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Rocha death prompts more dialogue

Tuesday, July 19, 2005 by

HABLA requests hotline, website for APD to answer questions

In a different setting and at a considerably lower decibel level than an earlier community meeting, Austin Police Chief Stan Knee and other city officials met with several community groups last night to discuss relations between minorities and APD in the wake of the death of Daniel Rocha.

Monday’s forum, held at Austin Community College’s Eastview campus, was structured to allow a dialogue between city officials and groups such as the Hispanic Advocates and Business Leaders of Austin (HABLA), the Urban League, LULAC, the Greater Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and others. A crowd of about 250 attended.

An earlier forum, held in the Dove Springs neighborhood just days following the police shooting of an 18-year-old drug suspect, turned into an emotionally charged shouting match with little information exchanged. The sponsors of last night’s forum seemed determined to avoid that by only allowing written questions from the audience.

In addition to Knee, City Manager Toby Futrell, Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield, Austin Police Monitor Ashton Cumberbatch and APD Chaplain Rev. Nick Meyers were on the panel. Also attending, but not speaking, were Austin Mayor Will Wynn, County Judge Sam Biscoe, City Council Members Brewster McCracken, Lee Leffingwell and Jennifer Kim, and ACC Interim President Dr. Stephen Kinslow.

Following a presentation by the River City Youth Foundation, Knee outlined the general process by which “critical incidents” are handled by APD. He said each incident is handled in three ways.

“First is a criminal investigation to determine if any laws were broken,” he said. “Second, we investigate to see if any departmental policies or procedures were violated. And third, the incident is reviewed by the training division to assess the need for additional training for the officers involved in the incident.”

He said all critical incidents reports are forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office and presented to a grand jury.

Taking questions from the audience, via moderator James Aldrete, Knee answered several questions about the Rocha case:

The meeting lasted just under two hours, compared to almost six hours at Dove Springs, and seemed to impart a great deal of information. Eliza May with HABLA ended the session with requests to city officials to develop a hotline and a web site for the public to ask questions and get information about APD, and to work together with the community to continue to build better relations.

HABLA’s Robert Martinez said he hoped that Monday’s forum was only the beginning of many opportunities for dialogue between the groups and the city.

North Austin zoning: one up, one down

ZAP rejects zoning to allow cocktail lounge

Two proposed zoning changes on North Lamar Boulevard dominated the discussion at a recent meeting of the Zoning and Platting Commission. In both cases, members of the Walnut Creek Neighborhood Association urged the commission to reject the applicant’s request on the grounds that it would be harmful to the single-family neighborhoods a few blocks away from Lamar.

In the first case, bar owner Gale Johnson sought approval for CS-1-CO zoning to open a neighborhood tavern occupying about 3,600 square feet of a new shopping center on a currently-empty lot at 12509 North Lamar Blvd. Johnson already owns several other small cocktail lounges across the city, including two in the North Austin area. “I live in that immediate area, so it will be a very hands-on type operation,” he said. “My wife and I are very much in touch with these being close by.”

The agent for the shopping center project, Carol Stewart, said the lounge would occupy only a small portion of the 22,640 square foot shopping center and account for only a few hundred trips per day. “We believe that there’s not a plethora of CS-1 zoning in the area,” she said. “We have looked at the schools, hospitals, churches, and daycares, and made sure that it meets the 300 foot distance requirements. The proposal is to have food. However, they cannot guarantee that more than 51 percent of the sales would be food.”

Steward proposed limiting the 3,600 square foot area of the proposed cocktail lounge to GR development regulations, allowing the cocktail lounge as the only permitted CS-1 use.

But those proposed restrictions were not enough to satisfy members of the Walnut Creek Neighborhood Association, who said allowing a bar near the busy intersection of Parmer and I-35 would have a negative impact on traffic, especially given the proximity of Connally High School.

“This last spring, the APD Highway Enforcement Command named seven roads as hot spots because of the number of serious injury and deadly accidents occurring on these roads,” said Wayne Tobias, who listed Parmer Lane, North Lamar, and I-35. “It just doesn’t seem wise to allow a sports bar to be located where three of Austin’s most dangerous roadways come together. One may argue that the specific locations of the aforementioned hot spots are not near this location. But do we really need to put a catalyst in so that this area becomes a hot spot?”

Other neighbors were concerned about the impact on nearby Connally High School. “Most of the people that are leaving school are going to be passing this alcohol establishment on their way home,” said Scott Peterson of the Scofield Farms neighborhood. “Most of the students would be passing this establishment on their way to and from school.”

But Stewart told commissioners that the peak hours for the cocktail lounge would not coincide with the peak traffic for students and parents going to and from the high school. “While we understand the concerns of the neighborhood, we also believe that this property owner is entitled to a reasonable use of the property. As we’ve already noted there are two liquor stores in the area,” she said. “My client has been in business for 29 years in Austin. He has never been cited by the TABC.”

Commissioner Keith Jackson moved approval of a zoning change that was somewhat modified from what the applicant had requested, but would have still allowed for a cocktail lounge on the site. “There’s no doubt in my mind this is a GR site. It’s zoned GR now. By the same token, I’m not opposed to having a lounge of some sort that can be identifiable and enforced and maintained in a center,” he said. “If we can do it without zoning the entire tract CS-1, that’s my goal here.”

But Jackson’s motion failed on a vote of 3-5. “GR zoning is appropriate for this site, and that’s what it has,” said Commission Chair Betty Baker. “It’s a fair and reasonable use. I would hate to be coming in on I-35 and meet someone who came the wrong way. Traffic and alcohol historically do not mix.” After Jackson’s motion to approve the CS-1-CO zoning failed, the commission approved a motion to deny the zoning change for the site.

Grocery store OK, says ZAP

The other zoning case in the neighborhood involved an existing appliance repair shop at 11704 North Lamar. The lot also has a mobile home and two single-family homes. The owner, Mau Tran, was seeking a change from LR to GR to allow for future retail development. City staff recommended GR-CO zoning for the first 400 feet of the tract to allow for commercial development fronting Lamar, with the less intense LO-CO zoning on the remainder of the tract.

“What the applicant would like to do is take down the existing repair shop, which is an old, dilapidated building, and in exchange replace it with a grocery store or restaurant that would serve the Asian community,” said agent Allen Craig. “There are retail developments that are going in north and south of there that would serve the growing Asian community.” Craig’s only difference from the staff recommendation was that he requested general retail sales on the GR portion of the site.

Some neighbors supported the request. “We want to do what is best for the neighborhood,” said Rose Snyder. “To get something beautiful to replace something ugly, I don’t see how anybody could object to that. As far as traffic, it’s already there.”

But Tobias with the Walnut Creek Neighborhood disagreed. “This section of Lamar is a major road passing through neighborhoods. It should not be made a shopping thoroughfare surrounded by neighborhoods,” he said. He argued that the single-family neighborhoods needed protection from the encroachment of commercial development along the busy road. “It’s hard to put a finger on just one item that makes commercial businesses undesirable near a neighborhood. I’m sure it’s partly the ever-present traffic. It could also be their appearance. Many are no more than super-sized metal garages with parking lots built right out to the street. Residents in the neighborhood bordering North Lamar do not feel comfortable with what GR zoning brings, even with the designated restrictions.”

Other neighbors argued that more development on the site would lead to more runoff and more pollution in Walnut Creek, and that the commission should reject the proposed zoning change on those environmental grounds.

“I think any impact with regard to the wildlife would be covered by leaving the second tract LO,” countered Craig. “The issue here is the portion on Lamar.”

In order to propose her motion, Baker turned over the control of the meeting to Vice Chairman Joseph Martinez. On the first tract, closest to Lamar, Baker suggested granting GR-CO, with a list of prohibited uses as recommended by staff but added food sales as an allowable use, since the applicant had suggested that one possible use for the site might be a grocery store. For the second tract bordering Walnut Creek, Baker moved for LO zoning with a prohibition on any parking on that tract for uses that are on the tract closest to Lamar. Her motion also included a prohibition on any development within 100 feet of the centerline of Walnut Creek. These restrictions, she said, could help protect the creek while allowing the property owner to redevelop his land. “I’m trying to show some equity and fairness for the use of the property,” she said. “I feel it’s a fair and reasonable use.” The commission supported Baker’s motion, with only Commissioner Clarke Hammond opposed.

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

Another slow week . . . The days flow by like molasses but there’s still some activity at City Hall. It’s just not the kind that attracts a lot of attention. Council Member Brewster McCracken said Monday he was hoping to iron out some final points between the developers of the Gables at West Lake and their neighbors. The matter has been proceeding through various stages of negotiation for months . . . Today’s meetings . . . Mayor Will Wynn will host a roundtable discussion with business leaders and communications technology experts as part of a two-day conference celebrating the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. The discussion, which will be held in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall this afternoon, will focus on the need to build communications infrastructure worldwide. Timothy Finton, senior counselor for international communications and information policy at the State Department, will lead the discussion. The focus of the conference will be discussion of "The United Nations: Can it stand as a vital force in international politics?" Austin, an established leader in technology and the Internet, will host the 15th World Congress on Information Technology next May … The Zoning and Platting Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. . . The P lanning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances Committee will meet at 5:30pm at City Hall, Room 2016, EGRSO. . . The Resource Management Commission will meet at 6:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The open space subcommittee of the Bond Election Advisory Committee will meet at 11:30am in the third floor meeting room of City Hall . . . Benedict returns to Libertarian Party post . . . Former City Council candidate and campaign finance gadfly Wes Benedict has returned to his job as Executive Director of the Texas Libertarian Party. Benedict said Monday he is busy rounding up candidates for the November 2006 election.

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