Naked City

Edited by Louisa C. Brinsmade, with contributions this week by Andrea Barnett, Andy Langer, and Alex de Marban.

SLICING UP THE BACON: The age-old endeavor to reverse East Austin's economic "blight" is again bringing together a nucleus of governmental officials and private investors trumpeting their plan as the panacea to that area's woes. The latest incarnation was introduced by Councilmember Eric Mitchell and former congressional candidate Jo Baylor at a press conference on August 22.

As the centerpiece of the plan, Baylor and Mitchell are parading a proposal for a 120-room, $16.7 million hotel at the junction of MLK Blvd. and I-35 as the first necessary step toward revitalization.

"We're asking for nothing," says Baylor, a consultant for the hotel's proposed developer, Ray Wilkerson Companies. "It's exciting that it's private investment that's happening in East Austin."

In fact, Mitchell's revitalization plan seems designed to promote the proposed hotel, and its foundation remains his $75 million Austin Redevelopment Authority proposal to "wipe out" old buildings along East 11th and 12th Streets and replace them with new city-owned buildings. The plan, as introduced by Mitchell, presented only two new East Austin initiatives. One is the hotel, which was afforded more attention than other components of the proposal. The other would allow the University of Texas to place married/student housing between East 11th and 12th Streets.

During the press conference, Baylor noted that three Eastside neighborhood groups favor the hotel. However, the association within the neighborhood that surrounds the hotel does not. Swede Hill Neighborhood Association President Mike Tolleson has said that he won't support the hotel until Baylor backs off another proposal to develop multiple $80,000 "affordable homes" in the neighborhood, on city-owned greenspace used as a park for the last 16 years. In exchange for the Swede Hill lots, Baylor has offered the city six of her own lots on Webberville Road and East 12th. Last Saturday, the Austin American-Statesman printed an editorial in support of the Baylor land swap due to the need for "affordable" housing, but failed to point out that the prices for Baylor's homes will be higher than any other home in the neighborhood.

One of the groups that did sign off on the Mitchell/Baylor hotel plan was the East 11th Street Village Association. That group's vice-president, Gary Wardian - who does not live in the neighborhood he is said to represent - was quoted in a front-page August 23 article in the Statesman in support of the hotel plan. It should be noted that Wardian is a regional project manager for Bennett Consolidated, a California company with their own plans for a one-million square foot retail shopping mall, including a penthouse hotel, between East Eighth and 11th Streets. - A.M.

UNDRESSED AND NOWHERE TO GO: The walls are now all that's bare at Foxxie's Firehouse, Sixth Street's controversial upstart topless bar. Last week, Foxxie's owner John Grace abruptly dismantled his club in the face of pending litigation from Austin's Planning and Development Department, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC), and the property's owner.

"Everything's painted black," Foxxie's landlord, Mary Ogden, says of the building she found abandoned and unlocked. Ogden says that not only did Grace originally tell her on the lease application that he was starting an Italian restaurant, but he even promised that she'd have access to menu changes should she wish. The menu wouldn't have been a concern, Ogden said, until she found out that Grace had in fact opened a topless bar, claiming to have optioned a lease loophole allowing "an Italian Restaurant or any other lawful purpose." Ogden says that after weeks of frustrating attempts to get her tenant to respond to eviction proceedings via certified letter, it's a "relief they gave up and disappeared."

Prior to leaving, Grace faced an August 30 court date over the Planning and Development Department's charges that Foxxie's was violating the city's "adult-oriented business" zoning laws. Chief Zoning Inspector Jesse Washington contended last month that Foxxie's was in violation of zoning laws that mandate an adult-oriented business not be within 1,000 feet of a school, church, public park, playground, or another adult-oriented business. Washington believed that Foxxie's was within that range of Waller Creek Park and a pair of adult-oriented businesses - Forbidden Fruit and a AAA mail-order bookstore. If Foxxie's was indeed in violation, the misdemeanor charges filed in Municipal Court could have resulted in $2,000 fines per day, per offense. Washington and other Sixth Street business operators say they were looking forward to the court's opinion as a valuable precedent for what they anticipate may be a future influx of adult-oriented businesses on the previously untested Sixth Street.

Even if Grace had prevailed in his claim that Foxxie's had the proper zoning, he would still be battling another set of violations that hit even closer to the business's core - the club's alcohol license. TABC Lt. David Ferrero says that even with the closing, Foxxie's license holder still faces a pair of pending administrative violations for selling alcohol to a minor and filing misleading statements on an application. Ferrero calls the combined charges "serious offenses," and says that they could ultimately have led to the suspension or cancellation of Foxxie's license. Neither charge is being docketed since Grace cannot be found.

Ferrero, Ogden, and Washington all say they believe Grace buckled under the mounting legal pressure they placed on him, although each says they were working independently. "We never ganged up on him, but when we eventually networked," Ferrero says, "it became obvious the business had some problems."

The aftermath? Ogden says she plans to re-paint and re-lease the building. Washington says the zoning charges will be dismissed. And could Foxxie's re-open elsewhere? Grace couldn't be reached, but Lt. Ferrero says Grace can't reopen until he comes clean with the TABC on those outstanding charges. - A.L.

CHANGING THE RULES: Like conservationists all over the nation, most Texas activists considered themselves lucky when they held the line against attacks on environmental laws during the last legislative session. But as anyone who kept up with the doings at the state capitol this year knows, there was plenty of shifting, changing, re-writing, and wrangling going on, and the results are far from clear.

As Texas Lawyer editor Joe Calve observes in a special Environmental Law supplement published at the end of July, Texas passed the most radical takings law in the nation, leaving lawyers, industry, and conservationists scrambling to work under new parameters. "It would be hard - indeed, foolhardy, to overestimate the changes wrought by the state Legislature in environmental law and regulation during the landmark 1995 session," Calve writes in his introduction.

In Environmental Law, Calve has published the analyses of attorneys including Mary Kelly of the Texas Center for Policy Studies; Texas Lawyer staffer Bob Elder on property rights rules; and industry lawyers Tony Corbett and Bert Hooper. The articles range from the headline-grabbing takings and property rights laws, to the effects of new legislation on the duties and capabilities of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, and on air quality permitting. For a copy of the 36-page supplement, or more information, call 320-8884. - A.B.

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