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Alvarez, who has the environmental vote, unveils plan for neighborhoods

Monday, March 27, 2000 by

Alvarez campaign cranking while chief opponent Quintanilla lags behind

City Council candidate Raul Alvarez has released a plan for protecting Austin neighborhoods that includes hiring a neighborhood liaison officer who would report directly to the council. Alvarez announced his plan at a campaign party in the Clarksville neighborhood this weekend. "In terms of information, resources and opportunities to participate in specific development decisions, I support hiring a neighborhood ombudsperson to advocate on behalf of neighborhoods," Alvarez said. Alvarez told In Fact Daily that he envisions an office similar to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission's Office of Public Interest Counsel. Employees of that office represent the public interest before the commission. Alvarez said, "Because of all the development that's happening, we need to make sure there are some people (within city government) looking at the impact on neighborhoods." He said the current Office of Neighborhood Services should be made independent of the city manager's office.

In addition, Alvarez said, he would like the city to work with the Austin Independent School District to establish a Safe and Healthy Routes to School Program to identify street and sidewalk improvements that would make walking and bicycling to school safer and more attractive.

Alvarez said another important part of his plan to preserve Austin's neighborhoods would be to ensure that homeowners can continue to live in their homes. "We need to make sure that people who live in the neighborhoods are able to stay in the neighborhoods–so that the rising cost of housing isn't going to push people out of the neighborhoods," Alvarez said.

He said he would support limits on property taxes or tax abatements for low-income and longtime homeowners. In order to do that, he said, the city must seek a change in state law. Alvarez also said he supports an increase in the Austin Housing Opportunity Trust Fund. He said he would like the city to provide more incentives for development of small-scale, multifamily housing in the urban core. He said it is important to "make sure (new housing) is compatible with the existing neighborhood."

In discussing the city's development review process, Alvarez said, "We need to look at the public notice process to figure out how to make the notice clearer…and just have it go out earlier in the process because now you don't get it until the staff and the developer have come to some kind of agreement. So it's real hard to make changes once you get to that point." According to the city's web site, however, all property owners within 300 feet and registered neighborhood organizations are notified of zoning change applications "within 10 days of an application. In addition, these entities are again notified prior to public hearings. Signs are placed on all properties under zoning review."

Alvarez, who has a master's degree in urban planning, said, "We want to continue the neighborhood planning effort, but improve the process, so that people have a stronger say in the planning, approval and implementation of the plan. Even though we have all these neighborhood plans…there's all this talk about redevelopment plans around light rail stations (for example). We need to make sure neighborhoods are integrally involved in those processes." He said many neighborhoods don't have plans yet, but other "planning processes are ongoing and we need to make sure that neighborhoods are represented and that their concerns are addressed in the process."

The candidate noted that East 6th Street has become a candidate for intense redevelopment, saying, "We need to do an assessment of the infrastructure…to make sure that the sewer lines, the storm sewer system, the water lines, the electric utility lines are able to support all the development they're proposing, not just in East Austin but in any area where they're looking at intense commercial or mixed-use redevelopment," Alvarez said.

Alvarez, 33 years of age, is hoping to take the seat of retiring longtime Council Member Gus Garcia. Alvarez said he had received input and assistance on his plan from members of various neighborhood groups, including the Austin Neighborhoods Council.

Attorney Rafael Quintanilla, 53, who currently serves on the board of Austin Community College and has served in numerous community organizations, offers the strongest opposition to Alvarez' election. Also seeking the Place 2 seat are Gloria Mata Pennington, 62, who retired in January as the city's manager of senior services for the elderly; Monty Markland, 22, a UT student, part-time web designer, and conservative in the Young Republican mold; David "Breadman" Blakely, 78, who has twice run as a Republican for state representative; and Raymond Blanchette, 69, who ran for mayor in 1997, placing seventh in a field of eight.

Chamber's new VP for economic development touts Austin's strengths

Bob Levin one of Austin's enthusiastic boosters

According to conventional wisdom, most of the new folks moving to Austin are from California. But actually only about 2 percent of Austin's new residents are from San Jose or Los Angeles, while 34 percent of those moving here last year were from Texas, according to figures compiled by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Bob Levin, the chamber's new vice president for economic development, a paid staff position, says, "Certainly we've become a center of gravity in our state for venture capital." And Levin has more figures to back that up. Venture capital dollars invested in Austin soared from slightly more than $100 million in 1995 to $800 million last year. During the same time period, Levin says, venture capital investments grew from more than $200 million to just over $400 million in Dallas. At the same time, Houston's venture capital investments grew from about $100 million to about $250 million.

Levin, who moved to Austin from Vancouver, Washington, a suburb of Portland, Oregon, just five weeks ago, is already proud of the fact that Austin ranks second nationally–just behind San Jose, California–in number of companies receiving venture capital and total invested in 1999. Levin believes that the Texas Legislature will take note of Austin's rise in the new economy. Eventually, he said, legislators will decide, "We don't want to kill that golden goose. I have confidence–they're business people, many of them–and I think they want to do what's right for the State of Texas."

Other data gathered by the chamber shows that Austin experienced 80 percent growth–more than any other city in the country–in high-tech industry during the past decade. High-tech includes a long list of industries, not only semiconductors and electronics, but also motion picture production, industrial organic chemicals, plastics, drugs and more. "Even for communities that are having phenomenal growth in high-tech, Austin's the benchmark. We're blowing down the doors," Levin says.

Austin is only behind San Jose in the number of patents issued per year, worldwide, Levin says. People working in San Jose received 2,863 patents in 1999. At the same time, Austinites received 1,895 patents. The next nearest competitors were Raleigh-Durham at 885 patents, and Denver-Boulder at 860.

Another statistic that Levin likes to point out is that cargo shipments from Austin lingered below the 100 million pound level from 1989 through 1992, but have risen steadily since, passing 250 million pounds last year. "Could we do better? Should we do better?" he asks. The number of nonstop flights from Austin has doubled since 1991. "So, we're slowly moving in a direction that will enable us to become an international gateway someday. We're not there yet, by any stretch of the imagination. But certainly, from all the indicators, Austin is on everybody's radar screen right now. Levin said that local exporters are poised to increase trade in both South America and Asia. "That's where we'll be able to expand," he says.

Austinites are experiencing some traffic problems, Levin says, but expressed as a travel rate index–a "congestion index" for lay people–we are doing better than San Jose, Portland, Seattle and Phoenix, Arizona. That index for Austin is 1.23, while the same index for Seattle is 1.43, according to figures the chamber got from the Texas Transportation Institute. Levin says, "We already know (traffic is) bad. You get on I-35 and during certain hours of the day you don't move. Well, guess what? During certain hours of the day in Seattle you don't move on I-5. But in Austin maybe you don't move from 7 to 9 a.m. and then again from 3 to 7 p.m. In Seattle (on I-5), you don't move from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. and then you start moving again until noon. And then you stop, and you don't move from noon until 8 in the evening. It's terrible. I know because I've lived there," he says. "Everybody uses the freeway as an arterial. Last year Seattle passed the single largest bond package in this country's history for light rail."

Air quality is an important issue for Levin, who calls Austin's recent move into nonattainment status (although not officially declared yet by the federal government) "unacceptable. Costs associated with nonattainment will severely impact not only our quality of life, but our future competitiveness as well."

So what effect do those few Californians have on Austin's economy? The 623 people who moved here from San Jose last year had an average salary of $69,000, the chamber says. But the 604 new residents from the Los Angeles-Long Beach area had an average salary of $26,601–below the average of Dallas, which topped $28,000. The 1,308 people the chamber was able to count who moved to Austin from the border areas had salaries averaging less than $16,000 per year. The average for everyone moving into Austin, according to the chamber was $21,610. All the figures quoted in this story may be found in the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce publication, the 2000 State of the Regional Economy.

Home Depot still on hold…Attorney Richard Suttle of Armbrust Brown & Davis, who represents Home Depot in the hardware giant's quest to locate at Woodward and I-35, tells us he expects the matter to be postponed by City Council once again this week. The rezoning request was not recommended by the Planning Commission, after hearing protests from neighbors in Travis Heights. Suttle said his client would not oppose the neighborhood's request to postpone the item until at least April 13… Many postponements…Because council members could see that they would be spending many hours on the settlement agreement with the Bradley Interests last week, they postponed public hearings, as well as action, on eight changes to the city's Land Development Code. Many of the postponed ordinance changes came out of the city's effort to implement Smart Growth ideas. These will come back to the council April 6, including changes relating to construction on slopes in urban watersheds and impervious cover calculations and assumptions… Quintanilla holds fund-raiser…Attorney Rafael Quintanilla, candidate for City Council Place 2, will be having a reception at the Metropolitan Club, 600 Congress from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday. For info call 477-2311… Money for nothing…No, we're not talking about old the rock-'n'-roll song. We're talking about Mayor Kirk Watson's campaign that sucking up cash like he was going to have a meaningful challenger. Watson's campaign manager, Barbara Rush, tells In Fact Daily that the campaign picked up about $12,000 to $15,000 for the mayor's birthday fund-raiser at the Broken Spoke last Wednesday, bringing the tally to roughly $118,000. While this is a far cry from the $749,000 Watson raised in his first campaign of 1997, not to mention the $65,000 he kicked in on top of that, with only cabdriver Dale Reed and homeless cross-dressers Albert Leslie Cochran and Jennifer Lauren Gale for opponents this time around, hizzoner will have cash to burn.

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