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Divided Commission puts off

Monday, October 1, 2001 by

Vote on HolIy Neighborhood Plan

Activists, property owners have different visions for area

Members of the new Planning Commission got their first look at the Holly Neighborhood Plan (NP) last week and decided the staff needed more input from neighborhood residents and the commission needed to hear more from those who had worked on the plan. The commission will take up the matter again on Oct. 10. On the previous evening, the Zoning and Platting Commission postponed making a decision on allowing a conditional use permit for a proposed telecommunications tower in the area because the Planning Commission was scheduled to act on the plan the following night. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 26, 2001)

The Holly NP is named after the Holly St. Power Plant, but the planning area runs from Town Lake on the west to Chicon on the east, and Pleasant Valley on the south to E. 7th St. on the north.

Several neighborhoods have had to deal with different factions that have diametrically opposed visions of the future. Disagreements have been most contentious in the planning areas east of I-35 dominated by Mexican-American residents. One obvious reason for the difficulties is that many residential tracts in East Austin are zoned for industrial or heavy commercial uses. The other reason is existing tension between eastside activists and business property owners. In some cases, the combatants live outside the neighborhood, but own businesses or rental property there. And finally, a recent zoning case in the area showed 16 interested neighborhood organizations. It is impossible to tell how many exist only on paper and how many members the real associations have. The first neighborhood speaker was Gavino Fernandez of the El Concilio political organization. He is chair of the Holly Neighborhood Planning Team and in that role was expected to speak in favor of the plan before the commission. His support was lukewarm, at best. He told commissioners, “Zoning has kept desirable business away from the area,” noting that he had hoped that Smart Growth might offer the area “an opportunity to mitigate (zoning problems that) denied us the quality of life some other neighborhoods enjoyed.” When asked whether he supported the plan, Fernandez replied, “I support the plan, but not all of the zoning. Where staff has designated LI (light industrial), we want to see housing built on some of those undeveloped, vacant properties.” He said he was especially interested in changing the zoning along the railroad right-of-way along 4th and 5th Streets.

Fernandez said the precincts of that neighborhood had voted against light rail. “We do not want rail running through this neighborhood . . . This is the bedrock of East Austin for the Mexican American community.”

Neighborhood planner Mario Flores, who has worked on the plan for the past 18 months, told the commission, “ The item (plan) that is here present today has been the item that the community voted for.”

Commissioner Dave Sullivan said that in his neighborhood, Clarksville, “There was broad support for the overall plan,” but not everyone supported all the elements of the plan.

Flores said, “In any group, there will be small groups that oppose (an idea), but these are specific items the neighborhood voted on. They overwhelmingly supported the downzoning of those LI to CS (commercial services).” Along Cesar Chavez, he said, the plan calls for CS-MU-CO.

Bill Stringer, who said he has owned a warehouse on E. 5th Street next to the Post Office since1979, spoke angrily about Fernandez. He said, “Gavino took his position with the understanding that he would present the plan of the consensus. He has tried very hard to harpoon this plan. We have worked through the hard areas and reached a consensus . . .” He said Fernandez was representing “his individual position, not the plan . . . It’s an insult to me as a member of the Planning team for him to sit here and misrepresent the plan.” Stringer said instead of trying to convert the railroad’s land, the property could be used to provide employment for the neighborhood.”

David Black, owner of an engine shop in the area, said, “I think the plan is well thought-out and addresses a lot of the basic issues.”

Activist and El Concilio member Paul Hernandez, who owns property in the neighborhood, was very critical of the plan. He pointed out that the city received only 82 responses to the plan ballot. Four percent of non-resident property owners and two percent of residents responded, he said, concluding, “The whole process is flawed.”

Sullivan said the response rate in his West Austin neighborhood was 10 percent, but Flores said the overall response rate from neighborhoods was only about 6 percent. He said he believes the number filling out ballots is not a true indicator of neighborhood participation because of the number of workshops the planning staff held to find out what residents wanted in the plan.

Commissioner Lydia Ortiz made a motion to approve the plan and Commissioner Chris Riley suggested an amendment for bicycle lanes and sidewalks, but Commissioner Sterling Lands said he could not support the motion with such low participation. He said he did not want to set a precedent of approving plans with such low numbers. Ortiz countered, “I don’t want to penalize the folks who worked for 18 months on this plan because we need to have a conversation on how to better this process.”

Lands was adamant. “It’s a joke for us to talk about this as a neighborhood plan.” Commissioner Silver Garza joined Lands, saying he too had concerns about community participation. “While I don’t have any problems with the plan, I have a hard time saying that these people speak for the neighborhood.”

Commissioner Cloteal Haynes made a substitute motion to postpone a decision for four weeks to ask neighborhood planners to make one last effort to get more participants. Sullivan made another motion to postpone for 2 weeks. He said he wanted to hear from more neighborhood leaders and more members of the neighborhood planning team.” In all of the other neighborhood plans, you have seen all of the other neighborhood leaders,” he said.

During the discussion, Ricardo Soliz, who has taken the job of neighborhood planning chief, told commissioners that they have a plan scheduled for each meeting through the end of the year, except for Oct. 10. The motion to postpone for four weeks was defeated 5-4, with Commissioners Ben Heimsath, Sullivan, Ortiz, Maggie Armstrong and Cynthia Medlin voting no. The motion to postpone for two weeks was approved on a vote of 6-3, with Heimsath, Ortiz and Medlin opposed.

Parks Board says no to

Extra turn lane for 24th St.

Members say convenience no reason to take parkland

The City Council may approve an extra turn lane off Lamar Boulevard onto Windsor/24th Street, but it won’t be with the blessing of the Parks and Recreation Board (PRB).

The city’s traffic department considers a second left turn lane off northbound Lamar onto 24th Street to be the best solution for the bottleneck created during evening rush hour. To make it happen, however, the city must take a sliver of park property along the east side of Lamar, where the Caswell Tennis Center property is located. Engineer Richard Kroger from the Transportation, Planning and Sustainability Department was at the board meeting last week to make his case for approval.

The Urban Transportation Commission recommended the road construction in May. But after some discussion, all PRB members but Board Member Clint Small voted against the project. Many, like Chair Rosemary Castleberry, were troubled by the thought the project would set a precedent for taking parkland for road projects.

“This would set a precedent of taking parkland; and that’s definitely one of the issues that I have with it,” Castleberry said during discussion. Board Members also agreed that traffic improvements alone was not an acceptable reason for such a decision.

“We cannot set a precedent, even if it’s a little piece of land,” said Board Member Rocky Medrano. “Sooner or later, they will come and get a little bigger piece of land. That may be the price that we have to pay, but I don’t feel good about approval.”

Board Member Mary Ruth Holder, who chaired the subcommittee that considered the project, said a number of issues had arisen during discussion. She pointed out that the project was not for safety, as originally stated, but for convenience. The Parks and Recreation Department (PRD) would also not be compensated for the sixth of an acre of land, since it would simply pass from one department to another, said Stuart Strong of the PRD. The subcommittee also disapproved of the removal of four large trees from the property—although the city pledged to save at least one of them.

The subcommittee voted down the use of parkland on the project, Holder told her colleagues. Other board members questioned whether adding another 12 feet to Lamar Boulevard was going to do anything to improve pedestrian safety in the area. Board Member Jeb Boyt, in particular, wanted to see pedestrians and cyclists integrated into the road plans.

“I am stunned seeing this significant capital improvement project that will be taking parkland for peak-hour traffic congestion and no proposal for doing the same thing for pedestrians who use this road seven days a week,” Boyt said. “I will vote down this use of parkland.”

Some on the subcommittee also questioned the lack of firm figures from an engineering model that would predict just what kind of impact the turn lane would have on area traffic, Holder said. Two Board Members agreed that 35th Street would make a more logical cut-through street to Mopac given the residential nature of the hilly two-lane Windsor Road.

Small, who grew up in the neighborhood near the intersection, was the lone holdout in favor of the project. He argued that the extra turn lane would mean improvement to three of the curbs, providing better crosswalks for area residents and students.

The City Council is expected to hold a hearing on the project Oct. 25.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Garcia announcing today . . . The apparent next mayor of Austin, former Council Member Gus Garcia, will formally announce his candidacy at noon today at Auditorium shores near the Gazebo . . . Empowerment zone meeting . . . The city will hold its third and final meeting on designating certain parts of East Austin a federal Empowerment Zone at 5:30pm today at the Rosewood-Zaragosa Neighborhood Center, 2802 Webberville Road. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development designates Empowerment Zones for historically disadvantaged areas. The designation means the area receives preferential treatment under some federal grant programs and incentives such as tax credits for hiring from the area . . . Dickinson-Hannig house meeting . . . The Historic Landmark Commission’s committee on the historic home of Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson is scheduled to meet at 2pm today at One Texas Center, Room 500 . . . Free workshop on crime and safety . . . The city’s Neighborhood Academy and the Office of Emergency Management are offering a free workshop on crime, public safety and responding to natural disasters. The workshop is scheduled for 9:30am to 12:30pm Saturday at the ACC Northridge Campus, 11928 Stonehollow Dr. in Room 4211. For more information, call 974-7668 or visit the city’s web site . . . News I must share with all of you, my friends . . . I received the following email message Sunday night. Alas, it arrived too late for me to do my part: “The President has asked that we unite for a common cause. Since the hard line Islamic people cannot stand nudity, and consider it a sin to see a naked woman that is not their wife, tonight at 7:00, all women should run out of their houses naked to help weed out the terrorists. The United States appreciates your efforts, and applauds you. God bless America.”

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