Naked City

Austin Stories

After a week with only minimal communication among the City Council, Hyde Park Baptist Church and Hyde Park neighborhood representatives, the council overwhelmingly granted the neighbors' appeal of the church's proposed five-story parking garage, ending the council's involvement in the 10-year-old case. Mayor Kirk Watson, who has voted consistently against the neighborhood on church-related matters, postponed a vote on the appeal a week ago, saying he wanted a week for council members to discuss the case without pressure from those on either side of the debate. Whether Watson's strategy was to bend other council members to his way of thinking, or to forge an eleventh-hour compromise between the long-feuding church and neighborhood, things didn't go as the mayor had planned. Ultimately, the vote went pretty much as neighbors had anticipated it would a week before -- with the mayor and Baptist minister Danny Thomas voting against the appeal. And the attempted compromise, such as it was, was actually instigated by freshman Council Member Will Wynn, a longtime advocate of historic preservation and the apparent swing vote on the garage.

"We need to thank [Wynn] for trying to work toward some kind of compromise," says neighborhood attorney Rachael Rawlins, who was in on the last-ditch negotiating session. "I believe before he saw the details of the deal he thought it was a good deal. When he saw the details I think he realized it wasn't." The "deal" -- six feet off the top of the garage, an additional two-foot setback off Avenue D, and a few miscellaneous landscaping changes -- was far less than the neighbors wanted, but still "more than they have ever offered us," Rawlins says. But the compromise offered by church reps, including attorney Richard Suttle and Wynn's onetime business partner Tom Stacy, didn't address the point of greatest contention: Could the church build as much as it wanted on the land it owns on Avenue D, or did the underlying single-family zoning restrict the garage to 40% of the land? (Church reps claimed a 40% garage would be unusable; neighborhood residents, including former Council Member Bill Spelman, said it would still allow some 250 parking spaces, not the 100 to 150 spaces the church claimed.)

Although neighbors "are very pleased with the outcome," Rawlins says, it's likely -- though not inevitable -- that the case will end up in court. "I'm hopeful that the neighbors and the church would sit down and talk before heading into court," says Wynn's aide, Mark Nathan. And even after winning at council, neighbors expressed their willingness to discuss compromises. But if efforts to that end fail, the burden will be on the church to prove the council made the wrong decision in granting the neighbors' appeal. "If a judge decides that the ordinance is ambiguous, he or she would be likely to defer to the legislative judgment of our elected representatives," says Rawlins, adding, "I don't know if it's worth the resources for them to take us to court. If they want to go to court, we'll be there, but we would rather come together and see if we can find a win-win resolution."…

What's that in the sky, flying from One Texas Center to East 10th Street? It's Planning Commission chair Betty Baker, turning her superpowers on the Bennett Tract. (Hey, if Hyde Park Baptist can be "resolved," anything can be.) Bennett, you will recall, is the empty space on the east side of I-35 between Seventh and 11th, zoned in 1991 for a great big shopping mall that never happened. Matt Mathias of Riata Development wants to build a hotel and office buildings on the site, but his zoning request has been postponed a dozen times pending now-abandoned negotiations with the adjoining (and much-opposed) Guadalupe neighborhood. Though both sides wanted yet another postponement last week, Baker said no-can-do and appointed an ad hoc PC committee, which met three times this week. The commission is scheduled to vote on March 20, the City Council on March 22…

That sweetheart deal the City Council approved for Computer Sciences Corp. a couple of years ago seems to grow sweeter every time we turn around. Last week, the council cleared the way for the construction of a private tunnel connecting the three CSC buildings along East Cesar Chavez and Second Street. Why a tunnel? Well, CSC spokesman Howard Falkenberg says it would protect CSC personnel, equipment, and material as they move from building to building. CSC has a number of clients that require the highest security possible, he explained, and "a downtown public environment is more open and less reserved than you would typically find in a suburban office environment." While CSC is handling much of its own construction on the project (a source of bitter disappointment among minority subcontractors awarded a small share of the contract pie), the city will oversee construction of the tunnel, which, along with a public parking garage beneath the new City Hall, will cost the city $5.1 million. Council Member Danny Thomas cast the dissenting vote on the funding, because African-American subcontractors make up less than 1% of minority contractors represented on the project…

Next Monday is the deadline to apply for the city's Grant for Technology Opportunities, a new program that provides funds for projects "focusing on digital opportunities and the digital divide." So far, says Telecommunications Commission member Matthew Curtis, response to the program has been "phenomenal." The program provides grants ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 for projects that increase public access to computers and information technology, and is open to nonprofit and neighborhood organizations, and sponsored individuals. For more info, or to see what kind of projects are being considered, go to the commission Web site: www.ci.austin.tx.us/telcommission

After a classic City Council hearing -- 118 speakers, all urging the council not to do what everyone knew it would do anyway -- our elected leaders approved the proposed contract with the Austin Police Association, the union representing APD rank and file. The sticking point, as is widely known, was the question of civilian oversight; the original version, crafted by the council-appointed Police Oversight Focus Group in 1999, was "gutted" (in the POFG's view) or "negotiated" (in the city and APA's view) into a version that is less open to the public and arguably worthless as a result. The wee-hours 5-1-1 vote to approve the contract -- with Raul Alvarez voting no, as he promised during his campaign, and Beverly Griffith abstaining -- came one day after the APA's own 60%-40% vote to adopt the agreement. Suffice to say that the naysaying 40% were not seeking stricter oversight provisions, although the agreement's failure to address cops' skyrocketing health care costs was also cited as a buzz-buster. This will all happen again in two years…

After a painfully long wait, the first round of Census 2000 data for Texas -- population totals and breakdowns by race and ethnicity -- finally hit the streets early Tuesday morning. Folks at the Capitol, who were about to faint from the suspense, can now get on with the business of redistricting, for which this data is necessary. Austin now has 656,562 people -- making us No. 4 in the state -- up 41% from 1990 and about 5% higher than the most recent estimates. The five-county Austin metro area came in at 1,249,763, so yes, the city still has more people than the suburbs. In Travis County, 28.2% called themselves Hispanic or Latino, 9.2% African-American, 4.5% Asian, and 2.9% multiracial…

For weeks, Spicewood residents have been sounding environmental and noise pollution alarms about the concrete batch plant that Rainbow Materials, a building supply company owned by UT civil engineering professor Ramon Carrasquillo, is planning to build in their area, home to Spicewood Vineyards and the pristine, much-beloved Krause Springs (see "Concrete Plans," above, for more on the situation in Spicewood). It hardly helps matters that Rainbow, which has plants in Cedar Park, Del Valle, and Manor, isn't even building its facility to serve Spicewood, a semirural enclave of about 3,000. Instead, Rainbow's trucks will head east from the Hill Country hamlet into Austin, where Rainbow has a $192,000 annual contract with the city. Rainbow also benefits from the business and residential boom downtown, providing concrete for numerous municipal and private projects in central Austin and elsewhere. "We have done jobs on streets; we're supplying concrete for the Intel building downtown; we're working for another contractor on some high-rise buildings … [and] we're supplying concrete for residential construction," Carrasquillo says.

Mike Blizzard, an Austin political consultant who's working with the Spicewood residents opposing the plant, says "It's the city of Austin's growth that to a large degree is driving the demand for these kind of facilities," which produce concrete for new buildings, streets, and highways. With the new Spicewood plant, Rainbow's facilities will form a ring around the city of Austin, sending concrete into the central city from the north, south, east, and west. But, says Blizzard, Austin does not have a Rainbow plant anywhere in its city limits or its extraterritorial jurisdiction.

-- Contributors: Mike Clark-Madison, Amy Smith

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    Spicewood residents are protesting plans by Rainbow Materials to build a concrete batch plant in their small, semirural community.
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    Austin is now officially in non-attainment of the Clean Air Act's ozone standard, but it's still unclear how Texas cities will enforce the federal law.

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    The council passes an aggressive panhandling ordinance as part of its "homeless self-sufficiency and responsibility initiative," angering homeless advocates.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Hyde Park Baptist Church, Bill Spelman, Richard Suttle, Kirk Watson, Danny Thomas, Tom Stacy, Will Wynn, Mark Nathan, Rachael Rawlins, Planning Commission, Betty Baker, Bennett Tract, Matt Mathias, Riata Development, Computer Sciences Corp., Howard Falkenberg, Grant for

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