Naked City

Off the Desk:

While City Manager Jesus Garza is widening his net in search of more police chief candidates, there suddenly seems to be renewed interest (from somewhere within city hall) in one of the original candidates -- Gerald L. Williams, a think-tank type from Huntsville who is well versed in community policing and is the former police chief in Aurora, Colo. All we know is that queries are being made... -- A.S.

"Seven-zero!" exclaimed Councilmember Gus Garcia after a unanimous council swiftly denied the Foster Ranch apartments on the Southwest Parkway the right to expand. The apartments didn't meet the test of the Save Our Springs ordinance, limiting impervious cover to 15%. The proposed expansion would have hiked impervious cover to 45%. The vote was the first challenge to S.O.S. in the new pro-S.O.S. council's reign and is perhaps the first 7-0 vote on S.O.S. ever. Still, S.O.S. legal council Bill Bunch says Foster Ranch is trying to get grandfathered out of complying with the ordinance on a slim technicality. "[The developer] will probably sue the city now," he predicts... -- K.V.

Mayor Kirk Watson and Georgetown Mayor Leo Wood spent the early part of this week in Washington, D.C., chatting up our state representatives and senators on proposed state highway 130 (see feature this page). Watson says Wood initiated the trip and has been actively forging ties between Austin and Georgetown since showing up in Watson's office the day after mayoral candidate Ronney Reynolds withdrew from the race... -- K.V.

Nearly 70 properties in the tornado-stricken Pedernales Valley still lie twisted in debris, prompting the P.V. disaster recovery team to schedule a clean-up project this weekend, July 19-20. Volunteer workers will meet at 7am at the recovery team office, behind the Pedernales Country Store (2.3 miles off Hwy71 on RR2322/Pace Bend Park Road). The Salvation Army will provide lunch. Wear boots, gloves, and sun screen. Bring water -- and chainsaws, if possible. For more info call 512/264-0825. -- K.F.

Heat's On at Airport

The construction of the Austin-Bergstrom Airport has the city staff sweating bullets this summer -- especially without air conditioning. It seems that somebody had the bright idea of farming out the airport's heating and cooling system to a contractor rather than having the city finance and build a cooling facility itself. Airport project insiders, however, say the bidding process for the plant has been so badly bungled that after two rounds of searching for an appropriate contractor, the city has decided to build the plant itself -- adding some $8 million in debt to the city's $600 million price tag for the airport -- and possibly delaying construction. The bidding contractors are none too happy about the process, either. Top contender, Houston firm CES/Way, is protesting the bidding process for the second time.

Joe Lessard, a former assistant city manager whose duties were recently shifted to focus solely on the completion of the airport, says the change from contracting out the plant to bringing it in-house will not send the airport over budget or off schedule. However, according to a memo from Lessard to the city council (published in this week's Austin Business Journal), hot and cold water had been promised by April 1998 to the contractor that is building the airport's main terminal. Lessard's memo states: "Now the latest date is not likely to be met." Delaying hot and cold water to the terminal could delay the airport's May 1999 completion.

When the city was planning to pay an outside entity to finance, construct, maintain, and service the facility -- essentially acting as a small utility specific only to the airport -- the costs of cooling the airport would have come out of monthly expenditures, with the overall cost spread out over 20 years. Now, with the city choosing to finance and construct the facility itself, the cost is a one-time, up-front capital investment, with a glaring $8 million price tag. Lessard says the city is still considering finding a vendor to operate the city-constructed facility, but adds that the current plan is actually the more cost effective. "We expect it will save us some money. What's going up is the debt but in the end it will save us money from paying somebody else. The airport project itself looks like it's more expensive but the ongoing cost is less," he explains.

Be that as it may, CES/Way is still upset about being pushed out of the process, and critics maintain that the whole affair has been a fiasco. Erbin Keith, vice president of CES/Way, was unwilling to comment on the firm's ongoing bid protest, but he did note that his company had already successfully protested the first round of bidding on the cooling plant. CES/Way was not the only one confused about the bidding process. Even Lessard admits that the original bidding round on the cooling plant was a mess. Insiders say the blame for the bungled job is bound to fall on Lessard, since he's the one overseeing the project. -- K.V.

Historic Moments

Proving his diligence toward keeping East Austin issues alive, and providing a glimpse of his own ambitions for East Austin, Councilmember Willie Lewis has invited Teresa O'Connell, of the Texas Historical Commission, and Kirk Mitchell, president of the Save Our Springs Alliance, to draw up a plan for saving and revitalizing East Austin's historic structures.

At a July 9 council work session, O'Connell showed slides on how preservation of historic buildings will aide, not hamper, the economic revitalization of the 11th and 12th Street corridors and beyond. As an incentive to spruce up the sites, the State Historical Commission proposes a 20% tax credit for investors who restore buildings on the National Register, as well as low-interest loans, and HUD/CDBG grants for citizens who wish to preserve and build in economically disadvantaged areas. Along with the East Austin Economic Development Corporation (EAEDC), O'Connell asserts that preserving these immensely historical homes and buildings will not only keep the character of East Austin alive, but will also generate tourist and entertainment dollars. "We wanted to present a different option to the council than what had been presented before," says O'Connell.

Passing most of the council's questions over to O'Connell, Kirk Mitchell's presence seemed more of a way to counter former Councilmember Eric Mitchell's accusations of racism against the environmental and preservationist community.

The inclusion of S.O.S.'s Mitchell at the Wednesday work session may not be enough to smooth the waters between the environmental community and the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA), however. And how this will coincide with the ARA's vision of East Austin's future is not yet apparent. O'Connell steered away from addressing the state of affairs between ARA, Eric Mitchell, and the commission, but she did acknowledge that the respective parties "are not even talking."

But with Lewis' victory and support from other historic preservation societies in East Austin, Eric Mitchell may face more obstacles if he wants only his vision of East Austin's future to prevail. Community leaders such as Van Johnson of EAEDC, which strongly supported Lewis' bid for council, say Mitchell's departure from council offers a more inclusive opportunity for all East Austin residents. -- W.C.

The Honeymooners

The new councilmembers certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. What with our new mayor splashing flowers everywhere and the new council camaraderie, it is all the casual observer can do not to choke on the sickly sweet scent of progressive politics hanging in the air. One thing is for certain, council chambers ain't what it used to be.

"Remember when we all used to sit around and tell jokes with Bruce Todd?" quipped Save Our Springs booster Kirk Mitchell, standing in a clutch of jovial politicos during a council recess. It seems only yesterday that former Councilmember Eric Mitchell was calling the other Mitchell an "asshole" for his vehement environmental advocacy. As Kirk Mitchell cracked jokes with Mayor Kirk Watson, former Councilmember Brigid Shea, and Councilmember Daryl Slusher, Place 6 newbie Willie Lewis was furrowing his brow in concentration -- over a hand-held computer game of Hangman. So goes the new carefree council.

"This is such a nice change!" exclaimed Shea as she sauntered, all smiles, into a friendly hug with Councilmember Gus Garcia. Considering the politically divisive and often awkward environment in chambers until recently, Shea and her enviro-pals are in seventh heaven with the changeover. Even politically disinterested channel 6 surfers are sure to have noticed the newly decorated dais as a sign of the honeymooning atmosphere in chambers.

"Mayor, I noticed that the flowers are a little scraggly this week," commented American-Statesman reporter Ben Wear on the change from full bouquets to three gebera daisies per council seat. "Next week will it just be boutonnieres?"

"Oh yes," shot back Watson, "and after that it'll just be a few rose petals scattered here and there." -- K.V.

El Encuentro Fue Bueno

Some of the best and the brightest of Austin's progressive community gathered in East Austin for two days of strategizing last weekend. About 100 people showed up for the Austin Encuentro, a discussion forum inspired by the international call for dialogue first issued two years ago by the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico.

"We tried to show how global trends are affecting ordinary people here in Austin," said Erin Rogers, one of the facilitators of the conference. To do this, participants formed small groups that began by discussing a specific event and then extrapolated to an analysis of general trends, using an analytical process known as Coyuntura, which was developed in part by Latin American liberation theologists in the 1970s.

But this was not just another green meeting, focusing solely on environmental issues. Groups worked toward a radical critique of labor relations, racial and ethnic divisions, homophobia, sustainable development, sexism, among other topics. But this Encuentro was just a warm-up for the Second Intercontinental Encuentro (the first having been held in Chiapas last summer) to be held in Spain July 25 through August 3. How successful was the Austin Encuentro? "People came to learn, and I think they did," Rogers said. For more information on the Encuentro, visit http://www.utexas.edu/students/nave. -- N.B.

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