Naked City

Off the Desk:

They came, they pedaled, they guzzled margaritas. It was all in a day's work for a few dozen bicyclists who put their pedal mettle to the test last Friday in the third annual "political pedal" effort sponsored by the Texas Bicycle Coalition. Council Members Beverly Griffith, Jackie Goodman, and Daryl Slusher took part in the ride; Mayor Kirk Watson showed up in a suit, wished everyone well, and hurried off to do some kind of mayor thing. The group rode up to the Capitol and huddled on the steps for a while, where TBC leader and event organizer Scott Johnson talked about how someday we may live to see a network of bicycle paths throughout Austin. There were a few cracks from the crowd about pedaling into Rep. Ron Wilson's office to chide him on his bill to keep Mueller Airport open. Then, the brigade headed west on Sixth Street for some reinforcements. Inside the air-conditioned confines of Ninfa's, Capital Metro GM Karen Rae greeted everyone with a survey soliciting feedback on transportation in Austin. County Commissioners Karen Sonleitner and Ron Davis were there, too, as was Planning Commissioner Dave Sullivan. The city's most famous bike advocate -- Amy Babich -- was absent. Guess she doesn't really hang with that crowd. -- A.S.

Joe Ely and members of Los Super Sevenwill be on hand to help the Save Our Springs Alliance celebrate its ninth anniversary on Sunday, June 6. The bash commemorates the Alliance's birth -- the night of the "Barton Springs Uprising," when thousands of residents packed the City Council chambers for an all-night hearing. This year's party also marks the beginning of a new tradition: The SOS Alliance will honor the first recipients of its Soul of the City Awards, to be given to individuals and businesses who have contributed to Austin's environment. General admission tickets are $15; proceeds support the SOS Alliance's ongoing efforts to preserve Barton Springs and the Hill Country watersheds. For more info call 477-2320. --L.T.


The ABCs of TND

Would any Austin developer really build a New Urbanist neighborhood that even poor people can live in? Last year, when the city went looking for a partner to create a Traditional Neighborhood District (TND) east of Robert Mueller Airport, the answer was no. Not one developer was tempted by the Smart Growth goodies the city proferred in exchange for converting 250 acres of unplatted land into a community for mixed income families. But with the enthusiastic support of city staff, including Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell, the council, acting as the Austin Housing Finance Corporation, last Thursday approved$50,000 to push the project forward again -- this time with help from Fannie Mae, aka the Federal National Mortgage Association.

The new plan is undoubtedly the city's boldest, most DIY-effort to put reasonably priced housing on the ground. The city would move beyond offering incentives and become a full participant in a massive project that could raise as many as 1,700 homes. The Austin Housing Finance Corporation, the city's most potent leveraging mechanism for federal housing funds, would form a joint-venture partnership with a private developer and approach Fannie Mae for low-interest financing to carve buildable lots out of a tract bounded by Loyola Lane, East 51st, Springdale Road, and Johnny Morris Road. The lots would then be sold to builders, some at market rate, others at reduced cost but with the understanding that lower-cost homes will be placed on the sites. Rental housing will also be part of the mix, built with federal tax-credit financing. Qualified home buyers would receive down-payment assistance and low-interest financing from the city. About a quarter of the new homes would be offered to buyers with incomes below $40,000.

Housing officials say AHFC's partnership in a project of this scale is unprecedented and has been a boon to the TND's viability. Fannie Mae has been requesting proposals from AHFC for some time, says AHFC business manager Martin Gonzalez, and the city's familiarity with the labyrinthine world of housing finance will be a helpful resource for the private developer. Plus, the development entity will have direct access to an already-qualified pool of applicants to move into the new homes, an attractive proposition for builders, who currently find speculative ventures nearly impossible to finance.

Housing officials also say that with this arrangement, the city is attacking its soaring housing costs at the root -- converting lots much more cheaply than can a private developer. The price of some lots in Austin can exceed the purchase price of the home that sits atop it.

The council agreed to hire consultants to analyze the tract, and attorneys to limit AHFC's liability as an investment partner. The feasibility study will be due in late summer. Austin is a bit late in developing a TND; other cities in the nation, including Cedar Park, already have or are planning them. --K.F.


Up, Up and Away

"We're the boss of this plane, so you have to listen to what we say -- no matter who you are," Southwest Airlines flight attendant Claire Saldivar proclaimed Saturday night as Flight 5300 rumbled down the Mueller runway for the last time. Bold words, considering all the bigwigs on board this 20-minute publicity jaunt from Mueller to Austin-Bergstrom International to commemorate the airline's "first flight" into the new airport. More than 100 local celebs, including the mayor, council members, and U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett, took to the skies aboard Lone Star I.

Before the flight, the group milled around the "suffocation box" (a Southwest employee's not-so-affectionate nickname for the airline's second-floor gate) for the last time. Curious and exhausted, regular Joes arriving from vacations and business trips tried to maneuver luggage and small sleepy children through the pack of television cameras and dignitaries. The hoopla was lost on them. They just wanted what you always want when you're at the airport: to leave as soon as possible. But a handful of residents actually made the pilgrimage over to Mueller just to sit in the peeling black vinyl chairs one more time and say goodbye.

Once everyone was buckled in and the complimentary bags of roasted peanuts and dolphin-shaped cheese crackers had been distributed, the VIP-packed plane took to the skies. A flight attendant nicknamed Bingo shouted "Hi-Ho Silver, Away!" on takeoff. Saldivar sang a little ditty she wrote specially for the occasion: "We've been working on the airline / all the live-long-day ..."

The plane lapped the city several times as the passengers chatted away and identified notable city sights below as if they were seeing them for the first time (There's Disch-Falk Field! There's the Capitol! There's Disch-Falk Field again!) before landing on the runway named in honor of former U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle, who was beaming with pride. (The other runway is named for Lyndon B. Johnson.)

The giddy crowd stepped out into the new airport's terminal, eager to munch on the smoked salmon puffs and pesto toast rounds. Sure, there was some muttering about the not-quite-finished-feeling about the new airport and jokes about the construction vehicles and yellow "Danger!" tape still dotting the landscape outside. But for the most part everyone was beaming with pride over the long-awaited birth of the city's newest child. Before being shooed out so airline employees could finish preparing for the next day's big opening, the passengers took turns posing under an arch of red, orange, and yellow balloons with their souvenir of the night: a beanie baby airplane. --L.T.


The Money Trail

Robert Hernandez has had it. This self-described "yellow dog Democrat" is tired of seeing Texas Dems lose. So he has created what he calls an "investigative, activist organization" designed to uncover "the money trail linking agenda-driven right-wing funders and the Republican politicians who do their bidding."

The new organization, moneytrail.org, will be headed by Hernandez, the president and owner of RBH Direct, an Austin-based direct mail and Web marketing firm. And Hernandez has high hopes for his new political action committee. "Ourgoal is to raise $1 million over the next 12 months;70% of that will be used to deliver the message, and 30% of it will go to the research," he said.

In his fundraising letter promoting moneytrail.org, Hernandez says that "upwards of $80million" was put into recent political races by conservative individuals and groups. Hernandez faults the Democrats for doing too little to counter the growing power of the GOP. He writes, "Let's face it. The Texas Democratic Party campaign strategy has about as much animal instinct as a paper clip."

But Hernandez focuses most of his fire on the GOP, with San Antonio hospital bed magnate Dr. James Leininger getting special recognition for the amount of money that he haspumped into Republican candidates. Hernandez says more attention should be paid to the deals involving Lt. Gov. Rick Perry's ownership of stock in Leininger's company, and Leininger's decision to sell Perry a turboprop airplane at an "outrageously below-market price."

Hernandez plans to set up a multimedia organization that will spread the Democratic message through the Internet, direct mail, and phone banks. He says the recent GOP sweep of statewide races left him with no choice but to take action. "If we don't do anything, Carole Keeton Rylander will be our next lieutenant governor," he said. "That could give anyone insomnia." For more information, go to http://www.moneytrail.org.

Leininger's money has also caught the attention of the Houston Chronicle. In a story published last week, the Chronicle reported that Leininger gave more money to political candidates than any other Texan during the 1996 and 1998 elections. In a survey of public records, the paper found that Leininger, along with members of his family, spent a total of $1.9 million on political races in Texas. For years, Leininger has been pushing private school vouchers and legislation restricting lawsuits.

There were some other interesting names on the list of top political donors. Five of the top 10 were trial lawyers who were hired to settle the state's lawsuit against the tobacco industry, and are supposed to share some $3 billion in contingency fees from the deal. Ranking #18 was Texas Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, who gave $498,500 to a range of candidates and causes, including $120,000 to the Republican National Committee and $75,000 to Gov. George W. Bush.

The only Austin resident among the top 35 contributors was media magnate Steve Hicks, an executive at Chancellor Media Corp. Hicks and his brother, Dallas investment banker Tom Hicks (who bought the Texas Rangers baseball team last year from a group that included Gov. Bush for $250 million), gave a total of $302,031 to political candidates between 1996 and 1998. The donor list is available at: http://www.chron.com/content/chronicle/page1/99/05/23/donors.html. --R.B.

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