Ye Olde Can-Do Spirit

Libraries Branch Out

Libraries were the order of the day last week when councilmembers set about spending some of the money approved in the November bond election. The council approved $1.79 million to buy land for three Austin Public Library branches: A new Montopolis library will serve both the Montopolis and Riverside communities once the city closes its leased Riverside site at 2410 E. Riverside; the Spicewood Springs branch at 8637 Spicewood Springs in North Austin will acquire additional land to stretch out from its existing 7,700 square feet to 12,000 square feet; and the Terrazas branch, 1105 E. Cesar Chavez, will build out to 10,000 square feet from its current 5,400-square-foot space.

Several of Austin's notoriously territorial library advocates were on hand, questioning the city's decision to fund the chosen library projects instead of others approved in the November election, including the Twin Oaks branch on South Congress, and the North Village branch on West Anderson. The advocates argued that money for land acquisition should be approved simultaneously for all libraries.

The chosen branches were given priority, a library official explained, because the neighborhoods they served were either unserved (as in the case of Montopolis) or under-served (such as the Terrazas and Spicewood Springs branches). Moreover, said city budget officer Charles Curry, all the library bonds were scheduled to be issued in November, but the city chose to act early on a select few to get a jump on the local real estate market. Council approval of bond sales for Twin Oaks and Northwest Village should come in October, Curry said.

The city's library branch program got a boost last month when the refurbished Americana Theatre reopened as the Ralph W. Yarborough Branch. The old building at 2200 Hancock is concrete proof that Austin's current status as a movie premiere hot spot is nothing new: Susan Sarandon visited the Americana in 1975 for the premiere of one of her (more forgettable) films. Some proponents of a new central downtown library (which failed to make it onto the November ballot) are still grousing privately about their bond election snub in favor of the branches, and wishing they could have gotten some satisfaction (and some property) out of the CSC deal/land shuffle still being negotiated.

Park Perks

Next up were city parks projects, which included council's unanimous approval of $800,000 for destination parks, $200,000 for greenways, $100,000 for the Colorado River Park, and $40 million for the Town Lake Park Community Events Center. Most slid past the council without even a blip, but some councilmembers questioned the prudence of the city's chosen partner in building the St. John's Joint Use Facility. Sketchy details thus far call for the city to team up with the Austin Independent School District on the construction of a new community center and school, a deal whereby the city would kick in $7 million to provide city services (including library, health services, recreation, and police) at the new project site.

Former AISD board member and current Councilmember Gus Garcia said that while he regretted criticizing his former colleagues, the district's recent failure to get construction projects completed "on time and under budget" should cause the city to proceed with caution into the agreement with the district. Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell acknowledged that the city hadn't "done enough front work" to ensure that the deal would work out well for the city, but with the deal not yet inked, there's still time to prevent the boondoggle alarms of contentious council watchers from going wild.

All in all, council approved $22.9 million in general obligation bonds, and almost $100 million in revenue bonds, including $40 million for the new Town Lake civic center and $58 million in water-wastewater bonds.

Garza Gets a Raise

He's surely been working harder lately, what with his "temporary" leadership of Austin Energy now nearing its sixth month, and the council has rewarded him for it: City Manager Jesus Garza got a raise of a little over 4% last week. This will bring his base salary up to $146,649 a year. With all the fixings -- $8,000 in deferred compensation and a $7,200 executive allowance, Garza will now be pulling in $161,849 a year. The city's chief executive for the last five years, Garza started on the city beat as an assistant city manager in 1986, then left town for five years to work for the city of Corpus Christi, and then for the Texas Water Commission, before returning to Austin city government in 1994.

Concurrent with the council's executive session discussion of his salary and benefits package, Garza delivered his paper on "Major Accomplishments 1997-98/Initiatives for 1998-99." The document includes summaries of the city's successes from the past year, including the successful implementation of the Interim Development Ordinance designed to see the city through the inadvertent repeal of SB 1704, an agreement with the FAA allowing the city to keep the proceeds from the disposition of Mueller Airport (instead of turning them over to the feds), and the inclusion in the fiscal year 1999 budget of a minimum living wage of $7.40 for all city employees. There's an "Opportunities for Improvement" heading as well; topics include "Improving Communication to Council," "Streamlining the Development Process," and "Committing to Diversity" in procurement and employee representation.

This Week in Council: The inevitable brouhaha over the reopening of Holly Power Plant Unit 1 has begun. Anti-Holly neighborhood advocates El Concilio met last week to rally opposition to the plan, and on Tuesday, Councilmember Gus Garcia hosted another meeting, this time of the Holly Street Closure Committee, to discuss the matter. At 6:30pm tonight, Thursday, Feb. 11, the council will hold a public hearing in council chambers on implementing energy conservation measures and increasing usage of renewable energy in the utility generation mix -- presumably seeking a means of dealing with potential power shortages other than delaying the promised closure of the much-hated and feared Eastside plant. An action item following the hearing is also scheduled.

The council will also consider awarding contracts for the positions of master planner and architect on the Town Lake Park Community Events Center, replacing the existing City Coliseum, the bonds for which were approved last week. The lucky winners of the stakeholder discussion/ interview process are Denver-based Edaw Inc. for the master planner position (contract value: up to $150,000); and Barnes Architects Inc., Taniguchi Architect and Associates, and Centerbrook Architects and Planners of Austin as architects (contract value: up to $2.9 million).

One stakeholder group member said that though master planner selection Edaw was not the favorite going into the interview process, "they knocked the ball out of the park," demonstrating the necessary "attitude towards this being a community-driven process," and even had the blessing of Triangle Park guru Peter Calthorpe, who first recommended the firm to the stakeholder group.

Beverly Griffith aide John Gilvar expressed satisfaction with the way the Auditorium Shores process is going, commenting that what started out as a rather top-down enterprise has become a Triangle-style model of consensus building and cooperation. According to Gilvar, the results for Austin should be outstanding: "We'll have our equivalent of Central Park, soon," he said.

Mayor Kirk Watson will not attend this week's meeting. His mother, Billye Faye Vanderslice Watson, died Tuesday of cancer. Funeral services will be at 11:30am Friday, Feb. 12, at Chapel in the Hills in Wimberley.

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Council approves spending $15 million on the Convention Center Hotel; City Manager Jesus Garza presents the Draft Policy Budget; and Roma Design Group announces its vision for the south shore of Town Lake.

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