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The Planning Commission (PC) has approved, with only minor changes, the rezonings associated with the West University and North University portions of the Central Austin Neighborhood Plan as proposed by the city staff. The commission listened to dozens of individual home and property owners offer reasons why their properties should or should not be rezoned before endorsing the changes.

Tuesday, June 1, 2004 by

Several residents along San Pedro expressed concern about plans to rezone some properties from single family to multi family. The motion approved by the PC included an exception for two tracts on San Pedro recommended by staff for MF-4. Instead, the commission suggested SF4-A, a single-family zoning that allows for more density than SF-3 but fewer units than would be allowable under MF-4. Commissioner Dave Sullivan also added a provision dealing with two lots on Shoal Creek to allow LO-MU-NP zoning on land currently zoned SF-3.

"I really commend all the work that’s gone into this plan and all of the negotiating and compromising and creativity that has gone on and obviously continues to go on," said Commissioner Maggie Armstrong, "It really sounds like you’re making progress on your own to fine tune it."

The vote on the West University portion of the rezonings was 8-0-1, with Commissioner Cid Galindo abstaining. "I’m uncomfortable with the process and the degree of clarity of the information I’ve been able to distill through this process to make a decision on any one of these that I could justify if challenged in the future," he said. Galindo suggested taking up each of the hundreds of tracts as a separate motion. "I think each one of these ought to be voted on independently. I can’t support any one of the recommendations made in the motion, but I can support some of them. I can’t vote for and I can’t vote against."

But Commission Chair Chris Riley argued that individual tract votes traditionally had not been the PC’s procedure in the past, and he instead convinced other commissioners to stay with the format of considering one motion with amendments. "My comment is intended more to question the process we’ve gone through tonight for the past two or three hours," Galindo responded. "I hope that it’s something that as we address situations like this in the future, we can go through them a bit more methodically."

The PC also endorsed rezonings associated with the North University neighborhood, several of which were contested. "Again, after hearing the details, I strongly encourage negotiations to continue, because I think that there are some rough edges that can be smoothed off," said Armstrong, who made the motion to approve the staff recommendation. "I think that the staff recommendation captures a reasonable mid-point that we want to recommend to Council." A comment from Sullivan about allowing existing uses to continue prompted a series of questions from Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry, since the legal uses on one of the properties within the planning area were in dispute. The vote in favor of the rezonings was 7-0-1, with Commissioner Galindo again abstaining. Commissioner Niyanta Spelman recused herself from the vote. While she does not live in the North University area, she chose not to vote on the issue because of her proximity to the neighborhood.

The Central Austin Neighborhood Plan already has been presented to the City Council. The rezonings were sent back to the Planning Commission because of a notification error. The Council is scheduled to reconsider them on June 10.

The smoking ordinance passed by the Austin City Council last fall after months of debate goes into effect today. More than 100 bars, restaurants and nightclubs have applied for a smoking permit from the city while others are choosing to go entirely smoke-free in order to comply with the new rules.

Businesses that generate 70 percent or more of their revenue from the sale of alcohol, such as bars, can allow smoking throughout the establishment as long as no one under 18 is allowed to enter. Businesses such as restaurants, which receive less than 70 percent of their revenue from alcohol, can have smoking areas. But those must be separated from the rest of the establishment, and the ventilation system must prevent smoke from reaching other parts of the business. The third option, selected by some restaurants, is to prohibit smoking entirely. "From a public health perspective, that’s what we encourage," said Shannon Jones of the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

The Department has spent the past several weeks attempting to educate business owners about the particulars of the new rule. The effective date of the ordinance was postponed by the Council from May 1 to June 1 to allow businesses time to prepare for the change. "It’s been quite hectic," said Jones. "We’ve conducted at least three public meetings. We’ve had several one-on-one sessions with vendors. We’ve sent out literature. We’ve been quite busy."

Enforcement of the new rules will be handled by the Health Department and will be complaint driven. "Citizens who see violations or who have complaints can call the Health Department, and we will respond," Jones said. The Health Department will also check compliance with the ordinance as part of its routine inspections of restaurants. Businesses likely will receive a warning on their first offense, but Jones said the department will quickly take the appropriate legal steps to ensure the ordinance is being followed.

Beverly Silas hopes to make a change for the enhancement of her community, but also a change in how she’s going to be living her life. Silas will go from being the founding executive director of Envision Central Texas (ECT) to a student at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

"I’m going to be a sponge," Silas said of her impending graduate study. She said she is not sure what particular field of public affairs she will pursue in seeking her master’s and doctorate from the prestigious Austin graduate school. Silas said the name, "public affairs," says it all.

Silas, 55, grew up in Houston and moved to Austin to go to school in 1966. Starting out as a service representative, she built a 32-year career working for Southwestern Bell Corporation (SBC). She was the first ever African-American woman in Texas "promoted from a first level, inside-management position to a second level, outside-management position," she pointed out, explaining that outside work includes installation and repair. She said that during her tenure with SBC she saw the entire telecommunications industry change drastically. Silas has been honored many times—including the 2002 Award of Merit from the National Women of Achievement—and she served on the board of trustees at Austin Community College.

"One of the things I highly value about Southwestern Bell is the training," Silas said. She did her undergraduate work on SBC’s tuition program for employees at Austin’s own Huston-Tillotson College, earning a Bachelor Degree in Public Management. Silas retired from SBC in 2000.

Silas said ECT’s former president, Mark Hazelwood, asked her whether she might want to attend a meeting to see if she had any interest in joining the board. Hazelwood sent Silas an email back in October 2001 detailing the group being formed.

"I said, ‘Man, this is great,’" she said. "This is such a wonderful opportunity. I’d love to do this." She said she was thrilled to know that the region’s future growth had already been targeted for a closer look. But Silas said that after perusing the email, she noted something at the bottom, that the planned organization was to be a non-profit, 501(c)(3), and that it was looking to hire an executive director.

"I called Mark back and said, ‘I don’t want to go to that meeting . . . I don’t want to be on the board.’" Hazelwood initially was disappointed until Silas told him her real interest was in the director’s post.

Silas was a bit concerned about any new job prospect, since she had been with SBC for so many years. "When you’re with a company for that long, you have no idea what your worth is out here in the rest of the world," Silas said, reflecting on how she decided what to do after retirement. "I enjoyed working with Southwestern Bell," she said, but she threw herself wholeheartedly into the director’s job for ECT.

Silas said that after a rapid-fire interview and selection process, she started work for ECT in December 2001. Silas is careful to chide folks that call what ECT is doing a plan. "It’s a vision, not a plan," she said.

"What we wanted to do was incorporate land use, transportation and the environment as a three-legged stool," she said, noting that each topic often gets considered alone. Silas said that ECT, with a lot of public input, has presented a vision that incorporates the three issues "interwoven, altogether, for the five-county region." The vision is an attempt to develop strategies for managing growth—dealing with the intense growth being experienced now, with plenty more to come, for Travis, Williamson, Hays, Caldwell and Bastrop counties.

Silas characterized ECT as an "umbrella involving all of the stakeholder groups . . . Sitting at the table you had developers, elected officials, environmentalists," among others. ECT is a sort of crossroads where all of the heavy political issues of Central Texas come together. Road builders, transit proponents and toll road advocates have all been involved to one degree or another.

Land use is a complex issue, Silas said, but certain questions are persistent. She said it is important to try to get a system where jobs and housing are closer to one another. Silas also said that a part of the decision was whether or not to develop over the aquifer. "How do you make sure you retain open space? What we did was, we have now developed a vision. The goal is to develop strategies on how to achieve that vision." Silas said that once those strategies are developed, ECT would share them with the various jurisdictions and ask that the strategies be adopted "as they go forward with their planning."

That vision considers both rail and toll roads. Silas said the traditional roads-versus-transit issue is more complicated in the public mind than the debate thus far implies. She pointed out that in July of 2000, when ECT conducted its 750-person telephone survey (150 from each county), people were asked whether they wanted mass transit or more roads, and they came down 51 percent to 49 in favor of roads. When ECT printed 650,000 surveys and distributed them in 31 publications across the region, they got 12,541 responses, "and people said the same thing." Silas called it the "largest town hall meeting ever conducted in Texas."

"People don’t want to have to choose. They want a combination . . . That’s what I favor, really—a mixture of both roads and transit." She added that folks in Travis County should take the concept of toll roads seriously. "They are not the be-all, end-all," she said, but they are a part of the answer to the transportation problem.

Asked what would be the greatest challenge for ECT in the future, Silas replied,

"Keeping all of the stakeholder groups at the table involved. The visioning part of this process has taken two and a half years and that’s a very long time to keep people engaged. One of the things that has made this visioning process successful is we have been able to keep the roads, people, environmentalists, the nonprofits, the business leaders and the elected officials at the table. Some of the board members are rotating off and new members are coming on…Now, since the focus will be on strategies for how to achieve that vision, the challenge will be to keep all of the same stakeholder groups at the table."

Silas added that she doesn’t have a magic formula for the next executive director.

Sounding a little anxious about the prospect of going back to school, Silas said she is looking forward to the changes. In her spare time, she enjoys golf, going to the movies and an early start on the day with a 5 a.m. walk each morning.

Appointed. . .Appointments by the City Council Thursday include: Firefighters’ and Police Officers’ Civil Service Commission, Gerald Henderson (Reappointment, Consensus); Human Rights Commission, J ames Eccles (Council Member Brewster McCracken), Delia Meyer (Council Member Raul Alvarez); MBE/WBE Advisory Committee, Sylvia Acevedo (Consensus); Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission, Rob Carruthers (Rappointment, Consensus). . . Aquifer Board. . . Board Members of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District have selected a new President. Dr. Bob Larsen will take over that position from Jim Camp, who is leaving the board at the end of his four-year term. The new board member for the Place 1 seat held by Camp will be Chuck Murphy, who was picked by the voters as part of the May 15 election. . . CAN Update. . .The City Council last week heard an update about efforts by the Community Action Network (CAN) from Executive Director Fred Butler. Council Member Raul Alvarez praised CAN for its focus on health and human services. Butler offered an update and took questions about the network’s activities. "We do have cause to celebrate," Butler said, mentioning the community overviews published to date, community forums on HIV-related issues and the city budget, along with forums on youth, aging, victims of violent crimes, and a mental health forum held recently. Butler stressed that CAN is a public-private partnership that requires "either concrete dollar support or the leveraging of dollars." Alvarez said it is difficult to measure the impact of CAN, but noted, "I think I’ve noticed a change." The council, Alvarez said, needs to "let people know that CAN is still out there. It’s still working."

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