Naked City

Off the Desk:

Before attending Tuesday's groundbreaking ceremony for nonprofit developer Central Texas Mutual Housing Association's affordable apartment complex on Slaughter Lane, City Councilmember Gus Garcia asked city housing official Paul Hilgers how much the city had invested in the project. "I said, 'That's the good part, the city doesn't have anything in this one,'" recalled Hilgers. That's right: CTMHAis building 200 new four-plex apartments fronted by lawns on a spacious 15-acre tract priced for working-class incomes, and the city isn't paying a dime to subsidize it. Instead, CTMHA, which already operates eight affordable rental properties in Austin, Arlington, and Carrollton, is building with a tax credit from the state Dept. of Community and Housing Affairs. The new development, called Trails at the Park, will face another CTMHA property across Slaughter. Applications for the apartments, with three-bedroom units costing $775, will be available in May.-- K.F.

Ah, Austin. So many bike lanes; so many cars parked in them. But after years of talk, a pilot program to try to curb the habit of parking in bike lanes is underway. City Bike and Ped Coordinator Linda DuPriest says plans call for prohibiting parking on five street segments beginning this spring, and on another five this summer. In preparation for the change, city staff spent the past two weeks counting the number of cars parked in bike lanes around town during morning and evening peak times to determine where prohibiting parking will be most feasible. Pending the results of the two-week observation, parking will be off-limits in the following in May:

  • Bull Creek: Jefferson to W. 45th
  • Parker: Mabel Davis Park to E. Riverside
  • W. Stassney: S. Congress to Manchaca
  • E. 51st: N. I-35 to Berkman
  • Windsor: Exposition to MoPac. --L.T.

John Ondawame, a spokesperson for the Free Papua Movement, a group fighting for the independence of West Papua New Guinea, nowknown as Irian Jaya, Indonesia, will speak at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, 4700 Grover, Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 6:30pm, and again Wednesday at UT, although details were pending at press time. Ondawame is a vocal critic of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, which is mining the world's largest gold deposit on his tribal homeland. For more info, call the Save Our Springs Alliance, 477-2320. --R.B.

Out of Bounds

Ever since the Austin Independent School District began tracing new school boundaries early last year, the district has been confronted with two seemingly contradictory demands from the community: Put students in neighborhood schools, but maintain racial diversity. The final boundary proposal drawn up by the Board of Trustees Friday was essentially an admission that AISD can't solve the puzzle. The board was willing to tweak boundary lines to appease a few dissatisfied neighborhoods, but the plan's adoption was a statement that unilaterally integrating a racially divided city is not the primary goal of the school district.

"We are not in the business of housing, we are in the business of education," Board President Kathy Rider said before Friday's meeting. "We need to get on with that duty." The board did agree, however, to delay implementing parts of the plan for one year to allow struggling Eastside middle and high schools more time to prepare for the responsibility of educating higher concentrations of poor students. Some East Austin students are now bussed crosstown, but the new boundary plan will bring them back home to their neighborhood schools.

Before trustees entered the Friday work session, parents from various central city schools spoke out against the district's proposed boundaries, saying that racial diversity should be a fundamental part of every child's school education. The parents, mostly white and from schools with equitable mixtures of African-Americans, Anglos, and Hispanics, called the boundary changes "a monumental step in the wrong direction," and said that Austin's schools should reflect the increasingly diverse world children willexperience in later years. "We think it's importantthat our children be able to work together and to learn together so they'll be able to live together in the future," said Geoff Rips, a Fulmore Middle School parent and former AISD trustee.

The parents urged the board to only create boundary zones necessary for the newly built schools, and to seek more help from the community in rearranging existing boundaries. Mike Quirk, PTA co-president at Mathews Elementary, said Austin schools would better reflect Austin's integrated neighborhoods if school zones ran east to west instead of north to south. Mathews is one of the few schools with a border that spans I-35, from MoPac into the Guadalupe neighborhood, and Quirk says it could be a model for other school zones. Trustee Liz Hartman has called the school district's elongated north-to-south zones along I-35 "corridors of poverty," walled in by the "Berlin Wall"of I-35. But Dennis Harner, the AISD consultant responsible for producing the new boundary maps, says the alignment of the district's high schools -- such as McCallum, Reagan, and LBJ, which are sited along an east-west line -- forces boundary zones to run north and south. Rips, however, argues that AISD should not sacrifice racial diversity as a goal just because in the past "this district built schools where they shouldn't have."

The board of trustees will hold one more public hearing on the proposed boundaries, 6:30pm Monday, Feb. 22 at Austin High, before putting the plan to a final vote on Feb. 25. --K.F.

Power Plays

With another summer of record-high temperatures looming on the horizon, Austin, like communities all over the state, faces the danger of major blackouts if it cannot supply enough power to meet rising energy demands. This was the dire news from public utility officials last week at Metz Elementary School, where city councilmembers joined East Austin residents and utility officials to talk about the controversial reopening of two units of the Holly Power Plant in East Austin.

After several plant fires and explosions, and years of effort from Eastside residents, the City Council voted unanimously in 1995 to begin a gradual shutdown of the plant, which provides the city with 15% of its electricity during peak summer months. Two units of the plant closed last September, and the remaining two are scheduled to close in 2005. But late last year, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the state's electrical grid, urged the city to keep the plant open in case of a possible summertime emergency. According to the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC), the state is running low on reserve generation. Last summer, as new record highs were being set daily, electricity demand was so great that it cut into the state's 15% reserve, dropping it as low as 6%. Officials say for the past three years they've underestimated how much power is needed for peak summer months by 18%.

"This summer we're in a position where everybody has got to have everything available," said Ed Clark, Austin Energy spokesman. "Every plant in this state has got to run perfect for this summer not to be a catastrophe."

At last week's meeting, organized by El Concilio, utility officials told horror stories of power outages, including an emergency this summer when the entire Rio Grande Valley went dark for five hours, and an incident three weeks ago when two units at the South Texas Nuclear Project near Baytown went down, causing a statewide alert for 12 hours. That was in January; mid-July could be a nightmare, officials warned.

But Eastside residents say their safety concerns are equally pressing. At the meeting, El Concilio members played recordings of frantic 911 calls made during the 1993 explosion. They also cited a study conducted in 1992 by the Sierra Club that showed that the plant, when fully operational, omitted 369 tons of nitrous oxides -- equivalent to about 35,000 cars -- and 94 tons of carbon monoxide. "A lot of you made promises to this neighborhood," longtime activist Paul Hernandez told councilmembers. "They believed in you and yet you choose to ignore them, you choose to make policy that goes against the welfare of these people? There was a commitment made, a promise made, a promise broken."

Councilmember Gus Garcia, who voted to close the plant in 1995, says the council will votein March whether to spend $1.5 million to reopen the two units. And while the city is looking for alternatives to reopening Holly, there don't seem to be too many choices. Even buying power from other cities -- which some have suggested as a possibility -- is not plausible since just about every city in Texas is in the same situation. "We're all in the same boat, so to speak, of not having enough electrical generation," said Garcia. "That's the bottom line."--B.M.

Let the Sunshine In

There is no way for citizens to access information regarding police complaints, internal investigations, or disciplinary action taken against officers of the Austin Police Department. Last week, a new political action committee, the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, announced plans to add an amendment to the city charter to give Austin residents access to that information. The new PAC, a diverse mix of concerned citizens and members of civil rights groups including the NAACP, ACLU, LULAC, the National Lawyers Guild, Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Cop Watch, needs 20,000 petition signatures to get their proposal on the 2000 city charter ballot. "The level of secrecy creates an atmosphere ripe for abuse," said outgoing ACLU Austin president Ann del Llano. "The Sunshine Amendment would give the media and the public enough information to ferret out problems and knowledgeably propose solutions."

The project's announcement comes on the heels of two recent cases in which APD's use of deadly force has been questioned: the deaths of Austinites Johnny Cornell and Albert Juarez Jr. Both men were shot by APD officers, who each say that Cornell and Juarez were brandishing knives and threatening the officers' safety. Information regarding the investigations is not available to the public. In response to the Sunshine Project's plans, APD issued a terse statement Friday saying the department "complies fully with the state of Texas laws governing the release of information from Civil Service and personnel files." But del Llano disagrees: "Their favorite phrase is 'That's [information] protected by state law.' But we want every piece of information available" under the state Open Records Act.

Other law enforcement agencies, including the Travis County Sheriff's Department, offer citizens access to complaints and internal affairs investigations. "There's no smoke and cloak-and-dagger stuff going on here," said Anthony Sampson, a sheriff's deputy in the department's Internal Affairs Division. "There is a process. There are routes and channels and avenues for citizens to find out [information]. But what [information] they do get is still up to the legal advisors." --J.S.

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