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Landmark Commission doesn't

Tuesday, July 24, 2001 by

Like 6th St. port-a-potty plan

Police trying to deal with public health problem

The historic and commercial aspects of Sixth Street collided at last night’s Historic Landmark Commission meeting when commissioners were asked to consider a permit for five port-a-potties on the east side of the 500 block of Trinity Street in the Sixth Street National Register Historic District.

Whether the Historic Landmark Commission even has jurisdiction over permits for items such as port-a-potties is still in question. The permit is limited to temporary installation, and as such is not under the purview of the commission. Thus, any recommendation they make would only be advisory in nature, commissioners were warned at last night’s meeting.

Even so, the Historic Landmark Commission did tackle the topic of public urination on Sixth Street. Commissioners certainly handled the delicate topic—referred to as UIPP—with some chagrin and a few chuckles. But everyone agreed with Austin Police Department Commander Harold Piatt that the problem along Sixth Street most weekends was a real and significant one.

Piatt called the public urination—often in alleys and on side streets—a public health issue. More than 200 tickets have recently been issued in the area. He told commissioners that city officials had no funds for permanent facilities and that downtown civic leaders offered to pay for the port-a-potties and their enclosure. Unfortunately for the commissioners, Austin police decided that the “hot spot” for the facilities was in the middle of a block considered one of the most historic in Austin.

“Your concerns are valid,” Chair Lauretta Dowd told Piatt. “I just question the placement of portable toilets in the district. You want to make sure the area is nice and safe, and we’re trying to do the same thing, just with a different set of values and criteria.”

Commissioners were provided with results from other cities with entertainment districts that had paid for self-cleaning kiosk toilets and the renovation of public buildings into restroom facilities. Speaker Sarah Crocker, who opposed the plan, said neighbors on her block in the French Quarter in New Orleans had had the same problems, and had even gone so far as to install motion-sensitive lighting that would turn on as soon as someone began the task at hand. That, said Crocker, tended to discourage people from that particular transgression.

About a half-dozen people in the audience spoke against the proposal, even as many of them supported the efforts of Austin police to clean up Sixth Street. Residents of the lofts just over the proposed site criticized the location as “an act of profound disrespect” for what was once a historic cotton depot. One neighbor complained it would “produce a concentration of body products beneath my kitchen.” Chris Riley, president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, said the choice of that specific location gave consideration to local businesses, but short shrift to the residents of Sixth Street.

Bill Shea, the owner of Maggie Mae’s, said he appreciated the efforts of police in the area, but had a hard time picturing a location that wouldn’t intrude on the walkways from the expanding Convention Center to Sixth Street. He added that it was “regrettable that we do have to do graduate potty training.” Police suggested that port-a-potties needed to be within easy walking distance of the nightclubs. Shea suggested a location at or near parking lots as an alternative to Sixth Street itself.

Commissioners struggled to suggest alternative sites outside the historic district. Officer Desiree Smith told them that the Trinity location was ideal because it was on a street that could be easily patrolled and controlled by police. Alleys on either side of the historic district were considered unsafe and not level enough to hold the portable facilities. Police also wanted to find a place that would avoid the points of entry for businesses. Commissioners expressed some doubt that five portable toilets could make a dent in the traffic, given police figures that 30,000 people could visit Sixth Street on a typical weekend night—when club capacity is only 15,000.

Dowd told Piatt she feared that the short-term portable toilets, intended to be a six-month test run, would turn into a permanent solution. She added that she would feel much more secure about a decision if the facilities were temporary, as in preceding construction of permanent facilities. “It’s a band-aid, but I think it’s a band-aid that is in real danger of becoming a permanent solution,” Dowd said.

Vice chair Lisa Laky offered a motion recommending that the permit be denied. She reiterated earlier comments from Commissioner Teresa Rabago that the commission, with or without the recommended denial, pass a strongly-worded resolution encouraging the city to consider permanent solutions to resolve the problem. It was appalling, Rabago said, to see the Austin Police Department turn into the potty police. The motion passed unanimously.

County TNR reorganization puts

Focus on programs, not precincts

New staff needed to address backlog

New leadership has given the county’s Transportation and Natural Resources Department a chance to reorganize its Planning and Engineering Services section ( PES, also called a department in county parlance).

Section director Robert Goode, who came to Travis County from Olympia, Washington, last September, presented the reorganization plan to commissioners last week. The reorganization will erase the division of services based on geographic lines and establish divisions based on the services provided, such as planning or traffic engineering. Other divisions will include capital improvements, real estate (right-of-way), development services and stormwater management/on-site septic facilities. Currently, PES has 57 full-time employees. The Transportation and Natural Resources Department has 328 employees.

“Instead of spreading our personnel among different services, we’re going to come from a program focus,” Goode said after the meeting. “Most organizations of our size can’t afford to be generalists any more. They need to be experts in their area.”

Goode said the reorganization was intended to address four themes expressed during a review of the department’s procedures and performance: traffic and drainage work orders were not being completed on a timely basis; constituents were not being contacted regularly as to the status of their concerns/complaints; communication with commissioners was irregular; and inspections of private development were not being completed consistently.

The reorganization will also mean new titles for some unfilled existing positions and the creation of the position of Environmental Project Manager for the Stormwater/On-Site Septic Program. The county’s human resources department is still reviewing the cost of the positions under the new titles, but Goode estimated it would be $80,000 in the first year and $62,000 in the second.

Given the difficulty in recruitment, Goode estimated it may be another three to four months before new positions are filled and another nine months or so before the reorganization makes a serious dent in the backlog of work orders.

Commissioner Margaret Gomez expressed concern that the county might lose sight of the geographic priorities that have already been determined, such as a need for drainage on the southeast side and bridges on the northeast side. She was assured those needs would be addressed under the reorganization. Goode said the department would be implementing a data tracking method to keep on top of those goals and that communication would continue between county staff and commissioner aides on specific projects.

The court approved the changes unanimously, with the caveat that the cost of the reorganization would be more fully apparent over the next two weeks. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner expressed confidence that some of the cost of the reorganization could be recouped because changes in state law now allow the county to reinstate fees for floodplain and driveway permits.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Studying Stratus plan . . . The Save Barton Creek Association last night appointed three of its board members— Jack Goodman, Mary Ann Neely and Ron Beal—to further investigate a proposal presented to the organization last week by Stratus CEO Beau Armstrong. The three plan to visit the Barton Creek subdivision to see what the company has done there and also study the plan Armstrong presented for development of Circle C . . . Squeaky wheel gets the grease. . . The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’ s fund-raising walk on the evening of September 15th will go ahead as scheduled. The society had heard that their Light The Night walk around Auditorium Shores would have to be moved or canceled because the city was limiting activities that might interfere with the ongoing construction there. But a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society volunteer e-mailed Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy with their concerns, and he began forwarding the message. Coincidentally, Light the Night Campaign Coordinator Becky Adam says they heard from city staffers on Monday that, “our event has been approved” and won’t have to be re-located or canceled. While there’s no proof that Levy’s e-mail played any role in that decision, it probably had more impact than the volunteer’s request for concerned citizens to contact the Austin City Council (the request listed Gus Garcia, Bill Spelman, and Willie Lewis as potential contacts). Although the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s event will take place as planned, Adam says she’s worried about other non-profit organizations that rely on fund-raising walks or runs at Auditorium Shores, including the March of Dimes According to a memo from directors of three departments involved in Auditorium Shores, “all formal activities on Auditorium Shores and all races, walks, and runs” which use the area will be relocated by the end of 2001 . . . Groundwater meeting . . . Travis County will conduct a public education meeting concerning the possibility of creating more groundwater conservation districts, especially in eastern Travis County. The meeting will be in the Manor High School Cafeteria, from 7- 9 p.m. Thursday. Manor High School is at 12700 Gregg Manor Road, just north of SH 290E. For more information, contact John Kuhl, Travis County Environmental Officer, 708-4629 or Dave Fowler, Travis County Natural Resources Department, 473-9383.

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