Public Notice: Can Uber and Lyft Play Nice?
"If a business acts like it is above the law, it will pay a heavy price."
It's been a tough week for the Uber/Lyft forces pushing Proposition 1 on the May 7 city ballot. Aside from the embarrassing campaign finance filings (see "Campaign Finance Reports Shed Light on Prop 1 PAC Spending," April 15), the Austin Sierra Club Executive Committee voted last week "to oppose Uber and Lyft's attempt to circumvent regulations created by the City Council to protect the citizens of Austin. While the ballot measure itself is not directly related to issues of environmental importance, the ExCom decided to take a position because of the implications it has for future situations where private corporations may decide that our democratically elected officials are not making the right decisions for us." They went on to "urge Uber and Lyft to try again, and this time try playing nicely with the officials that we have elected to represent all of our interests."
And on April 7, news broke that Uber has been ordered to pay at least $10 million, and perhaps up to $25 million, in a settlement with San Francisco and Los Angeles over fake airport toll fees and misleading claims about the quality of its background checks.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said the decision "sends a clear message to all businesses, [that] laws designed to protect consumers cannot be ignored. If a business acts like it is above the law, it will pay a heavy price."
City Manager Marc Ott's secret job evaluation will continue in executive session at today's City Council meeting; that process got a little more uncomfortable Monday with the release of the city auditor's draft report on the Austin Code Department. Among other things, the report faulted the department's hiring and training practices, communications, and performance – and noted that many of the problems that were flagged as serious problems with core operational procedures in a 2010 audit remained unresolved six years later, despite a full reorganization under new Code Director Carl Smart, whom Ott brought on in 2011 from Fort Worth, where Ott had been assistant city manager (see Richard Whittaker's "Attempting to Comply," Sept. 30, 2011).
The Council's Audit and Finance Committee grilled Smart extensively on Monday; as you may recall, Council was upset with him for much of last year over his handling of short-term rental complaints and enforcement, but Ott has been steadfast in his support for his embattled department head. And of course, when push comes to shove, Council has no power to hire or fire any staff, except the city manager.
City Council has both the Lenox Oaks/Cactus Rose and One Two East zoning cases on its agenda this week, but don't expect much more than a postponement on either one. There doesn't appear to be much action on relocating the Cactus Rose mobile home park residents (seems it's harder to find subsistence-level housing than anyone thought; good to know), so Pio Renteria's request for more time is unlikely to get much resistance. But no one seems to doubt that this zoning change will eventually pass – nor to question whether it really is a net plus for affordability in Austin to tear down 50 deeply affordable rental units, to replace them with 356 mostly market-rate units, which might indeed be built somewhere else if they were not permitted to be built here. That's progress!
The One Two proposal for the corner of 12th and I-35 is a more complicated story. The developers, JH West 12th Street Partners, Ltd., are seeking a zoning change to allow a 185-foot height, instead of the 100- to 150-foot height that's allowed for the site. There's a long history to the negotiations that got the current zoning where it is, going back to 1991, so there's a lot of resistance in the surrounding neighborhoods to now giving a new set of entitlements based on another new plan. And while no one really opposes extra height in buildings directly along I-35, there's a lot to be wary of on the back side, where the proposed 185-foot height entitlement would directly face a neighborhood of small one- and two-story bungalows. As it stands, the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods and its seven individual member neighborhoods "oppose any increase in entitlements for this site." CM Ora Houston has compiled a lengthy list of questions on the Council's "Questions and Answers" page, mostly regarding the Branch Street side of the property. At press time Wednesday, staff had just posted a series of responses; expect Council to want some time to sort through those.
Mobility Talks conversations about transit priorities continue through April, with at least seven meet-ups this week at various locations, and also two Mobility Talks Live community meetings – open-house events featuring informational displays as well as facilitated, small-group discussions: Wed., April 20, 6-9pm, at Crockett High School, 5601 Manchaca Rd., and Sat., April 23, 2-5pm, at Northwest Rec. Center, 2913 Northland. See more info, or take a brief online survey, at www.mobilitytalks.org. The input will be presented to the City Council Mobility Committee on June 8.
The city's also hosting Austin Housing Plan Conversations, continuing around town through April. This week's are Tue., April 19, 6-8pm, at Little Walnut Creek Library, 835 W. Rundberg, and Wed., April 20, 6-8pm, at Spicewood Springs Library, 8637 Spicewood Springs Rd. www.austintexas.gov/housingplan.
The Heart of Austin Tour – Pease Park to Wooldridge Square: The Shoal Creek Conservancy and Friends of Wooldridge Square present a special springtime tour of historic civic spaces, starting from the south entrance to historic Pease Park (1100 Kingsbury), and including Duncan Park, the Heman Marion Sweatt Travis County Courthouse, the Austin History Center, and Wooldridge Square Park. Sat., April 16, 9am-noon. www.shoalcreekconservancy.org/events.