All Wrapped Up in Cable
If making telecommunications company reps squirm is an art form, Council Member Will Wynn might be the next Jackson Pollock. At the July 19 council meeting -- following an hour's heated discussion of a proposal requiring excavation projects on public streets to be designed by licensed professional engineers -- Wynn chided the reps for not attending subcommittee meetings if they had complaints about the pending ordinance. "If I were in the telecom business in Austin, I would make a habit of reading the agenda of the telecom subcommittee each month," Wynn told a Quest and Time Warner representative, after posing a similar challenge to a suit from Southwestern Bell.
The council expressed public frustration with torn-up streets across town, adding that several water mains have been broken after being hit or moved during telecom digs by various companies. (The ordinance excludes excavations for gas utilities, which have caused fewer problems.) Southwestern Bell's rep said there have been no "official" complaints during the past 18 months, but council members countered that many complaints never make it to the official level.
The telecoms argued that the ordinance would do little to solve the problem of broken water mains, since many of these occur not as a result of poor engineering, but during actual construction. "The idea that a professional engineer designing every project precludes any damage or reduces the damage is not necessarily true," said Dalton Renner, area manager for Southwestern Bell, which claims the ordinance will cost them more than $4 million a year.
But Wynn's tongue-lashing set the stage for a 4-2 vote approving the ordinance, with Raul Alvarez and Beverly Griffith dissenting.
Despite the vote, residents shouldn't expect sudden cross-town clear sailing. For now, the vote means, in principle, that unexpected projects -- such as laying additional phone lines for a presidential visit -- could be as difficult as trying to find a street in Austin not under construction. But industry officials are hoping that a last-minute friendly amendment by Council Member Danny Thomas -- requiring city staffers to get input from the companies as they implement the changes -- will provide a chance to develop amendments that would differentiate between major and minor projects. The telecom spokespeople said they plan to bring something back to the council in the next few weeks.
The Unexpected Guest
Joining environmental and neighborhood groups, former land commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Garry Mauro made an unexpected appearance at council to urge the council to enact an ordinance that would keep Longhorn Pipeline from transporting gas underneath the homes of South Austinites. Mauro added his voice to the many local opponents of Longhorn's plan to move gasoline across the state through a 51-year-old former crude oil pipeline, saying that it would endanger both residents and the environment.
Outflanked by the pipeline lobby at the Lege, local activists are hoping that an ordinance they presented to the council would keep the project -- which has already received approval from federal regulators -- out of their back yards. "I would hope that you do this for the safety of the neighborhoods, and for the good of the city of Austin," Mauro said. "I think there are no federal preemption issues the way this has been dealt with, and I think you can go a long way toward making the Longhorn Pipeline meet the standards we all want it to meet, protecting our neighborhoods in Austin."
At a press conference outside the meeting, Susana Almanza of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER) and other activists defended the proposed ordinance, which would apply to new pipelines as well as those that have been idle for more than five years, like Longhorn's. It would require approval from the council for a pipeline to pass under city streets or other property, as well as approval from school districts in order to pass within 200 feet of a school. The ordinance would also protect Barton Springs or other areas the council deemed necessary for water purity. Both Mauro and Almanza called environmental racism a factor in their opposition to the pipeline, as they said such projects inevitably tend to land in lower-income and minority neighborhoods.
In a prepared statement, Longhorn replied that the pipeline issue was not an appropriate one for the City Council. "Federal regulations, not city ordinances, govern all interstate pipelines, and any city ordinance that attempts to regulate pipelines would be subject to federal preemption," they said. "We are skeptical that any city ordinance can pass constitutional muster."
It's unlikely that the issue will just go away. Alvarez asked city staffers and council members to consider the issue, and Mayor Pro-Tem Jackie Goodman said, "I'm willing to lay odds that this ordinance will be back on the agenda."
How Smart Are We?
Long considered to be the most likely of the council members to run for mayor should Kirk Watson make his move into one of the state races, Beverly Griffith gave indication that Watson's somewhat tarnished Smart Growth initiatives could face additional scrutiny in the coming months.
Griffith was the sole vote against reimbursing or waiving $195,001 in development fees and $77,000 in streetscape improvement costs to Plaza Lofts, L.P. for a pricey residential development project on Fifth and Guadalupe, saying that it was taking money away from the city, which is already coming in below budget for sales taxes. "If this were $272,000 for low-income housing for the citizens, for folks to get a down payment for their first home, I would be the first one," Griffith said. "But that's not what we're taking about."
Plaza Lofts is the eighth project to get financial incentives under the Smart Growth Matrix, adopted in February of 1999 as a tool to assess how well the development proposals meet the goals of the city's Smart Growth Initiative. If a project -- such as Plaza Lofts -- advances the city's Smart Growth goal by meeting standards such as neighborhood support, proximity to transit, and sustainable building practices, it can be eligible for incentives.
While the project would implement improvements such as a sidewalk along West Fifth and street trees along Guadalupe, its 12-story mixed-use building with 56 residential units would be primarily aimed at high-income Austinites.
Longtime Smart Growth advocate Daryl Slusher said Griffith raised some important points regarding the number of high-cost complexes located downtown, but said it wasn't fair to punish Plaza Lofts. He did say, however, that he'd be willing to look into changes to the Smart Growth Matrix. "I would remind folks that just a very, very few years ago, we were trying real hard to get housing of any kind downtown to reverse urban sprawl," Slusher said. "I don't think we should offer up the Smart Growth Matrix for developers to be eligible for fee waivers, and then have them go through that process that we have out there as a council-adopted policy and then be turned down because we don't like a particular aspect of the project."
Not Quite Jurassic III
The Hyde Park Baptist Church/neighborhood battle will have to wait for its next episode until late August. Since Mayor Watson was absent, Hyde Park Planning Team chairman Karen McGraw asked to postpone the discussion of the church's pending petition for a zoning change until the meeting of Aug. 23. Representatives from both the Planning Team and church agreed, saying they want time to review the ordinance and avoid further delays. But after 10 years of acrimonious debate over the church's plans to build a multistoried parking garage don't hold your superheated August breath.
Council goes back on hiatus this week, but the Aug. 2 meeting should be juicy, featuring City Manager Jesus Garza's first presentation of the new lean and mean budget.