Returning to a few of my favorite topics today: the overwhelming hubris and audacity of Uber, and the unholy alliance between charter schools and the development lobby.
Let's start with everyone's favorite multibillion-dollar frat house on wheels, Uber. Note in "Civics 101" this week that Uber and Lyft have organized a demonstration today at City Hall – six hours long, they hope – to, apparently, ask themselves to come back to town. Yes, having pulled out of Austin a month ago, after blowing $10 million in a failed electoral attempt to take over the legislative process, they're now spending more money to organize an AstroTurf campaign to plead for their return. Because they miss themselves so much.
They are indeed torn, wracked with indecision. It's classic tragedy, really: to be or not to be. They want to be here, in one of the best markets in the country – to keep us safe. But on the other hand, there's a moral principle at stake: a core duty not to bow to any laws that they don't write themselves. Alas! What shall they do? I wait with bated breath for the next installment.
I fear, however, that Uber may not be paying much attention to Austin right now, because they stepped into a much larger pile of camel dung this week. As reported by Dan Primack in Fortune magazine on June 2 – under the headline, "Uber's No Good, Very Bad Deal with Saudi Arabia" – "The ride-hailing giant disclosed last night that it has secured a whopping $3.5 billion investment from Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, and that PIF managing director Yasir Al Rumayyan will join its board of directors. ... To my knowledge, no other Silicon Valley startup has a director from the sovereign wealth fund of a repressive political regime" – one which, as Primack points out, "prohibits women from driving ... requires women to have male guardians [and] has sentenced men to jail ... for the "crime" of homosexuality – not to mention all of the harsh sentences, sometimes including death, for political protest." Other media has been even blunter; writing in Vox Media, Timothy B. Lee said: "By cozying up with Saudi Arabia, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is sending a clear signal that he intends to run Uber as an amoral profit-maximizing machine."
And speaking of amoral profit-maximizing machines, let's turn to the unholy alliance between charter schools and the development lobby. Richard Whittaker laid out the whole story last week ("A Level Playing Field," June 3), but briefly, there's a loophole created by overlapping state and local laws, by which charter schools in Austin are exempt from most development regulations, such as building setbacks and impervious cover limits – even though local public school districts are governed by agreements with the city, and state law mandates that charters be treated equally with traditional public schools. Some of the most powerful development interests in the city – led by David Armbrust – recognized this, began filing site plans for buildings that would never be allowed otherwise, and have been fighting a delaying action for about two years, to keep the loophole open as long as possible. Their time has finally just about run out, but at press time, Armbrust has wrung one more week's delay out of city staff, trying to hold on to one last concession: exemption from suburban impervious cover limits. There's no way that should happen, but meanwhile, the loophole stays open, and the site plans keep coming in. At last count, city development review staff estimated that there are between 20 and 50 charter school projects in the development pipeline, whose projects are going to be exempt under grandfathering from the city's development standards.
And now for some good news:
The Cool House Tour 2016 is this Sunday, June 12, showcasing some of the most energy-efficient and environmentally friendly homes in Austin and also helping the city of Austin and Austin Energy celebrate the 25th anniversary of the nation's first green building rating system. The self-guided tour is a benefit for the Texas Solar Energy Society, featuring eight homes, two multifamily communities, and an AE open house showcasing energy-saving programs. Buy tickets online for $20 through Saturday, or on-site on the day of the tour for $25. Full info at www.coolhousetour.com.
The Austin Parks and Recreation Department is starting a Summer Meals Program at select recreation centers and parks across town, in partnership with the Central Texas Food Bank's Summer Food Service Program, to help replace the free and reduced meals kids get during the school year. The rec centers are Cantu, Dittmar, Jordan, Givens, Gus Garcia, Metz, Zaragoza, Rosewood, South Austin, Brown, Dove Springs, Montopolis, and Turner Roberts, plus Bartholomew, Chestnut, Davis-White, Dick Nichols, Franklin, Garrison, Quail Creek, and Walnut Creek parks. Each will serve lunch, generally from noon-1pm, plus either breakfast or an afternoon snack, beginning June 13 in the rec centers, June 14 in the parks. For more info about other available resources, see www.centraltexasfoodbank.org.
Mobility Talks (and does show-and-tell). The city of Austin is hosting an informational get-together of local transportation agencies to provide information about the various agencies' services and projects in the Austin region, 1-4pm Tuesday, June 14, in the City Hall atrium. Staff from the city's Transportation Department, as well as from Capital Metro, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), and the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), will be available to answer questions, and explain what roles they all play in the overall mobility picture.
This overlaps with the 3pm City Council Mobility Committee meeting in council chambers, at which city staff will present the results of Mobility Talks, a city outreach initiative on transportation priorities.
The 23rd Annual Flag Day Parade and Celebration has become a local tradition, drawing scores of varied flags from around the world. It's Tuesday, June 14, starting at 6:15pm at the Hyde Park Market (aka the Flag Store), 45th & Duval St., and wending through North Hyde Park to the home of noted Austin vexillologist Jim Ellinger, who assures me that this remains the only Flag Day event in Austin.
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