Naked City

Off the Desk:

OK, here's a little good news/bad news for you: The good news is if the City Council approves a proposed taxicab fare hike today, July 22, the next time you have to take a cab less than two miles, you probably won't be yelled at by the driver about the length of your excursion, as seems to be the current practice. The bad news? If the council approves the rate increase, the price of short taxicab trips will increase. Under the the proposed change, requested by Austin's three cab franchise holders,American Yellow Checker, Austin Cab, and Roy's Taxi, rides up to 2 1/3 miles will carry a flat fee of $5, with each additional 1/6 mile costing 25 cents. Currently, taxicab rates are $1.50 for the first 1/6 mile and 25 cents for each additional 1/6 mile; so the charge for a one-mile trip would be $2.75. The rate change will have the greatest impact on those who rely on cab service for trips under two miles. That accounts for about 25% of local cab users -- many of whom are elderly and on fixed incomes and use cabs to cart home grocery bags from the store and to go to the doctor. The local cab franchise holders and their drivers say because of the cost of gas, vehicle maintenance, and labor, these short trips that may net the driver $2 or $3 are not cost-efficient. This is particularly an issue during rush hour, when a driver sits in traffic for a long time to go a mile or two, or at the airport, where drivers wait in line for passengers. The result, the franchises admit, is often poor service to certain areas of the city. You can weigh in on the increase during a public hearing, 6pm today in the council chambers. ...

After months of stakeholder meetings -- and a fair amount of horse-trading -- the much-anticipated Town Lake Park Master Plan will be unveiled this morning during a 9am City Council work session. The meeting is open to the public. Plans call for about 30 additional acres of green space surrounding a new civic center, a 1,200-space parking garage, and Palmer Auditorium, which will be renovated as a multi-use arts center with private funds. Funding for the redesign of the 54-acre area south of Town Lake was approved by the voters in November. Work on the project will likely begin next summer with the ripping up of the moat of asphalt around Palmer and the Coliseum. The entire project is expected to be complete by 2003. ...

Hilton-Landmark Hotels will likely be the developer of the much-talked about Convention Center headquarters hotel. The City Council will decide today on a resolution authorizing the city manager to begin negotiations with H.L. Hotels of Austin to build an 800-room hotel and 1,000-car underground parking garage north of the Convention Center expansion site. Much debate has gone on over the years about the necessity -- or lack thereof -- of a hotel to the success of the Convention Center, which is currently undergoing a big-time expansion project, funded through a bed-tax hike. Seven hotel companies responded to the city's initial request for proposals in April. That list was winnowed to four, with city staff eventually recommending H.L. Hotels. A chief reason, they say, is that H.L. is the only company who did not ask for the city to offer it millions in subsidies. Under the proposal before council, the city would agree to help the company secure bonds for the project at a lower rate, making the city's financial participation fairly minimal. -- L.T.

Say you're driving south on Brodie Lane in what used to be Austin's wild green hinterlands, and you're wondering how on earth this land got eaten up by sprawling big-box shopping centers and the like in just a couple of years. Then, off in the distance you notice an immense patch of green space upon which sits a brand-new HEB food store, and you think, now that's different. Come to find out, it is different. The new store at William Cannon and Brodie is the first retail project built to comply with the Save Our Springs Ordinance. When the store swings its doors open to customers at 9:30am Friday, environmental stalwarts George Cofer and Council Member Daryl Slusher will be on hand to endorse the project. Beyond the green stuff, HEB officials claim the new store, at 82,000 square feet, is the largest grocery store in South Austin. Expect to see HEB flexing its muscle further in the coming year with four new stores, two remodeled stores, and two expansions in Austin. -- A.S.

Coming to a neighborhood near you: US Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) is canvassing for support for the Environmental Protection Agency's stricter air pollution standards for cars. If adopted, the new regs would reduce pollution from autos -- particularly emissions from light trucks and SUVs which pollute three times more than the average car and have been found to be a significant source of smog. U.S. PIRG wants the EPA to hold the makers of light trucks and SUVs to the same standards as the average car, eliminate breaks for diesel vehicles, and provide incentives for non-polluting cars. The EPA's public comment period on the new regulations ends Aug. 2. U.S. PIRG is hoping significant public support for the tougher regulations will help combat the millions the auto and oil industry is spending to fight the clean air standards. For more information call U.S. PIRG at 479-8481 or check out http://www.pirg.org. ...

Speaking of clean air, the city is touting the second edition of its Surviving and Thriving Without Driving: A Guide to Goods and Services in Downtown Austin.The guide, published by the city Air Quality Program, Downtown Austin Alliance, Capital Metro, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the city Watershed Protection Department, is an attempt to encourage carpooling and alternative transportation to cut down on vehicle traffic downtown. Want a copy? Stop by the cityAir Quality Program at 206 E. Ninth or the Downtown Alliance's offices at 211 E. Seventh.-- L.T.


SCIPing the Details

The federal agency paying the tab for the city'sSCIP II home development project in East Austin issued a report last week saying the city and its development partner have some explaining to do about how they've spent the feds' dollars.

Based on an investigation conducted this spring, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) identified $125,000 worth of expenditures billed by the developer,Anderson Community Development Corporation (ACDC), for marketing and legal expenses that the city will have to return to HUD. That's only a tiny fraction of the $7.2 million in HUD money spent on SCIP II so far, but HUD officials say there's a lot more money the city can't account for because there's no line-item budget detailing where it went. The city has spent nearly all of the $8.5 million that HUD appropriated for SCIP II through HOME and Community Development Block Grants, but ACDC has produced only 26 of the 100 homes its contract with the city called for. The HUD report also found that the developer fee charged by ACDC was "clearly in excess" of reasonable costs.

"We can't tell everything that's going on here," says Laurence Doxsey, a HUD official overseeing SCIP II. "There needs to be more information for us to accurately monitor the program."

City officials and ACDC are not saying much about the report at the moment. Paul Hilgers, director of the city's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development office, says his staff met with ACDC officials Monday and will try to respond to HUD's report by Aug. 7. The city filed a default notice against ACDC in December of last year, after development consultant Gene Watkins Inc. destroyed a historic house in the Anderson Hill neighborhood. That mishap was the last straw for the city housing office, who were already growing suspicious of how ACDC was handling the SCIP II project. But the contract the city renewed with ACDC last August did not, unfortunately, require more accountability from the developer.

The City Council agreed in 1996 to pay ACDC $10,459 per unit to build SCIP II, a mixture of single-family homes and rental housing intended for lower-income residents, intending that price to include all construction costs. But Doxsey says additional expenditures cropped up as building commenced, and all HUD could determine from city documents was that Gene Watkins Inc. was consuming 90% of the per-unit expenses, for "management and administration," while ACDC absorbed the remaining 10%. Watkins, the former director of the city housing office, has defended the fees his company has billed as consistent with the going rate.

HUD officials say their report is not meant to interfere in the city's ongoing dispute with ACDC, nor does it say what the developer's fees ought to be, though the agency will reclaim any fees that the city cannot justify. But the report does encourage the city to find a remedy that will complete SCIP II, and Hilgers says city staff remain committed to finding the "most timely and efficient means" to do just that.-- K.F.


Working on Sunshine

The Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, the organization seeking to amend the city charter to open government records to the fullest extent permitted by state law, kicked off its petition drive over the weekend. The group hopes to collect 20,000 signatures by the end of the year. While they are anticipating a charter election in May 2000, the project's Ann del Llano says the group wants to have all its ducks in a row by year's end in case the city decides to hold a charter election in January to change the way council members are elected, instead of holding it in May as currently planned. (Under state law, changes to the city charter cannot be made more often than every two years.)

Conceived as a means to open records regarding allegations of police misconduct and internal investigations, the proposed Sunshine Amendment would allow citizens access to a laundry list of information permissible under state law but kept under wraps by the city, del Llano says. This includes information regarding land development permit applications, terms of proposed legal settlements, financial records of city utilities, and incentive packages for businesses who relocate to the city.

Eight organizations have already endorsed the project's effort, including the ACLU of Central Texas, Public Citizen, and the Association of Federal, State, and Municipal Employees (AFSME). Local police associations have already registered their concerns about the amendment, but del Llano says that given the wider information net the group is casting, the group is bracing for a fight. "We're keeping our eyes open to see who our opposition is going to be."

In the meantime, the project is making its petition available on the Internet at http://www.sunshineproject.org. Interested registered voters can download, print, and collect signatures and then bring completed petitions to the Sunshine Project's offices at 2932 E. 12th during its volunteer meetings, 6:30pm Mondays. For more information about the campaign, call 472-0979. -- L.T.

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