Quote of the Week
Sleeping off a tryptophan hangover, all city of Austin offices will close Thursday and Friday, Nov. 23-24. Trash collection slides forward an extra day. Libraries close at 6pm Wednesday, not to open until regular hours Saturday. And Capital Metro buses will run on a Sunday schedule on Thursday and Friday. For more on city closures, visit www.cityofaustin.org.
Now that the cat is out of the bag about a Wal-Mart coming to Northcross Mall, neighbors are trying to figure out how to skin it a group named Responsible Growth for Northcross is gearing up to challenge the megaretailer. See "Naked City," below, and "Point Austin."
A court decision to move several apes from Bexar Co. animal sanctuary Primarily Primates Inc. has the fur flying again in the fight over the controversial foster home for apes near San Antonio. See "Primates' Fate in Limbo."
The movement for an ordinance protecting "iconic" businesses is fizzling out and so is our "Icon or Eyesore?" contest.
"Grow It Great" and by great, we don't mean Wal-Mart. That's the rallying cry of Responsible Growth for Northcross, a newly formed group of Austinites from neighborhoods surrounding Northcross Mall, whose developer just proudly announced plans to make Wal-Mart the star anchor tenant for a major mall redo. But Wal-Mart even the two-story, upscale, 24-hour supercenter proposed is not at all what activist residents from the surrounding Allandale, Crestview, North Shoal Creek, Rosedale, and Wooten neighborhoods say they want. Angered that developer Lincoln Property Co. would proceed with a major mall redevelopment without any public input, RGFN (www.responsiblegrowthfornorthcross.org) has organized to assert a community voice. The group believes the redevelopment should be aligned with the city's model for urban development and planned in partnership with surrounding neighborhoods. They are advocating for a new-generation, mixed-use redevelopment with strong architectural character, such as those at the Triangle and Mueller. The proposed "Big Box" ordinance, which would guarantee a public hearing as part of the city's approval process for big-box stores more than 100,000 square feet, is anticipated to come to council Dec. 14. The city's new commercial design standards that apply to the area and would have dictated a better-designed mall go into effect in January. RGFN is meeting with City Council members and conducting research to see if Wal-Mart and the site plan still can be diverted. The city has approved the site plan but not yet issued building or demolition permits, according to RGFN member Hope Morrison. Attorney Richard Suttle, who represents Wal-Mart, reportedly told angered Wooten Neighborhood Association members that Wal-Mart has signed a long-term lease with Lincoln and that it would have been premature to get neighborhood input before a lease was signed. "Austin is ranked as the 'Most Livable City in America' this year by National Geographic, and Money magazine ranked us number two big city," RGFN member Jason Mittman said. "We didn't get to the top of all these lists by sticking Wal-Marts all over the place. We got there because of the huge efforts we have made as a city to develop responsibly and with neighborhood involvement not just to grow, but to 'Grow It Great.'" RGFN will hold a community meeting Thursday, Nov. 30, at 7pm at Grace Church of the Nazarene, 1006 W. Koenig. Katherine Gregor
Kelly White can say "mission accomplished" without having to eat her words. The executive director of Annie's List is leaving her post after breathing new life into the group in less than a year's time. White, the former executive director of SafePlace, took over the reins of Annie's List in early 2006, replacing Sherry Boyles, who left under a cloud of controversy. White and her staff rebuilt Annie's List from the ground up fundraising, training, and recruiting pro-choice Democratic women to run for legislative seats. This year, the group focused resources on five competitive House races and won all five, including Travis Co.'s HD 47 seat won by Valinda Bolton. They also helped Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, win a special election earlier this year in HD 48 to replace Todd Baxter. White, who herself narrowly lost to Baxter in 2004, says she will enjoy some downtime with her family before deciding her next mission. Amy Smith
The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is accepting input on proposed rule changes for its drought management plan through Nov. 30. The proposed changes expand required reports from noncompliant end users, set new drought triggers, and add new subsections on fees and penalties. General manager Kirk Holland said the new rules would have a substantial impact on groundwater users, especially during periods of drought. Review the changes at BSEACD's Web site www.bseacd.org and submit written comments to BSEACD, 1124 Regal Row, Austin, 78748, by e-mail at email@example.com, or by fax at 282-7016. Kimberly Reeves
The third annual City Hall art exhibition issued its call for entries this week, as part of the city's Art in Public Places program. The city is looking for all types of entries "two-dimensional and three-dimensional, installation and digitally-created artwork" which will stay up for a year when the exhibit opens in February. For info on how to apply, visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/aipp/cityhall.htm. There, artists can also read how to apply online starting Dec. 1. And on Saturday, Dec. 2, the city will host an instructional "how to" meeting describing the application process, 10am in City Council chambers. Application deadline is Jan. 5. Wells Dunbar
Capital Metro is rolling out mobile Wi-Fi Internet access on a number of express buses, following the lead of cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, and Cincinnati. In Austin, the Bus-Fi service begins as a pilot this month on nine coach buses serving the lengthier express routes. The value of the service and whether there is actually enough elbow room to pull out those laptops will be evaluated, and the scope possibly expanded, in January. Capital Metro and the Austin Wireless City Project already provided service at the Pavilion and Tech Ridge Park & Ride facilities. K.R.
The highlight of last week's homeless education forum was a proposal by Alan Graham to create a homeless encampment on the outskirts of the city. Graham, who founded Mobile Loaves & Fishes, envisions a 200-acre tent city to provide shelter to 200 of the city's homeless, with full access to social services and support. LifeWorks' Mitch Weynand, one of the organizers of the education forum, said the idea does merit discussion. The city has its shelter for homeless youth, as well as one for women and children and one for battered women, Weynand said; maybe this, too, could be an option for those who shun the cramped elbow-to-elbow life in the city's two shelters. But even Weynand acknowledges that creating such an encampment would stretch current social service providers even thinner. Last week's homeless education forum, with an attendance of more than 200 people, was sponsored by the Community Action Network's Homeless Task Force and Ending Chronic Homeless Organizing Committee. K.R.
Austin students did better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress science test than their peers at other major urban areas across the country, according to the Trial Urban District Assessment Report Card. Fourth-grade students did particularly well; they led students in other cities in almost every demographic category (African-American, White, Hispanic, Economically Disadvantaged, etc.). In the eighth grade, Austin led other cities in three categories: White, Hispanic, and Students With Disabilities. AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione credited the success to a districtwide revamping of the science curriculum. But the scores also reveal a wide gap between student groups, in Austin and across the nation. The average NAEP score for fourth-grade white students in Austin is 176, Hispanics scored an average of 136, and African-Americans averaged 133. Forgione has implemented a professional development program for all current science teachers that he hopes can help close these gaps. "We are proud of the hard work that has been done by our students, teachers, and especially our curriculum staff," he said. "We must, however, continue to make progress in closing the gaps and in preparing all students for the new state requirement to have four years of science before graduating high school." Michael May
Keep Austin Beautiful, the local nonprofit specializing in litter prevention, resource conservation, and community improvement, has extended the deadline for its annual awards. From now until Dec. 8, anyone can submit an application to honor an individual volunteer, community organization, school,Êor responsible corporation that's stood out this year for cleaning, beautifying, or protecting Austin's environment. For more info and applications, go to www.keepaustinbeautiful.org. Daniel Mottola
George Nash of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was on hand at last week's Travis Co. commissioners meeting to report success for now in eradicating a potential Asian gypsy moth problem. State officials captured a single moth in a trap 3 miles west of Oak Hill early this year. That's considered a potentially lethal problem for local agriculture, one that set state and federal intervention in motion. In March, agriculture officials began mating disruption in a 1-square-mile radius of where the moth was found, hoping to eradicate any possibility of a dangerous infestation, which could have led to a federal quarantine of goods out of the area. Recent trapping showed no signs of any additional moths. That means the county is "free and clear" for this year, with an additional trapping next year to guarantee the results. K.R.
Some of the toughest questions about the state's new business margins tax may come from the Austin technology sector. At a chamber luncheon last Tuesday, attorneys outlined some of the issues of the new tax, which was passed in the last special session but won't be collected until 2008. Those who deal in the area of intellectual property intangibles with plenty of outsourcing and no specific goods sold could be in a tax "no man's land," attorney Mark Vane told the group. With no rule-making occurring until next summer, there are plenty of question marks about what will be included and excluded in the final tax calculation. The tech industry also has to worry about the fact that research-and-development credits were erased when the existing franchise tax bill was supplanted with the new business tax, said attorney Carl Richie. That means the tech industry will be getting in line along with everybody else for a piece of the state's estimated $15.5 billion surplus. K.R.
More than two dozen state agencies are on deck to privatize their computer technology departments, but the lessons of a bungled outsourcing program at Health and Human Services are good reasons to delay signing the contracts, the Texas State Employees Union said Tuesday. The group is asking legislators to put the brakes on the deal, at least temporarily. The Department of Information Resources, the agency overseeing the massive switch, is rushing headlong into a potential disaster, union officials wrote to members of the Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations. "The planned signing of the contract is overly hasty and exposes Texas taxpayers to the danger of yet another costly high technology contracting boondoggle," TSEU stated. A.S.
Beyond City Limits
The city of Kyle is likely to be among the jurisdictions to support the Austin-San Antonio commuter rail proposal. At a presentation of the proposal last Tuesday night at Kyle City Hall, Kyle City Manager Tom Mattis and members of the City Council and Planning Commission were fairly receptive, despite the annual $1 million to $2 million price tag the commuter rail service might mean to the city once it's in operation. That money is likely to come from a tax-increment finance district that the city or county would set up around the commuter rail station, which would be located on a greenfield site just outside the Plum Creek subdivision on FM 1626. Mattis says the area around the station is ripe for development. The Kyle/Buda stop would be one of 15 passenger stops along the 112-mile corridor. The total cost, minus the cost of relocating the Union Pacific rail line off the MoPac line, is estimated at $612 million. That includes building another seven miles of new rail out to Georgetown. Mattis says Kyle is no stranger to tax-increment finance districts. Much of the recent city infrastructure, including enhanced gateway bridges and a new City Hall, was paid for through a TIF zone. If the rail district gets significant buy-in from the jurisdictions along the line, the Georgetown-to-Austin line could be in operation by 2012. K.R.
It looks like Gov. Rick Perry has run out of reasons why the state should continue its $1 million relationship with lobbyists tied to Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff. Clearly, the two lobby firms hired to do the state's bidding in Washington, the Federalist Group and Cassidy & Associates, won't hold much sway in the next Democratic-controlled Congress. Twelve Democratic members of Texas' congressional delegation have asked Perry to not only cancel the contract but to end the practice of hiring outside lobby firms altogether. Voters elect their delegates to represent the state's interests, not the special interests of the DeLay/Abramoff era, the Dems told Perry in a letter last week. The governor is said to have ordered a review of the lobby contract, but state House Democratic leader Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, says yanking the lobby deal should be a no-brainer, with or without a review. "Now that Democrats control Congress, [U.S. Rep] Chet Edwards is poised to become the most powerful member of the Texas delegation," said Dunnam. "One of these [state-hired] lobbyists has actually spent money trying to defeat Congressman Edwards. How can the governor justify spending taxpayer dollars on a lobby firm that actively campaigns against the most powerful member of the Texas delegation?" A.S.
Listen up, spring chicks. Medicare enrollees have through Dec. 31 "to change or add coverage to their current Medicare health and prescription drug plans," according to a press release from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. "Now is the time for Medicare beneficiaries to carefully review their current plan to see how changes may affect their costs and coverage in 2007, and then compare their plan to other options," says Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt in the release. "If they are satisfied their plan will meet their needs next year, they do not need to take any action to keep their coverage."ÊFor more info, call 800/Medicare, or see www.medicare.gov. Cheryl Smith
Researchers with the U.S.-based Rand Corporation told a rather cautionary tale last month with the release of "From Flood Control to Integrated Water Resource Management: Lessons for the Gulf Coast From Flooding in Other Places in the Last Sixty Years." After comparing four major flooding disasters the destruction of Vanport, Ore., when the Columbia River broke through a dike in 1948; the flooding of the Dutch province of Zeeland, when a huge storm overwhelmed sea walls in 1953; flooding of the upper Mississippi River region in 1993; and of the Yangtze River in 1998 they basically concluded that destruction in flood-prone regions can never completely be avoided, so rebuilding in such areas is, at times, not a smart option. "It has been the experience of history that sometimes you are better off conceding land to the water, because flooding will likely reoccur," lead author James Kahan told Reuters. "After a flood the temptation is to rebuild and re-create what was previously there, but that's not always the best idea." See the full report at www.rand.org/pubs/occasional_papers/OP164. C.S.