Naked City

Austin Stories

Think downtown traffic is unbearable now? Just wait for South by Southwest (March 15-18), when an estimated 8,000 revelers will descend on our already stuffed-to-the-gills central city, and that insipid slogan "Downtown Jam" will take on a whole new layer of unpleasantness. Currently, some 40 blocks in the Central Business District are fully or partially closed to traffic, including most of the blocks surrounding La Zona Rosa and the Austin Music Hall, the annual fest's two biggest-ticket venues. Peter Rieck, director of the city's Public Works department, has estimated that the currently closed section of Third Street between Lavaca and San Antonio will be opened by March 19 -- one day after South by Southwest ends.

But perhaps the greater indignity is the continued closure of Nueces, two blocks away from the Music Hall, for the benefit of Intel, which just announced that it may not complete its half-built chip design center on Fourth Street, for which the city offered the company a plump $15 million package of incentives. Celeste Cromack, coordinator for the Downtown Jam campaign, says another Third Street closure, this one for the construction of a massive water chilling tower atop the state garage at Third and San Antonio for the benefit of CSC, Intel, and other erstwhile downtown revitalizers, will wrap up around the middle of March; initially, the project was supposed to be completed some time in December. (Still another closure, for the installation of a 66-inch water line for the convention center expansion, which has several lanes of East Fifth Street closed between Trinity and Red River, won't be finished for another several weeks.)

Assuming they can get downtown, where will all those concertgoers park? The city estimates there are about 38,000 parking spaces in the CBD, which starts at MLK and extends down to the river; but of those, only about 12,500 are available for use by the public, including more than 400 "restricted" spaces. So consider yourself warned: If you venture downtown during SXSW, you'd better bring your walking shoes.

Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy, whose offices are located in the Omni Hotel building downtown, has finally found a cause with which everyone can sympathize; he's sent e-mails imploring city officials to do something -- anything -- to clean up the mess they've made downtown. "Back under [former city manager] Camille Barnett, they put the department heads through this touchy-feely stuff on treating the citizens as customers," Levy says. "I think they've forgotten that"…

The endless closures, among other transit-related debacles, have also raised the hackles of the Urban Transportation Commission, which sent a resolution to the City Council last Tuesday blasting both council and city staff for keeping UTC members out of the loop on transportation-related matters, which often come up at council before the commission has a chance to offer its input. Commissioner Carl Tepper, who circulated the resolution last week, says it's "very likely" that all nine unpaid commissioners will resign their posts if the council fails to change its policy, noting that commissioners warned the council months ago that "in cities like New York and Chicago, no matter what the size of the construction, city streets are never closed … I think our opinion would have been valuable in that case." A larger issue, Tepper says, is the relevance of the city's boards and commissions, which he says are often overlooked and underutilized by council and city staff; for example, several positions on the Downtown Commission (made up of members of other boards and commissions) are slated to be filled by members of city commissions that no longer exist…

Looks like it's going to be a long Thursday night down at council chambers after all. Efforts by Hyde Park Baptist Church to keep several appeals of its proposed five-story parking garage from going forward this Thursday were thwarted in district court late Friday afternoon, when District Judge Darlene Byrne ruled that the church would not suffer "irreparable harm" if she failed to issue a temporary restraining order against the city. The church has argued with increasing indignation that its neighbors have no right to appeal plans for the garage because they failed to appeal the church's original site plan for the area -- which then showed a surface parking lot -- back in 1990. After an hour of argument from no fewer than five attorneys, Byrne sided with the neighbors, noting that allowing the church to build its garage without appeal would be "more irreversible than making the church go through a hearing" on the plan. The appeal will be heard by the council today, Thursday, at the Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center, 808 Nile. Will this be the last we hear from the Baptists? "Sure," snorted Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry, who's handling the case for the city. "And some day my prince will come"…

Also on the agenda this week: Street connectivity, an innocuous-sounding name for what could be one of the evening's more contentious items. The proposal before the council -- backed by a unanimous Planning Commission in 1999 but opposed by city staff, the Real Estate Council of Austin, and the Capitol Area Builders Association -- would require that all new subdivisions feature a more interconnected, pedestrian-friendly street network with shorter blocks (600 feet instead of the current 1,200), fewer cul-de-sacs, and narrower, slower-moving streets. Supporters cringe when the label "grid streets" is attached to their proposal -- a rigid "grid" of the type seen in Central Austin is not part of the proposal -- but the result of the requirements would undoubtedly be more Hyde Park than Cedar Park…

You only thought parliamentary procedure was etched in stone. A stunning innovation appears on this week's City Council agenda: Item 80, sponsored by Danny Thomas, says that if the earlier item to rename Rosewood Avenue for Eastside activist Dorothy Turner (yeah, that again) doesn't pass, then the council should vote on renaming the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex in her honor instead. So what's with the if-then business? Is this logic class? Council offices report that such a conditional agenda item is new in their experience. Said one staffer, "That's why God invented substitute motions"…

The Longhorn Pipeline controversy took another turn last Friday, as anti-pipeline attorney Renea Hicks started working his way through 730 pages of documents that government lawyers want to exclude from evidence in the ongoing lawsuit over the 50-year-old pipeline. The Environmental Protection Agency had ruled that the project would have "no significant impact" on the environment, but last month a federal judge challenged that claim, giving critics several weeks to prepare documents supporting their request for a full environmental impact statement. Of the documents the government is seeking to keep out of the courtroom, more than 50 involve claims of "executive privilege" because they relate to correspondence within former President Bill Clinton's immediate circle of advisors, who Hicks says were apparently "directly involved in the decision … to reopen the pipeline. This is of some concern to us, because that was supposed to be a technical decision." It appears that politics, not science, has paved the way for the pipeline's approval…

Hooray! We're smoggy! Not really, but enviros nationwide scored a jaw-dropping victory Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the EPA's authority to impose its new, stricter ozone standard. Under that standard, Austin is already in "non-attainment" under the Clean Air Act, but what happens now has been in limbo while the case was litigated…

After nine months of contract negotiations with the city, the Austin Police Association is heading for a vote next week by department rank and file. APA President Mike Sheffield says he and other union officials have been working overtime to answer questions and field members' concerns about provisions in the new contract. Concern No. 1? A proposed citizen oversight panel, which would monitor the APD's disciplinary process when officers are accused of excess force or other infractions. "I've said from day one that [oversight] will be brought to the table to bargain over," says Sheffield, who says he will vote "yes" on the contract. "This isn't going to go away."

Civilian police oversight has been a prickly issue from day one both for critics of the department -- who say the APA "gutted" the deal by keeping oversight proceedings, and the results of investigations themselves, behind closed doors -- and officers who think the oversight plan goes too far. In a press conference last week at APD headquarters, Ann Del Llano, president of the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, called on citizens to contact City Council members and express their opposition to the contract. Meanwhile, rumor has it that the city is proposing an employment freeze as part of an effort to save money; according to sources inside the department, APD would not be exempt from the freeze.

-- Contributors: Mike Clark-Madison, Dan Oko, Jordan Smith

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South by Southwest, downtown street closures, Peter Rieck, Celeste Cromack, Intel, Mike Levy, Camille Barnett, Urban Transportation Commission, Carl Tepper, Hyde Park Baptist Church, Darlene Byrne, Marty Terry, street connectivity, Danny Thomas, Dorothy Turner, Longhorn

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