What Will the Neighbors Think?

The Labor Process

Still and all, the tallest order of the day appears to be the day labor center's move from its current site at Cesar Chavez and San Antonio streets to make way for a new public-private venture to include the Computer Sciences Corp. complex, a new city hall, and a residential high-rise.

One of the many bottom lines to this story is that, as we saw in the aforementioned CSC issue, the city staff once again flubbed what should have been a public process, and plowed ahead on nailing down a prospective relocation site -- in this case the former home of the Texas Fun Spas on the I-35 South frontage road -- without consulting those who will be most affected by the move -- both the day laborers and the surrounding neighborhoods were completely left out of the picture until about a month ago. As Austin Neighborhoods Council president Will Bozeman wryly put it, "The process is the poison." How will this affect future relations? "The [city staff's] credibility is shot, and anything we do from here is really strained," he said. But from a progressive perspective, Bozeman added, many neighborhood representatives have vowed to get involved in the process and work toward the program's success. "It'll be a learning experience for both sides," he said.

The line in defense from Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner, who is heading up the day labor relocation process, is that she, like hundreds of other city staffers, earn their keep by doing the dirty work, the bricks-and-mortar, results-oriented deadline stuff.

But the word from Council Member Jackie Goodman's office is that her patience is wearing thin on staff's neighborhoods-be-damned approach to getting the job done. Understandably, Goodman's patience was eroded further this week when she took a verbal lashing from some I-35/Airport neighbors wanting to vent their frustrations over the day labor situation (Goodman politely reminded them that it was she who pushed for delaying the council vote at the May 20 meeting).

Getting back to the "learning experience" ANC's Bozeman refers to, Goodman promises to make good on that experience in the next budget process and politick for the creation of a real live neighborhood liaison office to avoid planning nightmares like this one the next time around.

Just as the neighbors are divided on the issue, so too are the day laborers. Melissa Mason, coordinator for the day labor program, says that most workers in the program are gradually coming around to favor the site. "Their main concerns were, 'Will I be able to get there by bus?' and 'Will the employers be able to find me?'," she says. Good questions, since most of the day laborers live in east and southeast Austin. For now, the city is mulling over a couple of transportation possibilities involving direct Capital Metro bus routes and/or a shuttle bus.

The turning point for the workers was helped along by last week's visit by consultant Lynn Svennson, who has set up successful day labor programs in some Southern California towns -- Glendale, Pomona, and El Monte. Svennson declared the site an "ideal" location given its access directly off of I-35. In an interview last week, Svennson stressed the importance of having a worker-designed program. "The workers know better than anyone what's best for them, and they are very clear about what they want. They're willing to go anywhere and everywhere work is available."

There are other learning experiences to be gleaned from this, too. The Morningside-Ridgetop NA members want to use the day labor center as leverage on two fronts: to ensure the success of the program, and to get some much-needed upgrades such as sidewalks and more police protection in the area. As it is, the neighborhood is already home to some so-called "undesirables" -- sharing the block with the day labor center will be a nude modeling studio and a run-down motel widely reputed to be a crime center. "If this thing is going to be shoved down our throats," says NA member Matt Hollon, "we want to make sure that it's successful, and we want the workers to be in control."

The NA has spelled out its demands in writing, which include:

• Having two neighborhood reps and at least one nearby business owner on the center's advisory board.

• Increasing police patrol and community policing in the area.

• Scouting around for a second day labor center in South Austin to prevent, as Hollon put it, the creation of "a big Wal-Mart of day labor" on the north end. (This idea has gained the support of those workers opposed to the north central site.)

• Hiring Svensson as a consultant for the transition.

• Providing assistance in developing a neighborhood plan, and building sidewalks on at least one side of 51st Street between Airport Boulevard and the I-35 access road.

• Giving the center 12 months to prove its success, and closing it if it's deemed a failure.

Even with all the work ahead today, the mayor and council face even greater challenges ahead: Trying to keep apace of these and other high-voltage matters while taking the rest of the month off from their weekly meetings. They'll meet again July 1 before skipping another meeting July 8. (As an aside, mark 7pm Tuesday, June 15 on your calendar for the official swearing in of recently re-elected Council Members Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith, and Daryl Slusher at Palmer Auditorium.)

This Week in Council: Aside from neighborhood issues, the council is also expected to appoint 10 people to a focus group charged with deciding whether Austin should have a citizen review process on local police matters. Also, council will call for the formation of a stakeholders group to recommend design and use plans for Republic Square Park, with a goal of ultimately linking the park with Mexic-Arte Museum at Fifth and Congress and eventually Plaza Saltillo on the Eastside, by way of a rail line and pedestrian walkway. The idea is to revive and pay tribute to Austin's Hispanic history. Republic Park, for example, was in the late 1800s called Chili Park -- the only public place in town where Hispanics were allowed to congregate.

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