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Candidates offer views of future

Monday, May 23, 2005 by

Clarke, Kim reach out to core supporters

The two candidates in the runoff for Place 3 on the Austin City Council sounded similar notes Sunday evening in a televised debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the city’s Ethics Review Commission. Margot Clarke and Jennifer Kim both stressed their commitment to environmental protection, desire to improve police-community relations, their support of local businesses, and opposition to subsidies or tax abatements for larger corporations.

"I'm concerned about the excessive reliance on tax incentives to create jobs," said Kim. "Because there's so much more that businesses find as a deciding factor in whether or not to locate. It's our quality of life, it's our environment, it's transportation, whether or not we have a railhead at our airport. Those practical things help all businesses, not just large corporations, all small businesses as well. So if we are going to use tax incentives, it has to be based on the merits, and there would have to be a compelling case, because the public doesn't support it. If we are going to use them we have to make sure it has widespread public support."

Clarke was even more critical of the city's current program for economic incentives. "We have yet to actually develop an incentive program that is clear and understandable to everyone, both businesses and the general public," she said. "While we have performance-based incentives now which are preferable to the tax giveaways that we might have seen in the past, it seems like our packages are just…every one comes along and springs fully formed by itself. We need to realize that businesses are going to want to come here, and save incentive packages for things that we definitely really want to be here…things like renewable energy interests, and media and high tech jobs, because that's what we've lost so many of."

Throughout the hour, both candidates stayed "on message," emphasizing the themes of their campaigns while answering the questions. Kim, for example, talked extensively about small business and affordable housing while stressing the role that taxes play in keeping Austin affordable. Clarke, on the other hand, emphasized the importance of community, neighborhood integrity and keeping Austin's unique character.

Clarke was clearly speaking to her base, which in the general election was the same group of central city voters who were instrumental in keeping Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman in office. Kim, who lacks an identified geographic base, aimed her remarks more toward the business community. But her comments were not necessarily directed toward the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which would like her to wholeheartedly support tax incentives. She also can be seen reaching out to young and minority voters, in particular.

The two candidates did diverge on two questions posed by moderators from the League of Women Voters regarding the long-range future of the Central Texas region. Both candidates were asked to identify the problems facing Austin's suburban neighborhoods and how to solve them. Kim identified the long commute times and high cost of central city housing as the two biggest issues. "We have very limited options for working and middle-class families who want to own a home," she said. "They're being priced out of our city. So we really need to look at how we can have more housing in our city that's in the $80,000 to $150,000 price range. We also have to be careful in our city spending to ensure that we are making property taxes as affordable as possible."

Clarke said the distance of those suburban residents contributed to a feeling of isolation. "I believe that the main problem facing the suburbs is the lack of connection, or a feeling of a lack of connection to the central city and the life of the city," she said. "I think they often feel like they were annexed whether they wanted to be or not, or they're not getting the proper attention for infrastructure needs. So I think that we need to work harder at reaching out to our more distant neighborhoods and bringing them into the process."

For the final question of the evening, the moderator called on the two to describe their vision of Austin in ten years. Kim focused on the city's changing demographics. "My vision is an Austin that has diversity. That's economic diversity, ethnic diversity, people of different political leanings, people from different walks of life…who can come together and really celebrate what we love about our city," she said. "I want Austin to be a place where people can have a home and afford to stay in their home, and build their family and raise their children, and also where people can be an entrepreneur and set out their own course and have a great idea and move forward and have a great company." Clarke's answer dealt more with the city's infrastructure and design than population. "Austin has changed so much in the years that I've been here, and yet it maintains a sense of character that is very special. I'm seeing an Austin in the future that still has that special character, and yet has moved into sort of a New Urbanism where we have new, vibrant, redeveloped neighborhood centers that are adjacent to older and more established neighborhoods," she said." "It's going to be a beautiful city, a modern city that still has Austin funky."

The one-hour debate will be re-broadcast on Channel 6 throughout the week. Early voting begins on Wednesday.

Council rejects historic zoning

Owner argues classification would prevent development

Architect Stephen Soward's plans for a new mixed-use project on the block bounded by 9th, Neches, 10th, and Red River streets got a favorable review from the Austin City Council on Thursday, despite an attempt to have a home on that block declared historic. The Council voted 5-1 to grant CBD Central Business District zoning for the site on first reading and to deny a proposal to grant historic zoning to the Orsay-Koch-Hegman House, which dates back to 1896. The house sits at 903 Neches.

The Zoning and Platting Commission back-initiated the historic zoning case in January. When the proposal went before the Historic Landmark Commission, it resulted in a 3-3 vote. The ZAP was more decisive when the case came back, voting 6-1 in April to support historic zoning.

ZAP Commission Chair Betty Baker testified at Thursday's Council hearing about the group's recommendation. "I don't think there's a question that the house is historic," she said, offering the Council some background on Henry Orsay (1834-1929), who originally owned the house. "He was a Union soldier who came here after the Civil War," she said. The Handbook of Texas Online describes Orsay as a Union soldier with the Sixth United States Cavalry who arrived in Austin in 1865, later serving as the chief clerk in the Texas Adjutant General's Office. "This is a tremendous opportunity to develop more history about the downtown area. I have watched the house for many years," Baker argued. "I'm very disappointed that it's been allowed to get in the shape that it's in. I certainly will not deny that, but I also cannot deny that the house is historic." Baker, who works for the Austin Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, is an expert on city’s historic structures.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky offered a different assessment of the home's historic value. He told the Council that while the home was indeed 110 years old, major modifications had been made in the 1940's. "I think that was one of the critical factors in the Landmark Commission's decision," he said, referring to the HLC's 3-3 split vote.

The condition of the home was also one of the arguments against historic zoning put forth by attorney Richard Suttle. "The house is in very bad shape. It's been added onto," he said. He also referred to a TV news report last week in which the home was described as "abandoned." The report, on KTBC-TV, focused on the efforts of Austin Police to arrest drug dealers in the downtown area. It portrayed the vacant structure as a haven for drug users.

Suttle also said the site had other complications, which would make it difficult to preserve the house. "There's a large tree on the tract. If you were to decide that the house needed to be saved, of course I think it's safe to say that the tree would probably need to be saved also," he said. "You end up basically writing this whole block off for any future development."

The Council voted 5-1 to reject historic zoning, with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman opposed and Council Member Danny Thomas off the dais. The same margin approved a separate motion to grant CBD-CO zoning for the tract. That zoning will allow Soward and his partners, Jimmy Nassour and Raymond Francis, to build a mixed-use complex called Neches Oak Tower. They hope to include a combination of residential, office, and retail uses.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

APA endorsement . . . Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield said last week that the APA PAC had endorsed City Council Place 3 candidate Jennifer Kim in her race against Margot Clarke. However, Sheffield said the group has no plans to raise funds to advertise that endorsement because of criticism the PAC got for taking money from developers to promote its slate for the May 7 election. However, he said the PAC is likely to make some kind of announcement about its endorsement of Kim before early voting starts on Wednesday . . . Strange bedfellows . . . Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) pushed House Bill 1036 out of the Senate on Friday, which would require metropolitan planning organization members to meet the same conflict-of-interest requirements as elected officials. After the vote, Barrientos joked that the Texas Conservative Coalition had supported him on the bill. “They’re ruining my reputation,” Barrientos joked from the floor . . . Today's meetings . . . The Historic Landmark Commission will meet at 7pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The Design Commission is scheduled to meet at 5:45pm in the Board and Commission room at City Hall . . . Humane Society hosts happy hour . . . the Austin Humane Society will host a happy hour from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. today at the Brown Bar, 201 West 8th Street. Appetizers from Gumbo’s are promised to give the party a New Orleans flair. For more information or to RSVP, call Helga at 837-7985 x 222 or email her at hdiaz@austinhumanesociety.org

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