News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere
Should the Transit Working Group be rechristened the Transit Sleeping Group? While gas prices skyrocket – and transit ridership correspondingly soars nationally – the city of Austin has stonewalled on getting new transit options before the voters. (By comparison, the Houston City Council last week approved an agreement for their Metropolitan Transit Authority to build five light-rail lines on Houston streets. Both Fort Worth and Dallas are planning downtown streetcar projects.) At the TWG's May 5 meeting – nearly eight weeks ago – the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization finally adopted a detailed Transportation Investment Decision Tree by which to evaluate transit proposals. Since then: silence. The city of Austin – supposedly hot to get CAMPO approval for a Downtown streetcar – had known for six months it would need to submit a detailed proposal. Yet it had no rough-draft proposal ready for review when the TWG was finally ready to receive it. And still doesn't. Council won't even take up the matter again until July 24. Where's the sense of urgency once championed by Mayor Will Wynn? Why isn't transit a priority of council as a whole? Why aren't the people being allowed the chance to green-light new transit choices in November? Despite CAMPO Chair Kirk Watson's cited TWG goal of increased "public transparency and accountability," the citizens have no good answers. Other than politics as usual. – Katherine Gregor
After tilting at landfills for what seems like eons, the Hutto Citizens Group may finally advance in its uphill quest to quell a plan by trash giant Waste Management of Texas Inc. to expand the Williamson Co. Regional Landfill 700 feet skyward and 373 acres out. HCG will host a public forum this week to "receive input regarding a proposed cure for the problems which continue to plague the ... landfill," according to an HCG press release. The proposed cure would be for the county to sell the landfill outright, provided "mandatory terms and conditions acceptable to the public are met," according to Jeff Maurice, chair of the HCG Landfill Committee. HCG recommends a 70-foot height limit, 1,000-foot buffer zones, mandatory recycling and composting, and space for public and commercial purposes. The specs echo the business model of Waste Management rival, Texas Disposal Systems, a vocal HCG ally. HCG acquired another powerful ally, the Hutto City Council, when WMI recently announced it would commence importing 100,000 tons of waste annually from Killeen to WilCo in its march to establish a regional garbage fiefdom. HCG has called for a mid-July workshop for city and county officials to hash out their trash issues. Privatizing the landfill is a relatively new idea, because, says Maurice, citizens have expected that, with public ownership, the county would ensure accountability in landfill design and operation. "Obviously, that theory didn't work," he said. The public forum is scheduled for 7pm, Monday, June 30, at Hutto Lutheran Church Parish Hall, 402 Church St. For more info, see www.huttocitizensgroup.org. – Patricia J. Ruland
Score one for Real Estate Council of Austin, zero for the Design Commission. City Council last week approved an updated planned unit development ordinance, which defines specific public-benefits criteria that a developer must meet to win "superior" PUD zoning. But staff softened the language on design criteria and some community benefits, in part to win the support of Real Estate Council of Austin representatives on a stakeholder group. For example, the already-mild affordable housing requirements were based on just the residential portion of a project, not the commercial and other mixed-use portions. On the dais, Brewster McCracken pushed through a last-minute change to allow calculation of affordable housing based on total units, not square feet – over Mike Martinez's heated objections to the developer-friendly concession. By contrast, council ignored late-entry Design Commission recommendations for changes. A Design Commission letter to council sent June 16 – they'd received the final ordinance only on June 13 – recommended that "a broad team of City reviewers (Transportation/Environmental/Planning/Affordable Housing/Neighborhood) should be assembled in order to review PUD proposals at the onset and assess their adherence to the larger goals of the city." It also set forth a recommended list of submittal requirements – a context analysis, an urban design plan, a 3-D model or similar study – and continued, "Requiring a more detailed submittal with focus on urban design ... will most likely result in zoning that can be deemed 'superior.'" Council turned a deaf ear. The real test will be in the application: Council reserved the case-by-case right to waive any aspect of the "superior" requirements it just defined. Projects currently in city review (but grandfathered): South Shore District PUD, Riverfield PUD, Dell Jewish Community Center, West 71 Office Park, and Wildflower Commons. – K.G.
Along with the record-setting heat of late comes record-setting energy use: According to an Austin Energy press release, the utility set an "all-time peak demand record" last week when it pumped 2,446 megawatts of electricity into Austin homes and businesses on Tuesday, June 17 – and then a day later, it beat its own record with a high of 2,461 MW, followed by yet a new high on Thursday of 2,466 MW. Most summers, such peak-demand records are set during peak-demand months – August and September. Not so this year. While not so delusional as to suggest customers turn off their air conditioners, AE does suggest turning off other things in an attempt to maintain the "generation reserve" of power so that we'll still have plenty of juice when the dreaded peak months do arrive. AE recommends turning off "any unused lights or appliances such as microwave ovens, televisions and VCR type equipment" between 3 and 7pm and adds, "If all 345,000 Austin Energy residential customers turned off just two 40-watt light bulbs, the energy saved would be sufficient to power 3,000 homes." Notably, such steps also save money on utility bills and help offset the need to build new power plants, which is nice. – Nora Ankrum
At Monday night's Design Commission meeting, longtime member and spiritual leader Girard Kinney announced that he will retire in July. As a commissioner, Kinney's role was to assist council "in developing public policy and to promote excellence in the design and development of the urban environment." Said Kinney, "Thank you for the privilege of having served on the Design Commission for 10 years." In not seeking reappointment, he cited a need to focus on his architectural practice after so many years of unpaid civic service. "Girard's tireless public service and advocacy for innovative design and planning principles will have a lasting impact as Austin develops. He has been a role model to the design community, and his voice on the Design Commission will be sorely missed," said fellow commissioner and architect Richard Weiss. Council is eliminating all "consensus" appointment positions, such as Kinney's, from all boards and commissions at the end of July; going forward, the groups will have just seven appointees, one from each council member. – K.G.