Council Recap: Tip the Band, Skip the Pork Chop

Relief funds for artists, planning for fair and just mobility

Photo by John Anderson

City Council took care of its business in relatively short order Thursday, April 24, approving a new $1.5 million Austin Artist Disaster Relief Fund to soften the impact of COVID-19.

The fund, championed by Council Member Kathie Tovo, will draw dollars from the city’s emergency reserve. In addition to providing direct financial relief to artists, the resolution accompanying the ordinance authorizing the fund transfer directs staff to explore the creation of an online portal that could serve as a virtual stage or exhibition space for local artists.

Another resolution from CM Ann Kitchen directs staff to utilize funds in the existing Creative Space Assistance Program to provide emergency grants to artists and venues facing dislocations amid the pandemic. That program was designed to prevent general displacement among Austin’s artists over time, but Kitchen’s resolution would allow staff to deploy money from the program no later than June 15.

Council also approved several items allowing staff to access about $2.5 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that can be used – without matching city funds – to provide emergency housing for some populations vulnerable to COVID-19. The lease of a 150-bed hotel in Northwest Austin was also approved as a temporary housing facility for people who test positive with COVID-19; the contract is for 31 days and will cost $2.1 million.

Separately, two grants from the Texas Department of State Health Services totaling more than $2.5 million were approved. They will fund various aspects of the public health response to COVID, including the hiring of medical personnel and the purchasing of personal protective equipment.

And it’s finally time to say goodbye to the “Morrow Pork Chop,” a piece of “traffic-calming” infrastructure that has become a symbol of Austin race and class divides since it was installed in the 1980s. The pork chop prevents drivers from entering the Crestview neighborhood via N. Lamar Blvd. or Morrow Street – that is, from the St. Johns and Highland Heights neighborhoods to the east and south, which contain public housing and such.

But thanks to Council approving an updated list of infrastructure projects funded through the “quarter cent” agreement between the city and Capital Metro (a portion of the transit authority’s sales tax collections, remitted to the city to fix the streets the buses use), the pork chop will soon be removed. The $475,000 project could also see the slip lane from Morrow onto Lamar turn into a smart right turn lane, and sidewalk improvements along Morrow from Lamar to Easy Wind Drive. After the vote, D4 CM Greg Casar, celebrated on Twitter.

In other transit-related business, Council approved a resolution from Kitchen that directs Cronk to begin planning for ways the city could prevent displacement in areas where expensive transit projects are planned – possibly through a land acquisition fund that could be added as a line item in the 2020-21 budget.

The idea is to start planning now, so people in areas already identified as being at risk of gentrification are not displaced even more rapidly when those areas are served by rail or bus rapid transit, as in the Project Connect proposal. By aligning the city’s transit and housing goals, Kitchen said, people in vulnerable communities can be served and not harmed by these major investments to fix Austin’s chronic mobility challenges. Casar, also supportive of the resolution, said of its goals, “We reject the false choice of ‘we just can’t send the lines there because it might cause gentrification.’ Instead, we want to send the lines there because they can serve as an equalizer.”

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Austin City Council, coronavirus, COVID-19, Capital Metro, Artist Disaster Relief Fund, Creative Spaces Fund, Morrow pork chop, quarter-cent, Project Connect

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