Naked City

Edited by Andrea Barnett, with contributions this week by Dave Cook and Alex de Marban.

WHAT NEIGHBORHOOD?: Prior to last week, Councilmember Eric Mitchell, the de facto East Austin councilmember, "didn't even know" the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association existed. But approximately 15 residents of the historic East Austin neighborhood dealt Mitchell a rude awakening at the council's housing subcommittee meeting on August 8. Rallying against a proposal by recent Republican Congressional candidate Jo Baylor to turn the neighborhood's unofficial park at East 14th Street and Waller into an "affordable" housing development, the neighborhood residents so infuriated proposal-enthusiast Mitchell that he actually shouted "Screw you!" to one of the residents.

Unlike Mitchell, city officials from the Neighborhood, Housing, and Conservation Office (NHCO), which wants to turn the city-owned land over to Baylor in exchange for some of her property for Bergstrom housing, had heard of the 175-member neighborhood association. The small neighborhood is bordered by I-35, Navasota, East 12th Street, and Martin Luther King Blvd. The neighborhood association has been registered with the city for decades, with the most recent incarnation of the group reforming in 1987. Nonetheless, neither Baylor nor city officials warned neighborhood representatives about the impending deal, which had been percolating for six months, until eight days before the housing subcommittee meeting. At the same time, however, NHCO officials did direct Baylor to solicit the advice of four other neighborhood groups in East Austin, all of whom supported the deal. The problem? None of those neighborhoods are adjacent to the park.

Needless to say, Swede Hill residents aren't happy about the proposal: It would allow Baylor to swap six lots that she owns at the intersection of East 12th Street and Webberville Road for five city-owned lots, four of which have been used since 1965 as a park by the neighborhood, a status made "unofficially official" back in 1978 in an arrangement between the neighborhood and the then-city council. The fifth lot in the deal, located at 1105 Navasota Street, is adjacent to Baylor's Navasota Center Office Development. The swap would permit an office expansion, Baylor's only profit from the deal, she says.

An unnamed developer would build as many as eight $80,000 houses at the one-acre park. That proposed cost is considered by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency to be the ceiling of affordable housing. Despite the proposed houses' hefty prices, the mystery developer will make nothing on the deal, according to Baylor. "They're making so much money these days that they just want to give something back."

Swede Hill residents say the development would remove the heart of the community. NHCO officials and the Baylor-Mitchell tandem maintain that the "park" should not be considered a park, although the Parks Department regularly mows it and has enhanced it with a gazebo and jungle gym in times past. Baylor said at the meeting that it's not being used since she saw nobody there during a drive-by assessment six months ago. As further evidence of the park's alleged neglect, Baylor read a letter from an elderly woman living adjacent to the park, who supports the swap, saying the park provides no more than a dog-training ground.

Neighborhood speakers scoffed at the assertion, saying the park is frequently enjoyed for all types of recreation. In fact, the association holds its annual picnics there, the latest being last Saturday, August 12. Speakers also questioned the validity of Baylor's supportive letter, because the alleged author also signed a petition with 49 other residents opposing the deal.

Despite the proposal's shaky foundations, Mitchell passionately supported Baylor at the subcommittee meeting. He promised one resident, "I'm going to do this [development]! I'm not going to let you or anybody else stand in my way!"

The resident shot back, "That's sound public policy."

Mitchell replied, "I've never been accused of having sound public policy. I'm not a politician."

A voice from the audience countered, "So basically you're telling us, `Screw you.'"

"I never said that," Mitchell answered.

When another speaker shouted that Mitchell was talking out of turn, the city councilmember answered, "But I will say, `Screw you' to you!"

By the time the row subsided, the other housing members at the meeting - Gus Garcia, Brigid Shea, and Jackie Goodman - decided that the idea needed more work. Shea wondered aloud if the city would benefit from trading five centrally located lots for the six outlying lots. In the meantime, city staff will look for other potential lots in the area to swap with Baylor. The proposal is expected to return at the next housing meeting, sometime in late September.

By the way, hardly anything written here was evident in a Statesman story by reporter Chuck Lindell printed this Tuesday. The headline, "Park pits East Austin residents vs. city," in addition to statements like, "Now the city wants to build affordable homes on the land... pitting one of the city's serious needs, affordable housing, against the interests of residents," not only obscures the issue, but misrepresents the players. Buried at the end on page B5, this statement appears: "The housing proposal is in reality a two-pronged venture involving a land swap between the city and Jo Baylor... " Better late than never. - A.M.

NO HABLA INGLéS? TOO BAD: The Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) has decided to appeal to the state Supreme Court a case in which a Smith County man was jailed for a year because he didn't speak English and so couldn't participate in a probation program.

The man, Aristeo Lira Flores, was convicted in 1991 of driving while intoxicated. Most people in his position receive probation, on the grounds that they attend a rehabilitation program. Since no such program existed in Smith County for people who speak only Spanish, Flores was instead sent to jail for a year.

Although Flores has been out of jail for about two years now, his supporters say his sentence amounts to racial discrimination and point to a whole body of case law as proof. "One trigger used by the federal Voting Rights Act to find national origin discrimination is language-based discrimination," wrote TCRP attorney Jim Harrington in the July 17 issue of the Texas Lawyer. Harrington says that instead, the court could have ordered Flores to take English classes and then sent him to a rehabilitation program.

But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagrees. Judge Stephen Mansfield penned the court's majority decision in June, saying that since language is a condition that can be changed, and that people of many ethnicities speak Spanish, Flores was not discriminated against.

"An individual is free to choose the language he or she speaks and one only needs to look at the history of the United States to find millions of examples of individuals who came here speaking many different languages but who learned to speak at least one additional language, general English," Mansfield wrote, justifying his position.

Harrington finds this ridiculous. "What do you do when you come to the U.S. - pick up a language pill to learn English? You don't learn the ability to speak English overnight," he says. "What surprises me is that [Mansfield] picked up four other judges who agreed with him."

Harrington says the TCRP intends to file its appeal within the next two months. - A.B.

WHICH WAY DO YOU SWING?: Last week saw a flip-flop of Clintonian proportions by Phoenix Firebirds/Austin Swing owner Martin Stone. He began the week by stating outright, in an interview with Austin American-Statesman editor Richard Oppel in the latter's Sunday, August 6 column space, that his Triple-A team would pull out of Austin if former city councilmember Bob Larson's Save Austin From Extravagance (SAFE) campaign managed to force a vote on the city's $10 million in promised Certificates of Obligation (CO) and surplus tax revenues. But at a Firebirds press conference last Friday, he surprised everyone with the news that there should be be a vote after all. City staff advised council to schedule a special election for October 7.

The council's official approval of the special election may not come so easily. The Statesman reported August 15 that the election could cost $190,000, and Councilmember Brigid Shea is not only opposing city funding for a special election just on the bond issue (she wants the Firebirds to pay the $190,000), but also objects to using $1.6 million in surplus tax money and may call for the full $10 million to come from bonds. (See Daryl Slusher's story, p.17.)

Mayor Bruce Todd, who's been one of the staunchest supporters of bringing the Firebirds to Austin, joined Stone at the podium in the Pleasant Valley Sportsplex as he made the announcement, during which it was also disclosed that if the measure passes, the city plans to issue the bonds on January 15, 1996.

With Stone putting up around $2 million of his own money for the time being so the stadium construction schedule does not fall behind should the vote come out positive, the question becomes: Why? What made Stone shift his position so quickly?

First, there's the obvious answer: Bob Larson and SAFE. Until recently, Stone was probably hoping that, as suggested in a June 9 article in the daily, the city would require SAFE's petition to be turned in as much as 30 days before the CO issuance, which had been scheduled for September 7, so all the signatures could be validated. SAFE never would have made it. Then it was discovered that such a requirement is against state law. The city announced, after an executive session on the matter August 10, that as long as the petition were turned in on, or before, September 7, and had at least 15,000 signatures which would represent 5% of the voters, the CO issuance would be halted.

With a reported 11,000 signatures already on the petition, Stone says he "was becoming more and more convinced that the mood was becoming negative about baseball," and thus he caved in and asked for the vote.

Larson says that if council actually schedules a vote, "SAFE is finished... that was our only issue. Am I going to campaign for or against the stadium? No."

But the biggest thing Stone has to gain by calling for the vote - perhaps the only thing - is time. After the expected approval of amendments to the Firebirds' contract with the city, Stone will have until January 15 to sell his seating options - and sales had been disappointing so far, with only about 800 sold as of August 11, according to Firebirds GM and Vice President Craig Pletenik. (The Firebirds estimate they'll need to sell 4,000.) And if Stone had waited to see how things turned out with the SAFE petition, he probably would have seen his city money go on the November ballot. Now he gains a month by agreeing to a special election October 7, assuming it's approved, which will also allow seating option sales to resume in earnest between then and January 15 if the results go his way. But the October election date will still leave the Firebirds plenty of time to crank up all the positive PR they can - and then we'll find out which way Austin's going to swing. -D.C.

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