Council Watch: Jailhouse Block
Over the protest of neighborhood residents, the City Council voted Thursday night to move the city's Central Booking facilities into the county's new Criminal Justice Center building at 10th and Nueces, just west of downtown. Aloud, residents speaking at the hearing fretted about increased parking and traffic congestion, but signs bobbing in the audience were more direct: "No Criminals on Our Streets." The jail, they point out, is one block away from Pease Elementary School, and just a few streets away from Austin Community College's central campus. Also nearby is a day care center and an apartment complex populated largely by retirees.
"This is one of those questions where nobody is necessarily 'for' what they're voting for," Mayor Kirk Watson said from the dais.
The present booking facility, built in 1957 to house 58 prisoners, has regularly been forced to accommodate two or three times that number, Sheriff Margo Frasier told the council. About the only reason the jail has not been shut down by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, Frasier said, is that the board knew the new Criminal Justice Center was opening soon. The new county building, she added, is just a few blocks away from the county courthouse, where prisoners were held until 1988.
And if the city did decide to maintain separate booking facilities from the county, Police Chief Stan Knee told the council, the city would have to dedicate 50 additional officers to the facility.
Of greatest concern to the neighborhood are prisoners booked on Class C misdemeanors, generally for vagrancy and public intoxication. The fear is that these prisoners, after they're released, will tend to linger in the area. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, backed by Council Member Beverly Griffith, proposed that the city maintain a combined booking facility and "sobriety (drug treatment) center" in another location that would funnel Class C misdemeanors away from the area.
A few mitigating measures were thrown into the vote by Council Member Will Wynn. A freeze will be placed on zoning changes around the 10th Street facility to prevent an influx of liquor stores and other businesses that might capitalize on the presence of recently released prisoners. Also included was a provision that would give prisoners 'taxi vouchers' to leave the area.
The promises left the neighbors largely unmollified. "These [prisoners] are people who don't ordinarily follow the rules," said Patty Leo, whose child attends Pease Elementary School. "You tell them to go one way, they're likely to go another way. Otherwise, they wouldn't be there."
Also on the council's plate was the divisive first reading of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan, which passed after more than two hours of heated discussion, with only Council Member Danny Thomas in opposition. Opponents of the ECC plan had filed a petition to block it in September, but were informed the day before the council meeting, they said, that the petition did not have enough signatures to be considered valid.
Complaints against the plan ranged from allegations by PODER's Susana Almanza that it is incomprehensible -- "How do you expect people who don't even understand the zoning to understand this?" Almanza asked the council -- to business owners' claims that the plan's proposed zoning changes would limit their right to operate.
And, of course, there were those convinced that the neighborhood plan is the driving wedge of gentrification, and that "Smart Growth" is shorthand for high-dollar condos and chain stores that will push longtime residents out.
"We do not trust the city," said El Concilio member Paul Hernandez. He and two others stormed out of the room while Goodman was explaining her support for the plan. "Stay out of East Austin," someone shouted from the audience.
And then there were the residents who support the plan, some of whom have poured hours of volunteer work into a project they believe will revive their neighborhood. One longtime volunteer, Linda Rodriguez, brought in a box of all the plans the city has made and scrapped for the East Cesar Chavez area in the past.
"If you're not going to have the huevos to pass this tonight, then you might as well throw in the towel on neighborhood planning," Rodriguez said.
The plan is now one slow step closer to passage, though council members pointed out that with two more readings to go, protestors still have time to file another petition, educate the neighborhood, or negotiate with city staff.
Council Member Raul Alvarez pledged to educate neighborhood residents about the plan himself over the next few weeks. "I don't think the information about what this plan really does is going into the community," Alvarez said. "I think there are people out there who just don't want this plan to pass at all."
Although Old Austin venerables like Bill Bunch and Shudde Fath turned out in opposition, the council passed a zoning change that will permit the construction of the Mirabeau (née Gotham) condominiums on the south shore of Town Lake.
Debate dragged on over floor-to-area ratios and graded slopes, but the sticking point in the argument was the sheer scale of the proposed building itself. Developers have reduced the proposed height of the project -- from 120 feet to 108 and now "just" 93. The building , as now proposed, would rise 60 feet above the bridge, the limit allowed by the Town Lake Waterfront Overlay.
In comparison to the other contentious items on the agenda, a public hearing on the once-sticky boundary-dispute settlement between the city and Lumbermen's Investment Corporation was downright placid.
Under the terms of the proposed settlement, Lumbermen's would get the three acres adjacent to the disused Seaholm Power Plant (which Lumbermen's has claimed all along are rightly theirs) to build a condominium project. In return, Lumbermen's would give up a portion of the land to provide parking for the plant, which the city currently plans to turn into a science and technology museum.
Members of the Seaholm Reuse Committee, concerned that the condo project would interfere functionally and aesthetically with the re-use of the plant, were less than thrilled by the early proposals. And although many discussions between the committee and Lumbermen's have whittled the project into something Seaholm advocates are more comfortable with, the developer has yet to pacify opposition from another group that's been almost forgotten in this battle -- Austin's old-line environmentalists. Former SOS Alliance vice chair Mary Arnold -- who has already been involved in one lawsuit to stop development on the site -- urged the city to be "especially cautious and careful" before approving development so close to Town Lake.