The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Beside the Point

Do you canoe? Council do!

By Wells Dunbar, December 23, 2005, News

Last week, shaking off the shackles that bind, City Council flew in the face of staff recommendations, charting its own independent path, for what the members saw as the Greater Good of the City.

Did they deal the deathblow to more permissive zoning at the controversial Champions Tracts in Northwest Austin? No, that passed on second reading. Surely they must have reconsidered the city's public order ordinances, which, aside from prohibiting panhandling, criminalize inevitable aspects of homelessness, like sleeping outside? Nope, most of that passed too. So what valiant stand, you may ask, for representative government, did Council embody that day?

Let's talk canoe rentals!

Item 40 – changing management of the city's Zilker Park canoe rental service from longtime concessionaire Zilker Park Boat Rentals to the PARD-approved Zilker Park Canoe and Kayak – was listed on the consent agenda, and hadn't even been pulled by a member for discussion. It was only after several citizens spoke in support of the original operators, ZPBR's Howard and Dorothy Barnett, that members abruptly shifted their paddles with the prevailing wind. ZPC&K's Patrick Thomas rose to defend his suddenly embattled frontrunner. But in the end, his and his wife Rachel's protestations fell on deaf ears.

What had appeared a foregone conclusion abruptly sank like a cornbread canoe, as Raul Alvarez moved the concession contract be re-awarded to Barnett, whose proposal had placed third in the city's management matrix. Lee Leffingwell concurred, echoing Alvarez's claim that scoring didn't properly account for experience, as it awarded an equal score to both bids – although the Thomases have operated their Rowing Dock boat rental service, also on Town Lake, for more than six years. Leffingwell continued, "Sometimes there are intangibles that can't be logically considered in a matrix, and I think that's what we have in this case."

Not rowing quietly into that good night, the Thomases have since submitted a letter to council detailing their objections to Thursday's action. They charge that the award process was undermined by a release of officially embargoed information by the city (posted on its Web site), and that keeping the contract with Zilker Park Boats is "a disservice to the people of Austin." They say the decision both wastes the dollars spent on PARD's ignored study, and denies the city additional income from the ZPC&K contract (which provided a higher percentage of net revenue to the city). The allegation of improperly revealed information has some apparent merit. For instance, one of the Thomases' proposed improvements was to install a floating dock to help boaters get into their canoes; having seen that on the city Web site, the Barnetts and their supporters repeatedly criticized the proposal as unfeasible and dangerous. Ending their letter in response to Leffingwell's assertion, the Thomases state, "There are compelling, tangible reasons to award Zilker Park Canoe and Kayak the concession."

Although Beside the Point doesn't have a boat in this hunt, the decision does prompt another question: In keeping with this action, what other sentimental favorites would council like to linger?

Once again, like an unwanted house guest, council's business lingered past 1am. In addition to the traditional zoning marathon, a lengthy mid-day stint – over two hours – in executive session contributed to the late finish. Whatever arm-twisting was needed over the public order ordinances took place there, as council emerged to adopt measures prohibiting 1) aggressive solicitation citywide; 2) sitting, lying, and sleeping Downtown; and 3) door-to-door solicitation after 9pm. Absent from the list was the proposed ban on roadside solicitation, due to the consequence for day laborers looking for work. Only Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas – pointing to the city's continuing failure to provide sufficient beds for the homeless – voted against the measures.

On her last day, there were 53 items on the zoning agenda for retiring Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department Director Alice Glasco – a new record. The star attraction was the rezoning of the Champions tracts (Loop 360 and 2222), which passed on second reading, but third reading didn't get any closer. A freshly passed resolution from the city's Environmental Board urged council to impose a trip limitation below the 11,000 the owners want.

The proposed change passed 4-3, with Alvarez and Jennifer Kim repeating their no votes, and Brewster McCracken (absent last meeting), joining the dissenters. Since a 6-1 majority is required for at least one of the tracts (at least one valid neighborhood petition opposes the zoning change, and another is likely), it appears the Champions are likely to reanimate their suspended suit against the city. Mayor Will Wynn spoke of resuming mediation with the sisters early next year – which might keep the tracts from returning at council's next meeting, Jan. 12.

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