Here and There
Last week, Councilmember Jackie Goodman did something she's never done before - voted in opposition to a valid neighborhood petition. Goodman joined the other six councilmembers in a unanimous vote to turn two residential lots along Marathon Blvd. into commercial-zoned parking lots for the Central Texas Regional Blood and Tissue Center. The lots are within the Rosedale Neighborhood Association, which represents an 1,100-household area bounded on the north by Hancock and on the south by 38th Street, and on the east and west by Lamar and Shoal Creek, respectively. The neighborhood association submitted a petition with 20% of the residents represented opposing the proposed zoning change for the lots. According to the city charter, six council votes are necessary to counter a valid neighborhood petition. Goodman provided the seventh.
Besides thwarting the Rosedale association, the unanimous decision also countered city staff's recommendation to keep the zoning residential to encourage highly sought-after central city housing. The vote also went against the planning commission's recommendation, which had twice concluded that new parking lots at the center would "destroy a better part of Marathon Blvd." and that the blood bank "can work harder in trying to address their parking needs." Commissioners suggested off-site parking at adjacent churches.
Considering all the opposition, the vote cast by Goodman, once the president of a South Austin coalition of neighborhoods, appeared to the neighborhood to be purely political.
"There seemed to be strong pressure from the other side," says John Burgess, president of the neighborhood association. "In the meetings we've had with her, she implied that she would vote for us. She said she's never voted against a valid petition, but this time she did. We were really surprised."
After Goodman's vote three weeks ago to approve a water-service agreement with Freeport McMoRan for their Lantana tract, there was speculation that as another campaign effort looms, Goodman is turning her attention away from her grass-roots neighborhood background and towards the development community.
Such speculation is not unwarranted, considering that the benefactors of her latest about-faces have been handsome donors to her campaign handbag. From the law firm and lobbyists at Strasburger and Price, Freeport's legal representative, Goodman has taken $2,250. And from Ray Wilkerson, the blood bank's developer, Goodman has received annual contributions of at least $400 for the last three years.
Wilkerson, (who also loaned Mayor Bruce Todd $10,000 during his re-election bid), hired Jim Spence and developer Jo Baylor to get the job done at council chambers. Spence ran an effective campaign against the neighborhood, providing councilmembers with an inch-thick-bound document filled with letters from blood donors. Spence also urged other donors to blanket the council with faxes and calls. The Travis County Medical Society, which offices at the blood bank, sent a memo on June 19 urging all members to counter "the strong political clout of the neighborhood" with trips to the council chambers. This was necessary, Spence wrote, "because of the strong and uncompromising position from the neighborhood."
Burgess, however, responds that the association's position was all about compromise, pointing out that they offered numerous parking alternatives to the proposed lots. Still, the association's message fell on deaf ears compared to the megaphone pulled out by Wilkerson and company. "One very frustrating thing is that the other side had access to the council," says Burgess. "We didn't and we are the city - neighborhoods are the city. We never had an opportunity to talk to [the councilmembers]. No one ever returned a call to us. It was even difficult to get to Jackie and she's the friendly one."
Burgess says the neighborhood is also angered by the non-responsiveness of Brigid Shea and Max Nofziger. Shea, who could recall only once having struck down a valid petition, offers an increasingly common defense. "This was a horribly vexing case, but this is the harvest of the bitter seeds sown by developers that went to the Legislature and killed any incentive for a master plan."
Goodman says she could find no other practical parking alternatives for the blood bank, which is the only blood provider in Central Texas and needs the parking lot to supplement a proposed expansion. "This is the hardest vote I've ever made," she brooded after the vote. "Lantana and all the other votes were much easier than this, but I made sure I protected the neighborhood."
Those protections for Rosedale, which include a 22-foot-wide swath of greenspace along the parking lot and a lower grade of zoning, are minimal at best, says Burgess. "In all fairness, Jackie was the only one on the council who tried to do anything, but the proposal that she came up with, we never heard about until the day of the meeting. And no matter how pretty they make it, it's still going to be a parking lot," grumbles Burgess.
A slightly irritated Goodman also defended her decision on grounds that the possibility of a developer majority come next summer could mean even less conciliation for the neighborhood. "Voting it down would have been just a quick fix. The proposal would have been back in a year or 18 months."
This week in council: An item to allow the Anderson Community Development Corporation to purchase city-owned land in central East Austin for use as low-income rental housing, as opposed to some area neighborhoods' preference for low-income home ownership. n