Beside The Point

Conspicuous Consumption

Think you're rushed with the holidays approaching? Consider the busy shoppers at City Council, hurtling to the 2007 finish line. After today's meeting (Thurs­day, Dec. 6), there's only one meeting (Dec. 13) to go.

Last week's session was distinguished largely by its length: An upbeat update on the Austin Tech­nol­o­gy Incubator program, which helps nascent tech endeavors, drew a prolonged endorsement from sponsor Brewster McCrack­en and eye-rolls from his colleagues; the East Riverside Corridor Plan ate up the late afternoon, with council selecting New Jersey firm A. Nelessen Associates (over locals Casabella Architects) to do the work; a Tarrytown crowd crammed the chambers in opposition (mostly) to an Exposition Boulevard condo project, which council passed on first read after shrinking it slightly. If only we could shrink today's agenda.

Item 45 is a lobbying-reform effort from Lee Lef­fingwell. "It prohibits contact with council members and senior staff from the time a RFP [request for proposal] is issued to the time the award is made," says Double "L." If anyone's illicitly lobbying, that group is booted from the running; two violations, and you're barred from bidding for three years. Leffingwell believes it would fix more of a "perception problem" than any outright conflicts of interest: "It's so easy under this proposal to say, 'Sorry, I can't talk to you; I'm prohibited by this ordinance.'" Nothing personal, Richard Suttle! (Leffingwell promises "more in the works" on lobbying reform.)

Leffingwell's also the lead sponsor on a few other items: Item 47 hopes to fold the city's Public Safety and Emergency Management responders (airport police, Park Police, and city marshals) into the Austin Police Department over three years; as it'll have to be negotiated in both groups' contract talks, that's the plan, anyhow. While costing more initially – up to $6 million for the first few years – Leffingwell says it will save money over time, because of the unified budget. "But the overriding reason to do this," he says, "is to enhance public safety by having uniform hiring standards, uniform training, and unified command and control."

Item 49 splits that colicky baby called the Domain: While continuing to honor existing economic incentives and subsidies (under current attack in a petition drive), it also prevents any future Domain-like arrangements; "Project-based incentives for large scale mixed use projects [are] no longer necessary," the item states. "Those kind of things would go out the window," Leffing­well says. "The city now has a bunch of other tools to advance those kinds of projects," incentives such as the green-building program, commercial design standards, and other conservation programs.

Jennifer Kim's Item 48 prioritizes services for day-laborers and the homeless – two groups that would've been most affected by her now apparently abandoned tightening of the solicitation ordinance. "This is to really make sure we've got enough services and [are] helping [homeless] transition into jobs and housing," Kim says. That entails requesting additional state and federal funding, marketing day-labor centers, and updating data on the city's homeless populations. There's also a 2pm presentation and public hearing, technically to "consider an amendment to City Code ... related to solicitation." But Kim says any amendments are dead. "There is no staff recommendation," she says. "They're not bringing back a new ordinance because they listened to input – partially the Public Safety Task Force, partially my input. They decided that's not the right thing to do – and I agree." During the hearing, however, Kim hopes to address better enforcement of current laws.

Kim's Item 50 concerns the remodeling code. In order to prevent builders from gaming the system, or "basically doing new builds through incremental remodeling – saying 'OK, we'll do this half, then do the other half,'" Kim's introducing stricter remodel rules. Summarizing, Kim says remodelers can't remove more than 50% of exterior walls and must hew to the roof-line, horizontal and vertical lines – "otherwise, go for an additional permit, or brand-new building permit." If it shuts the Statesman up about Hyde Park garage apartments, we're all for it.

Also: The Downtown Austin Alliance presents its biannual survey at 10:30am, while, in other boosterism news, Will Wynn's Item 46 sinks $4.95 million in Block 21 proceeds – originally earmarked for the Austin Children's Museum, no longer moving in – into "hardscape and streetscape improvements" Down­town. That's if it passes – there should be a healthy debate over whether $5 million worth of sidewalks is judicious use of the funds. Lastly, regarding Block 21, Save Our Springs Alliance's Colin Clark writes in to say, "I can't help but notice the reserved parking across from City Hall for Stratus/Freeport Properties," referring to parking meters bagged and tagged for the corporate citizen. "I've been wondering if the 'free for Stratus' parking spots were part of the deal with the city from a few years back that gave Stratus Block 21 for $15 million, or was that an after-the-deal addition?" And to think, normally when you land on free parking, you're the one getting paid.

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City Council, Lee Leffingwell, Jennifer Kim, homelessness, solicitation, Downtown, Block 21, lobbying, Will Wynn

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