Proposed Animal Shelter Move Gets Community Howling
Plan to move ailing Town Lake Animal Center to East Austin creates strange bedfellows
What do no-kill-animal-shelter advocates, Eastside activists, and a West Austin neighborhood association have in common? For a constellation of reasons, including worries about affordable housing, Eastside self-determination, and not-in-my-back-yard neighborhood fears not to mention what might be best for the animals they all oppose moving the ailing Town Lake Animal Center to East Austin. While calling to mind that old adage about politics and strange bedfellows, the unlikely alliance magnifies simmering unease about Austin's animal shelter and control program.
Built some 50 years ago, the TLAC is inarguably outdated and inadequate. The city has quoted architectural assessments calling the shelter "functionally obsolete"; in heavy rains, outdoor kennels and parts of the office are prone to flooding. To rectify this, voters approved $12.1 million in bond dollars in November for a new building at 601 Airport, along an arterial Eastside jumble where Airport meets East Seventh, Ed Bluestein, and U.S. 183. Not coincidentally, it's also the new 44-acre home of the Austin/Travis Co. Health and Human Services campus. A development plan for the site posted on the city's website has the shelter incorporated into the HHS campus, along with walking trails and a sports field.
But the city's plans have Eastside community organization People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources unpredictably aligned with animal groups opposed to moving the TLAC there. PODER members appeared at City Council on June 7, demanding "human shelter" instead of the animal shelter specifically, an affordable, mixed-use housing project on the HHS campus. The shelter could be rebuilt at Town Lake, PODER's Daniel Llanes assured council, as the flooding was drainage-related and therefore remediable a statement attributable to PODER's new allies, no-kill animal advocates FixAustin.org.
FixAustin member Lorri Michel along with founder Ryan Clinton, one of the group's most vocal advocates says the flooding results from drainage issues at the site, not its floodplain location. "The flooding issue is a red herring," she says, a "correctable problem." To back this up, she cites a 2005 city of Austin project-budgeting form detailing costs of rebuilding the TLAC from scratch, specifically a $440,000 site work/landscaping line item that would raise the site above flood plain level.
At the June 7 meeting, Council Member Mike Martinez called PODER's position "at best disingenuous." Martinez had recently met with Llanes and Susana Almanza to discuss using the HHS campus green space and baseball field for affordable housing. "They wanted affordable housing on the site, not a baseball field; I got that," Martinez says. He felt they were working toward a mutually agreeable outcome by incorporating both housing and the animal center into the space, so PODER's protest last week, "portraying council as more interested in animal shelter than human shelter" was "a little bit insulting and very surprising," Martinez continues. "They're clearly being used by the group that doesn't want the animal shelter going East; they're buying into this whole thing."
Llanes says PODER changed positions after the flooding information cited by Michel right or wrong came to the group's attention. "When we went to Council Member Martinez, it was based on flawed material," Llanes says. The money can be more effectively spent rebuilding the site at Town Lake, he says, noting that the Eastside land was recently designated for civic purposes in the area's neighborhood plan.
Joining the Eastsiders is another unlikely ally: the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association. Michel is also active within OWANA; after her presentation, the neighborhood association voted to oppose moving the center. Michel concedes that neighborhood worries about dense development of the TLAC site may have factored into the group's decision; she cites the proposal to locate Austin's new federal courthouse there during the unsuccessful last-ditch attempt to save the Intel shell. "At OWANA, we are concerned that parkland [which TLAC is designated] won't stay parkland."
But talking to Michel, it's obvious that it's deep dissatisfaction with the TLAC management and failure of the city's ambitious no-kill millennium goals that drive her not NIMBY neighborhood association politics. "For the past seven years, since 2000, the kill rate and intake rates have remained virtually unchanged. Approximately 24,000 coming in and approximately 12,000 killed," she writes in an e-mail. "This is despite the doubling of the budget to $4.8 million over the same period of time." If the TLAC kill rate had lowered over time, the move would likely be drawing little ire from the animal community. With kill rates stagnant, however, FixAustin views a less centrally located shelter as another obstacle to adoptions.
All said, in the rabid realm of Austin animal politics where internecine warfare erupts with depressing regularity between groups with identical goals but different methods stranger alliances than FixAustin, PODER, and OWANA likely exist, even despite some uncomfortable rhetorical contradictions. (PODER sees the HHS campus land as great for housing, while FixAustin's website calls it "an industrial site on the eastern outskirts of town." PODER glibly and gratingly calls shelters faux-luxe "dog hotels," while animal advocates certainly don't.) In light of the opposition, Martinez says he welcomes a public hearing at the next Public Health and Human Services Subcommittee meeting to vet evidence against the relocation including the $440,000 floodplain remediation FixAustin says could keep the TLAC where it is. And once City Council returns from its upcoming break, Lee Leffingwell plans on creating a task force to determine how Austin's animal shelter and control practices stack up against nationwide best practices for, while the location of a sorely needed new shelter howls at the door, the issue of Austin's animal control program is also unlikely to heel anytime soon. p>
*Oops! The following correction ran in our June 22, 2007 issue: In the June 15 article "Proposed Animal Shelter Move Gets Community Howling" stated that City Council Member Lee Leffingwell plans to create a task force to study best nationwide practices for animal control. The group will actually take the form of a staff study, not a task force. The Chronicle regrets the error.