Off the Desk:
Fri., Oct. 10, 1997
Good fences make good neighbors... until one neighbor decides it wants to annex the others. Then you've got angry neighbors, and that's not good. So City Councilmember Daryl Slusher is proposing some fence-mending efforts to make the city's annexation hearings more, well, neighborly. Slusher suggests tinkering with the process, including actually talking with the residents instead of sitting, silent and stoic, while the annexees-to-be voice their discontent. "Engaging in dialogue," Slusher wrote in a city memo this week, "could lead to the annexations being less of what has been termed a hostile takeover." -- A.S.
Gold Bike Program?
How many bikes can you buy for $28,244? If you're the city of Austin, the answer is only 10. That's right. Ten bikes and 10 super-duper-indestructible lockers in which to store them. Each of the 10 bikes is priced at $400, but the lockers will cost a cool $2,500-$3,500 apiece. Considering that the money could have gone towards painting bike lanes, building bike trails, or even buying natural gas or electric vehicles for the city, it's ironic that the high-dollar proposal actually came straight from Austin's Bicycling Coordinator, the soon-to-be-retiring Rick Waring.
Waring applied for the funds through a grant from the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), a Toronto-based environmental funding organization. Waring has applied for grant funding for the 10 bikes, which would be locked in bullet-and graffiti-proof lockers at several locations downtown for use exclusively by city employees who might just want to hop on a bike to traverse the distance between city facilities instead of walk, take the bus, or drive. Interesting concept, but by Waring's own admission, an unlikely scenario considering that most city employees wear suits and inappropriate shoes for comfortable biking. "We're estimating a fairly conservative use the first year because it may take people a while to get used to it," he says.
What's even more disturbing, though, is that Waring pitched the idea first to the Public Works Department -- which in turn pitched it to the city council last week -- as the only viable way for Austin to receive this grant money. "My understanding of what I was told was that we had to do it like this," says Councilmember Daryl Slusher. It's understandable that the council would get that idea, considering that Mike Kite, the Public Works representative who brought the proposal to council last week, deliberately gave that impression in his presentation. "Councilmembers depend very heavily on the information that staff presents them... we take their word for granted," explains Paul Saldana, aide to Councilmember Gus Garcia.
In fact, though, the ICLEI grant can be awarded to any proposal which would "reduce vehicle miles traveled and subsequently reduce greenhouse gas emissions," says Matt Nichols, the program's grant coordinator. For instance, in 1996 ICLEI kicked in $10,000 to fund an "orange bike" program, similar to Austin's Yellow Bike program, and gave $13,000 to the city of Atlanta to paint bike lanes onto major roadways. So, why did Waring choose to apply for the funds to be used in such a limited capacity? "I've had this proposal [for a city employee bike program] for three years, so when this grant came along, I jumped on it," he says, adding that city employee bike programs were among the four suggestions offered by ICLEI in its literature. ICLEI's Nichols suggests, however, that Waring's proposal is not likely to win approval from ICLEI without incentives for bike use and a demonstrated reduction in the use of city vehicles. Waring's proposal has neither. -- K.V.
Going Hog Wild
The Triangle. Robert Mueller Airport. The State School Annex. And now the Hog Farm. Development on state-owned land in Austin is complicated enough to make your head spin. Especially if you're a planning commissioner.
So, at the September 30 meeting, the city Planning Commission got a synopsis of what rules apply to the state as landowner -- rules that have become familiar to Austinites dealing with the aforementioned projects. To sum up: If the state is developing land for its own use, whether or not it owns it, none of the city's rules and regulations apply. If state-owned land is being developed by private interests, the projects go through the normal development pipeline, but the recommendations of city staff, planning Commission, and city council are subject to approval by an ad hoc, state-dominated board which can basically do what it wants. (That's the gist of SB478, much mentioned in the Triangle controversy.)
The PC's input to the presentation was rather desultory, probably because the latest state-land project was soon to take up two hours of the night's agenda -- the Hog Farm, technically known as the Leander Rehabilitation PUD District. This old ranch, near the junction of RR620 and US183, is being sold by the state to Pohl Brown and Associates, erstwhile baseball proponents and Northwest Austin land kingpins, for an enormous (440 acres) mixed-use "edge city" in the making. The PUD (planned unit development) zoning, however, is being applied for now, by the state, and falls under the SB478 rules.
The size alone was enough to give the Commission pause, along with the fairly sketchy details originally provided by Pohl Brown, their consultants, and the Texas General Land Office. Just one example: In its original appearance before the PC last month, the PUD plan would have allowed 40-story buildings on the site; that was quickly quashed by an aghast Commission, and the revised plan only allows 12 stories. Either way, though, the project as proposed enabled twice the square footage, and twice the density, of the entire Austin Central Business District.
What's more, the city is forbidden by yet another piece of special-interest legislation (SB1396) from even discussing the traffic impacts of any project around the 183/620 crossroads. The combined legislative mandates, which also include a six-month timeline for the city to act on state-sponsored projects -- a deadline fast approaching on the Hog Farm -- left the Commission little choice but to recommend approval, with a vast list of conditions, sure to spawn much arm-wrestling before this one comes to council. The alternative -- to deny approval and advance a similar list of recommendations to council -- was strenuously championed by new Commissioner Rachael Rawlins, but went down on a 6-3 vote. Keep your eye on this one. -- M.C.M.
Cyperpatrol Still on Patrol
Cyberpatrol opponents may have been cheered by an October 3 Statesman headline announcing that the Austin Public Library was going to allow "full access to the Internet," but the removal of Cyberpatrol, even on a few library terminals, is far from a done deal. While it's true that APL agreed at an October 2 meeting to form a pilot project to remove the filtering software from two terminals, the newly formed fact-finding committee is also exploring other compromises. These include requesting that the manufacturer refine its Cyberpatrol software, and asking Austin Free-Net -- the APL's Internet provider -- to convert the library's individually networked terminals into a single-server system, which would allow the installation of improved filtering software.
Before allowing unrestricted Internet access, Library administrator Brenda Branch says, the committee must first get the okay from the city manager and the city's legal department. Branch says she would not oppose a limited removal of Cyberpatrol, as long as the current harmony between library patrons and her staff remains intact. "If we can find a way to allow unfiltered access at a few terminals, and we can maintain the balance we've got now, then we'll do it," Branch says.
Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner, who chaired the meeting, says she believes City Manager Jesus Garza would approve the removal of Cyberpatrol at some terminals, as a way of demonstrating the city's willingness to compromise. Free-speech advocates have decried Cyberpatrol as a violation of citizens' access to information, but APL and the city have defended the use of the program on the grounds that state statutes prohibit exposing children to pornography. The city is "caught in the middle," says Conner, "but the meeting countered the perception that the city isn't open to ideas and isn't willing to compromise." -- K.F.
White Balls Only, Please
Golf is hard work. Just ask B.M. "Mack" Rankin, Jr. The Dallas oil and gas executive is a member of the board of directors at New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan, the controversial multinational mining company (his last name supplies the "Ran" in McMoRan). One wing of the new microbiology building on the UT campus is named for the company, while the entire building is named in honor of Freeport boss and former UT footballer Jim Bob Moffett.
In 1968, Rankin, who had been leasing land in the oil field for billionaire H.L. Hunt, joined forces with Moffett to create McMoRan Oil & Gas Co. McMoRan later merged with Freeport Minerals to create Freeport-McMoRan, which for the past three years has been in the spotlight due to dozens of environmental problems and allegations of human rights violations at its huge copper and gold mine in West Papua, New Guinea. Recently, Rankin was interviewed on HBO's Real Sports for a story about racism at American country clubs. Rankin is a member of Dallas's Preston Trails Country Club, one of the city's most expensive and exclusive clubs. Asked why none of the club's 332 members are black, Rankin replied that no blacks had ever applied. Besides, he added, "We're out there bustin' our tails playin' golf. We're not worrying about race relations." -- R.B.