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A conversation with

Monday, November 6, 2000 by

Council Member Danny Thomas

In Fact Daily: How have things been different than what you expected, and how have they been just like what you expected sitting on the Council and dealing with the city staff?

Council Member Danny Thomas: It’s been an eye opener. I’ve been educated pretty quickly (about the) issues that are going on in the city of Austin. It’s been enjoyable, and then I’ve had some setbacks.

IFD: What have you enjoyed the most?

DT: Being able to meet the needs of the people. (At) budget time… we were able to make sure that the funds were available for some of the programs that were really crying out for additional money, like after-school programs and East Side Story. Midnight basketball was able to come back to the table. Also, I was able to appropriate some money for KAZI(publicly funded African-American radio station), for the new transmitter

IFD: How much did they get?

DT: $70,000. They’re still working on it. The city manager is still trying to locate the funds. I think telecommunications might have some money for (them). We’ve got some things we’re going to try to get done under CAN (Community Action Network). Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman is working on that program, Janet’s House, through Youth Works. It’s for teenagers who get expelled from school—they help build houses. Most of the houses are located in Fort Branch, in East Austin.

IFD: What have you been disappointed with? DT: The bond package. I wanted to get a piece of it, like the mayor was talking about, the toolbox. We want to be able to utilize some of the ‘tools’ to get money for open space, parks and affordable housing.

IFD: Do you think the Prairie Grass Golf Course is going to pass? Do you have a good feeling about it?

DT: I like the program. The developers came here before I was elected to office and brought the proposal. It appears it would be beneficial to that area.

IFD: Let’s talk about Mueller redevelopment for a minute. Do you have any particular things you would like to get out of it, above and beyond what it would be if it were in another part of the city? Do you want any extra M/WBE (Minority and women’s business enterprise) participation?

DT: What I would want to see is based on what the community in that area wants. That was the purpose of it. There has been a proposal since 1995 that was dealing with affordable housing and businesses in that particular location. My concern is to make sure that we can start the master plan and make sure we have the input of the neighbors. For many years they were fighting the airport and now the airport is gone—and that’s city land. We need to utilize it to the best of our ability. Mueller has a great potential for contracts for M/WBE.

IFD: I gather from your press release that you are totally opposed to the land being swapped with Stratus.

DT: That’s not even a conversation item. A lot of people have the idea that (Stratus) can move the development quicker. But that land has been sitting out there for two years, so why are we in a rush to do it now? Let the community get involved. Have we asked the community how they feel about that?

IFD: The other day the Mayor spoke at a luncheon and he was asked a question about single-member districts. He said the city couldn’t have an election on that issue until August 2001, but that he was still in favor of it. Are you in favor of it?

DT: I’m in favor of a combination. I think I said that several times on the campaign trail. I believe that single-member districts would not be that beneficial. The reason why I said that is that I looked at the school districts and they’re single-member districts. And it isn’t working like it should be. I think of at-large and single-member districts together. The mayor’s position should be at-large.

IFD: Do you have numbers in mind?

DT: We can have too many numbers—I heard 15. I don’t believe that. I said when I was running that the at-large program will work. We just have to work together to make it work.

IFD: The one we have now?

DT: I think (what) we (Council Members) ought to do—like we do now most of the time—is pool our minds. We’re pretty close on the issues. They always say the African-American and the Hispanic are supposed to represent East Austin. But I represent the whole city. I don’t just represent East Austin. It appears there’s a lot more work in East Austin to be done than all over the city. If there was a vote for single-member districts as opposed to at-large, I’m going to stay right there (for at-large elections). Now, if there was a vote on how we were going to do the single-member districts, I would prefer to have a combination of single-member and at-large.

IFD: If we just had single-member districts there would be at least a possibility that no African-American would be elected. And I assume that’s the problem that you see, like the city's demographer said.

DT: That’s the main thing. And a lot of people are for them—but they wouldn’t necessarily be if they looked at how they break the districts down. East Austin is not just totally African-American and Hispanic any more. We have a multi-culture that holds everybody in. That’s the beautiful thing about East Austin—that everybody lives there. I’m 50 years old and I could say that about 25 years plus back there were a high number of African-Americans and Hispanics, but it’s not like that any more. I welcome anybody who wants to live in east Austin. Austin is a beautiful city. I just think we need to do some more beautification east of I-35, more work, more development. And we’re getting there.

IFD: What about the question of gentrification—pushing people out that already live there?

DT: That’s what we need to work on and make sure that in our development and our planning it doesn’t happen. How are we going to do that? Make sure that we educate our community when we come in to do our neighborhood planning. That was the biggest problem I had (Oct. 26, with requests for zoning changes in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood), although they say it’s been going on from three to five years. What is the big hurry now? All of a sudden, we’re in a hurry to do things. I even heard people say this after the meeting that the push was because we want to make sure that we can come in and do the light rail. The light rail is going to affect businesses and residences down in the Cesar Chavez area. That particular line is going to be on East 4th. My concern was that staff didn’t do completely what they were supposed to be doing. And the fact of gentrification is that if we do not take the time to educate the communities—let the people know what is going on—it might happen. I don’t want to see that. I don’t think anybody that lives east—southeast, northeast, central east wants to see that. That happened back in the 70’s. I don’t know if you remember. It was called urban renewal. What happened was that a lot of those homes on Rosewood Avenue, East 12th, down in Rosewood Park area, all the way out past Rosewood and Chicon to the Pleasant Valley Bridge (were taken out). Those people were moved further out east to another area where the homes were a little more expensive. And then if they purchased one, it put them in another bracket of house payments. Those are things we have to be very careful about.

IFD: Is there any particular thing that you can think of besides education that is going to help that situation?

DT: Education is one. Sitting down and taking the time to do proper planning—that could fall on education, too. Even in that particular neighborhood plan (Cesar Chavez), a lot of people I came into contact with about the situation, (said) there was a language barrier—a lot of people didn’t speak English. They didn’t really take the time to explain to them what they were actually doing with their properties. I think education would be one of them. Better planning. And make sure that the taxes are not raised to the point that it would push people out.

IFD: Now, how can we do that?

DT: It all depends on what’s coming into the neighborhood. It also depends on what we’re going to do in the rest of the city. We were blessed this time we didn’t have to raise taxes. But that’s not saying the school district isn’t going to raise taxes. We get taxed all over. The city hasn’t taxed the people as much.

IFD: Do you know what’s happening with the Bennett tract?

DT: They’re still trying to come to some kind of agreement. I think they’re still dealing with the height and density. I think the Guadalupe (Church) and the Ebenezer (Church) are still at the table. A lot of people are afraid about the businesses coming in. When Matt Mathias, the developer, came and spoke to me, I did tell him I would support him as long as it would benefit the community. Whether it’s hotels, malls, whatever, we need to make sure—not just verbally, but in writing—that those businesses are going to hire people who represent their community. Those are the things I think any developer that’s going to come in should make sure is in the package.

IFD: What’s happening with SCIP 2 housing project?

DT: It’s coming. Paul Hilgers and his staff gave me a presentation. I hope we can have it on the Council agenda on Nov. 30. I don’t know if Mr. (Hollywood) Henderson’s going to be in on that part—you remember he wanted to donate $1 million.

IFD: Right.

DT: Hilgers said he was working with him. He said he was going to send him a letter to explain the criteria to do that.

IFD: I saw that Mike Aulick from CAMPO said if light rail does not pass, they will have to enlarge I-35 to 10 lanes. He was talking about how much of the East side would be taken out by that, all the way from Ben White to at least Airport. That would include a lot of homes and businesses.

DT: It’s amazing that we play politics. I sit on the CAMPO board and I haven’t heard CAMPO talk about that until now. We have to really be careful—CAMPO, Capital Metro, TxDOT—I-35 is a problem anyway. But why would you take that much of east Austin and not go west of I-35? Just because you have a police department, just because you have businesses there? It can be widened both ways.

IFD: Right.

DT: So I assume that he’s going to move the center of I-35 east. I don’t think that would be wise. So why build SH 130? I don’t mind widening I-35, maybe two lanes on each side. But (10 lanes) do you know how many homes that would take?

IFD: No, but I assume it’s a lot . DT: That would take a lot of homes, and churches, businesses. That’s poor planning to me. When I get to the meeting next month I’ll let them know that. To me, that’s politics at its poorest. I’m for improving development all over the city.

IFD: Did you go to the Fortune 500 dinner? DT: No. That was my birthday. I have a twin sister and we celebrated at dinner.

IFD: Are you interested in Sand Beach?

DT: I am not interested in any executive sessions—period. I talked to their architect the other day. They are trying. But, like Mary Arnold says, it’s something we need to look at real closely. I haven’t made a decision on that. I know for a fact they need to follow our regulations, just like anybody else who wants to develop. I don’t know if we can win the lawsuit, but I don’t think they should be exempt. We made 200 S. Congress follow the rules. It’s not fair to do that to one and not another.

IFD: What else would you like to talk about?

DT: Things I want to do in 2001. I’m looking at the city contracts. I want to strengthen the M/WBE ordinance. I’m on that subcommittee. They’re crying out; they’re having problems. The prime contractor gets paid and the subs don’t get paid. I want to see what city legal can do that we’re not doing. That’s something that Council Member Alvarez and I requested. And The African-American contractors and the Asian contractors are suffering the most right now. I also want to make sure I stay on top of the oil companies cleaning up the tank farm.

No affordable housing for us,

Round Rock neighbors tell State

South Creek delivers petition to official

Dozens of residents of the South Creek subdivision in Round Rock told the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs at a Friday night hearing that thay do not want Red Hill Villas as a neighbor.

The crowd was smaller than expected—no more than 60—and not entirely uniform in its opposition to the affordable multi-family housing project off Gattis School Road in front of their neighborhood. While many speakers emphatically stated the complex had no place in South Creek, others said a new Planned Unit Development (PUD) agreement with the developer could allow them to support the project. The project manager told the agency he was willing to make concessions.

“We've always had a desire to build the best possible product we could on that site,” project manager Robert Kelly of the Hunt Building Corp. said. “We have offered to work with the neighborhood and we've put certain things on the table we would like to include in our project. I'm here to go on the record to the state—and to give the people who want my assurance—that the offer to do a PUD is still on the table.”

The PUD includes concessions to handle traffic, add amenities and provide a buffer zone between the Red Hill Villas and the 1,100 residents in the South Creek neighborhood.

Fiery speeches against additional development, however, drew the most applause from the audience. One resident talked about the risk of a repeat of the 1988 railroad car disaster behind the subdivision that sent the neighborhood to a school gymnasium for three days. Today, twice as many people reside in the subdivision.

Another homeowner, Verdell Jenkins, told the agency that the charge of racism against South Creek in the Red Hill Villas case was inaccurate. “I have nothing against low-income housing whatsoever,” Jenkins said. “I've lived in three major large cities, and I left all of them because of the many things you want to do here… put too many people in too small an area. The Hunt people have a right to build, but don't give them our tax money to build slums.” This comment drew the heaviest applause from the audience.

Robert Onion listened to all the speakers without comment. Onion, the loan officer in the agency's multifamily loan division, is handling the Red Hill Villas application. He has no power to take any action on the comments made at Friday's hearing. A court reporter recorded the hearing and a transcript will be presented to the agency's board.

The South Creek Neighborhood Association presented a petition with 592 signatures against the project and a copy of the Round Rock City Council resolution opposing the Red Hill Villas project. The Round Rock City Council asked the TDHCA to pull its support for $9.9 million in low-interest bonds on the project.

Red Hill Villas would not be the first affordable housing project in Round Rock underwritten by bond funds from TDHCA. The state agency provided a low-interest loan to the Meadow Ridge Apartments, located on Louis Henna Road. Onion said he had heard no complaints about Meadow Ridge since the project opened in 1998.

However, only 40 percent of the units at Meadow Ridge are set aside for affordable housing. New state guidelines require 100 percent of the 167 units in Red Hill Villas be set aside for families who earn between $26,000 and $36,000

The loan to the El Paso-based Hunt Building Corp., owned by UT Regent Woody Hunt, is not a “done deal.” The company has until Dec. 13 to get approval from the necessary state agencies on its loan application. That includes both TDHCA and the Texas Bond Review Board. If not, the bonds will go to the next eligible project on the state's list. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs has a $165 million pool of bonds for multi-family affordable housing among developers across the state.

The Hunt Building Corp's loan application must meet the approval of two state agencies this month, Onion said. The finance committee of TDHCA will consider the loan and review the transcript of Friday’s hearing at their meeting on Nov. 9 and 10. If approved, the loan application will go to the Texas Bond Review Board the following week for approval.

“I certainly cannot speak for what a nine-member board may or may not do,” said Onion after the Round Rock hearing. “I know that public input is very important to the board. I know they want to hear this type of dialogue in their decision-making process.”

The comments made at Friday night's hearing are not unlike those made at other hearings on affordable housing projects, Onion said. The state agency's board will consider all information and testimony on the project, as well as the demographics of the area and the demand for affordable housing in Round Rock. Resolutions of non-support from a local government, said Onion, would be taken “very seriously.”

Most residents who addressed Onion spoke of the heavy traffic along Gattis School Road and the fact that many of them have to wait as long as 20 minutes to turn onto South Creek Boulevard into their subdivision. Many considered traffic to be one of the chief concerns for opposing the Red Hill Villas project. Others suggested that low-income housing for the elderly might be a more appropriate use of the property.

But there was also was a smattering of support for the project. South Creek resident Lisa Pohlmeyer said she had reviewed the site plan. Pohlmeyer owns her own rental property in Georgetown and admitted that at $850 per month in rent, her own property would be considered affordable housing by the state.

“I have seen better site plans, and I've seen worse,” Pohlmeyer said of Red Hill Villas. “The concessions the developer wants to make are more than acceptable.”

Even those who supported the project, however, said they were not happy with the approach Hunt Building Corp. had used with the community. Pohlmeyer said Hunt Building Corp. had been arrogant. The developer had blindsided the community, she said, and should have worked with the neighborhood sooner.

Single mother Kim Jones came to speak in favor of the project after a number of speakers said the complex would bring crime to the neighborhood. Jones said she was the type of person they feared—someone who had been on welfare in the past and was now trying to make ends meet on a limited income. Teachers, firefighters and policeman are all on salaries that would qualify for affordable housing, Jones said.

“They talk about ‘those kind of people’ in their neighborhood. Do I look like a thief?” Jones asked Onion.“I would like to see the people take off their blinders and see us for who we are. We care about a good place to live. We care about getting our children the best education possible, too… We can't pay high rent and still save money to buy a house. Why don't you give us the chance to be like the people in South Creek with a house of our own? Please accept the diversity this brings and welcome it.”

The speaker who followed Jones said (Jones) did not live in the South Creek neighborhood and should not have a say in the Red Hill Villas application.

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

New help . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher has hired a new executive assistant, Tina Bui (pronounced Bowie, like the knife). Former aide Ramona Perrault will be departing Austin this week for Portland, Oregon. Bui, a student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, says she has finished most of her course work and plans to graduate in the spring . . . Changing tactics . . . Since the Board of Adjustment denied Congregation Beth Israel’s request for a variance to build an administration office, a school building and a parking garage, members have now requested a zoning change. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 10, 2000) Richard Suttle, attorney for the congregation, said he has requested a conditional overlay that would eliminate uses other than religious assembly, education or daycare on the property. The synagogue is at 3901 Shoal Creek Boulevard . . . Forget City Council . . . Join celebrity chefs and area merchants in a holiday taste event and auction benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Thursday starting at 5:30 p.m. in the atrium of the Downtown Omni Hotel. Call 338-1744 for ticket information.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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