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No decision yet on which vision of Rainey St. prevails

Friday, November 5, 2004 by

The Austin City Council – faced with a 3-3 impasse on the issue of how to redevelop Rainey Street– has chosen to move forward with two different alternatives for further consideration.

The strategy to redevelop Rainey Street has pitted two factions of the City Council against each other. On one side stand Council Members Raul Alvarez, Jackie Goodman and Danny Thomas, who want to ensure affordable housing and control the type of development that comes into the neighborhood. On the other side are Council Members Betty Dunkerley, Brewster McCracken and Mayor Will Wynn, who are less inclined to enact restrictions and controls which are opposed by area property owners. Council Member Daryl Slusher, who could have broken the tie in this case, chose to recuse himself because he has family ties to a Rainey Street homeowner.

The development strategy will come through amendments to the Town Lake Waterfront Overlay, which already limits some types of development. Understanding the different viewpoints, it's no surprise each side came up with a different approach to Rainey Street.

Alvarez, who has always considered Rainey Street one of his issues, started with Central Business District zoning (CBD) and a height limit of 60 feet. Applicants who could meet certain standards on affordable housing, lakefront setbacks, building setbacks and height restrictions along River Street could add height, based on a standard 8-to-1 floor-to-area ratio allowed under CBD.

In a second tier of points proposed by Alvarez, a development would be awarded additional unnamed development incentives if it met certain urban design guidelines. In this way, Alvarez says, the city can maintain some controls over development and meet the guidelines set out in the 2000 neighborhood plan.

The second faction has a different approach. Dunkerley proposed straight CBD zoning as long as the conditions on trees and sidewalks could be met. Dunkerley would rely on existing code and market forces to drive desirable development. That proposal was more in line with the eventual staff recommendation on Rainey Street after homeowners asked the city to both simplify the zoning and provide good profits for all neighbors.

And McCracken proposed CBD with no height limitations, as long as the city could choose to exclude undesirable uses. The zoning could be written in such a way that low density uses, like a convenience store or single-story bank branch could be excluded for development. He was also concerned with the setback issue, given the feedback that setbacks could make shallow lots difficult to develop to an economically viable density.

Alvarez was not eager to add McCracken's proposal to the mix, fearing it would simply confuse a process already lacking consensus. Eventually, he did add McCracken's proposal to his own. City staff members will develop two different policies on Rainey Street development, taking both versions to the Planning Commission. The Council also agreed to zone eight properties in the area CBD on first reading. Presumably, by the time the properties come back on future readings, the revised waterfront overlay will apply to the properties, whichever way the Council chooses to go.

Council reacts to changing sleeping, panhandling ordinances

Austin Mayor Will Wynn sent a clear signal on Thursday that he is interested in new ordinances designed to improve the quality of life of downtown residents and visitors. The Council received a briefing on possible amendments to the city's ordinances governing behavior such as panhandling and sleeping in public.

Business owners and downtown residents both say they're noticing an increase in aggressive solicitation, or panhandling, and other activities that have the potential to scare away visitors and deter new residents. "My front yard is a downtown sidewalk and my backyard is a downtown city alley," said downtown resident Cid Galindo. "And like every other Austinite, I'm very concerned about what happens in my front yard and my backyard." Galindo presented a letter from the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association supporting the spirit of the possible changes presented by the staff. DANA is also urging the Council to pass an outright ban on panhandling within the Central Business District, citing similar bans passed by other cities that have withstood legal challenges.

The alternatives presented by the staff were not official recommendations, but merely starting points for discussion. Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza presented the results of the staff's study of regulations in four other comparably-sized cities, along with a caveat that not all of the policies put into place in other jurisdictions would be right for Austin. "A large part of it is the fact that the City of Austin is a compassionate community. It's hard for us to compare ourselves to some cities that, in my judgement are not as compassionate or as caring as the City of Austin."

The possible changes cover four areas: camping and sleeping in public, aggressive solicitation, sitting down or lying on the sidewalk, and roadside solicitation. The camping issue is one that has been well-discussed in Austin, with the city's attempt to impose new regulations four years ago being blocked by a judge. One possible change to the current ordinance would prohibit sleeping outdoors in the CBD once the person has been given a warning that sleeping is not allowed, essentially giving police and store owners the power to order people to move. Austin already has an ordinance governing aggressive solicitation, or panhandling, but city staffers said prohibiting solicitation throughout the city during certain hours could strengthen it. The city already has an ordinance to prevent people from blocking the sidewalk that's aimed at keeping people from sleeping on the sidewalk. One possible change to that rule is to prohibit anyone from sitting down or lying on the sidewalk regardless of whether or not they are blocking the path.

In Fact Daily his organization supports proposals presented by the staff Thursday afternoon. He said, "when you look at our previous public order ordinances, only one is working." Charlie Betts cited an ordinance prohibiting solicitation from the median within the central business district. " It works, " he said. When asked how many such medians there are downtown, however, he was unable to give a number.

According to Betts there is no enforcement of ordinances prohibiting either camping or blocking of a sidewalk and prohibiting panhandling. He said the only time an officer can enforce the sidewalk obstruction ordinance is when the sidewalk is only 6 feet wide and a person is obstructing the entire thing. He also said that the current anti-panhandling ordinance only prohibits " aggressive " panhandling and a police officer has to witness the panhandling in order to file a complaint.

When asked whether it was true that there is no enforcement of these ordinances, Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield said, " We do the best we can. "

Betts said it is not the goal of the DAA to cause more people to be arrested. He said he believes that the new ordinances, which would include a warning prior to arresting persons sleeping on the street or blocking sidewalks, will make law enforcement easier.

Business owners who endorsed the changes outlined at the Council Meeting said they are not designed to punish the homeless. "For a lot of us, before we really looked at the issue, it seemed like the problem was the homeless," said Paul Silver, owner of 219 West. "Well, that's not the problem. What we realize is that the overwhelming majority of the people that are homeless are honorable people that are down on their luck. It just turns out there's a relatively small fraction of predators that sometimes are not even homeless. They actually may just be coming down there to take advantage of that homeless community. It is actually this very small group of people who are causing the problem."

But the debate among Council Members centered on the impact the new rules would have on the homeless population. Several Council Members expressed reservations about changing the rules on camping or sleeping in public. "For those people sleeping in the park downtown, is there room in the ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless) for anyone that we would find in such circumstances? I would think if there's a bed or a place inside to sleep available, then we're on a lot stronger ground prohibiting it outside," said Council Member Daryl Slusher.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she would be against amending the rule on obstructing the sidewalk, calling it an "extreme" suggestion. "For music venues, smokers go outside, and they do on occasion sit on the curb…under this item, technically, that would be against the law," she said, noting that police would have to enforce the ordinance equally for the homeless and nightclub customers alike.

Wynn said the current situation downtown was not tolerable, and offered to bring back some of the ordinance amendments at a later date for a Council vote. "Many of these issues have nothing to do with homelessness. But clearly there's an element that ties in to delivering services to the homeless community. So, clearly I'll be supportive of…and will perhaps even try to quarterback…bringing this item back in an appropriate way," he said, "and try to move forward and change what I think currently is an unacceptable dynamic, not only in our downtown but in many parts of our community."

Between now and then, city staff will work to provide additional information requested by Council Members, including the level of services for the homeless provided by the four other cities included in the staff analysis. Council Members also asked for an analysis of the sleeping capacity of the ARCH compared to the homeless population downtown, and details on crime statistics downtown and in the blocks immediately surrounding the ARCH.

After the briefing, Richard Troxell with " House the Homeless" told reporters that he believed the amendments being considered would have the effect of further criminalizing homelessness. Instead of punishing the homeless further for a situation beyond their control, Troxell said the city and business owners should work to raise the minimum wage, allowing more of the working poor to afford housing. "The very people that are pushing these ordinances are the people that are not paying wages that are adequate," he said. "All of these tax dollars and wasted police hours could be set aside if the business community took the challenge to become part of the Austin community, if they paid their workers better. We need to deal with affordable housing, health care, and pay our workers fair living wages."

During the briefing, Troxell and several of his supporters, wearing gags, stood along the back wall of the meeting room at the LCRA carrying large banners promoting their " Universal Living Wage" campaign. The were initially denied entry into the building by LCRA Rangers, who said the long canvas banners attached to large metal poles could block the aisles and were therefore a violation of the city's Fire Code. City Attorney David Smith approached Troxell offering to help resolve the situation. After a brief conference between Smith, City Manager Toby Futrell, and Troxell, Futrell was able to contact the appropriate staff in the Police and Fire Departments for advice. The demonstrators were eventually allowed inside the building, but had to roll up their banners while carrying them into and out of the facility.

Later in the day, Troxell received a proclamation for National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week, which will be November 14-20.

District moves cautiously into health care business

Taking over equipment and property formerly used in City of Austin and county clinics, the Travis County Hospital District is moving carefully into the health care delivery business. At last night’s meeting, district managers also discussed accepting the buildings and property that comprise the Brackenridge Hospital complex, but chose to wait until the city could clear up some questions about the deed transfer.

The board voted to accept a “bill of sale” listing all of the equipment used by the city and county to provide medical services or hospital care. According to interim District Director Jim Collins, there has been no independent verification that the list of materials provided is complete. The equipment included everything from desks and chairs to surgical equipment and X-ray machines.

“However, our acceptance of the bill of sale will not diminish our rights to ask the city to fulfill its obligations under the agreement if something that we should be getting is not on this list,” Collins told the board. “We can always go back to them and request conveyance of an item they were obligated to provide.”

The board also discussed accepting the transfer of a deed from the city for the land and buildings that comprise the Brackenridge Hospital complex. The facility is currently leased to Seton Healthcare Network, which operates the facility under contract.

Collins told the board that the city had prepared a “special warranty deed,” defining the property and the buildings on it. “Included in the papers is a survey of the property done by the city,” Collins said. “We have no verification that the survey is correct, but we also have no reason to suspect that there is any problem. We believe it conveys everything that has been leased to Seton.”

Some of the board members expressed concern about some exceptions and reservations listed on the deed, specifically that some items listed on the survey did not match those on a separate list attached to the deed. Collins—who doubles as the district’s attorney—said that any potential problems with the deed would transfer with it and the district would have to deal with them. However, he said that his inspection of the deed showed that it met all the legal requirements of the law creating the district.

Board members decided to table considering the deed until city staff could discuss some of their technical concerns.

In other action, the board heard a report from County Purchasing Agent Cyd Grimes, who noted that the job description for a permanent executive director had been posted on the county’s website, as well as on several websites aimed at health care administrators. She added that the district has already received about 20 resumes. Finally, Grimes presented the board a draft of a request for services for an employment consultant, who will assist the board in making a final hiring decision, possibly by the end of the year.

Recount announcement. . . House District 48 candidate, Democrat Kelly White, announced yesterday that she would be filing for a recount in her race against Republican Rep. Todd Baxter, who came out ahead Tuesday night by 171 votes. The Travis County Clerk’s Office reported via email yesterday that “in District 48, there is a maximum of 387 ballots that could possibly be eligible to be counted in this contest,” including 163 provisional ballots and 224 ballots mailed overseas. In the District 50 race, a maximum of 445 additional ballots could be eligible to be counted in this contest, including 189 overseas ballots. So, there seems a much greater possibility that Baxter’s House seat could change hands than that newly elected Democratic House District 50 Representative— Mark Strama—would lose to incumbent Rep. Jack Stick. Strama’s unofficial lead as of Tuesday night was 556 votes . . . Some zoning cases postponed. . . The City Council granted the Champion sisters a postponement on requests to change the zoning on a broad swath of land they own at the intersection of FM 2222 and Capitol of Texas Highway, as well as land on City Park Road. The owner of property at I-35 and Riverside also chose to postpone a hearing on his request for office and retail zoning . . . Some not . . . Richard Suttle pleaded with the Council not to postpone final approval for changes to PUD zoning on property at 1310 through 1314 West Parmer Lane. He said he and the neighborhood had reached agreement on all outstanding issues, but the neighborhood asked for a postponement at the last minute because they had not yet signed the Memorandum of Understanding, which was sent to them on October 15. The request was a surprise to him, arriving a few minutes before he left his office, Suttle said. He said his client, Continental Homes, had agreed to all the changes the neighborhood wanted—including roof color. Suttle explained that his client had a contractual obligation that would not wait until the next City Council meeting on November 18. After a short discussion, the Council left passage of the item on the consent agenda . . . Season starting early . . . Crews from Austin Energy will assemble the city’s biggest and most famous Christmas tree, the Zilker Tree of Lights today, suspending more than 3,000 lights on 39 streamers from the moonlight tower in Zilker Park. The tree lighting ceremony will be held on Sunday, December 5. An Austin Energy technician designed the Zilker Tree and the first lighting ceremony, held in 1965.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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