Come On Down

Council members, startyour engines. After an almost month-long hiatus, the Austin City Council is back in action this week with a 130-plus-item agenda (usually a few inches thick and bound with a rubber band, this week's supporting materials equaled the weight of a large German Shepherd puppy and came shrink-wrapped). To make matters worse, the weekly pre-meeting live music may be worth coming early for. Ray Wylie Hubbard will commence singing not long after the meeting's posted 1:30 start time, so come early and stay late for what should be an extra-large helping of city government and politics. (It seems the local politicos have been antsy for the council to return, and they've got the bad jokes to prove it. At Daryl Slusher's office Tuesday afternoon, the waiting room was so full that the Downtown Austin Alliance's Charlie Betts commented that it looked like a doctor's office. "Except we're giving the shots," quipped activist Paul Robbins, who has taken aim at the council several times in recent months.)

So, here's what's on the council's plate.

St. John's Multipurpose Center: The council will consider teaming up with AISD on the St. John's Multipurpose Center, a combination elementary school and community center, the city's portion of which would be $7.6 million. This deal has been in the works for some time, and the city has been working on ways to protect itself from any liability that might befall it as a result of partnering with the district, shoo-ins for the Most Disgraced Public Entity award. And what with all the, ahem, difficulties AISD's been having lately, don't be surprised if various concerned citizens show up to cast aspersions on the venture.

Balfour Annexation: Developers seeking either annexation by the city or Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning usually get a fair amount of scrutiny come council meeting time. In this case we have both. The request for limited purpose annexation (to go full purpose in five years) of 588 acres, half a mile west of the intersection of Bee Caves Road and Senna Hills Dr., is followed by another item on Thursday's agenda to allow PUD zoning for the whole 667-acre tract (the rest of the acres are already limited-purpose-annexed). City staff predicts that the intensity of development will be about the same with or without PUD designation, and the area would benefit from city water-wastewater service, which would include a decentralized cluster-style wastewater treatment system.

Austin City Council agenda illustration

illustration by Doug Potter

Rainey Street: The council could topple the first development domino in the transformation of the Rainey Street neighborhood if they approve on second and third reading developer Gordon Dunaway's request for downtown, mixed-use zoning to accommodate a condominium project near the future site of the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC). A developer-neighborhood faction led by downtown regulars Perry Lorenz and Robert Knight is seeking to delay the project, on the grounds that it could interfere with a bigger-picture planning process currently underway in the neighborhood. To that end, they've filed a valid petition with enough landowner signatures to perhaps postpone the zoning change for at least a few more weeks.

All parties agree that planning is essential for this small, largely low-income neighborhood at an important crossroads. One of the epicenters of the downtown boom, it's facing the impending arrival of the MACC, the Convention Center expansion, and the Waller Creek Tunnel project, whereby the city and excited developers will collaborate to bring us a civilized, Austin-style version of the Riverwalk.

The condo zoning has already been delayed for months while the planning ñ for which Council Member Gus Garcia secured city resources to assist the neighborhood ñ proceeds. On the side of the condos is the MACC, whose representatives have testified in the project's favor before the Planning Commission, which also recommends that its zoning be approved.

Though one property owner, Lumberman's Investment Company,withdrew its name from the valid petition opposing the zoning, that wasn't enough to invalidate it, since the few landowners who signed the petition own fairly sizable tracts. (Valid petitions require signatures of the owners of 20% of the land within 200 feet of the place to be zoned.) So the condos will need six votes to go forward, but with Council Member Bill Spelman still on vacation and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman's repeated refusal to vote against a valid petition, well, you do the math. Look for a possible postponement to July 22, as Gus Garcia will be absent from the July 15 council meeting.

Day Labor: The council will consider three items regarding the new day labor site near I-35 and 49th, including the "solicitation" ordinance aimed at preventing contractors from picking up laborers outside the site. The ordinance would apply roughly inside the borders of 45th, Duval, Koenig Lane and Berkman Drive, as well as downtown in the central business district. Early discussion of the ordinance proved controversial at the June 3 council meeting, with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman questioning its usefulness. Goodman tried to elicit from Police Chief Stan Knee whether other laws already on the books could deal with solicitations outside the day labor site. Knee said that while such an ordinance wouldn't be used very often, it would be "one more tool" in dealing with people who misuse the day labor system. "So you are saying we're acknowledging selective enforcement?" Goodman shot back. Critics of the ordinance charge that it could also be used not as a tool but as a weapon against anyone the police deem undesirable.

Two other items would create the One-Stop Labor Advisory Board and a transition team between the old and new sites. The transition team will ultimately be replaced by the board of directors of the nonprofit corporation the council has created to oversee the center. These items are regarded by almost everyone as part of the long overdue upgrade of the day labor system.

Waller Creek Tunnel: The council will consider issuing over $100 million in Waller Creek Tunnel/Convention Center bonds. While the Waller Creek project gathers speed, people are talking about a possible switcheroo in the plans. A new map that's circulating would divert the tunnel down Red River, which has been touted as better for flood control and could theoretically allow development to come closer to the edge of the creek than the previous design. Some fear the switch could end up compromising the much-touted public access "from 15th Street to the river" that all the early charette-ing citizens agreed to. Council Member Beverly Griffith was none too happy when she read about this idea in the newspapers. "People should be able to enjoy the creek without necessarily being somebody's customer," Griffith insists.

A Tuesday night meeting on the subject drew lots of concerned voters who wanted assurances that their access to the creek would be protected. When landowners assured them it would be, Griffith asked for that promise in writing, and they agreed to draw something up. So expect Griffith to be asking lots of questions when this item comes up on the agenda, for which she had tried to secure a "time certain" at 6:30pm to allow for more public input. But city staff is pushing for a 2pm time certain so the bond deal can commence before the stock market closes. If you're planning to voice your opinion on the issue, you might call ahead because, as of Wednesday, the time certain was still uncertain.

Other Stuff:

ï This week's agenda includes a spate of water/ wastewater items. One that might be controversial is the proposed extension of city wastewater service to the Anderson Mill MUD, which split the Water Wastewater Commission ñ itself the newfound punching bag of Austin American-Statesman Editor Rich Oppel, who in recent columns has dubbed the commission "the nuttiest board in Austin" and likened it to the KGB for, among other reasons, advocating alternative wastewater systems. (Speculation on precisely what person or persons got Oppel so riled up as to issue this ill-placed and over-reactive condemnation has not borne fruit, but possible culprits include everyone from high-level city management, to disgruntled Water Wastewater Commissioners, to angry suburbanites and local developers ñ take your pick.)

ï The Aviation Department has proposed a $50,000 extension to a financial consulting contract with Airport Service Professionals of Naples, Florida. Since consulting contracts are frequent targets for scrutiny, and since this particular contract was not recommended by the Airport Advisory Board by a vote of 2-8, the item could see some council discussion.

ï Also up for a vote is $57,000 for the repair of the reluctantly reopened Holly Unit #2, which will serve as a backup power source should we get a repeat of last year's summer power crunch.

Next Up in Council: This week's meeting will be followed by an even thicker tome of material: The city manager's draft policy budget for 1999 will be released on Friday, July 2. The council is off again next week; the next meeting is July 15.

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Council Watch, Council, City Council, Jenny Staff, St. John's Multipurpose Center, Aisd, Day Labor, Balfour, Rainey Street, Mexican-american Cultural Center, Macc, Waller Creek Tunnel

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