Naked City

Off the Desk:

As the Electric Utility Department prepares for deregulation, councilmembers have continued to share a common concern -- that Mayor Bruce Todd has tried to browbeat city staff into taking a privatization stance. This concern grew with Todd's behavior last Thursday. Backstage, during council discussion on a staff proposal to prepare the utility for deregulation (see "Council Watch"), Todd reportedly became enraged that the city manager had allowed EUD staff to seriously consider a counterproposal from Councilmembers Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher. According to city hall sources, Todd ordered Jesus Garza to "put out" his resumé for not denouncing the Griffith-Slusher counterproposal. Todd may have had success influencing the city manager in the past, but as the lame-duck mayor's time on the council dwindles, so too will his influence... -- A.M.

San Antonio has had so much success shipping its garbage to Austin, Alamo City leaders have decided to give us more. The San Antonio City Council recently upped the amount of trash hauled to Austin from 50,000 to 100,000 tons a year. Texas Disposal Systems (TDS), which owns the Creedmoor-area landfill south of Austin, scored the extra trash that had been coveted by waste giants Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., and Waste Management Inc. The latter two didn't walk away empty-handed, however. San Antonio adopted a three-way contract split, giving all three companies a piece of the pie, with TDS taking the largest share...

There's nothing like a peaceful protest to spice up the retail holiday spirit. The Guatemala Action Network of Austin (GANA) last Saturday tried to spread a little cheer, along with opposition leaflets, to prospective customers at Phillips-Van Heusen (PVH) stores (makers of Geoffrey Beene, Izod) at the San Marcos outlet mall. Store managers were not amused and summoned police in short order. There were no arrests. GANA and sister chapters across the country maintain that PVH violates workers' rights, both in the U.S. and in Guatemala, where the Guatemalan Labor Ministry has questioned the company's labor practices. -- A.S.

Blackland Treaty

Fifteen years to the day after the University of Texas plundered east into Blackland to replace homes with parking lots, a baseball field, and a filling station, the council last week passed a resolution to cede 14 lots to the Blackland Neighborhood Development Corporation (BNDC). UT acquired these lots in the Eighties, but had no specific plans for their use. If it weren't for the BNDC's affordable housing program, they would have sat vacant.

Currently, BNDC sublets the lots from the city, which in turn leases them from UT. The University is expected to sign off on the lots soon, a move that, for the present day, certifies Leona Street as the end of the road for UT's eastward megalomania. Leona is the dividing line that separates the UT property from the rest of the Blackland neighborhood. All told, Blackland is bordered by I-35, Chicon Street to the east, Manor Road to the north, and Martin Luther King Boulevard on the south.

Bo McCarver, BNDC treasurer, credits UT Chancellor Bill Cunningham for changing UT's mindset toward continuing development beyond Leona Street. More importantly, though, McCarver credits the organizational strength of the Blackland corporation, which persuaded UT to enter into a written agreement six years ago to halt encroachment. -- A.M.

Viva Chicken Little

Last Thursday, the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development coalition (SEED) released the most complete report ever on power plant emissions in Texas. According to the report, Texas is the number-one electricity producer in the country, generating 9% of all U.S. electricity, and emitting nearly 200 million tons of air pollution annually. That makes Texas the nation's number-one polluter; total carbon dioxide emissions from Texas average 550 million tons a year, about 11.5% of the U.S. total.

The report -- simple, short, and easy to read -- is called "The Most Powerful Polluters in Texas." It is especially significant because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced plans to strengthen its requirements on allowable air pollution. The Austin area has violated the requirements twice in the last six years, and creators of the report, including Austin activist Paul Robbins, Sierra Club Air Quality head Neil Carmen, and Environmental Defense Fund leader Jim Marston, say Austin will exceed the threshold under the proposed requirements, which could be enacted as early as next Spring.

Also, the Texas Legislature is expected to begin discussing the deregulation of the electric utility industry in 1997. To prepare for that, the city council last week cut 15% of the funding for electricity conservation measures. That could help contribute to Austin exceeding the EPA requirements, which would require new or expanding businesses to undergo more conservation requirements, and could threaten federal funding for certain programs. According to SEED, the solution is clear: increase reliance on renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, which currently generate only 1% of the state's electricity.

The report also lists the "Dirty Dozen," the top 12 polluting plants in Texas. Four of those -- and three of the top four -- are owned by TU Electric, the EUD's lead suitor should the city decide to sell to a private company. None of the three Austin-area plants (Sam Gideon, Decker, Holly) made the list. A Fayette County power plant, owned by the Lower Colorado River Authority, is seventh on the list. -- A.M.

`Burbs Flex Muscle

It's a whole new ball game at the Austin Transportation Study. Last spring, ATS watchers predicted that a shift in the balance of power would occur after the organization added three new suburban representatives and one new Austin city councilmember, increasing the regional transportation planning group's membership from 17 to 21.

But few were prepared for the dramatic suburban vs. inner-city battle line drawn at the Dec. 9 meeting, which ended with the `burbs walking away with the lion's share of new transportation funding after ATS decided how to spend $44.7 million in federal dollars over the next four years.

The most surprising move came when Travis County Commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Valarie Bristol teamed up with five suburban representatives to kill an ATS staff recommendation to spend $4.5 million on Austin's traffic signal computerization program. They said the money could be better spent building two additional lanes on a Dessau Road extension in Pflugerville. This is on top of the $4 million the ATS had already awarded to build a two-lane extension on Dessau Road; the new money will allow for four lanes.

Sonleitner argued that four lanes are needed because of rapid growth in Pflugerville, partly fueled by the construction of the massive Samsung plant.

Two of the four Austin city councilmembers on the ATS -- Gus Garcia and Daryl Slusher -- tried to put the best argument forward for signal computerization. They said the system is critical for relieving traffic congestion and slowing the degeneration of Austin's air quality. Plus, synchronization would benefit more people, including all those suburban commuters who contribute to the congestion.

In the final vote tally, only State Representative Glen Maxey and Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez voted with the four council representatives for signal computerization. State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos voted for the Dessau Road expansion, while State Rep. Sherri Greenberg abstained, saying questions remain as to whether a computerized system effectively improves air quality.

She's not the lone doubter. Former Air Quality Coordinator Charles Albert, whom the city hired to inventory sources of air pollution, wrote in his final report last year that traffic light synchronization may provide no air quality improvement because of emissions from the increased amount of traffic it facilitates.

In another Pflugerville triumph, the city also won $2.7 million for improvements to FM 1825, and $960,000 of the $2.7 million available for bicycle and pedestrian projects. ATS also voted $4.1 million for a center left-turn lane on Bee Caves Road, $2.5 million to improve entrance and exit ramps on I-35, and $428,000 for a bicycle trail along Boggy Creek in East Austin. -- N.E.

Food Center's Bounty

Most people don't think of "what's for dinner" as a political question. But for Kate Fitzgerald, executive director of the Sustainable Food Center, that question is food for thought. Housed downtown since January 1993, the center recently jumped on the opportunity to move to a house on a two-acre farm in southeast Austin's Montopolis neighborhood. Now the center can live off the fat of the land, and teach others how to do the same.

About 100 supporters gathered last Monday at the farm to celebrate the center's successes in tackling issues of hunger and nutrition. South Texas' agricultural rep in the Beltway, U.S. Rep. E. "Kika" de la Garza (D-Mission), was the evening's special guest, walking away with the center's "Hot Stuff Award" for his 32 years of work fighting hunger.

In low-income areas such as East Austin, where the center concentrates its efforts, the challenges of ensuring adequate nutrition are two-fold. Not only are fully stocked produce sections and large supermarkets few and far between, but residents often are unaccustomed to cooking with a wide variety of vegetables, making them more prone to the illnesses resulting from poor nutrition and high-fat diets, studies show.

The Sustainable Food Center attacks the root of these problems with a hoe and a shovel. The center-sponsored Eastside Community Farmers' Market and the Eastside Community Garden project both bring a wider variety of fresh food into areas without adequate supermarket access. Teaching and advocating for sustainable farming methods are also keys to the center's mission, but now these efforts are housed under one roof. Working downtown at the center's former site "meant that there wasn't a place where people could come where they could see in an instant all the different components of food security," Fitzgerald says.

Educational programs are also a priority. Volunteer chefs teach free bilingual cooking classes. And at several local schools the center teaches gardening skills to at-risk youth. According to the gardening program's coordinator, Sabre Fugate of Communities In Schools, gardening is "really helping [students] with their self-esteem and pre-employment skills. They don't really realize that they're learning things when they're out there."

The center's goal is to sponsor at least four new farmers' markets in low-income areas of Austin by next spring. Fitzgerald hopes the new farm will be financially self-sustaining in five years; for the time being, it's supported by pri-vate foundations such as Share Our Strength, the Public Welfare Foundation, and Farm Aid. -- K.V.

Moratorium Granted

Sparked by a fire at the BFI Recyclery over the summer, a grassroots revolution has emerged in Central East Austin to "roll back" the patches of industrial zoning that allowed new factories and plants to be built next door to homes, with no requirements for neighborhood notification. Last week, Hispanic groups like PODER (People in Defense of the Earth and her Resources) and El Concilio secured a 45-day moratorium from the city council on industrial development applications. During that time, the coalition intends to develop its own master plan, replacing poorly sited commercial and industrial zoning with more residential lots. The proposal was sponsored by Gus Garcia, who also ordered city staff to create new application procedures that require neighborhood notification. -- A.M.

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