Naked City

Off the Desk

Stakeholders in the proposed Triangle Square project have settled on Calthorpe Associates - a "new urban" community design outfit out of Berkeley, Calif. - to help navigate a neighborhood-friendly development on the
22-acre plot in north central Austin. The selection of Calthorpe settles, at least for the time being, the feud over the future of the state-owned land, which nearly went the way of big-box retail developments more familiar to fringe and suburban areas of town. But this week, all sides - meaning neighbors, the city of Austin, the General Land Office, and leaseholder Cencor Realty - seemed to be in agreement on Calthorpe. "The key is that it's now going to be a public process, whereas before we weren't recognized as stakeholders," says Sabrina Burmeister, spokeswoman for Neighbors of Triangle Park. "This doesn't mean necessarily that everyone's going to be happy, but it's at least a step in the right direction." Toward that end, Calthorpe officials will be in Austin for the first of three public meetings on the subject, at 7pm Thursday, Aug. 6, at the General Land Office, Rm. 118, 1700 Congress... - A.S.

The whole democracy-in-action element of the September bond election lived on last week, with over 200 Austinites signed up to give their three-minute input on what should or shouldn't be on the Sept. 26 ballot. But many folks ceased their strife before the meeting finally ended at 11:30pm. Popular among the night's speakers were the $45 million Destination Parks and Greenways plan, which the Citizens Bond Advisory Committee has recommended to the City Council, and the $8.6 million proposal to fund a permanent home for the MexicArte Museum - which didn't make the final cut on the advisory committee's picks. The council plans to hammer out the final list of bond items, as well as wrap up this year's city budget, at its Aug. 5 work session, starting at 9am. For more info on the upcoming election, call 499-BOND (2663), or consult the Chronicle Web site for a list of proposed ballot items: - J.S.

The biggest threat to the salamander and Barton Springs Pool is not the swimmers - it's the pollution from upstream development. That was the sentiment of most speakers at a public hearing Tuesday on the city's $2 million salamander conservation proposal, which suggests building a new dam across the pool's shallow end, roping off salamander habitat areas, and reducing the number of pool cleanings. Last chance to speak out on the plan is at 7pm tonight (Thursday, July 30) at Town Lake Center, 721 Barton Springs Rd. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife is expected to rule on the city's proposal in late August or early September...

Gubernatorial candidate Garry Mauro will stump for pro-choice issues at a benefit given in his behalf by the Texas Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League. The happy-hour fundraiser takes place Monday, Aug. 3, 5:30-7:30pm, at La Zona Rosa. Suggested donation: $10. Ana Egge and Billy Harvey will provide musical entertainment... - A.S.

National Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials were in town this week to compliment Austin Housing Authority (AHA) staff for untangling the administrative problems that were leaving public housing applicants out in the cold even as the agency's apartments sat empty. Nearly 2,000 families still wait for public housing assistance in Austin, but at least now the city's housing complexes are full and all its Section 8 dollars are being spent, which is what earned the AHA awards from the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. AHA executive director Jim Hargrove, who took over the reins at the beleagured agency 18 months ago, says that when his staff went out and pried the plywood off boarded-up apartments they found 130 vacancies they didn't even know about. City staffers also credit Hargrove with tossing out the stringent application procedures that were choking the agency's mission... - K.F.

School Daze

Parents and teachers at Casis Elementary breathed an audible sigh of relief earlier this month as Dr. Barry Aidman signed on as principal, just in the nick of time. Aidman replaces former Casis leader Anne Spooner, who resigned to start a catering business after only a year in the school's top spot. Now on its third principal in as many years, the West Austin elementary hopes this one's a keeper. According to Area 3 Superintendent Yolanda Rocha, the former Round Rock ISD assistant superintendent is "such a terrific match" for the campus and the community that he's sure to be accepted by the elementary's notoriously picky parents. Aidman, says Rocha, is "stellar at working with people, working with staff and the community, building a community of learners."

Meanwhile, at Ortega Elementary in northeast Austin, where calls for another principal's ouster have been echoing for over a year, parents and teachers are finding it tougher to make their voices heard. Alleging widespread staff dissatisfaction and the school's highest turnover rate ever, a group of Ortega parents and former staff members are working for the removal of principal Martha Garcia, who served as an administrative intern in the office of Area 1 Superintendent James Veitenheimer before snagging the top position at Ortega only a year ago. Former Ortega staffers recite a litany of complaints against Garcia, chief among them her alleged heavy-handed leadership style, a tendency to micromanage, and unresponsiveness to requests for change.

Former teaching assistant Benita Martinez, who says that Garcia forced her to resign one week before Christmas last year, claims that the principal piled an unreasonable amount of responsibility on her staff, requiring teaching assistants to serve watch on morning duty, and to teach classes alone when substitutes were unavailable. This sentiment, repeated by some half a dozen former staff members and parents of Ortega students, may or may not be representative of a more widespread dissatisfaction with Garcia at the school. District records indicate that 15 staff members left Ortega during the 1997-1998 school year, including four resignations, three promotions, and eight transfers from the school - not an unusually high number, except that many of those who have transferred or were promoted say they would have left Ortega anyway. Jo Garcia, a popular parent training specialist who left Ortega just three months into Martha Garcia's tenure, says the principal was unresponsive and unreasonably restrictive. Now a transition specialist in the Young Scientist program at Kealing Elementary, Jo Garcia says, "I felt like, if there's glory, it's going to be shared, and if not, I'm going to be fired."

Both Veitenheimer and Martha Garcia play down the conflicts, saying that such disagreements always occur when a new leader takes over a school. "When you don't have leadership on the campus for a year," as was the case at Ortega, "some people don't want things to change," Garcia says. "I have very high expectations for teachers and staff. Sometimes you give people difficult feedback that they don't want to hear." In addition, says Veitenheimer, misinformation may have contributed to parents' and teachers' fears.

Parents and teachers who want Garcia out, however, are not giving up. Now there are rumblings of a parent-teacher boycott on the first day of school. At this point, the case for Garcia's resignation from Ortega is far from closed. - E.C.B.

Suit Savvy

The Texas Civil Rights Project commemorated the eighth anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act Monday by filing eight federal lawsuits across the state. The suits, filed on behalf of disability rights groups ADAPT of Texas and the Coalition of Texans With Disabilities, targeted a number of Austin-area businesses, including local landmark Paramount Theatre, where the press conference announcing the suits was staged. TCRP director Jim Harrington said that the Paramount was chosen for its singular lack of wheelchair seating, and not because of its status as a local sacred cow. If anything, Harrington said, the Paramount "ought to have a sense of pride that it's going to do something for Austinites. We've been getting complaints about the lack of seating for the past two years, and they just won't do anything about it." The theatre, which has seating for two wheelchairs in the front of the auditorium, ought to have about 12 or 13, Harrington estimates.

Other defendants in the round of lawsuits include Ken's Donuts and Pastries, Player's, Westgate Mall, and both the Chevron and 7-Eleven convenience store chains. The wide range of targets, Harrington says, is "symbolic of what the ADA is about - access to everyday American life."

Local business owners may roll their eyes, but they usually take Harrington seriously - last year, he won or settled all seven suits filed to commemorate the ADA's seventh anniversary, and he anticipates that most if not all of this year's suits will be settled by next summer. If that's the case, the Project will have to find nine new targets to set in its sights for a celebration that, in its second year, appears to be turning into an annual tradition. - E.C.B.

Air Today, Gone Tomorrow

The bad air choking Texas for the past months may not be solely from the fires in Mexico. Local activists, including Neil Carman of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) leaders, recently held a press conference to explain their version of the alarmingly high levels of toxins in the air. The conference focused on the "volume discount" on air pollution fees, a quirky loophole in state laws that allows industries with a large amount of emissions to pollute more and pay less.

For each ton of pollutant released into the atmosphere, the company pays a fee which is set in accordance with the 1990 Clean Air Act. The state can only charge the company a per-ton fee up to 4,000 tons, at which point the volume discount "cap" is imposed, and every subsequent ton of pollutant released into the air is free. Of the 1,934 industrial plants in Texas, 65 didn't pay the full emissions fee in fiscal year 1997, according to data compiled by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC).

Money collected by the imposed fee - currently set at $26 per ton - had originally funded environmental programs. The state has lost as much as $27 million due to the volume discount "cap" - money which could have gone to environmental programs, environmentalists say. Who are the biggest culprits? Electric utilities, which the air quality activists say account for 66% of the emissions that received the volume discount. The activists say this information will go to the governor and the Lege as a first step toward cleaning up the volume discount bill. - E.K.

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