Naked City

Austin Stories

Job cuts may be old news in Austin, but it's not every day a company lays off eight states. That's what happened at USA Today last month, where a 5% nationwide personnel cutback meant closing the paper's Austin bureau: a one-man operation consisting of Guillermo Garcia, a veteran reporter who did some time at the Austin American-Statesman and was hired away from the Orange County Register in the summer of '99. In addition to Texas, Garcia covered Louisiana, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California, and shared responsibilities for border stories with the Mexico City bureau. He now has the unhappy distinction of being among the first group of editorial employees laid off at USA Today -- the flagship paper of 99 published by the Gannett Co. -- since its founding in 1982.

There had been a hiring freeze at the paper since January, but Garcia says there was no warning when the ax fell May 15. "They said it had nothing to do with my work," Garcia says, "but was strictly a financial decision." That was confirmed by USA Today spokesman Steve Anderson, who says the company, like others in the newspaper business, found itself in "a difficult financial climate" and had to "institute efficiencies."

"It's no particular reflection on Austin or the Southwest," he adds. The company laid off six newsroom reporters and seven online editorial staffers, concluding a total of 100 job reductions since January. Anderson says the paper will rely on stringers or their L.A. or D.C. bureaus to fill the gap.

Although the company pointed to a loss of help-wanted ads and the rising cost of newsprint as factors in the job cuts, Gannett reported a profit of $174.5 million for the first quarter of 2001. Garcia, who is hoping to find a new position in Austin, says ruefully that he didn't think his expenses did much to hurt Gannett's margins. "I do drink some beer," he says, "but I never dreamed I cost them $175 million."…

Closer to home, the ever-shrinking Statesman announced Monday that it was folding the 21-month-old Technopolis section, which ran every Friday, into its Tech Monday section, and moving much of the tech-culture section's coverage onto the Web, along with patent information that had previously been printed in Tech Monday. Technopolis was hit harder than most Statesman sections by the dot-com crash, as dwindling technology ads shrunk the section from 26 pages at its October '99 launch to just four pages on Friday, June 8, the last date it was published. "Most newspapers have seen drops in ad revenue" in recent months, says Technopolis editor Omar Gallaga. "Technology ads were the first thing [to be] hit."

Most of the info in the section will move to the back page of Tech Monday or onto the Statesman's Web site, including "a lot of stuff we haven't been able to run because of space," Gallaga says. Although he's disappointed that the section didn't last, Gallaga says the changes will allow him to keep editing and writing more for other sections. "We got tons of good feedback" about Technopolis, he says. "We were assured it had nothing to do with the quality of the section."

Technopolis isn't the first casualty of cutbacks at the Statesman. That distinction goes to former stand-alone section Movies and More, which now runs in the Life and Arts section on Fridays…

Was it politics or just mass confusion that made Planning Commission members Betty Baker, Ray Vrudhula, Silver Garza, and Rev. Sterling Lands decide -- reportedly just hours from the deadline for doing so -- to ask Neighborhood Services Director Alice Glasco for permission to reconsider their approval of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan and zoning overlay last Tuesday? The PC voted on May 22 to approve the item, which would govern zoning for the entire neighborhood, except where an existing zoning overlay governing Hyde Park Baptist Church prevailed; but it took two weeks for the commission's historically more HPBC-friendly faction to decide they hadn't understood what they were voting on and collectively reverse their decision.

In the letter, dated June 4, the four PC members state that it was their intention "to leave in place the development regulations in the earlier NCCD [zoning overlay] for the Hyde Park Baptist Church." The request sends the item back to the PC, which meets again June 19, and pushes it off the City Council agenda, where it was scheduled to be heard this Thursday. The council won't meet again until July 19; but since the odds of getting the neighborhood plan onto that packed agenda are likely slim, and since half of Hyde Park's planning team has scheduled vacations for that week, it may be August before the plan is finally heard.

Speculation was rampant last week that the church had its troops busy speed-dialing commissioners' offices to encourage them to change their minds on the plan, which some PC members apparently believed exempted HPBC from most of the neighborhood plan's more restrictive zoning guidelines. In a way, the four errant PC-ers had it right the first time: The plan in fact does very little to restrict the church, governing church property only on matters where the church's zoning overlay, or NCCD, is silent, a change whose effects would be limited to a few additional restrictions on new buildings. And it's in keeping with the letter of the church's zoning ordinance, which states that the zoning district "established by this ordinance is intended to be incorporated into and merged with an NCCD fully implementing the Neighborhood Plan when the larger NCCD is established in the future." The new overlay could mean a few new restrictions, including height and building cover limitations and restrictions on the height of front-yard fences.

Neighborhood planning team members say they're disappointed, but not surprised, by the commissioners' last-minute decision, which is, according to commissioner Jim Robertson, unprecedented in his experience on the commission. "I've been through this stuff for so many years that nothing really surprises me any more," says planning team leader Karen McGraw. Planning Commission members who signed the letter did not return calls for comment…

Plans for the much-debated, much-revised Triangle development bordered by 45th, Guadalupe, and Lamar will be considered (and, unless some serious hell breaks loose, approved) next Monday at a meeting of the State Board of Review, which last heard the plan back in 1998. After approval by that board, which includes Mayor Kirk Watson, Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, and Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe, among others, the plan will go back to the city, where it will probably be approved quickly by city staff.

It's been a long time coming. The Triangle controversy has dragged on for the past five years, as developer Tom Terkel's original plan for the tract -- which featured a Randall's grocery store, a movie multiplex, and scarcely a single blade of green space -- evolved into the current proposal, which everyone seems to agree is not too bad. "There are certainly things that any individual one of us would prefer to be a little bit different, but … it seems that people are pretty happy about it, or at least satisfied with the kinds of compromises that have been made," says Cathy Echols, a Hyde Park representative to the Triangle stakeholders group. "When we've shown people the drawings they've been pretty happy with them. My sense is that the community in general is pretty satisfied with what's there."

Once the plan -- which includes nearly 800 apartments, the Randall's, 150,000 square feet of retail space, and nearly six acres of open space (including 5.3 acres to be purchased by the city) -- is approved by the state, it will go back to the city, which has pledged around $7.6 million in fee waivers, reimbursements, and other Smart Growth goodies for the project…

Ignoring months of student protests, the University of Texas athletics department just awarded catering and concessions rights to Sodexho Marriott Services for the next 10 years. The protests centered on the association between the concessions company's largest shareholder, the Sodexho Alliance, with private prison company Corrections Corporation of America, of which Sodexho was the largest shareholder before it divested its stock last month. In a statement, UT VP Patricia Ohlendorf called the bidding process "extensive, competitive and fair." But student protesters weren't nearly as upbeat about the decision. Bob Libal, who took part in numerous anti-Sodexho protests, said although he was glad that Sodexho had divested from CCA under pressure from activists, "Sodexho still owns private prison-operating companies abroad … with horrendous management records, so the decision to renew the contract at this point with no divestment stipulation is a slap in the face to student input and the University's commitment to social justice." …

Children of poor families and pregnant teens looking for help lost a great friend Saturday night, when tireless health care advocate Venola Schmidt succumbed to a heart attack at Seton Medical Center. Schmidt never let officials in Austin and Travis County grow complacent about the state of their public health clinics, which are so much better than what most Central Texans get that some residents of adjacent counties establish Travis County mailing addresses to use them. Schmidt was one of many charitable souls responsible for this county's humane response to medical need, but it's easy to believe she would have taken on the fight alone if she'd had to. When city officials talked of privatizing the clinic system years ago to save money, Schmidt was among their most vocal opponents. It was a prescient stand, given the subsequent financial fallout in the private health care industry, which easily could have jeopardized clinic services. Schmidt also campaigned to make sure low-cost reproductive services were preserved when the city transferred authority of its hospital to Catholic-affiliated Seton Healthcare. She founded the Alliance for Human Needs, a nonprofit that draws attention to those in poverty and the institutionalized politics and policies that keep them there. Schmidt's fight was far from over, but 82 years was all she had to give us. Our condolences to her family.

-- Contributors: Jennie Kennedy, Michael King, Kevin Fullerton

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USA Today, Guillermo Garcia, Gannett Co., Steve Anderson, Austin American-Statesman, Technopolis, Tech Monday, Omar Gallaga, Planning Commission, Betty Baker, Silver Garza, Sterling Lands Ray Vrudhula, Hyde Park Baptist Church, Hyde Park neighborhood plan, Karen McGraw

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