Naked City

Off the Desk:

Austin's $712 million bond package was only a small sliver of the nearly $25 billion in tax-supported debt approved by U.S. voters on Nov. 3. This makes 1998 the biggest year for bonds in American political history ...

He can't get a break: A week after getting waxed in his political comeback bid, former Attorney General Jim Mattox took another hit from an even angrier crowd -- the Summit Oaks Neighborhood Association. Mattox owns (and would like to flip) a chunk of land on Research Blvd., currently zoned for residential and office, that he wanted zoned for retail uses; neighbors objected and prevailed at Tuesday's Planning Commission meeting. As his case wound up after midnight, Mattox noted: "Y'all are truly dedicated public servants to be here at this hour."-- M.C.M.

Of all the reasons to drop out of a political campaign, disgust with the citizenry is one you don't hear too often. For months, Vic Vreeland has asked, "Had enough boondoggles?" via a steady stream of press releases trumpeting his plans to unseat Councilmember Daryl Slusher next year. But Vreeland says voters' overwhelming passage of the $712 million bond package last week gave him an answer he didn't quite like. So, he announced Tuesday, he is opting out. "The citizens of Austin apparently have not had enough boondoggles," said a frustrated Vreeland. "Taxpayers just haven't been squeezed enough in Austin and I can't personally afford to pedal (sic) austerity when few feel the pinch."-- L.T.

Back to the Future

What year is this? Visitors to Tuesday's Planning Commission meeting might have thought it was 1991, with all the talk about a project most of you doubtlessly thought was d-e-a-d -- the Bennett Tract and the East Side Mall.

The occasion was the long-awaited public hearing on the Austin Revitalization Authority's long-debated East Austin planning efforts. As has become the Austin norm, the bitter street fighting over the ARA has now become a warm embrace, with neighbors and business boosters joining together and singing the ARA plan's praises from the same page. There are actually two overlapping plans, one for East 11th and 12th streets proper -- backed by millions in federal money -- and one for Central East Austin as a whole, which seeks to maintain the Inner Eastside as a primarily residential neighborhood but which imposes no requirements on property owners.

This latter plan envisions no behemoth regional shopping mall for the Bennett tract, as was proposed more than a decade ago and violently opposed by the adjoining Guadalupe neighborhood ever since. However, Ebenezer Baptist Church and its allied East Austin Economic Development Corp., which back in 1991 cut a deal with Bennett, are still pumping for a mall, and the church elders turned out in force to oppose the ARA plan in firm, though somewhat muddled, tones. Despite their vigor and sincerity, the Ebenezer contingent found no sympathy from the Planning Commission, which endorsedthe ARA plan unanimously, echoing the sentiments of ARA board chair and former mayor protem Dr. Charles Urdy: "Our goal is to redevelop 11th and 12th streets now, not to talk about the Bennett tract from now until eternity." -- M.C.M.

To Market, To Market

City Council approved $2.1 million in development incentives last week for the Austin MarketPlace, the $70 million, 420,000-square-foot shopping center to be built at the corner of W. Sixth and Lamar. The funds will mitigate the high cost of downtown development by waiving the project's sewage and inspection fees, and paying for infrastructural work such as sewage lines and storm drains, usually charged to developers. City officials say the city will recoup its investment through taxes and utilities within a year after the shopping center opens.

The agreement is part of a Smart Growth initiative designed to bring more solid commercial retail to downtown. Austan Librach, director ofthe city Planning, Environmental, and Conservation Services Department, said the incentives are a first in Austin, and are patterned after similar guidelines used in Denver and larger cities in California. But he said Austin is the only city where a smart-growth matrix has been tied to incentives like those granted to the Austin MarketPlace. The shopping center, to be built on the site currently occupied by Capitol Chevrolet, will include a Target, a 14-screen movie theatre, several small retail stores, restaurants, and Book People.

David Vitanza, a partner with project developers Lamar-Sixth Austin Inc., said the center hasreceived nothing but praise from area residents."The neighborhood has been very encouraging," he said, adding that development should begin within the next 60 days. -- B.M.

Pressing the Prez

Students at the University of Texas challenged UT President Larry Faulkner and members of the university's legal team on their affirmative-action policies face-to-face on Monday, during a standing-room-only "town hall" meeting initiated by a protest led by the Anti-Racist Organizing Committee three weeks ago.

Over the course of the two-hour forum, students quizzed a panel of legal experts and university officials, including Faulkner, UT Law Dean Michael Sharlot, law professors Sandy Levinson and Douglas Laycock, and UT General Counsel Ray Farabee, on issues relating to the Hopwood injunction. UT officials have interpreted the ruling -- which students contend applies only to the law school -- as prohibiting affirmative action in admissions, hiring, and retention throughout the university. In response to questions about his personal stance on affirmative action at the university, Faulkner echoed his previously stated commitment to diversity, but wouldn't say whether he personally supported affirmative action policies. The response prompted angry shouts of "Yes or No?" from students in the audience. "In my previous job as provost at the University of Illinois, I was operating in a legal environment where affirmative action was legal. I supported affirmative action at the university," Faulkner said. "I am now here in Texas and my job is to hold the community together. If affirmative action was the law in Texas, I would support it."

The meeting was the first of four that Faulkner agreed to attend after about 40 students occupied the university's Main Building on Oct. 22 to protest UT's broad interpretation of the Hopwood injunction. University officials strongly contested students' claim that Hopwood is not binding to the rest of the university. "It is very difficult to find a lawyer at all familiar with the case who does not believe it applies to all areas of the university, including admissions and employment," said Sharlot. Farabee added that the university is seeking to overturn the injunction on race-based admissions, issued by a three-judge panel, in an appeal to the full Fifth Circuit. Students will have another chance to question UT officials in a second meeting on Nov. 16. Two more are scheduled during the spring semester, on Jan. 25 and Feb. 9.-- E.C.B.

Spread the Wealth

In the wake of an electoral sweep by Republican candidates who unanimously avowed their commitment to education, UT staffers are wondering how far their leaders' educational largesse will extend. In a sparsely attended public meeting last Wednesday, the University Staff Association (USA) discussed the gains achieved by UT workers so far (including a $14,000 minimum salary for staff), and distributed a platform for 1999 which includes a minimum wage of $8.93 an hour for all UT workers, a $200 per month across-the-board cost of living increase, and a $65,000 a year salary cap to be imposed until all workers at UT are making what USA considers a "living wage."

Bob Ambrosino, a professor in the UT School of Social Work, told the group that the entity most responsible for depressing university wages is not the Legislature, but UT itself. "The staff and wage equity crisis did not come about by accident ... and it was not the fault of the Legislature," he said. "This university is raising huge amounts of money that don't end up in our pockets." Journalism professor Bob Jensen said that despite obstacles -- like the inability of public workers in Texas to strike -- staff members should continue to organize. "It's not like [the board of regents is] going to wake up one day and find they have a conscience that they've misplaced," he said.

USA will hold a "staff speak out" at noon today, Thursday, Nov. 12, at UT's West Mall. UT President Larry Faulkner will address staff concerns at USA's next meeting Dec. 3. -- E.C.B.

Street of Dreams

Will flowers soon begin sprouting from South Congress sidewalks? Anyone attending the South Congress Coalition's (SCC) press conference Monday might think so. Boasting the slogan, "The Grand Avenue of Texas," merchants, residents, city leaders, and police gathered at Austin Island Park -- across the street from the closed and gutted Cinema West Adult Theatre -- to celebrate the ongoing effort to revitalize South Congress.The group lauded recent improvements to the street known for shady characters, prostitution, and drugs, including a $67.5 million improvement project for the Texas School for the Deaf; road construction on Oltorf; a new Twin Oaks Public Library; and $4 million in recently approved bond money for improvements to South Congress. Also on hand was a representative from HEB, who presented the coalition with a $17,500 donation from the chain's Oltorf store, to build a new gazebo and statue of Stephen F. Austin in the park. But the closing of Cinema West seemed to be the primary reason for the celebration. The expulsion of the porno house stands as the neighborhood's greatest victory in their attempt to bleach clean the so-called vermin off the road leading to the Capitol, and there was a somewhat naive sense Monday that with its ouster, all the neighborhood's problems would soon disappear.

"This park we are now using was recently a place where prostitutes, transients, and drug dealers used to hang out," said APD Officer Roger Beher, instrumental in this summer's Cinema West stings. "Working together along with city departments, universities, prosecutors, businesses, and neighborhood associations, and many others, we have brought about many of these goals to their completion ... and have made a difference."

Jim Lloyd, SCC president, praised the efforts of Henry Benedict, who purchased the Cinema West building, and Dottye Dean, co-owner of the Austin Motel, who has transformed what she called the motel's past reputation as "the drug and prostitution supermarket of Austin," into a pillar of the avenue's rows of eclectic businesses. "This development, in conjunction with the Austin Police Department, has helped displace a lot of bad elements that existed on South Congress for so long," said Lloyd. "Everyone knows where there's opportunity, there's risk. And where's there's risk, there's a potential to reap rewards. We see that happening on South Congress today." -- B.M.

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