took root.

“He’s been an extremely important bridge getting those two groups (business and environmental groups) to actively talk eye-to-eye and come up with some compromise solutions in general,” says Phil Capron, senior managing director of Kennedy-Wilson Inc.’s Austin office. “He’s been different (from previous mayors) in that. He wasn’t one camp’s candidate or another camp’s candidate.”

While those projects had broad-based support, it was Watson who pushed and drove them, Armbrust says. “He has a lot of drive and kind of pushes people along,” he says. “He knows where he wants to go. He’s a very strong leader. He took it upon himself. This Smart Growth effort has been Kirk’s initiative. The Digital Downtown and downtown revitalization, those have all been things Kirk wanted to do. He made them happen.”

Watson was key to the deal that would have put Vignette Corp.’s headquarters in a building on the shores of Town Lake, according to Ford Alexander, a principal with Colliers Oxford Commercial who represented Vignette. “He did everything in his power to make that deal work,” Alexander says. “He took some risks.”

Vignette pulled out of the deal when the economy soured, considerably slowing its business. Intel Corp.’s downtown building is another victim of the economic slowdown. Even as other downtown projects take shape, the Intel building remains a skeleton as the company waits for the economy to turn around.

While Watson got things moving, he was also what’s known in real estate and baseball as a closer. “He seemed to be able to bring the conversation to a conclusion and just do it,” Capron says. “Do something. Enact something, even if everybody was not thrilled with it.”

While problems such as traffic remain, real estate folks hope the next mayor builds on Watson’s bridges. “I hope the next person that takes his place learns the lesson of you can’t please everybody all the time, that you need to bring closure to decisions,” Capron says. “And that we do not have a resurgence of the political polarization that’s often been the case almost like a tennis match of who has control of the ball and that’s not productive.

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