Keeping Industry Out
illustration by Doug Potter
While BFI, which has been in the location for more than 20 years, maintains that it is a good neighbor in the Gardens area, nearby residents complain of blowing paper, cockroach and rodent infestations, and noise pollution from the plant which is sited across the street from a residential area. A July 21, 1996 fire at the BFI plant was the straw that broke the neighborhood's back, and the impetus for a movement to eliminate zoning in East Austin which allows industrial areas to abut residential neighborhoods. The zoning rollback will not force BFI to close, but if the company sells the land the site would convert to the new zoning status.
"We think we add value to that neighborhood," argues BFI spokesperson Tony Villanueva, saying that the plant offers employment and represents the much-ballyhooed "new urbanism" which encourages compact city environments. BFI complains that LO zoning would make the property impossible to sell because existing facilities would have to be destroyed to accommodate an office environment. Because BFI, as the property's owner, petitioned against the rollback, council had to muster six votes to override the company's protest.
Last Thursday was a less venomous redux of the public hearing on May 22, when a scheduled vote on the rollback was postponed. Gardens residents appeared in council chambers that day hurling a litany of accusations at the environmental community for failing to fight against what residents call environmental racism. Pointing the finger at both progressive councilmembers and at absent environmental activists, residents vented their anger and promised political revenge.
What a difference six weeks can make. Not only are there a few new enviro-friendly sheriffs in town and on the dias, but the neighborhood's ire apparently got the attention of environmentalists, who showed up this time around to speak in favor of the rollback. "We're the ones that got this city council up here that's going to give [the neighborhood] what they want," boasted Kirk Mitchell of the Save Our Springs Alliance (S.O.S.), adding that the absence of environmentalists at the May 22 hearing was due to the council run-off elections, not a lack of environmentalist support. Mitchell points to the campaign season's S.O.S. endorsement questionnaire, which addressed East Austin zoning rollbacks, as proof that the environmental community has never dropped the ball on East Austin issues. "I see this as very much a part of our agenda. Environmental racism in this day and time is really indistinguishable from the environmental cause in general," concurred Steve Beers of the Sierra Club. While the enviros were casually brushing off the suggestion that their interest in the Gardens struggle had ever wavered, neighborhood residents were just relieved to see environmentalist support back in the game. "Yes, we put a challenge to [the environmentalists] when we were here last, and now we both have to continue on the path to justice together," says Susana Almanza of People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER).
Characterizing the earlier contentious meeting as a "pretty humorous" misunderstanding, Daryl Slusher says that neighborhood anger was misdirected at the progressive members of council. "One of the reasons we rescheduled is because it didn't have the votes on the previous council," says Slusher, who points to the ousted business-friendly councilmembers -- Mayor Bruce Todd, Ronney Reynolds, and Eric Mitchell -- as likely "no" votes on the rollback. Echoing environmental activists, Slusher maintains that environment-friendly politics have always extended to East Austin. "We will not be divided and conquered," he promised of the two movements.
The hot debate saw council newbie Bill Spelman learning an expedient political lesson. Showing the kind of balanced, logical reasoning one can expect from a public policy Ph.D, Spelman interrupted the debate to suggest that the zoning be changed to WLO, warehouse limited office, as opposed to simply LO. Spelman's reasoning was flawless: Since BFI had complained that LO zoning made the property impossible to sell, WLO was a middle ground between the neighborhood's needs and BFI's. Unfortunately for Spelman, academic reasoning and political reasoning rarely overlap. Gardens residents protested from the audience, Gus Garcia refused to support the suggestion, and just about the only supporter of Spelman's idea was BFI. "The reason I pursued my quixotic proposal is that I wanted to be on record as saying that demand counts and we want to be realistic," says Spelman, adding that he learned from the experience that heavy negotiating is best done before sitting down at the dais. "If just zoning it LO was sufficient to ensure that a medical office park would site there in the next couple of years, that would be great. The problem is the banking community who are not at all sure there is demand for LO sufficient to cover the costs of development. If it stays LO, BFI's just gonna camp out there and not leave, or there's just going to be a vacant building. If anything could be worse than BFI, it would be having that stay vacant," argues Spelman.
During a recess to discuss his proposal, it was evident that Spelman had invoked the ire of the neighborhood. "I don't know what the hell they're talking about. All we want is LO," said Rangel, adding that she was already uncomfortable with Spelman because he is an Anglo holding the traditionally Hispanic Place 5 seat. Following the demise of his proposal, however, Spelman successfully mended fences with the neighborhood by issuing his "yes" vote on the LO zoning and a few humble mea culpas.
Alluding to the impending neighborhood planning process, which is currently searching for two pilot neighborhoods, Jackie Goodman suggested that the Gardens neighborhood can expect more help from council in the future. "It's not that we have to live and die by LO right now. The neighborhood plan is coming up and two pilot projects aren't gonna do it for this city. Just the rollback is not enough. This is only the beginning," she promised. Goodman likes to tout her record as "never having voted against a valid petition," but it was clear that she and the council were interested in more than BFI's crocodile tears. The 7-0 vote proved that the entire council is placing neighborhood-based politics as a top priority. "We would all take it on the chin for not giving the community what it wanted," explains Spelman.
The outcome may not be the same for the proposed rezoning of the Balcones recycling plant, which was rescheduled for July 31. Although the Balcones plant abuts a neighborhood, similar to the BFI plant, the location lacks a catalyzing disaster, such as the BFI fire, to rally residents.
The next time BFI makes the news it will either be being awarded or denied the 30-year city contract to handle the city's recycling. "Getting the contract makes a world of difference for us. It would mean that we strongly, seriously, and very definitely would consider relocating. We may go as far as to donate the facility," says BFI's Villanueva. BFI's almost-probably-for-sure promises to move from the site have set up the final irony of Gardens residents acting as the most vocal boosters for BFI's being awarded the city contract. "It is an irony," admits Villanueva, "but it points to the fact that there are some very definite win-win situations that haven't been explored yet."