Naked City

Off the Desk:

What if they gave a charrette, and nobody knew about it? ... If you missed Tuesday and Wednesday's little-publicized design workshops on the future of Town Lake Park, there's still time to catch today's sessions, noon-5pm and 6:30-8:30pm at Palmer Auditorium. Parks advocates say they're trying to prevent an asphalt and granite-laden Convention Center South (and they're convinced the threat of that is very real), so they're trying to spread the word via e-mail to generate a larger turnout at today's final workshop. The city is sponsoring the event, but for some reason didn't publicize it, even on its own Web site. The city-hired consultant, EDAW, a highly rated planning outfit out of Denver, is facilitating the charrette and leading the master planning process, the results of which will eventually be presented to the City Council. Town Lake Park stakeholders include ARTS*CenterStage, which has leased Palmer Auditorium for conversion to a Performing Arts Center; the South Central Coalition of Neighborhoods, Friends of the Parks, and the Junior League of Austin... --A.S.

Early voting for the May 1 City Council elections kicked off Wednesday, April 14, and runs until April 27; 17 candidates are on the ballot for three seats on the council. Polls are open from 7am-7pm Mon.-Fri.; 10am-4pm Saturday. For more info, call 499-2210; check our web extra for a full list of candidates and early polling sites, and for Chronicle endorsements, see our endorsements page. Vote early and often. Well, early anyway ...

Barton Springs regulars may have to find an alternate place to take a dip in the warm weeks ahead. The pool is slated to be closed for about amonth beginning May 3 while it undergoes retrofitting to improve accessibility for the disabled and to ensure the safety of the endangered Barton Springs salamander. The city announced the closure earlier this week, but word late yesterday was that councilmembers are pushing to delay the work until the fall. Stay tuned. --L.T.


The George & Rudy Show

It was clear from the outset that New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George W. Bush don't know each other very well. It was also clear the two GOP celebs were not going to make any endorsements, particularly of each other. "Put it down as people liking each other," Bush told a group of about 30 reporters gathered at the Governor's Mansion Tuesday afternoon. Giuliani said the purpose of his visit with Bush was "an encouragement. It's premature to endorse anyone," he said. No, the two men didn't discuss abortion, law enforcement, or Amadou Diallo, the man who was shot 41 times by New York City police officers in early February. But predictably, the Diallo shooting came up. So did foreign policy and Kosovo. Bush said, "America ought to be slow to engage." And he said it's wrong for people to second-guess the president's decision to go to war. But he added, "Once a president commits troops, we better have a plan to win." On the same issue, Giuliani pointed out that former president Ronald Reagan didn't have any foreign policy experience when he was elected. "Maybe leadership is the real key to foreign policy," he said. And Giuliani thinks Bush is the kind of leader the United States -- and the GOP -- needs. "He has the ability to unify," the mayor said. "Governor Bush has the capacity for organizing the Republican Party in a way where we can avoid some of the mistakes we have made in the past." --R.B.


Exit Stage Left

The Henry Benedict chapter of the Cinema West Adult Theatre saga has come to a close. "It's over. I'm done," exclaimed real estate broker Benedict, who sold the controversial piece of property on 2130 S. Congress two weeks ago to Austin businessman Juan Creixell.

Creixell, whom Benedict described as "a very urbane, wealthy, and polished individual who buys properties for fun," has yet to designate a specific use for the old porn theatre. Creixell declined to comment, but his broker, Elliot Silverstone, says his client is kicking around a number of possibilities, including converting the building into office space, or an upscale retail store such as Brooks Brothers or the Gap. And he's also mulling over the oft-discussed idea of turning the movie house into a "family" theatre. Benedict said he sold the building for upward of $500,000, but declined give a more specific dollar amount. While that's about $100,000 more than he paid for the property, Benedict claims he lost money on the deal, largely because Cinema West has sat vacant since it closed its doors last Halloween. In a widely publicized buy-out of the theatre late last summer, Benedict accomplished at least part of what he and neighborhood groups wanted for years -- to drive the porn house from South Congress. But his trumpeted plans to turn Cinema West into a family movie house and events center gave way to his frustration with the red tape and the price tag that went along with getting the building up to code. Benedict soon gave up the idea of converting the theatre himself and looked for a buyer who could meet his price and was willing to work with city inspectors. He even threatened to convert it back into a porn theatre or gentleman's club. Benedict says though he couldn't fulfill his dreams for the theatre, South Congress neighbors have been supportive. "I got rid of the porn," says Benedict. "If that's all I'm ever remembered for, then that's a huge plus." --B.M.


Working but Poor

Work and family just don't mix in Texas, a new report from the Center for Public Policy Priorities shows. One out of five full-time wage earners in Texas doesn't earn enough to raise a family of four out of poverty, a primary reason that one in four children and one out of six Texans overall were living in poverty in 1996, the report states. The percentage of poor children and adults in Texas is well above the national average.

The aptly titled "Working but Poor" report also counters the myth that poor families are headed by welfare moms and other layabouts, reporting that about two-thirds of poor Texans live in households headed by one or more working adults. Only about 11% of those families rely on welfare as their chief source of income, the report says.

CPPP fiscal analyst Dick Lavine says fairer taxation on poor people and improved education for low-income kids would more effectively reduce poverty than would cuts to the welfare rolls, the solution preferred by conservative lawmakers. "It's not as if finding the right kind of welfare reform means we'll have no more poverty," says Lavine. But, he admits, even those steps would be "penny-ante stuff" against the forces of low wages abroad and the growth of a service economy that pays pittance wages.

The report lists some of the more severe challenges faced by working people, including a preponderance of jobs that don't last year-round and pay only $3.35 per hour (the Texas minimum wage for jobs in agriculture and domestic service), and wage-earners' lack of access to health and unemployment insurance. The report is available online at http://www.cppp.org.

Meanwhile, Texas continues to rank near the bottom of the list in per capita spending on health and public welfare. Statistics from the state Health and Human Services Commission show that 46 states spend more than Texas on health, and 34 states spend more on welfare. The most generous public spender, Alaska, spends almost four times as much per person as Texas on public health.

Texas' stinginess has, however, kept the state poverty rate consistent. In 1989, when Texas' economy was mired in recession, the poverty rate measured by HHS was 18.1%. In 1996, as the high-tech and service industries led a triumphant recovery and state politicians called for an end to welfare, that rate was checked again. The new rate? 18.1%. --K.F.


Both Oars in the Water

Four years after the original contract ran out, and a year and a half after the first request for proposals (RFP) was issued, the City Council finally decided Thursday who will be in charge of renting boating equipment and providing rowing instruction along Town Lake. Well, sort of.In a compromise engineered by CouncilmemberBeverly Griffith, both companies vying for the $12,000-a-year lease -- L'Aviron, which currently runs the concession, and competitor Rowing Dock, which city staff recommended take over -- will set up shop at two separate and as of yet undetermined sites on the lake. "Both of these concessions have so much to recommend them," Griffith said Thursday. "They're different and complementary and [by having both] rowing would flourish in Austin."

But while that all sounds cheery and neighborly, there seems to be a hint of animosity floating upstream. When the RFP originally went out more than a year ago, Rowing Dock won the recommendation of the city Parks and Recreation staff. But the RFP was reissued following complaints that the first proposal was unclear and didn't contain enough information. The winner of round two? Rowing Dock again. So, why the tie now? It depends on who you ask. Some in the Rowing Dock camp say it appears that L'Aviron folk lobbied the City Council for support despite signed affidavits that neither company would do so. But L'Aviron partner and lawyer Matt Knifton denies that charge. "Our clientele, who know about what's going on, sent letters and e-mail on our behalf," he said. "It wasn't lobbying on our behalf, it was those who had concerns and wanted to be part of the political process."

Knifton believes the council decided to split the contract because members decided that "it was a little shaky and un-Austin-like to push the little guy out of business." Knifton says Rowing Dock, which has more money and resources, is more like corporate rowing, while L'Aviron is a "little granola" company. "They're really two polar opposites," he said.

The council's decision may prove to be fiscally wise; two contracts means two companies paying $12,000 a year instead of one, according to city staff. The details of the agreements have yet to be hammered out. Parks and Recreation Department Director Jesus Olivares and his staff will survey the lake to determine where each of the concessions will be located. Both should be up and rowing in 30 to 60 days, Olivares estimates.

Not surprisingly, Rowing Dock is a bit miffed that despite city staff's recommendations the council decided to split the contract. "The City Council didn't want to have to decide, and instead of following the city staff recommendations, they gave it to both and said, 'Figure out how to do it,'" said William Allensworth, attorney for Rowing Dock. "If [the council] couldn't trust staff and the parks department to make the decision, what won't they control?" --J.S.


A Voice in the Wilderness

There are some moments from the nine relief missions Kathy Kelly has made to Iraq that will haunt her forever. Among them is the experience of watching a seven-month-old Iraqi baby in a public hospital "gasp for its last breath because the doctor had no oxygen and no plastic tube to carry the oxygen into the child's nostril," she recalls. After witnessing the baby die, she told a CNN cameraman outside the hospital to go in and film the tragedy. He responded coolly, "We've done hospitals."

Kelly, co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, a Chicago-based group that has sent 20 delegations to Iraq with medicine and toys, (and faces $163,000 in fines from the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control for violating the UN embargo) lectured recently at St. Stephen's School, St. Edward's University, and UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs.

The World Health Organization reports that 5,000 to 6,000 Iraqi children die each month as a result of malnutrition and normally curable illnesses -- statistics that Kelly and others blame on the sanctions.

Kelly, who is from the South side of Chicago, appears to be an average, middle-class woman. She hardly looks the type to have planted corn on a nuclear missile silo, or to have camped out on the Saudi/Iraqi border at the outset of the Gulf War. As she relayed anecdote after anecdote of the suffering she saw in Iraq, Kelly displayed an honesty and innocence where cynicism could have taken over. Telling a UT audience of 300 that "we must fan the winds of change," she broke into an awkward but compelling rendition of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Kelly also expressed a disarming sense of humor: "I'm trying to put a human face on war at a time when shopping is our national religion." --E.G

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