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Notes from the campaign trail

Wednesday, February 9, 2005 by

" in one place.

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Notes from the campaign trail:

Leffingwell touts experience, maturity

Last night, Lee Leffingwell, kicking off his campaign for City Council Place 1, stressed themes that are close to the hearts of most voters—environmental protection, preserving public safety services, protection of Austin neighborhoods and solutions to traffic congestion. Judging from the enthusiastic applause, the crowd of supporters at Nuevo Leon agreed.

Although he is making his first run for office at the age of 65, Leffingwell has experience with some of the city’s toughest problems and has convinced the police, fire and EMS employees’ associations that he’s the right candidate to succeed Daryl Slusher.

Talking about the need for a long-term perspective at City Hall, Leffingwell said he would work to “preserve as much open space as possible,” work to advance the goals of Envision Central Texas (ECT) and upgrade the city’s infrastructure. In embracing the compact, mixed-use development espoused by ECT and numerous urban planners, Leffingwell seems to be aligning himself—at least to some degree—with Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken.

He also praised neighborhood planning that was done in the Mueller redevelopment area and the central UT neighborhood plan.

“Everyone knows that the last few years have been difficult ones at City Hall from a budgetary perspective. Many General Fund services have been cut back dramatically,” he said. Voicing strong support for a new central library, Leffingwell said he also believes that the city should restore hours for branch libraries and beef up code enforcement.

In addition to helping small businesses, Leffingwell cited the need to bring in new employers, especially those involved in renewable energy.: He sees his age as an asset. “My candidacy really emphasizes the need for maturity and experience at City Hall. When I was a captain for Delta Airlines, I would sometimes greet passengers as they were getting on the airplane. Some were a little apprehensive about flying, especially when we were going to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night. Those passengers would frequently say to me, ‘Captain, I’m glad to see a little gray hair up there.’ Well, right now maybe the same thought applies to service on the Austin City Council—and I’m inclined to think it does.”

Leffingwell was elected chair of the city’s Environmental Board three times. The current chair, Mary Ruth Holder, introduced Leffingwell, praising his leadership skills, intelligence and respect for the public process. Leffingwell grew up in Austin, where he attended grade school, high school and college. He received a BS in Mechanical Engineering from UT in 1961, after which he joined the Navy as a pilot.

The other candidates in this race are Andrew Bucknall, James Paine and Casey Walker. None have mounted a campaign so far.

Dunkerley shindig this morning; Mayor working on ECT bond package

Council Member Betty Dunkerley will officially kick off her campaign from 10-11:30am this morning. Friends and supporters are encouraged to join her at Threadgill’s South, 301 W. Riverside Dr.

Speaking to the Save Barton Creek Association this week, Mayor Will Wynn said he hopes to move quickly on the Envision Central Texas bond package, which he proposed in late January. He said ECT has been “an honest broker” of ideas, with seven implementation committees, each of which had two co-chairs. He suggested that people from those committees could form offer advice to the city, like a citizens’ bond committee, since they are already familiar with the issues and community needs.

The Mayor said that he personally hopes that some of the land where the Green Water Treatment Plant now sits on Town Lake can one day be the home for the new central library. According to Wynn, the library would only take up one of the four acres which he previously proposed for redevelopment.

At one point, Wynn turned to Shudde Fath, one of Austin’s environmental matriarchs, and asked how she felt about moving the water treatment plant. He said he knew that a lot of environmentalists had guarded the plant as a symbolic link between preservation of B arton Springs and Austin’s drinking water supply. Fath replied that it was OK with her.

He was also enthusiastic about the future of Block 21, which sits directly north of the new City Hall. Wynn said Block 21 is the only downtown block not burdened with one of the following restrictions: the Capitol View Corridor; a height limitation; a historic structure or an alley. For that reason, he said, the land is quite valuable. “Theoretically, it’s the most developable block downtown.”

Wynn also envisions lengthening Nueces St., which currently dead ends at the water treatment plant, creating a continuous thoroughfare from MLK to Cesar Chavez. He compared it to Red River, the only other north-south downtown street to link the campus to Town Lake.

Terkel offers critique of design standards

The Real Estate Council of Austin’s preferences on commercial design standards differ sharply from proposed city staff recommendations, and RECA intends to hash out a “red line” version of the proposed design standards later this week.

Planner Katie Larsen told the Design Commission the proposed point matrix for design standards – both site plan and building design – was still a work in progress. Last night, Cencor’s Vice President Tom Terkel made his own presentation on design standards and said developments like the Arboretum, Village at Westlake and Central Park would all fail to meet the preferred urban design standards set out by the city.

Terkel said RECA was “ready to start tomorrow” to come together with the city to revamp the ordinance and meet somewhere in the middle. He said the city’s guidelines needed to be less prescriptive and more flexible to meet the topography, area and needs of the various parts of town where the development would be located.

“We’re interested parties that would like to attack revamping this, but to do it in a more site-specific way whenever that opportunity is afforded us,” Terkel said. “The people in the design and development community are vitally interested in seeing this end in a successful way and to elevate the quality of life in Austin.”

The Planning Commission will hold a second public hearing on the design standards two weeks from now. At last night’s meeting, Terkel said none of the proposals from city staff were bad ideas, but that a “one size fits all” approach failed to meet city needs. He said the city has tried to standardize its guidelines around the types of roadways in the city.

Terkel said he prefers a cafeteria-style “menu” of selections for commercial design. Asked by Chair Chris Riley what might be mandatory, Terkel said most developers agreed the city should implement more stringent regulations of signs in the city, possibly limiting them to monument signs everywhere but highways. Developers did not think the proposed guidelines had gone far enough to preserve landscaping.

In other points made to the Planning Commission, Terkel said:

Good design is a multi-layered process that should not start and end with a roadway. Topography, traffic patterns, relationship to neighborhoods, user demand and availability of utilities were all factors to take into consideration.

The definition of an “urban roadway” was too broad under the ordinance, providing no distinction between a rural road on the end of town and a street in the heart of the city. Only four roads are considered Hill Country Roads under the ordinance.

“Urbanism” dominates in the ordinance’s philosophy. There are places for urban development and places for suburban-type development. Suburban development is not bad and should not be considered “bad design” for all areas of the city.

Pedestrian orientation should not be forced on all areas of the city. Some areas are natural enclaves for pedestrians. Others are not. Pedestrian use should not be forced in areas where pedestrians don’t make sense and aren’t likely to go.

Atlanta may be a good example of using roads to drive development guidelines, but the city also spent $400 million on urban infrastructure. In many cases, it takes significant public participation – Terkel pointed to the $6.7 million the city spent on Cencor’s Triangle development – before real urban design guidelines can be used.

Commissioners Matt Hollon and Dave Sullivan expressed a commitment to the “ideal” of commercial design guidelines. Hollon said it would be difficult to convince him that the principles outlined by the staff were not good, long-term goals for city development.

The commercial design guidelines, which will be presented to Council for the first time in March, are the first step of a complete overhaul of the Austin’s development code. The city is heading to more urban “form-based” code guidelines as a way to bring together a more unified vision for city development.

Mayor asks public for help with Congress

Mayor Will Wynn made a public appeal Tuesday, calling on Central Texas voters to contact their representatives in Congress to voice concern over part of President Bush’s proposed federal budget. The Mayor warned of devastating consequences if Congress approves the President’s request to cut funding from the Community Development Block Grants administered through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“I am fully cognizant of the record federal budget deficit,” Mayor Wynn said, noting that Austin city leaders had been forced to make their own tough budget decisions in the past few years. “I’ve worn these shoes. I know about difficult budget decisions and painful cuts. But I’m here to tell you these are the wrong cuts. As a result of the President’s proposed budget, Austin could lose up to half its CDBG funds, up to $4 million worth.”

The federal government allocates the Community Development Block Grants to cities to funnel into a variety of projects and services. While those funds are used by Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office to help private sector builders develop affordable housing, several non-profit and community groups which provide a variety of social services receive part of the money. “We have used these funds to improve individual houses. We have used them for architectural barrier removal programs,” the Mayor said. “We have used these funds for crime victims, for victims of child abuse or spousal abuse.”

While the White House budget proposal calls for restructuring the CDBG program to prevent communities from relying too much on federal funds, the Mayor argued that Austin has done an extraordinary job of leveraging those funds to obtain the maximum result for every dollar spent. Cutting the program now, he said, would leave an irreparable gap. “I propose to you as the community, as citizens, to contact our Congressional delegation and help Congress to restore this part of our budget,” he concluded, vowing also to work with leaders in other cities to send a clear message to Capitol Hill.

Representatives of dozens of non-profit groups that receive CDBG funds joined the Mayor at the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office on 11th Street to echo his concerns. “Most of our budget is paid with CDBG funds…and cutting funds like that would really be devastating to our agency,” said Sam Persley with the Austin Tenants Council.

“A lot of people who depend on us would be affected if the funds were cut,” said Grova Jones, Interim Executive Director of the Austin Area Urban League. She said her agency received nearly $1 million in CDBG funds. The money is used primarily to pay for home repairs for poor and elderly residents in East Austin. “It’s clients whose roofs are about to cave in, whose plumbing is backing up…these are their homes, but they don’t have the wherewithal to make those repairs,” she said. The impact of the proposed cuts on the Urban League, she said, would be “substantial. It hurts us, but it really hurts the Austin community and those individuals who need our service.”

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Today’s meetings . . . The Solid Waste Advisory Commission is scheduled to meet at 6:30pm at Waller Creek Plaza room 105. On the agenda is discussion and possible creation of an independent planning task force to develop a comprehensive 20- to 30-year plan for Solid Waste Services. The Telecommunications Commission will meet at 7pm at City Hall in room 1101. They will hold a public hearing on the upcoming request for proposals for public access television management services for channels 10, 11, and 16 . . . Meltzer wins big judgement . . . Former Mayoral candidate Brad Meltzer won a $6 million verdict yesterday against Western Heritage Insurance Company. Bill Reid, Jason Collins and Lisa Tsai represented Meltzer, who sued when the insurance company refused to pay for damage to his affordable housing projects. Reid said the two apartment complexes were damaged during a lengthy rainstorm in 2001. The company refused to pay, claiming that the property had been in poor condition prior to the storm. Western Heritage’s attorney did not return phone calls asking for his comment.

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