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Goodman: neighborhoods must change tactics

Monday, August 1, 2005 by

New faces at City Hall don't always know city's recent history

Austin’s neighborhoods have worked, organized, planned and used their political clout to chart the way the city has grown over much of the past two decades. But former Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman warned members of the Austin Neighborhoods Council that changing faces at City Hall means neighborhood leaders will have to change their approach to dealing with issues.

Goodman, a veteran of 12 years on the City Council and on the city Planning Commission and Parks and Recreation Board before that, noted that most people tend to have “five-minute memories” when it comes to how Austin came to be the way it is. She spoke last week before about 75 ANC members at their July monthly meeting.

“They don’t understand how you (the neighborhoods) put in so much work for so many years to reach a neighborhood plan that meets your needs,” she said. “Those of us who have been in the trenches understand, but the current City Council does not have a lot of members who came up through the system—the neighborhoods, the boards and commissions—and did the hard work at that level.”

Goodman said the turnover in city staff has the same effect, with new people coming into the system with no real sense of the history of how the current system of city planning was forged.

“In the past, the neighborhoods organized, planned, elected people from our ranks and gained a great deal of clout in the political system,” she said. “That is no longer the case. Neighborhood values are no longer prevalent at City Hall. It has become the neighborhoods versus the business interests.”

There was a time when neighborhood groups could go before Council, explain their position on a zoning case or an ordinance and be assured of getting a sympathetic hearing, Goodman said.

“What the neighborhoods used to do was have all their information laid out for the Council, show them why a proposed answer to a problem would not work, and generally get a sympathetic ear,” Goodman said. “But the current Council is not that way anymore. They may have a zoning proposal in front of them that – to them – seems like a perfectly good idea, and they don’t understand why the neighborhood is opposed. A new restaurant or business may dump traffic or excess parking onto neighborhood streets, but the Council members just don’t get it. All they see is a way to get the project done.”

Goodman says that just as the political landscape in Austin has evolved, neighborhoods must also evolve in their approach to dealing with Council members and city staff.

“You have to take a marketing approach,” Goodman said. “You are competing with high-dollar attorneys and consultants who have massive resources at their disposal to present their case. The neighborhoods must learn how to out-present them.”

One way, according to Goodman, is to forge a relationship with the Council members’ staff. These are the people who have the elected official’s ear, she said, and they are geared to present information to them in a way that they understand.

“You also need to learn to be concise in your presentations, whether it is to staff of the Council,” she said. “Giving them a long-winded history of your neighborhood plan will usually result in their eyes glazing over, and you’ve lost them. Give them pertinent facts. Present your case with good humor but little emotion. Use visuals such as PowerPoint or aerial views. You need to be able to make them understand the particulars of your neighborhood.”

Goodman says the image of neighborhoods is changing at City Hall

“There a bit of the attitude that what’s good for business is good for Austin. You need a new initiative to take back center stage,” she said. “There’s a lot of lessons we learned from growing up in the trenches, and one of them is that they need to understand the fundamentals of our issues in order to vote our way.”

Neighborhood leaders have to evolve in their thinking, she said, and take none of their assumptions about how to get things done for granted. They also need to be aware of how they are perceived.

“You can’t take anything for granted,” Goodman said. “We have to be one of the good guys again.”

Montopolis neighbors won't budge on complex

A month of discussions among property owners, neighbors, and Council Members has yielded no compromise for a proposed apartment complex at 1805 Frontier Valley Drive. The owners of the lot are seeking a zoning change from single family 2 (SF-2) to multi-family 3 (MF-3) to allow the construction of a 225-unit complex, while neighbors say the proposed density is too much for the area to handle, given the extensive number of apartment complexes nearby.

The Council voted 4-3 on first reading to support the change (See In Fact Daily, June 24, 2005), and neither faction seemed prepared to budge at the most recent meeting after their month-long hiatus. Council Member Raul Alvarez led the argument against granting the zoning change, citing opposition from neighborhood groups. “To come in and say ‘We can’t make this work unless we get five times the density that was allowed on the property when we purchased it’, I think, is kind of a ludicrous proposition,” he said. “It’s the kind of use the neighborhood doesn’t want to see, and we’ve heard from a lot more neighbors that don’t want this than we have from neighbors who do.”

Alvarez suggested allowing some increase in density on the site from the SF-2 regulations, modeling a proposal after a similar change granted in the neighborhood for a SMART Housing development. He offered an amendment to grant MF-3 zoning with a limit of 13 units per acre, but Council Member Brewster McCracken, who made the original motion to approve the change to MF-3 on second reading, did not accept it as a friendly amendment.

Annick Beaudet of Brown McCarroll, representing the Marbella Corporation, told Council Members the increased density was necessary to make sure the apartments would be affordable to people in the neighborhood. “One of the recommendations was to require SMART Housing at 65 percent of Median Family Income, instead of the current level of 80 percent. We looked at where the unit break was in order to exceed this expectation and provide 40 percent of the units at 60 percent MFI, and 225 units is where the break is,” she said. “We really want this project to be affordable.”

Council Member Jennifer Kim suggested an alternative zoning of SF-6 for the tract, allowing the developers to put in condos or townhomes. That would have allowed some increase in density while still providing for home ownership. “I appreciate the SF-6 suggestion, but the numbers at this point are not going to work for the project,” Beaudet responded. “With the fixed costs of the infrastructure, we don’t think even a marketable profit could be made with single-family because of the size of the tract. The tract beside it…had a lot more volume to work with, and it worked for them. On this small tract, the numbers just don’t work.”

The Council voted 4-3 to approve the requested zoning change on second reading, with Council Members Alvarez, Kim, and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas opposed.

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

Making a splash . . . Mayor Will Wynn’s much-publicized leap off the Pfluger Bridge into Town Lake for a movie being made here last week drew at least one comment during last week’s Council meeting. Property Consultant Jim Wittliff, before launching into his presentation on a zoning hearing, said that he would have awarded hizzoner a score of 9.5 on the dive, much higher than some others had given him. Without missing a beat, Wynn retorted: “It was that Oklahoma judge that dragged down my score.” We don’t know if the compliments on the mayor’s precipitous plunge helped Wittliff’s cause or not, but the Council did vote to approve his project . . . Meetings . . . The Board of Adjustment and Sign Review meets at 5:30pm at One Texas Center, Room 325. One the agenda are three public hearings on two residential properties and one commercial tract . . . The Art in Public Places Commission meets at 6pm in Room 2016 at City Hall. On the agenda is a discussion of the Second Street District Streetscape Improvement Project. . . . ACC and your tax dollars… The Austin Community College Board of Trustees meets at 6pm in the Highland Business Center, 5930 Middle Fiskville Road. Trustees are scheduled to begin discussions of and setting a series of public hearings on the 2005-06 tax rate for the district. . . . RRISD Interim candidates named . . . The Round Rock ISD Board of Trustees last week named three candidates for interim superintendent: Toni Garcia, executive director of learning support services for RRISD; Darla Regner, who retired from RRISD after serving in various campus and district administrative positions; and Linda Watkins, also retired from RRISD, who served for years as principal of Westwood High School. The board has scheduled a meeting on August 23, after a 21-day waiting period, to appoint one of the three. Until then, Dr. Steve Flores will serve as acting superintendent. A national search is being conducted to fill the superintendent vacancy, with the goal of naming a new superintendent before winter break. . . Bible curriculum opposed . . . The Texas Freedom Network Education Fund plans a news conference today to release a report that reveals an “error-riddled Bible curriculum that attempts to persuade students and teachers to adopt views that are held primarily within conservative Protestant circles.” TFN says that as many as 52 Texas public school districts and 1,000 high schools across the country are using an “aggressively marketed, blatantly sectarian Bible curriculum that interferes with the freedom of all families to pass on their own religious values to their children.” The news conference is at 12:30pm at the Texas Education Agency in the Travis Building at 1701 North Congress Ave.

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