Off the Desk:
Austin's Heritage Council has lined up three days of activities in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, with NAACP Executive Director Kweisi Mfume headlining the events. A citywide cleanup project is set for Saturday, beginning at 9am in the City Coliseum parking lot. The Heritage Jazz Fest gets underway at 7pm Saturday at the Paramount Theatre, with featured guitarist Doc Powell. On Monday, a community walk to the Capitol begins at 10:30am at Huston-Tillotson College, 900 Chicon Ave. NAACP leader Mfume will speak at 7pm Monday in the LBJ Auditorium, and again Tuesday at an 8am breakfast at the Hyatt Regency. For more information, call 339-3MLK, or visit the Heritage Council's website at http://www.heritagecouncil.net...
Not since the Civil War has Texas seen one of its female prisoners executed. But next month's scheduled execution of Karla Faye Tucker could change all that. The death row inmate is sentenced to die Feb. 3. Tucker's supporters say she has turned her life around in the last 15 years and deserves clemency. A rally to keep both Tucker and hope alive takes place at noon Saturday at the Capitol. Speakers will include Ron Carlson, brother of one of the murder victims, and former Texas rep Sissy Farenthold. Call 475-1327 for details...
Lois Robison, prison activist and chair of TX-CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants) will discuss ongoing statewide projects with local chapter members at 2pm Sunday, Jan. 18, in the Jackson-Moody Humanities Bldg., room 200, on the Huston-Tillotson campus. CURE organizes prisoners and their families to work toward changes in the criminal justice system; call 374-1304 for more info. -- A.S.
The dawning of Austin's economic future roused 700 political and business leaders out of bed Wednesday morning for a $25-a-head breakfast hosted by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. The unveiling of a chamber-commissioned study by ICF Kaiser (formerly SRI) on Austin's economy was both an update on the company's 1985 study, and a wake-up call on Austin's current strengths and weaknesses.
Calling Austin's situation a "good story," ICF's Ted Lyman said Austin is the fastest-growing city for the technology industry, outpacing even Silicon Valley in job growth. The local technology boom has also helped foster a number of successful spin-off industries in the film, music, multimedia, and biomedical fields, and is part of what ICF calls Austin's "sustainable regional economy."
But the basis of that sustainability is Austin's quality of life, which the ICF study defined in three equal parts: environmental protection, social equity, and economic development. At a time when even President Bill Clinton is focusing on the deficit of workers in technology industries, ICF points out that quality of life will be the critical factor in attracting new talent to the region. But, as Lyman also pointed out, the affordable housing crunch could eventually act as a "show-stopper" for Austin's economy, as new talent is deterred from relocating here.
Lyman also highlighted the need to train workers from under-employed communities, such as East Austin, both as a foil for the talent deficit, and as a benefit to sustainability. He further observed that a greater involvement of business interests in charity work is key to achieving social equity.
The chamber-sponsored event drew some unlikely guests. Several Save Our Springs activists showed up, including the group's legal counsel, Bill Bunch -- presumably to reap vindication in ICF's call to rank environmental protection equally with economic development in order to achieve sustainability. Observed S.O.S.'s Robin Stallings: "It's important for environmentalists not to let purely commercial interests co-opt the term `sustainability.'"
When Lyman previewed Wednesday's presentation for the city council on Oct. 22, councilmembers seemed floored by what appeared to be a confirmation of the council's left-leaning interests. "I hope the Chamber will take this to heart," mused Councilmember Daryl Slusher. -- K.V.
Up on Boggy Creek
The residents of Bundyhill Drive in East Austin can now be added to the growing list of neighborhoods and local communities battling against the powerful forces of the State of Texas. Citing the flood concerns of Bundyhill Drive residents at a press conference on Monday, Councilmember Willie Lewis hoped to bring more attention to the watershed and drainage problems in East Austin, while letting the state know that it won't be allowed to override local environmental regulations without a fight. Standing on the banks of Boggy Creek, near an area where a line of debris and leaves clearly show where the creek overflowed into adjacent yards during the last hard rains, Lewis pledged he would work to bring dollars that have gone to other flood-prone areas of Austin to neighborhoods east of I-35.
The construction of a new Texas Criminal Justice Center at Springdale Road and Martin Luther King Blvd. has residents of this middle-class community fearing that their homes may be swept away by rising creek waters. Residents say the creek, which runs adjacent to the justice center site, has overrun its banks at a level never seen until construction began. A temporary restraining order has halted the work.
Lewis, meanwhile, promised that although development in this area is desirable, these kinds of consequences would not be permitted at any cost. "If you noticed the water quality, it is terrible," Lewis said of the creek. "Notice the debris; it is terrible," he said. "We welcome development, but we need to prevent the erosion that you see here." To demonstrate that bridges of cooperation can be built across the I-35 boundary, environmentalists and community activists fighting the state on other fronts joined Lewis at Monday's press conference. They included Save Our Springs leaders Brigid Shea and Bill Bunch, as well as East Austin activist and county commission candidate Ron Davis. "We represent a united group of environmental community groups to say that the state should be a good neighbor," Shea said. "The state has not been a good neighbor when it comes to allowing communities to set their own regulations."
Still at issue is the question of who should take responsibility for any environmental damage caused by the construction. The state will lease the site, but Houston developer Lucky Srinivasan is constructing the center, and will also own the building. And the site won't be exempt from city regulations until the state assumes authority over it. The story continues at a hearing Jan. 20 before District Court Judge Jeanne Meurer. -- W.C.
Bicycling activists are circulating a petition to remove on-street car parking from the Drag, saying campus cycling is more difficult than ever now that Guadalupe is being reconfigured for easier pedestrian use. Mike Librik, of the Bicycle Advisory Council, says more space along the street is needed to install better bike facilities than those now in place. Librik says the new bike lanes, one on each side of Guadalupe, are impractical for campus cyclists, who often choose to ride the wrong way on the campus side of Guadalupe rather than cross the street twice to use the southbound lane. A further problem, he adds, is that buses are parking in the lanes to discharge passengers.
Capital Metro's André Tanner says that "it's a little late in the game" for changes in the Drag project, which was preceded by two forums for public input, and that Cap Metro intends to finish the renovations, as currently designed, by August of this year. The BAC's petition is available at Waterloo Cycles, 2815 Fruth. -- K.F.
Cleaning Up Mueller
There's still a year and a half to go before Robert Mueller Municipal Airport closes its gates, but the city is moving forward on plans to redevelop the prime property in Central Austin. Late last month, city councilmembers were brought up to speed on the findings of an environmental impact study at Mueller. The bottom-line message: Contaminated areas must be identified and remediated before redevelopment can occur.
"Considering this airport has been in operation for 70 years, we have found very low levels of contamination," said Mark Hemingway of Geomatrix, the firm that presented the findings. Groundwater tests and various soil tests all revealed low levels of lead, arsenic, petroleum hydrocarbons, and glycols, according to the Geomatrix study. The clean-up process could take a few weeks to a few years, Hemingway said.
And time is of the essence to a city council determined to have the ball rolling on redevelopment soon after the airport closes. The Geomatrix study only covered city-owned portions of the property. The state has yet to conduct an environmental impact study on the land it leases to the Texas National Guard. The state has also said it will acquire additional property at Mueller but there's no word yet on the exact site. Needless to say, city officials aren't happy with the state's foot-dragging. Said Councilmember Willie Lewis: "They should make a choice so we can go along with a redevelopment plan." -- W.C.