Council Watch: No Salvation
More than a year of negotiations for a new homeless shelter ended on a none-too-cheerful note, as the City Council voted to buy two lots next door to the Salvation Army's 200-bed shelter on East Eighth Street. Eighteen months ago, the plan was that the city would lease the property from the Salvation Army, but negotiations stalled out when the Army's Atlanta headquarters changed the terms of the agreement, including the length of the lease and the measures the city could take to deal with public intoxication and violent behavior at the shelter.
"I was told and led to believe that [the Salvation Army] understood what our desires were locally, and they were going to make sure that happened," said Mayor Kirk Watson. "It was only recently that we have come to a conclusion that ... that's not what they were really trying to achieve. So now it's time to move on."
"Moving on" meant a decision to buy the property from the reluctant Army and even, if necessary, condemn the land for public use. Local advocates for the homeless praised the council's decision, saying they need the proposed 100-bed resource center and clinic as soon as possible. Even Dick Rathgeber, chair of the Army's local advisory board -- which approved the city's lease agreement with the Army three times before it was sent to Atlanta -- agreed that the city had "bent over backward" to negotiate an acceptable deal. "When it went to Atlanta, it came back entirely different," Rathgeber said. "When it came right down to it, the Salvation Army in Atlanta viewed this facility as an annex to their current facility, while the homeless really wanted a home of their own, and the gap was too wide to bridge."
A motion made by Council Member Will Wynn to prohibit all new development around the Travis County Criminal Justice Center, where the city's Central Booking facility will be located, was approved unanimously Thursday. The development freeze gives the council time to work out a zoning ordinance that will prohibit businesses that might keep recently released prisoners in the area, such as liquor stores and bail bond facilities, from locating near the jail.
Concerned residents who protested the council's decision to move the facility two weeks ago haven't simmered down much since. Their latest worry: Will providing sewer and gas service to the Criminal Justice Center -- which is hooked up to the neighborhood's main utility lines -- take service away from their homes? No one is quite sure, but neighbors are pleading for an impact study to be done. "Until someone does this study and someone has some numbers, we don't know what we should do," says Paul Martin, chairman of the Downtown Neighborhood Association's Central Booking Committee. "We could even be overreacting."
Council Member Raul Alvarez, with Council Members Danny Thomas and Beverly Griffith and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman solidly behind him, yanked a vote Thursday that would have approved a $39 million construction project on Town Lake, citing a low percentage of women and minority subcontractors in MW Builders' bid. The vote will postpone approval of the project -- a parking garage and community events center proposed for Town Lake Park -- for at least a week. According to aide Veronica Briseño, Alvarez wants to look into the city's process for soliciting bids from firms owned by minorities and women.
"Obviously, with a low bidder, you have to go with the lowest bid" under state law, Briseño says. "But I think [Alvarez] is concerned because this is such a huge project."
Leno Rivera, director of the city's Dept. of Small and Minority Business Resources, says that 274 minority firms were contacted by the city about bidding on the project, but few responded. Contacted again and asked why they chose not to bid, many minority firms said they were busy with other projects, Rivera says. Others said the project was simply too big for them.
Under an ordinance passed by the city in 1989 and amended in 1995, 2.6% of work contracted by the city is supposed to go to firms owned by African-Americans, 20.5% to Hispanics, and 8.4% to women, but the numbers have frequently fallen short. Cloteal Haynes, lead consultant for Haynes, Eaglin, & Waters and a board member of the Austin Black Contractors Association, says she finds the low participation of African-American subcontractors -- only one is listed in the current bid -- particularly surprising in the civic center project.
"Most African-American contractors are in the building trades," says Haynes. "You would expect a more natural involvement for African-Americans in this -- it shouldn't be zero."
In her estimation, Haynes says, city staff has erred too far on the side of caution in soliciting minority-owned firms to do contracting work. "There has been a tendency to be so doggone cautious, they haven't pushed the envelope as far as they could go," Haynes says. "In cities where there is a strong priority on minority contracting, it happens. People find a way when the message is clear."
This Week in Council
The council will consider an appeal of Hyde Park Baptist Church's latest development proposal, a "multiuse facility" at the Quarries in Northwest Austin. The facility -- actually a complex of several buildings -- would include a recreational facility, a child care center, and possibly the church's senior high school. The surrounding neighborhoods, which organized as Five Neighborhoods United when the church announced its plans to move into the area, reached an agreement with the church on development controls in the area, but many residents are less than thrilled with the dense development the proposal would allow.
And a vote on a lawsuit settlement with Lumbermen's Investment Corporation over the Sand Creek tract next to the Seaholm power plant will be taken on Nov. 9, nearly a month after the Oct. 12 deadline Lumbermen's set in September.