Crossing That Bridge
Council Approves Separate Lamar Bridge Option
The hour was nearing 1am, and the council was a punchy bunch. The meeting had dragged on into the wee hours yet again, and the pesky Lamar Bridge issue remained unresolved. In a valiant attempt to get it over with, council members rallied enough to make, at least in theory, their final decision: They voted to build a separate pedestrian and bicycle bridge across Town Lake in the vicinity of Lamar Blvd. That decision didn't come without a fair amount of uncertain-sounding late-night discussion. It was almost as if the council was discussing the issue for the first time all over again as they batted around the merits -- and the costs -- of the two bridge options. "My brain is dead right now, and I can't remember the designs," said Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, before reiterating her belief that a separate bridge would be a more versatile long-term transportation option for recreational users and commuters alike.
Council Member Gus Garcia declared himself "just as confused as anyone else" about the issue before having one of those "I could've had a V8!" moments up on the dais: "My brother worked for TxDOT for 38 years, and he was a highway engineer who worked on bridges," said Garcia. "I don't know why I haven't called him before." Council Member Willie Lewis wondered aloud, "Is this like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, where you get one phone call?"
But Regis wasn't there, and nobody got to make a phone call. Instead, the council just voted. First, the cantilever option (adding a bike/ped component onto the existing structure) failed by a vote of 2-4, with Bill Spelman and Beverly Griffith voting yes and Mayor Kirk Watson absent. Then, with the cantilever effectively dead, the separate bridge passed by a vote of 6-0. ("I'm not a sore loser," Spelman said before casting his yes vote.) The new bridge should be complete -- again, in theory -- by May of next year.
The arguments for the winning side were as follows: First, because much of the design work on the separate bridge had been done, it could be finished about six months sooner than the more unexplored cantilever option. Also, architect Girard Kinney, who has worked on the separate bridge design for the city, preferred the separate bridge from a transportation standpoint. He argued that the pedestrian lanes on the cantilever would not be wide enough to accommodate both serious commuters and hike-and-bikers, to say nothing of those making the occasional trip out to the middle of the bridge to take photographs or watch fireworks.
Though the separate bridge passed by the council this week does not include the originally planned flyover to Fifth Street, Kinney said that could be added later when the money was available, making it a more comprehensive transportation solution than the cantilever could ever be.
Council Member Bill Spelman argued forcefully that only the cantilever makes sense as a commuter option, because it would be directly in the north-south travel corridor. The separate bridge as approved by the council, Spelman argued, would take commuters decidedly out of their way -- from Lamar to the bridge and then back again. And, echoing other participants in the debate, Spelman said he suspected that factors other than optimal design and cost savings were at work in the bridge discussion.
"City staff early on decided the separate bridge was going to be necessary," he said. "Then, no matter how good the arguments were from a different approach, it was difficult for Public Works to get their arms around something different. I'm pretty sure they just wanted to build a new bridge -- a new bridge is flashier to build than a cantilever."
Another force that may have been driving the decision was the matter of historical preservation, and its transportation-related subtext. One source suggested that the calls for preserving the bridge in its current state may have not been designed to stop the cantilever so much as to promote another possible destiny for the bridge: its expansion to six lanes of automobile traffic. Originally, it was thought that the cantilever would make such expansion more tricky in the future, because the pedestrian lanes would have to be removed and another route for pedestrians established. Now, it seems, that logic may have been turned on its head: If you put on the cantilever and thereby remove the bridge's historical status, the logic goes, then it would be easier down the line to tear it down and build a brand-new, six-lane bridge.
But perhaps, under some future council, that will happen anyway -- and the new six-lane bridge will share riverfront space with the pedestrian bridge and the railroad bridge, in addition to the First Street and Congress Bridges. Then what would the riverfront vista look like? (It's probably this issue that turned Town Lake matriarchs Roberta Crenshaw and Mary Arnold into cantilever proponents.)
Some cantilever opponents believe that even though the historical bridge will remain intact with the separate bridge, the opportunities for actually viewing it will be slight. Since the new bridge will likely block views of the Lamar bridge from the east, and since to the west of the bridge lies a mostly undeveloped hike-and-bike trail, the only vista available will be from behind the windshield of a speeding car -- or from the new pedestrian bridge itself.
Will the sustained outcry of downtown residents scotch the move of the city's central booking facility from Seventh Street and I-35 to the county's troubled new Criminal Justice Center near Ninth and Lavaca? Due to pressure from those who live, work, and send children to school and day care in the area, the council is considering remedies to the compatibility problem. Among those options: allowing booking and release to be done in the neighborhoods where people are arrested, as Council Member Willie Lewis has suggested, and busing them out to the Travis County Criminal Justice Complex in Del Valle. Or, central booking could just stay where it is -- an option on which the council is scheduled to receive an APD study May 19.
Justice Center Justifications
But the council's first choice is still, apparently, to find some way to address the concerns of neighbors, which are only increasing in pitch and volume as the weeks drag on. Council Member Spelman, the council's resident criminal justice expert, thinks that the criminal justice center could have peacefully and safely housed the city's booking operation, but that that opportunity may have been forfeited by the county's mishandling of the situation. "The county hasn't been going to the neighborhood meetings and talking to people. At least as of six months or a year ago, the county could have fixed [the situation], but we may be beyond that at this point." While the neighborhood was consulted about the criminal justice center in early meetings with the county, the height of the project was later increased from four to 10 stories, and central booking was added without the neighborhood's knowledge.
And they are mad about it. Dozens of angry neighbors challenged the council to "think of the children," in so many words, and keep the booking facility far away from them. The children in question live across the street from the justice facility, at the Regency Apartments, and attend Pease Elementary School and the Phoenix School day-care center.
As one solution to the booking problem, Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association President Chris Riley cited a report by county-hired consultants last year, which recommended examining booking policies and "incarceration practices" to find ways to reduce the number of people arrested in the first place. Riley said the county referred the consultants' report to the Central Booking Coordinating Committee, which hasn't acted on the recommendations -- or even met -- since December.
Spelman said that decreasing the number of nuisance arrests could have another positive effect: "That's one definition of community policing," he said. "Officers have to find another way of enforcing order on the street. [It] could end up being a very good thing." Spelman said that in a conversation with Police Chief Stan Knee this week, Knee recounted his experience in Garden Grove, California, where the county implemented a booking fee of $150 to process individuals arrested by the city. As a result, Spelman said, the city started looking for "clever ways to avoiding arresting people ... If there's going to be a cost in the form of citizen perception of higher crime and greater anxiety, picking up raggedy-looking people [on charges of nuisance crimes] is going to look less attractive to the patrol officer."
The downtown neighbors had an ally in Eye-35/7 Airport Blvd. Neighborhood Association President Fred DuPuy, who demonstrated solidarity with what he views as another neighborhood jeopardized by the actions of the council. "You are basically pushing the execution button ... is it going to take a body?" (DuPuy has been re-energized recently by the arrest of a day laborer who was found sleeping on the property of an elderly woman near the site. The sleeping man had a knife in his possession.)
Spelman refuted DuPuy on both the day-labor and central-booking fronts, pointing out that the kind of lawbreakers who would be likely to produce "a body," in DuPuy's parlance, would be felons, who are already magistrated and released at the county facility -- and have been for 30 years. Spelman said that the only change in the prisoner population released near the courthouse will be a marked increase in the number of people arrested for misdemeanors like violating the camping ban, most of whom will not endanger the safety of downtown residents.
The perception -- if not the reality -- of increased crime has proved to be a problem in the case of the day-labor site, as well, where both the crime rate and the number of calls to the police from residents have declined since its opening last summer (though Spelman admits this may be due largely to the shutting down of criminal operations at the Rio Motel, which had been rampant). He said that like the relocation of the day-labor site, moving central booking would result only in a perceived -- not actual -- loss of safety. Ironically, he said, the misdemeanants who will be added to the mix will be less dangerous than the felons who have long been released from there. "It's more of a perception problem," he said. "Transients are going to be easier to spot than robbers and people who have committed aggravated assault who are released on bail."
The Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan was adopted by the council without incident, and without opposition from Hyde Park Baptist Church, although a peaceful solution to the parking-garage dispute remains elusive.
Don't Worry; We've Got a Plan
The Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition and the SOS Alliance wrote a joint memo to council this week, stating that the two groups would work together on the Mueller redevelopment issue, especially as it relates to a possible land swap involving Stratus Properties' Barton Springs Zone holdings. SOS's Bill Bunch said it was important to ensure that both Stratus' and the city's property were correctly valued before the city embarked on a swap. The MNC's Jim Walker says the neighborhood just wants the Mueller neighborhood-development authority to be appointed ASAP -- not 90 days after the adoption of the master plan that will be submitted to the council by the ROMA Design Group in late May or early June, which is the timetable recently approved by the council.
Walker says that an "oversight entity" for Mueller redevelopment would help ensure that no deal goes down without the participation of the neighborhood. How does Walker see the status of Stratus today? "There's a gray area," Walker said. "On one end, there's the authority that we've given council, by electing them, to float ideas. We expect Mueller to be on the negotiating table. At the other end is the release of a terms sheet -- lawyers talking to lawyers and establishing values of things. Once it gets to that point, a lot of the dealing is done. It's harder at that point. Our perception is that things with Stratus are somewhere in the middle."
Those nasty Southside zoning cases -- Home Depot and Southpark Meadows -- are back on the council's agenda once again, and promise to take up a good chunk of the council's time.
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