Come and Get It: East Austin Cautiously Optimistic About Planning Process
For a while, it looked like a laid-back Thursday for the council, with a short agenda, and a non-controversial one at that: All but two items passed on consent, and those -- the contract renewal for Austin Community Access Center's management of Austin's public access stations, and the initiation of possible amendments to the East Austin Overlay -- were dispatched with relative ease. First among discussion items was the ACAC, before the council for the renewal of its contract to manage the city's public access channels, which was unanimously approved. And ACAC had a lone and unlikely supporter in the audience: a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. According to the speaker, Trent Price, access TV and the Mormons have a few important things in common: "Their mission is our mission," he said, "the support of free speech and expression." Though the church doesn't support all access programming, he said, it relies on access television to get its message out to the community, and to televise the twice-yearly meetings at the church headquarters in Utah.
In that vein, ACAC board members said that the nonprofit, 26-year-old organization is embarking on a public information campaign to let Austinites know that, for the cost of videotape, they, too, can be a star. An access TV star.
The council took the next step in the torturous evolution of the East Austin Overlay, directing the Planning Commission to evaluate its plan to phase out the ordinance in favor of a consensus-building, neighborhood-planning process. The idea is that Eastside neighborhoods will determine their own land-use destiny by completing neighborhood plans that, presumably, would favor residential and neighborhood commercial zoning over the harder-core commercial and light industrial uses with which the area has historically been saddled.
The project goes hand in hand with the council's ramping up of support for neighborhood planning, which will receive almost a cool million in this year's budget (up from about $351,000 in fiscal 1988-1999; almost 300%). Add to that a planned $300,000 to fund a "Neighborhood Academy" that would provide neighborhoods with information necessary for completing their plans, and you have -- in theory at least -- a recipe for self-determination for a part of town that has long demanded it.
"Neighborhoods need to do their own planning," said Council Member Gus Garcia. Until the neighborhood plans can be developed and zoning adopted, he said the area will continue to be protected by the current ordinance. "Tonight the East Austin Overlay is alive and well," he said. "The idea is to strengthen these communities so they can become strong and independent."
The move met with cautious approval from several Eastside residents in attendance, along with pleas for their continued involvement as the process moves forward. "The only thing I have a lot of worry with is the grandfathered facilities," said Susana Almanza, a representative of PODER (People in Defense of Earth and her Resources) and a member of the Austin Planning Commission. Almanza referred to the many properties in the area that are currently zoned light industrial which, even though the zoning of the properties may be downgraded, will be allowed to continue operating under the old zoning.
Upon joining the commission, she said, "one of the things I got busy doing was improving the East Austin Overlay within the Planning Commission, trying to cover up those loopholes." As a planning commissioner, Almanza has initiated the rollback zoning for some of those properties that were zoned light industrial but were already being used as single-family residences. The resolution passed by the council calls for an end to rollback zoning in the East Austin Overlay district "until the property is included in a City Council-approved neighborhood plan."
Garcia aide Paul Saldaña acknowledges that "even if we succeed in rolling back zoning, it doesn't really affect the grandfathered uses." But he said that he has talked with Almanza about the fact that "state law allows for that," and there's not much the city can do to change it.
Almanza also addressed the controversy that has pitted neighborhoods against business owners and developers, some of whom believe the overlay is too restrictive, and precludes some of the beneficial economic development the area needs. "I don't think investors should be threatened by the East Austin Overlay because it in no way empowered us to change zoning, it was only to participate in the public process, which we've been left out of for a long time."
After the hearing, as Eastside resident William Zamarripa spoke with Almanza and others who'd come to testify, he said prospects for the neighborhood achieving its zoning goals looked good. "When I was up there [speaking to the council], you could see them nodding up there like, "That's exactly what we're going to do.' It's already happening."
So up to this point, the council meeting was all sweetness and light. But then came the public hearings.
Sixpence None the Richer
A plethora of Austinites with worthy causes turned up at the budget hearing, looking for a piece of the pie that council members will start formally dividing on Monday, September 13. Two standouts were the Austin Project and the East Austin Youth Center, whose representatives told moving stories of their service to the schoolchildren. Good works aside, however, they shouldn't hold their breath, said Ramona Perrault, aide to Council Member Daryl Slusher.
The council, she noted, "decided we are getting out of the business of giving directly to [social service] providers." She added that such entities can submit proposals to city departments or go through the Community Action Network to try to get funding. "We have a process," she said. "People need to go through the process."
Jennifer McPhale led a group of American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today (ADAPT) members, who have been stalwarts throughout the budget process, coming early and staying late to testify on issues that affect the disabled. Among ADAPT's requests are an extra $400,000 for the "removing architectural barriers" program, which allows people to remain in their homes who might otherwise have to leave them.
In other behind-the-scenes budget wrangling, the Austin Music Network is coming on strong. According to its partisans, the network is rebounding from its poor first-quarter performance and is looking for an added boost from the city's bed tax. The bed tax on Austin's hotel rooms funds both the Austin Convention and Visitor's Bureau and the city Arts Commission, which split something like $5 million last year. This year the bed tax, like a lot of other piggy banks in town, is running a surplus, and AMN wants a piece. A hundred thousand of the $300,000 surplus is what they're asking for, but ACVB and the Arts Commission are reportedly lobbying hard to prevent the establishment of such a precedent.
But the big surprise of the budget hearing came when members of a small but insistent group -- including Lanetta Cooper of the Water/Wastewater Commission and Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen -- asked that the budget include money to hire a general consumer advocate to represent the interests of citizens and "tip council off to problems in the bureaucracy," as Smith put it.
In the last 15 years, he said, "we have seen the evolution of strong offices of consumer advocates to represent the interest of consumers in front of state agencies. These have been particularly effective in Texas. Especially in the electric and telecommunications industries, they have literally saved billions -- [and] shifted costs to industrial consumers, or have contested the costs. -- The key is independence," he continued. "We have not seen a similar aggressive stance taken at the TNRCC, which we call "train wreck' -- [where the advocate] has not had the ability to go out and challenge the status quo -- because their funding and budget are directly part of the agency's budget." Smith recommended that the advocate be appointed by the council, have a budget independently set by the council, and "report directly to council, not the city manager's office."
The suggestion did not sit well with City Manager Jesus Garza, who said that such a move "would be a [charter] violation to have someone looking over my shoulder to see whether I'm running the utility [correctly] or not." Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman wondered aloud whether it weren't possible to get it done anyway. And after the meeting, council members, including Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith, and Bill Spelman, agreed that the consumer advocate position is an idea worth looking into.
"There are some who have been urging the City Council to make this decision right now. They've called us "irresponsible' and "destructive' and "foolish' -- all for taking time to understand this very complicated deal. -- We don't know how much water we need. We don't know how much we should pay for it. We don't know the best way to finance it. Until we know that -- I think it would be "irresponsible' and "destructive' and "foolish' to rush to judgment. -- I for one will not be bullied into making a decision before I am ready." So said Council Member Bill Spelman, retaliating against the Statesman's recent editorials chastizing the Austin City Council for failing to jump at the multimillion-dollar water deal presented for their consideration by city staff and the Lower Colorado River Authority.
LCRA: Wetter and Wilder
At the end of last Thursday's council meeting, with Mayor Kirk Watson attempting to put the 13-hour-long affair out of its misery with a motion to postpone discussion to the following week (which is today, Thursday, September 9), five of the six council members couldn't resist making a personal statement about their feelings on the deal. Spelman wasn't the only one to balk at the editorials, but he was the most forceful. (Was it the late hour, or Spelman's firing of the latest shot in the battle between the daily paper and the council, that had Watson hanging his head in his hands during Spelman's statement? Only the shadow knows.)
After the meeting, Goodman, the only member of the council who didn't give a statement from the dais, said she thinks the 30 days should be enough to get everything resolved. "I'm not going to play politics with the future water supply," she said.
The city is meeting questions about the fiscal prudence of the LCRA water deal head-on, putting its money where its mouth is -- or at least its mouth where it wants its money to go -- with a thick stack of answers to the issues that have been raised by the SOS Alliance, Slusher, consumer advocate Birny Birnbaum, and the city's Resource Management and Water/Wastewater commissions. The document crunches the deal's numbers in an attempt to demonstrate that, instead of a too-early deal which would start payments too soon on water we don't yet need, it's a fortuitous confluence of interests between the city and the LCRA. So while SOS may not get their council-appointed task force to study the issue, they are getting their public discussion. But the way things are looking, they probably won't get six months' worth. Even Spelman said he thinks the six-month proposal "is a non-starter. -- I don't think we're going to need more than a couple of months."
This Week in Council: Have you been feeling like something is missing in Austin? A little slice of Las Vegas, maybe? Would you like to see a 120-foot, Greek (or Roman, or something) revival condominium tower on the southwest corner of Congress Avenue and Town Lake? Then by all means stop by council chambers for today's 4pm zoning hearing and let your voice be heard. On the other hand, if you object to this sort of use for a prime piece of downtown/waterfront real estate, you can come say that, too.
This Monday, Sept. 13, the council will begin final deliberations on the 1999-2000 budget. They're posted to meet on the budget on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, just in case that's how long it takes. The budget adoption will be followed by a two-week council hiatus, with the Sept. 16 and 23 meetings officially canceled.