Council Watch

Blaming the Victim

The narcotic effects of some councilmeetings are well known, but it's unlikely they could zonk out the entire city clerk's office for seven straight days. No, the actual reason today's program looks remarkably like the last agenda is this: Gus Garcia took a sick day last Thursday. His absence made a majority vote on some issues impossible, so some resolutions were rescheduled for today's agenda.

That's not to say last week's meeting produced nothing of significance. Most noteworthy was a lengthy citizens' communication on Eric Mitchell's proposal to trade six lots on Webberville Road and East 12th Street owned by former congressional candidate and current District 47 State Representative candidate Jo Baylor for five city-owned lots. Of the latter group, one tract happens to be at 1105 Navasota, right next door to Baylor's Navasota Office Center Development office building, thus permitting a business expansion if the deal goes through. The other four lots are located at East 14th Street and Waller and have been used as unofficial parkland for the past 17 years by the residents of Swede Hill. The neighborhood is bounded by East 12th Street, I-35, MLK, and Navasota. Baylor and other unnamed developers aspire to build as many as eight $80,000-$85,000 "affordable" homes on the four Swede Hill lots. The neighborhood residents are opposed to the loss of their greenspace and, in response, have secured a recommedation from the Parks board on September 25 to deem the greenspace official city parkland.

The staff of the city's neighborhood and housing department however, loves the swap idea; they hope to transplant six unused duplexes from the Bergstrom Air Force Base to Baylor's lots, providing housing for approximately $45,000 apiece. The local daily also loves it, and has run at least three glowingly supportive editorials based on the swap's "affordable" merits. Twice, however, they've forgotten to mention the $80,000 pricetag, or the fact that they'll be $10,000-$40,000 more expensive than other Swede Hill homes.

At Thursday's meeting, Mitchell kicked off the citizens' communication with an effort to dispel the notion that the city would get the raw end of the land swap, reminding the public that Baylor's land must at least equal the market value of the city's lots. Such a scenario is hard to believe if the numbers of the Travis County Appraisal District (TCAD) are any measure. TCAD set the 1995 tax appraised value for the city-owned land at $26,000, compared with $16,410 for Baylor's lots.

During the public communication, the issue became less about neighborhood parks versus development, and more about race relations and "gentrification" of East Austin. Tensions were high at the meeting when at least one African-American speaker called the primarily white Swede Hill residents "outsiders," and "interlopers." Approximately 40 Swede Hill residents belabored the increase in property values that the more expensive houses could bring. About the same number of black speakers who were East Austin residents, but who do not live in Swede Hill, championed the "affordable" houses as necessary for an East Austin rennaissance. Truth is, the renaissance is already happening, at least in Swede Hill. Higher-income residents have been moving into the neighborhood for the past few years - property values, and thus rents, are on the rise there.

The real gripe for Swede Hill residents is the lack of an inclusive process. To begin with, the neighborhood learned of the deal through city housing department staff only eight days before the housing subcommittee meeting in August where the deal was first reviewed by councilmembers. Faced with intense neighborhood opposition, the deal was tabled while staff looked for alternate lots in the area to trade. It turns out Mitchell had been aware of the proposal for six months, but never attempted to inform the neighborhood. In fact, the de facto East Austin councilmember has admitted that not until three days before the housing subcommittee meeting, after a receiving a letter from Swede Hill Neighborhood Association President Mike Tolleson, did he know an association for that area even existed. Yet, all Mitchell had to do was call the planning department, where the group has been registered for decades.

"I take responsibility for not doing enough [to find out the association existed]," said Mitchell in a soliloquoy near the end of last week's councilmeeting. Then, turning blame towards the residents, he said, "You've got to take a little responsibility, too. I don't think you found out about this only three days before [the housing subcommittee meeting]. You could have taken some initiative and invited me out. I would have said, `No problem, I'll look for other lots. I don't mean to start any problems.' But that's not what you did." Mitchell failed to tell the association how they could have possibly known that he was working on the deal.

Mitchell's near-regrets about Swede Hill representation on this deal come too little, too late. The councilmember made neighborhood involvement impossible when he skirted the inclusionary review process for such a proposal in order to push the item onto last week's council agenda. A recommendation from both the housing subcommittee and the Planning Commission is needed to place an item like this one on the council agenda.

According to housing staff, the item was pushed on the agenda at the behest of Jo Baylor. Another development firm, the Joe Garcia Company, plans to purchase Baylor's Webberville and East 12th Street lots for $46,000 if the council doesn't approve the swap. the Garcia company, which hopes to build low-income rental fourplexes at $550 month, wanted an answer from the council by September 28; the following day was the deadline to apply for federal low-income housing tax credits.

The rush failed since the council lacked a quorum; only Mitchell, Ronney Reynolds, and Mayor Bruce Todd stayed for the item. It was then postponed until this week. Craig Overmiller, of the Joe Garcia Company, says the firm went ahead and filed the tax credit application in case the swap doesn't get approved by council. He may be right on the money. Swing votes Gus Garcia and Jackie Goodman were averse to the swap deal in August at the housing subcommittee meeting. And Brigid Shea and Max Nofziger have taken the offensive with their own counter-proposal - a resolution to turn the greenspace into parkland. Even Baylor isn't expecting council approval. "It may be too late," she says. Either way, she wins. n Two other Mitchell proposals failed to get approved last week. One is a proposal to transfer, in six months, what's left of the $3.9 mil-lion capital reserve fund to fire, police, and EMS services. The fund was formed at the behest of the city manager to replenish any unforeseen decreases in the city's expected sales tax revenue in the new fiscal year. Shea, Jackie Goodman, and Mitchell voted in favor of the transfer. Nofziger had left the dais. The mayor and Reynolds voted no.

Mitchell's second proposal would allow long-term capital projects to be subject to water-quality regulations in place at the time the project was approved for construction. Since the city often doesn't initiate a project until years after approval, water-quality regulations could change (usually becoming more stringent). Todd, Mitchell, and Reynolds gave it a thumbs-up. Shea, Goodman, and Nofziger voted no. n This week in council: The Baylor land swap item comes back to council, along with Mitchell's two aforementioned items that failed for lack of a quorum. n

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