Council Notes

Wrapping up loose ends

The council meeting last week was notable for the number of contentious items from past agendas that council returned to. Here's what happened with a few of those items.


Design Standards and McMansions

Two guidelines for development and design were considered last week, one residential, one commercial; one enacted as law, while the other will be considered again before final passage. Commercial design standards, drafted to promote sustainable, pedestrian-friendly buildings and streetscapes, were approved on second and third readings; the McMansion ordinance, returning to address tweaks made to it by the planning commission, was adopted on first reading.

Council Notes
Illustration By Doug Potter

Threatening to derail the design standards package was concern that smaller, financially constrained businesses would have trouble complying with the ordinance's requirements (including wider sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities). Emphasizing that it was intended to apply mainly to large projects and redevelopments, Sheryl Cole assuaged fears with an amendment saying that homegrown businesses would be eligible for alternative compliance.

Council Notes
Illustration By Doug Potter

The McMansion ordinance, previously vetted by council and stakeholders in June, was approved on first reading. Its definition of height, applicable to every building in the city, appeared to drive the debate – at issue was whether height begins with the "natural grade" (the top of the site before modified, altered, or excavated) or the "finished grade" (the area after construction). It's expected that council members will return to the topic when they reconvene Sept. 28. – Wells Dunbar

Council Notes
Illustration By Doug Potter


Let Them Eat Tacos!

Council members approved on first reading a permanent ordinance that will allow mobile food vendors to stay open and will regulate how they operate. The issue of taco stand vendors, primarily in the East Riverside area, has sparked a contentious debate between neighborhood activists and taco stand owners over whether the stands are hurting the neighborhood. It seems that the Planning Commission has come up with an ordinance that will ease neighborhood concerns and still allow most of the stands to operate. The ordinance bans taco stands within 50 feet of single-family residences and duplexes but not large apartment buildings. Taco stands that are located within 50 to 300 feet of a residence will have to close at 10pm. The ordinance also states that vendors must be licensed by the health department, keep noise under 70 decibels, shield any outdoor lighting, and keep their areas free of litter. Council is expected to vote again on the ordinance on Sept. 28. – Michael May
Council Notes
Illustration By Doug Potter


Police Consolidation

To hear Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza tell it, the prospect of consolidating the city's auxiliary police forces – Airport Police, City Marshals, and Park Police – into the Austin Police Department is, at best, a bleak, bleak, bleak affair. The three-year cumulative cost to the city would be nearly $16 million to pool the slightly more than 100 officers within the three agencies (collectively, officers of the city's Public Safety and Emergency Management Department), in order to suck them into civil service and bring their pay in line with APD officers, provide the required training necessary to ensure equivalence with APD officers, and add the additional staffing in each area required to bring things "into compliance" with the structure of APD – among other, numerous concerns.

In the end, Garza's Aug. 31 presentation to the mayor and council members concluded with a recommendation that the city not consolidate police functions. Interestingly, however, several points that the city manager's office, presumably, sees as negative – that is, issues of money, training, and parity – when looked at another way, suggest that consolidation might actually be a good thing – if you consider that, overall, it's a good idea to have police officers that are, across the board, well-trained and well-paid.

Exactly what the council will do next is anyone's guess – after Garza's presentation last week, Council Member Lee Leffingwell was reservedly irked because, he said, the council was not afforded access to the report before its unveiling Thursday evening. (Leffingwell proposed the so-called feasibility study in the first place, back on June 22.) "Actually, none of us had access to this report until you [Garza] stepped up to the podium," he said. Additionally, he noted that the report clearly lacks any discussion of positive impacts, fiscal or otherwise, such as savings conferred by consolidating training services and administrative functions. Those kinds of things are clearly things the council wants to know, he said.

The report has been posted online, and council members have begun posting consolidation-related questions to the city budget questions Web site (www.ci.austin.tx.us/budget/cbq/index.cfm). Council members intend to revisit the issue in the coming weeks and may, on a suggestion by Mike Martinez, hold a public hearing to gather public feedback. – Jordan Smith

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