Naked City

Off the Desk:

Karen Hadden is moving back to her home town of El Paso, but it's not exactly by choice. The former city council candidate and environmental activist will teach high school biology, something she's always done in Austin. Hadden says the Austin Independent School District had offered her a job this year, but then rescinded the offer the same day. Hadden wonders if her protests against AISD siting schools over the Edwards Aquifer figures in to the flip-flop. AISD would not comment on employee matters... -- K.V.

We won't be seeing any billboards welcoming Baptist fundamentalists to the upcoming Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival. That was the joke the festival wanted to include in its ad campaign, but it seems a local sign company had a problem with the language and refused to put up the billboards. The signs would have featured a 1940s cartoon icon of a theatre usher holding a flashlight in one hand and making a right-this-way gesture with the other. Below was, "Baptist Fundamentalists Welcome," followed by the festival dates, Aug. 22-Sept. 4. Festival organizers aren't dismayed, though. They expect to capitalize a'plenty on the image with T-shirts and posters... -- A.D.

Two pocket parks got the green light last week for some changes in scenery. Clarksville Park will now be named Mary Baylor Clarksville Park in honor of the fourth generation Clarksville resident and neighborhood activist. "All that the Clarksville community is, represents (Baylor) passing our way," the Rev W.B. Sutherland told city council. And Swede Hill's unofficial neighborhood park finally gained official status, two years after the controversy that nearly turned the greenspace into a housing development. In a show of commitment to the neighborhood park, the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association agreed to provide its own park maintenance -- an arrangement that Councilmember Gus Garcia said could become a model for other neighborhood parks...

That 942-acre Ivanhoe tract the city wants to buy for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (see last week's "Council Watch") just fell into our laps -- with a little help from a developer. The developer, Lakeway Partners, will buy the $3.4 million tract for the BCP. In return, Lakeway Partners will use the tract to satisfy U.S. Fish and Wildlife's environmental mitigation requirements, enabling the developer to build single-family houses in wildlife habitat at Lakeway... -- K.V.

High-Dollar Airport

Although the city's airport planners insist that the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport will still squeak in on time and under budget, there are a few new snags in its progress. At the request of the commercial airlines, Assistant City Manager Joe Lessard and Airport Project Team head John Almond are proposing an expansion of the airport's 20-gate terminal by as many as five new gates. Normally such an extension could be handled as a change order to the construction of the terminal by the current contractors, Morganti, Inc. However, having obtained a change order to build the airport's heating and cooling facility at a cost of $7 million, Morganti is too close to the 25% maximum on construction change orders allowed by state law to bid for the terminal extension.

The extension project -- which Almond says will cost between $25-36 million, depending on whether three or five gates are built -- will have to be bid out to other contractors, which will require more time. "Any time you go out for bids, they are always subject to protest, especially on the higher-dollar projects," admits Almond. In fact, one need only look to the history of the heating and cooling central plant for a case history of such problems.

The central plant was put out once for proposals and once for bids from contractors over the past year and a half. Neither process netted any option that the city felt was viable, and the plant was awarded to Morganti as a change order. Both processes have been protested for mismanagement by Houston firm CES/Way. The central plant is key to Morganti's timeline on the airport terminal, since the plant will provide hot and cold water for the last leg of terminal construction. Because the plant will not be finished on schedule, Morganti will lease temporary heating and cooling units until the plant is finished. The cost of leasing will come from Morganti's budget, therefore it is not assessed as an increase to the airport's cost.

Morganti is not being completely bumped out of the terminal expansion party, however. The contractor still has $9 million remaining before it reaches the 25% change order limit. "We're going to do as much as we can with change orders," says Almond, explaining that while Morganti works on framing the expansion, the three- to four-month bidding process for its completion can begin, most likely at the end of this year.

Despite Almond and Lessard holding tight to the "on time and under budget" canon, a quick glance at the numbers shows that the airport costs are hovering dangerously close to exceeding the $400 million in bonds authorized by voters. According to Almond, all but $37.2 million of the bond money has already been spent. That means the $36 million expansion has very little room for error if the airport is to be completed under budget. "We're not going to delay the airport opening because of the expansion. We're going to go ahead and open it. And I'll tell you what we're not going to do. We're not going to exceed the funding authority," Almond promises. The airport is scheduled to open May 1999. -- K.V.

1704 No More

Contrary to the worst fears of the development community, the city council did not paint the town green last week. The surprise demise of SB 1704 -- the state's grandfathering law that kept the Save Our Springs (S.O.S.) ordinance from applying to real estate developments that had filed site plans before S.O.S.'s passage -- left development over the Edwards Aquifer wide open to the water-protecting will of council. No doubt the Salamander Seven would like to have applied S.O.S. willy-nilly, but fear of the 1999 state legislature has them proceeding with caution.

In a surprise press conference Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Kirk Watson announced the creation of a mediated focus group to formulate a city ordinance to take the place of 1704. Although only six members of the 10- to 12-member focus group are confirmed so far, Watson intends to include equal representation from both environmentalists and developers. "You want to get away from these stereotypes, but sometimes you can't do that," admitted Watson of the polarized organization. "I'm not asking them to agree. That's a failure of past approaches," he added, explaining that a mediator will facilitate conversation between the traditionally warring factions. Watson also admitted that by including both sides he hopes to craft an ordinance balanced enough to keep the Lege off council's back.

The focus group will build off of a conceptual framework provided by council, which Watson hopes will keep the group's work focused and expedient. "In the past the process has not worked. The council lays out their proposal, there's a public hearing, and then the council votes," he explained. Watson intends instead to follow up the focus group's recommendations with mediated public hearings on the ordinance before its passage. Currently, public hearings are simply opinion-airing sessions, but the process Watson is suggesting is intended to encourage conversation and brainstorming among speakers. Watson employed a similar tack when he chaired the former Texas Air Control Board at a time when it was dominated by Gov. Bill Clements-appointed Republicans.

The conceptual framework provided by council includes a one-year grace period, during which those developments which filed site plans after the passage of 1704 in August 1995 can begin the process of securing loans and zoning under the water quality ordinances that currently govern the site. Those developments failing to meet the deadline will be governed by the new ordinance. Watson expects to pass Austin's new ordinance by Sept. 1, when 1704 will officially fall off the books. FYI: The confirmed focus group members are: Bill Bunch, Henry Gilmore, Jay Hailey, Lauren Ross, Craig Smith, and Richard Suttle. -- K.V.

Taming the Giant

Balcones Recycling CEO Kerry Getter may think it unfair, but his company is a monster in the eyes of East Austin townfolk. Not necessarily of the evil, horror-movie variety, but certainly by the more generic definition -- something abnormal, strange, abject. Neighborhood activists turned out at the July 31 council meeting to drive the monster out of its home at 2416 E. Sixth St., and the council may be inclined to help out.

Already stung by a recent zoning overlay which limits its ability to expand, Balcones came to the meeting to protest the planning commission's addition of a restrictive technicality on their property. But the dozen or so East Austinites came with their own agenda -- to roll the zoning all the way back to residential use.

Pictures did much of the talking. The residents presented a detail of an apartment building they hope will someday replace the Balcones plant, while Getter countered with a series of slides highlighting his plant's efficient operation, cleanliness, and well-trimmed shrubbery. "We are going to do our darndest to be a good neighbor," Getter said.

But as El Concilio coordinator Gavino Fernandez put it, the comparison was like "night and day" -- industry has no place in neighborhood groups' vision for East Austin. Gloria Moreno, president of the Pedernales Neighborhood Association, echoed those sentiments. "I want that building gone. Knock that green monster down," she said.

Balcones' opposition to the East Austin overlay restriction makes residents suspicious that it plans to expand. Councilmember Daryl Slusher tried repeatedly to get confirmation from Balcones' lawyer Alan Glen that the plant would continue to abide with an agreement it made with residents not to recycle food containers. Glen equivocated, saying that the "piling on" of zoning ordinances gives Balcones little incentive to agree to anything.

The council voted to send the suggested zoning change back to the planning commission, asking that a new plan be drafted to include residential use. It is too early to tell, of course, whether the council will actually approve such a measure. If it does, it is unclear whether anyone would emerge a winner. -- K.F.

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