Council Recap: It's a Long Way From City Hall to the Landfill

Tensions over trash, and wheeling and dealing to Save Muny

Photo by John Anderson

With relatively little friction on the dais, City Council at its Thursday, Feb. 20, meeting inched forward on a few important issues -including a potential deal with the University of Texas for the Lions Municipal Golf Course and preliminary approval to new housing at the former Graffiti Park.

But the meeting was not totally without contention. The last item of the day was a request from Austin Resource Recovery for Council to approve an emergency contract extension with Waste Management, Inc. that would allow ARR to continue storing trash from city-owned facilities at the Austin Community Landfill, located in Northeast Austin. The contract expires on March 1, and it’s clear ARR does not have a fleshed-out plan for where the city’s trash would go if the contract is not extended.

The landfill has caused anguish for the (predominantly black and brown) Austinites who live near it for decades, and its very existence is symbolic of racial injustice enacted by prior city leadership. We’ve reported on complaints from neighbors in these pages many times. Council has tried in recent years to prevent the landfill from growing, but they have been unsuccessful thus far – and members' frustration at that fact was on full display at Thursday’s meeting, as they took turns reprimanding city staff by presenting them with few options other than to extend a contract for use of the landfill.

Council's point person on this issue is Council Member Leslie Pool, who chaired the Waste Management Policy Working Group in 2017 that developed recommendations for staff to implement a “landfill criteria matrix” that would score potential landfill sites on metrics like community impact, social equity, carbon footprint, and existing levels of hazardous materials at a landfill already in use. “I’m really disappointed in how this process has been handled yet again,” Pool told staff. “We’re in a box with few options except to approve an emergency contract now … and our adopted policies do not support continuing to use this landfill.”

The Zero Waste Advisory Commission and staff each developed their own matrices based on those recommendations, but the two groups couldn’t come to agreement on a final set, so Council ended up rejecting both matrices. In an unusual move, City Manager Spencer Cronk decided to move forward with the staff matrix anyways, which supported a proposed contract extension at the ACL.

Ultimately Council voted unanimously to not extend the contract, but that might not mean much. If staff can’t find an alternative place for the city's waste by March 1, they may just extend the contract with WMI for use of the landfill and then come back to Council after the fact to have the contract ratified. Though Council is clearly opposed to doing that, some members are also concerned about short-term impacts – if the trash wasn’t going to the ACL after March 1, where was it going to go? “Are we taking the vote today to let the garbage pile up starting March 1?” Mayor Steve Adler asked his colleagues and staff.

ARR director Ken Snipes did not have a satisfying answer. He repeated some variation of, “Once the contract ends then my job would be to keep services maintained throughout the city.” To translate: I don’t know for sure yet, but we have a week to figure it out. That answer left Adler uneasy, so he intends to schedule a special called meeting for Friday, Feb. 28 to check in with staff to ensure the city has a workable plan ready to go if the contract expires.

Earlier in the day, Council had a quasi-negotiation with the University of Texas Board of Regents through their attorney Richard Suttle. The two bodies have been trying to work out a mutually beneficial agreement on how to keep open Muny; the city has leased the golf course land from the university since 1936, but the Regents have for more than a decade sought to redevelop the 500-acre Brackenridge Tract, of which Muny takes up about a quarter. The current lease is set to end in May, but the city has proposed extending that on a month-to-month basis while a longer-term agreement is put in place.

The Regents' last asking price for Muny was around $110 million; Adler has said he doesn’t want the relationship between the City and UT to become transactional, but there’s clearly some wheeling and dealing going on. At the Council meeting, for example, Suttle subtly mentioned his clients had the ability to help the city with an easement it need access to for the Red Bud Trail mobility project. Both sides seem to agree on broad goals to be achieved through any agreement – more housing around campus, improvements to traffic safety, growth of transit infrastructure in the area – but the specifics have yet to be worked out. The Regents meet next week on Feb. 26 and 27, where Council has asked them to develop a specific proposal, which Adler hopes can begin a series of conversations on the future of Muny.

Council also approved, on consent, a contract with Front Steps – which currently operates the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless downtown – to provide 27 new beds of permanent supportive housing and accompanying navigation services to clients referred by the Downtown Austin Community Court. The contract is for a period of seven months, with renewal options, and is not to exceed a cost of $2.25 million.

In zoning, Council approved on first reading a multifamily development to be located on the site of the Graffiti Park just west of Downtown. The development is known as The Colorfield and would provide 10 condo units at ths lot located at 1006 Baylor St. Although the developer, Bryan Cumby, is requesting a change to MF-6 zoning, which allows a maximum height of 90 feet, Cumby has reached an agreement with members of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association to limit height to just three stories over parking to preserve view of the Castle, a nearby historic landmark.

Cumby is also seeking to build a second development on the site that formerly housed the HOPE Outdoor Gallery, but only the Colorfield has received Planning Commission approval. The second project, located at 1109 W. 11th St., would proviude 12 three-bedroom condos, bumping up the site total to 22 housing units.

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Austin City Council, Austin Resource Recovery, Austin Community Landfill, Leslie Pool, Ken Snipes, UT System Board of Regents, Lions Municipal Golf Course, Muny, Richard Suttle, Graffiti Park, HOPE Outdoor Gallery, Front Steps, Austin Resource Center for the Homeless

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