Point Austin: Beside the Point

Up front and Behind the dais

Point Austin
"Let's have a good year and let's take in hindsight. Think about what you vote on," said the normally stentorian Pat Johnson, in an atypically contemplative moment during citizens communications last week. The gadfly's gnomic advice – although momentarily derailed by a bizarre harangue concerning the necessity of brassieres for female officeholders – would serve both the city and council well this year. "Think about what you vote on. Think about how it's going to benefit all the citizens, not just a select few."

A phalanx preceding Johnson took a similar tack, regarding their vision of environmental preservation. Several speakers from the SOS Alliance urged council to pass at least a "symbolic" resolution requesting that Advanced Micro Devices abandon its planned Lantana campus above the Edwards Aquifer. Most damning was SOS executive director Bill Bunch, who belittled the council's acquiescence to the mighty chipmaker. "Most of you have insisted that you've actually helped and tried to encourage them to [relocate], but you did it in the back room … You did it without the benefit of the community's help, and in fact, by taking it into the back room … you facilitated and you're continuing to facilitate with your silence today, the death of Barton Springs." Colleague Colin Clark spent his three minutes reading comments from the alliance's 16,000-signature petition asking AMD to reconsider its decision. Council thanked the speakers for their time – and left it at that.

The SOSers may have been nonplussed by what happened later that evening, when the council rejected grandfathering claims on the Lumbermen's Tract in the Village of Western Oaks, in the Aquifer's recharge zone. Lantana has won the dubious public distinction of being the end of Austin as we know it; yet the Lumbermen's saga, for the moment, has met an unceremonious end. The grandfathering claim was first denied by the Zoning and Platting Commission, prompting the unsuccessful appeal to council.

As it happens, Lumbermen's neighbors were okay with office development, and the development has been relatively uncontroversial within environmental circles. But assistant city attorney Marty Terry said grandfathering does not apply, in that Lumbermen's hadn't shown "continuing intent" for office space. The proposal is not quite dead – the council vote included a direction to staff to consider other possible options.

The usual zoning avalanche was defused by Brewster McCracken, his request postponing almost half of the zoning cases that day affecting the proposed East Riverside/Oltorf neighborhood plan. He had "big concerns" that proposed zoning changes along Riverside Drive are "pretty substantial deviations from the Envision Central Texas directives, which are to have more mixed use in our corridors." At least two of the proposed changes traded liquor-store zoning for community-commercial. (Those indeed might be worth a second look, since the proposed bond package is due at council next week, and the thoroughly exhausted bond committee could probably use a belt or two.)

They may demand even another stiff one, when they hear the bond election now looks likely to be pushed to November, with council devoting May and June to (re)identifying what should be on the ballot – under the well-known Austin political principle, too many cooks will eventually make dinner. McCracken confided that prognostication to us this week – while simultaneously declaring his formal intention to run for re-election in May. (At this early moment, he's unopposed.) McCracken has an ambitious agenda, with an emphasis on economic development. To meet ECT's goals regarding State Highway 130, he emphasizes expanded infrastructure, open space acquisition, and possibly recycling the proceeds from sales of municipal land to subsidize housing costs, in the manner of the pending agreement governing the nonprofit Austin Children's Museum's move to Downtown's Block 21. Asked about overall progress downtown, McCracken acknowledged "the one area of major failure" is its "not becoming revitalized for everybody" (e.g., those who can't afford $200,000 "affordable" condos).

In response to that broader need for affordable housing, McCracken suggested promoting the city's community land trust "on a much wider scale." He also reasserted his concern over spiraling public safety costs: "I think the most important issue we tackle will be on the size and percentage of public safety in two years," when both the AFD and police contracts expire.

Absent from all the fun last Thursday was Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, in the hospital with an unspecified (but "not life-threatening" ailment). Thomas' office says he left the hospital Monday, and will be back for next week's meeting following some bed rest. We wish him a speedy recovery.

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Austin City Council, city council, Pat Johnson, Save Our Springs, Edwards Aquifer, AMD, Lantana, Bill Bunch, Colin Clark, Lumbermen's Tract, Brewster McCracken, East Riverside / Oltorf neighborhood plan, Danny Thomas, Mayor Pro Tem

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