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Demographer says Austin would

Friday, October 19, 2001 by

Need 14 single-member districts

New commission grapples with population changes

Ryan Robinson, demographer for the City of Austin, laid out a surprising picture for members of the Charter Revision Commission this week. Because of integration of neighborhoods that once were heavily African-American and tremendous growth in the city’s Hispanic population, the city would need to have 14 single-member districts to ensure the election of an African-American to the City Council.

In order to encourage that result, Robinson explained, the African-American district should be drawn first. “We make that district as compact as possible,” he said, whether outlining 10, 12 or 14 districts.

Without saying that African-Americans would have less representation under single-member districts, Robinson explained how the city’s demographics make it difficult to draw a district that would guarantee election of an African-American. He told members of the new commission he was trying to “put together a voting block that maximizes the Black vote . . . We ran the model 22 or 23 times and you get the same answer every time. There’s only so many ways you can draw the map of District.1”—the African-American district.

Given the way that minorities have become integrated into the city, a 10-district scenario would mean that District 1 would be 39.2 percent Black and 44.3 percent Hispanic, Robinson said. A 12-district map would increase the percentage of African-Americans to 46.2 percent and Hispanics to 38.5 percent. Only at 14 districts would the percentage of African-Americans in that district be 50 percent—seen as the magic number.

Commissioner Ricky Bird said, “You’re saying for us to have a district dominated by African-Americans we would have to have a 14-member Council plus a mayor? We’re literally more than doubling the number of Council representatives.” Bird said he wanted copies of maps. Otherwise, he said, “people won’t believe me.”

With the huge increase in the Hispanic population and continued growth in the Asian population, Austin will become a majority minority city within the next two to four years. Austin is “one of the largest cities that still elects its City Council at large. It is the biggest” among cities that have almost a majority of minority population inhabitants, he said.

In terms of absolute numbers, he said, the African-American population has grown over the last 10 years. Within the next 10 to 15 years, he said, “We’ll reach another watershed event—we’ll have as many Asian-Americans as African-Americans,” making Austin “more like a West Coast city, or Northeast city.”

Assistant City Attorney John Steiner told the commission, “No change in any electoral law at all can be enforced until a federal authority has found that the change will not cause retrogression in ability of African-Americans and Hispanics to elect representatives. We won’t be able to implement it until the Department of Justice has found that there has not been a retrogression in ability of protected minorities to elect representatives of their choice. So, we’re going to have to do what Ryan has shown you and start with the district that is most difficult to draw.”

Commissioners are scheduled to meet again Monday to continue their study of elective alternatives. The City Council has asked them to report on conclusions reached by the previous Charter Revision Commission by Thanksgiving. That commission did not have the information provided by the 2000 census.

Poor single parents not welcome

Say Dessau Road area residents

ZAP Commission approves zoning change despite protests

More than 100 northeast Austin residents bombarded the Zoning and Platting Commission (ZAP) with reasons to oppose a zoning change for eight acres along Dessau Road. But commissioners decided to recommend the switch to allow thirty units to be built for single parents making 50 percent or less of the area’s median family income. The site would also include a daycare center and office. The vote came after a meeting punctuated by emotional outbursts from neighborhood residents upset over the commission’s decision.

The request came from Community Partnership for the Homeless, represented by attorney Michael J. Whellan of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody. Its plan is to develop the tract at 10300 Dessau with 30 “cottage-type” units ranging in size from 800 to 1250 square feet for use by single parents with school-aged children. According to Alison Schmidt, executive director of Community Partnership for the Homeless, the proposed on-site day care would be a critical part of the project. “The parents that we would be housing are concerned about their children and we feel they are deserving of the same safe, affordable, supportive neighborhood environment that many of us enjoy,” Schmidt said. “A lot of these single-parent families are facing great obstacles, one of the greatest of which is child care.”

The development’s possible impact on property values for surrounding homeowners received only a passing mention by those who spoke against the zoning change. Instead, current residents framed their opposition to the new development around the safety of the children that would live in those new homes, telling commissioners that there were several hazards in the neighborhood, including unsafe conditions along Dessau Road. “Those of us who live in the neighborhood are well aware of the dangers,” said Lester Johnson. “The stretch of Dessau along the property proposed for rezoning is a dangerous combination of steep grades, curves and blind spots.”

More than 15 residents spoke about traffic and pedestrian safety issues along Dessau, many of them linking their remarks during a slideshow presentation displaying the road’s current conditions. They told commissioners they would be concerned about additional traffic, and about the safety of children walking to school along the road. The nearest AISD elementary school is within 1.5 miles of the tract, so AISD is not required to offer bus pick-up and drop-off to any homes developed on the tract. Capital Metro recently changed its routes through the area, eliminating the nearest bus stop because of low ridership figures.

The applicants attempted to allay concerns about increased traffic by offering a conditional overlay limiting the property to no more than 2,000 trips per day. They also predicted that children living in the new homes would have the same ability to get to school as kids currently living in the area. “The parents, grandparents and guardians that live here will have to do exactly what the neighbors do with regard to their children: take care of them, watch them and do the right thing,” Whellan said. “I think that’s what we’re all about.”

Other residents focused their objection on the possibility of non-residential zoning. “The subject tract is surrounded by existing neighborhoods and residentially-zoned properties,” said Daniel McDonald of the North Acres Homeowners Association. “All of the areas are zoned either SF-2 or SF-3, although for many of them SF-1 would be more appropriate. The nearby neighborhoods are well-established, large-lot, older neighborhoods.” The applicants had requested LO-MU, to allow for the office for on-site staffers and the daycare center. Staff had recommended NO-MU-CO.

Another sore spot for neighbors was the existence of low-income housing in surrounding areas. “I understand you folks are supposed to be the Planning Commission,” Ron Torrey said. “When I look over my backyard fence, I’ve got 176 low-income units. You’re planning to put another 30 in, and there’s a proposal for another thousand on the other side of Dessau. I thought you people were supposed to plan and scatter this around the city. Creating an island of poverty in our neighborhoods will not serve us or our families”

Opponents of the zoning change packed the meeting room, occasionally breaking out in applause for one of their speakers. But the tone of the meeting shifted as commissioners began explaining why they would be voting in favor of the zoning change. During remarks by Commissioner Diana Castañeda, one man began shouting from the back of the meeting room. “I’m a homeowner, and I pay taxes,” he yelled, adding that that he had “already lived in one property that had been devalued.” Commission Chair Betty Baker refused to continue the meeting after the interruption and called for a 15- minute recess. When the meeting resumed, the security guard normally stationed in the lobby of One Texas Center was present along with two uniformed Austin police officers. However, many of the neighborhood residents had departed during the break, and the remainder of the discussion proceeded smoothly.

Upon reconvening the meeting, Baker explained that under the current SF-2 zoning, the property could actually be developed at a greater density than the thirty units over eight acres being proposed by Community Partnership for the Homeless, potentially bringing in more families and more traffic. She also told residents that the ZAP decision would not change conditions along Dessau. “The dip in Dessau Road, traffic, safety, they’re all important. But these things will remain with or without this development.” Commissioner Niyanta Spelman chose to address residents’ concerns about low-income housing. “I don’t think thirty units would create a pocket of poverty,” Spelman said. “These are all working people. They may be poor, but it doesn’t mean they’re criminal.”

The final vote in favor of the zoning change to NO-MU-CO was 8-1, with Commissioner Vincent Aldridge opposed. In addition to the conditional overlay to limit vehicle trips per day, the applicant also agreed to a restrictive covenant allowing the city to propose a zoning rollback to SF-2 if Community Partnership for the Homeless loses funding for the project and the 30 homes are not built. The site is within the City of Austin’s limited-purpose jurisdiction, and final authority over the change will rest with the City Council.

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2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Just in time . . . Austin residents may actually start to see some evidence of a mayoral campaign this weekend. Campaign signs for Gus Garcia are expected to begin showing up around town. Early voting for the mayoral and bond elections, as well as the election on proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution begin Monday . . . Those Prop 2 land sales . . . Real estate specialist Junie Plummer briefed the Environmental Board Wednesday night on the three Proposition 2 conservation easement tracts in northern Hays County that are up for sale. The tracts are on the market and open for sealed bid offers. All bids must be received by November 19, Plummer said. The tracts are known as McClure at 11218 Fitzhugh Road (182.9 acres), Bending Oaks at 10301 Hwy. 290 West (361.9 acres) and Paschall at 8517 Young Lane (143.4 acres). Proceeds from the sale will be deposited in the Water and Wastewater utility’s operating fund to repay a loan made for purchase of other land, such as Rutherford Ranch. Plummer told the board she would take the sealed bids to the City Council on Nov. 29. Board Member Tim Jones asked if it might be better to wait and sell the land when the real estate market cycles back into a more favorable position. But Plummer replied, “I think there’s an immediate need to see these debts are paid off” . . . MFAH presents great weekend films . . . If you’re headed to Houston for the weekend, you could check out “Rififi,” the 1954 French heist film, reputed to be one of the best of all time. Find more film and museum news at

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