Downtown Mishmash

Hard Day's Night

The council vote to relocate the day labor site to a site near I-35 and 50th St. was one of the ugliest in recent memory, with neighbors in a state of outrage and council members firmly divided on whether to go with the proposed site or take a desperate last stab at finding another one. (Garcia, Spelman, Daryl Slusher, and Mayor Kirk Watson voted for the new site. Goodman, Lewis, and Beverly Griffith voted against it.) As with the Mexic-Arte decision, and many others the council has been faced with in recent months, the day labor issue was partly decided by its super-quick timeline -- in this case, one the city took a large role in creating.

Everyone agrees that the current day labor situation is a mess. And most agree that the new I-35 site has serious drawbacks, including its distance from the east- and south side residences of many day laborers, as well as virulent neighborhood opposition. Given that, why would the city rush into making the move? Well, remember the CSC deal?

The day labor relocation is the last remaining loose end left by the massive CSC agreement which will redo much of downtown's southwest side. That dream is on its way to becoming reality, and CSC says it needs the land on which the day labor site now sits by Aug. 1, or Aug. 15 at the absolute, drop-dead latest. So the new site was fast-tracked, to the dismay of those who will live and work near it. "When the CSC deal went down," said former Austin Neighborhoods Council president Jeff Jack, "we recommended to staff that neighborhoods affected by relocation efforts be included in the process. In order to expedite, they didn't do that."

Neighborhood leaders feel that downtown interests clearly colluded with the city to get the day laborers -- i.e. the riffraff -- out of the path of their businesses, with little thought to where they might land. Council sources confirm that downtown interests, including presumably the Downtown Austin Alliance, were putting not-so-subtle pressure on the council to find an out-of-downtown site, but DAA executive director Charles Betts said that's not a fair characterization. After all, a big part of getting a functioning site, according to just about everybody, was separating it from the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. Its new site is downtown, so it made sense to move the day laborers out. "We did not NIMBY the building of that [homeless] facility in downtown," Betts pointed out.

Then there's the fact that neighborhood leaders were not involved in the process until later. One neighborhood activist was reportedly told by city staff that other sites were rejected because the relevant neighborhood associations were considered too strong to fight -- that the chosen site may have been, among other things, the path of least resistance. "What we heard was we didn't choose this neighborhood because they're strong, and that makes the weak vulnerable," said Jeff Jack.

Though current ANC president Will Bozeman is "discouraged," he said ANC wants to stay involved with helping the neighborhood deal with the site, as well as any future relocation or additional day labor site selection that takes place. (ANC was alarmed by a late-breaking rumor that had the council appropriating money to buy the Rio Motel, a place of somewhat ill-repute near the new day labor site, to be a single room occupancy (SRO) transitional housing spot for homeless and other individuals. Council sources scotched that rumor, but confirmed that the city has received complaints about the site, and is looking at options -- such as increased law enforcement -- to improve the situation there. And the SRO idea has been out there for a while -- 1998 city budget documents show that the Rio Motel was suggested as an SRO by House the Homeless, Inc.)

So why would the council -- or a majority four members of it at least -- approve the site? There are some good reasons. The facility itself is conducive to day labor, with lots of office space and areas for laborers to congregate and be picked up by employers. It's on or near several thoroughfares, and near a Home Depot where employers could be picking up materials. And it had the apparent support of Lynn Svensson, a day labor consultant retained by the city at the request of day laborers and their advocates to evaluate the program. While Svensson's review indicated that the local day labor program was rife with problems, she said the I-35 site could work well if the program is run correctly.

Svensson's approval, however, is not an endorsement of I-35 over a site on East Seventh (an option that very swiftly disappeared from staff's radar) or any other site. Though an Austin American-Statesman editorial mentioned that Svensson was hired to evaluate proposed day labor sites, Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner confirms that Svensson was actually hired to evaluate the content of the city's day labor program. She did give conditional approval to the I-35 site, but she was never asked to evaluate it in the context of other available sites.

In any case, the "process" objections alone were enough to cost the site the votes of Goodman and Griffith, who, along with Lewis, supported a substitute motion to allow one more month of site-searching which would include neighborhood interests from the start. Lewis made a last-minute motion that went nowhere, to place the day labor site at Seaholm; then he based his opposition on a plea for fiscal responsibility. At $5,000 a month, plus $45,000 up-front for renovations, the city will spend $105,000 on the site in a year. "As many buildings as the city already owns," said Lewis, "putting $105,000 into someone else's building, I just can't see it." The surrounding neighborhoods reserved most of their venom for city staffers, who they said were remiss in not notifying them of the proposed move. ACM Conner took the most heat, for allegedly fudging the timeline on which she says she notified the various neighborhood groups. (Conner says they had six weeks' notice; they say pshaw to that, that no one notified them until they read about it in the Chronicle.)

Then there was the Eastside factor. Rumor has it that another possible site was not given a fair evaluation because its Eastside location made it politically impossible. The smoking gun, a memo from Conner to the council, dated June 3, 1999, says that while the East Seventh Street site "more closely fit the stated criteria" by the day labor task force, "it was not pursued further due to its location in East Austin." Who made that call? Garcia denies it was the council that took the East Austin site off the table. "You'll have to ask her why she wrote that," he said of Conner's memo. "The East Austin site was very inadequate. Across the street from an elementary school. Not four blocks, across the street," he said. "The day labor site is just the last of a series of decisions that resulted from us taking CSC away from the aquifer. The East Austin issue is a non-issue. That site was just not good, period."

But according to more than one council source, the city staff knew which way the political winds were blowing, and acted accordingly. "The majority of the council wanted to keep it out of that [East Austin] area," said one City Hall source. "It did filter down to Marcia Conner, and it was taken off the table ... The staff have an excellent read on the whole CSC deal; they had a sense that expediency was important to some folks on the council. ... This whole issue has become the mop-up work after CSC was done."

Others maintain that staff members were anxious to get the site selection out of the way so they can get to the real meat of the issue -- reforming the day labor program. So with the new site selected, the program is finally slated to receive a much-needed overhaul. Along with the new site, the council also approved a nonprofit corporation to run the site along the model of Svensson's successful California model, as well as a no-solicitation-outside-the-site ordinance -- which passed on first reading by the same 4-3 vote, but may be even more hotly contested when it comes back for second and third readings.

The DAA's Betts commented that "a number of assurances and commitments" he heard during this process "sounded very familiar. For instance, we have been asking for consideration of an ordinance [to prevent solicitation of work outside the day labor site] for some time." Though Betts stressed the need for separation of the site from the homeless resource center, he did say that a well-functioning day labor site wouldn't be a problem downtown. "If it's working well, it's not an imposition on other downtown property owners and businesses." But as Goodman and Watson pointed out in a discussion from the dais, this is the first time city officials have taken a hard look at the program and what it needs. And it needs a lot.

This Week in Council: The Austin City Council has gone on summer vacation, canceling the rest of its meetings for this month. Meanwhile, Garcia and Conner have scheduled a meeting with day laborers and other interested parties on June 17 (time and place to be announced). Austin's new Mexican consul general has taken an interest in this issue and will be on hand for the meeting. When the council returns to the dais July 1, expect more fun with day labor and Mexic-Arte, as well as the ever-popular annual city budget process and the upcoming master plan for Town Lake Park. The particularly wonkish among us will want to watch Austin Energy as it ditches failed energy conservation programs and attempts new ones, all the while reacting to the electric dereg bill passed by the Lege. More on this during the council hiatus.

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Mexic-arte Museum, Downtown, Day Labor Program, Downtown Austin Alliance, Csc, Will Wynn, Bill Spelman, Kirk Watson, Willie Lewis, Beverly Griffith, Jackie Goodman, Daryl Slusher, Gus Garcia, Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner, Council Watch, Council, City Council, Jenny Staff

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