Run for Shelter

Fronting and woofing at City Hall

During a bitter and sometimes rowdy session last Thursday, the City Council took its first major step toward relocating the decaying Town Lake Animal Center from West Cesar Chavez (on Town Lake) to the Levander Loop site, at Airport Boulevard and U.S. 183 in East Austin. While the move was supported by some animal-advocate groups, it faced vocal opposition from others and from Eastside residents, who claim the city acted in bad faith by failing to consult with them, and called for the new site to be used instead for affordable housing.

As initially moved by Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley and seconded by Mayor Will Wynn, council's plan would have designated the Levander Loop site (on the new Health and Human Services Department campus) the shelter's new, larger home and instructed the city manager's office to begin planning for the construction. The council would then close the existing animal shelter, which has been commended in its last four state inspections for the quality of its staff but called "an embarrassment to the City" for its small, unsuitable, and ill-maintained facilities. However, after a 2½-hour debate rife with allegations of corruption and claims of lying on nearly all sides, an amended version of the resolution passed 6-1 (with Mike Martinez voting no).

As amended by Lee Leffingwell, the planning for the move to East Austin is to continue, but without the complete closure of the current shelter. Instead, the city manager is instructed to look into the feasibility of converting the most usable structure at the Town Lake site, the Davenport building, into a smaller adoption center, with the rest of the site remaining dedicated parkland. This "satellite adoption center" plan, earlier proposed by Brewster McCrack­en, was supported by Jennifer Kim. She also suggested the city look into using a high-speed Internet connection to let visitors to the Davenport facility view animals at the HHSD campus. (The shelter's current website already enables this utility.)

Earlier in the week, Kim had joined with Martinez to co-sponsor – and then withdrew – another resolution that would have called for the current plans to be abandoned and a new site-search begun. As the sole "nay" vote on the amended resolution, Martinez said he was not dogmatically opposed to the move but is concerned about claims of a lack of sufficient public consultation. "It's not about whether we need an animal shelter, because we all agree we do," he said. "It's about whether the process is right."

Mayor Wynn had deliberately pushed back the hearing to a 6pm start to allow for more public attendance. For a nearly packed house, 140 citizens registered a position or to speak – approximately two-to-one against the move. To make the debate manageable (as is common practice), Wynn asked the two sides to agree to a half-hour time limit for each position, to be organized among themselves. They did so, but the arrangement eventually caused the anti-move faction to demand an extra 15 minutes – the time given to Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras to present the staff plans (they got three). In brief statements, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Austin Humane Society, Animal Trustees of Austin, and EmanciPet, as well as some East Austin residents, supported the new plan. They commended it, among other things, for providing enhanced facilities beyond a simple shelter, including a public dog-walking area and training facilities.

In response, Ryan Clinton, president of FixAustin.org (which promotes a more effective no-kill policy), argued that the existing shelter should be renovated in stages and kept near the West Austin site, where it is needed and wanted. (A speak-er for the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association briefly echoed Clinton.) Comparing the new shelter facility to the recently closed Holly Street Power Plant, he claimed it would be another official imposition on East Austin. (As the matter came to a vote, a baffled McCracken responded, "It's either great in both places or bad in both places.")

Eastside neighborhood activist Daniel Llanes accused the city of institutionalized racism, arguing that officials had shown bad faith by not consulting directly with the Govalle/Johnston Terrace Combined Neighborhood Planning Team. He also insisted council would not even be discussing the issue had it not been for a lawsuit filed Oct. 1 against the city by the opponents – OWANA, FixAustin, and People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources. Wynn responded that the public notice for the hearing had in fact been posted for council discussion a month earlier, in anticipation of the delivery of the architectural services contract. (Earlier, Wynn had argued at some length that the HHSD campus site had first been proposed in 2005 and that there had been plenty of public consultation, via the Citizens Advisory Bond Committee hearings, prior to the 2006 bond election that funded the move.) Although Llanes insisted the proposed site has always been designated for affordable housing, city zoning director Greg Guernsey reported that in fact, under the current neighborhood plan, the site is designated for a "civic purpose" – which would include the proposed shelter.

However, as Leffingwell noted as the vote took place, the process still remains far from complete. The shelter plan (which requires a conditional-use permit) still must go before the Planning Commission, and his amended resolution made the construction dependent on the feasibility of restoring the Davenport building to its new purpose. If this proves impossible, then we're likely back to what the withdrawn Kim-Martinez resolution called for: Dump the current proposal, and restart the whole process.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Town Lake Animal Center, City Council, FixAustin.org, Ryan Clinton, Daniel Llanes, PODER

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