Point Austin: Beside the Point: City Council Notes

City Hall notebook

Point Austin
There's no City Council meeting this week, following a March 24 meeting that looked to be productive but ended by postponing the most controversial questions (e.g., the Midtown Live loan proposal; the Design Standards public hearing; precise amendments to the Transit-Oriented Development Ordinance) for another day. City Manager Toby Futrell had pulled the Midtown Live proposal – a "forgivable" $750,000 loan to the burned-out Eastside night club, to support rebuilding, expansion, and increased booking of live music – from the agenda a couple of days before, following widespread negative public reaction as well as opposition voiced most specifically by Council Member Brewster McCracken. Council approved instead more "facilitated public discussion" over the next couple of months, and in the meantime was confined to chewing over the public backlash against the loan and distinguishing official opinion from the more reactionary (i.e., racist) members of the local citizenry.

But before it took up that discussion – in the context of an "African American Community Scorecard" produced by city demographer Ryan Robinson – the council heard from Austin Police Department Asst. Chief Cathy Ellison about the APD's progress in improving its training program after an invited review by the Police Executive Research Forum. Ellison detailed some of the review's key recommendations, including administrative matters, a more active inclusion of cadets in community relations work, and an expanding emphasis on diversity training – a discussion, pointedly reinforced by Council Member Danny Thomas, that inevitably provided a subtext for the Robinson presentation that followed it.

By way of introduction, Futrell summarized the background that led to the Midtown Live loan proposal as well as the decision to postpone it, saying that the city's proposed response to a perceived need in the African-American community (for a more vibrant, welcoming social scene) had been confounded by the controversy in the wake of the inappropriate police behavior in connection with the February fire. "I believe we need to step back now," said Futrell, "and try to reframe the discussion to try to get back to what the core issue was. … We have some work to do in Austin to ensure that the quality of life is enjoyed by all in Austin." Robinson followed with his report, which in brief noted both a geographic integration of black Austinites into the larger community (including the nearby suburbs), as well as a gradual decline in relative population and continuing economic limitations in Austin. (For more on the Scorecard, see p.24.)

The council eventually voted 7-0 to pursue the public discussion of the Midtown proposal, for reconsideration in 60 days – although Thomas asked that it be returned more quickly, and McCracken reiterated his likely opposition to a loan "to a bar with insurance owned by some folks who have the financial means to rebuild it without government assistance." (McCracken's position earned a pointed denunciation from Austin NAACP Vice-President Barry Hall, who said: "When you see a snake you crush his head.") Several council members denounced the racist e-mails and phone calls they had received in reaction to the proposal – none were quoted, but Thomas said at least one used "the 'N' word." It's clear the city manager will have her hands full trying to "reframe the discussion" to "the core issue."

In the day-long meeting, there was plenty of less fiery business, including a $500,000, two-year contract for an independent study of water resource planning – amidst a chorus of environmentalist complaints that the city's water utility has yet to get serious about conservation. (One staggering statistic: While water usage in the city averages 168 gallons per person daily, in West Lake Hills and Rollingwood – to which Austin sells water wholesale – usage is 400 gppd.) Almost in passing, the council voted unanimously to downzone 15 Old West Austin blocks from multi- to single-family – to the approbation of neighbors. Also, without much new dispute, after weeks of OWANA controversy, the council finally denied (5-2) historic zoning to the dilapidated house at 619 West Lynn that the new owner intends to demolish.

And in a discussion that stretched, with long interruptions, from early in the afternoon until late evening, the council approved the Transit-Oriented Development Ordinance on second reading only. Raul Alvarez is determined to protect the Saltillo neighborhood from overintense development and gentrification, and to defend the neighborhood's input into the planning process (especially on the core tract currently owned by Cap Met). There is also some question as to how such adjustments should incorporate the other TOD neighborhoods. The specific amendments that will confirm that intent will be drafted for third reading and put before the council in a subsequent meeting.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

city hall, City Council, Midtown Live, Transit-Oriented Development, Toby Futrell, Brewster McCracken, Ryan Robinson, Cathy Ellison, Police Executive Research Forum, Danny Thomas, Barry Hall, NAACP

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