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Former Assistant County Attorney Sarah Eckhardt launched her campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for Travis County Commissioner in Precinct 2 on Monday with the backing of the two unions representing Travis County Sheriff’s Department employees. Officials with both the Travis County Sheriff’s Officers Association (TCSOA) and the Travis County Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Officers Association (TCSLEA) said they believed they had been mistreated by incumbent Commissioner Karen Sonleitner during this summer’s budget discussions, specifically on issues relating to the Sheriff’s Office and the pay scale for employees.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005 by

“Karen Sonleitner lost a lot of our respect and credibility during this year’s budget process,” said Alex Leo of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office Association during a news conference announcing the group’s endorsement. “Leaders of both associations met with her behind closed doors. She told us that she was in support of our proposal,” yet she failed to do so later. “We have a deep concern that the current Precinct 2 Commissioner is not trustworthy. We don’t trust her. We’re looking for someone who’s going to tell us what she means.”

Sonleitner did not respond to an email request for comment.

While criticizing Commissioner Sonleitner, union representatives praised Eckhardt, saying she would have a good understanding of the public safety issues facing the county. “Sarah is a former county attorney with eight years of experience. She as a vast amount of experience with both the criminal and civil parts of our justice system,” said Bret Spicer of the TCSLEA .“Her father, the late Congressman Bob Eckhardt of Houston, raised her with a strong sense of integrity, honor, and understanding of the importance of good government.”

Eckhardt said addressing issues within the Sheriff’s Office would be a top priority if she were to be elected to the Precinct 2 position. “We need to be very specific in how we are allocating our revenue. We need to be efficient but as effective as we can be. If we’re penny-wise and pound-foolish, we’re going to be in a world of hurt fifteen years from now,” she said. “We’ve got a jail overcrowding issue that’s lasted too long, a criminal justice building that the day it opened was full, and a FACTS computer system that is not yet up and running. These are things that we really, really need. We need them now; we needed them yesterday. It’s always a juggle when it comes to the budget, but frankly, public safety is something we’ve got to pay for or else we’re going to pay for it later.”

Eckhardt is running against Sonleitner in the party primary in March. During her last re-election bid, Sonleitner defeated a Republican challenger, Sheri Perry Gallo. Representatives of both unions urged their members to get involved in the campaign early, predicting the two groups could swing the election. “We’re going to be block walking, phone banking, etc,” said Spicer. “We’re going to need everybody’s help. We will have a significant impact on this race.”

Planners want separate TOD for downtown

City planners are looking to carve the downtown Transit Oriented Development zone out of the original TOD plan and expand it into a strategic plan for developing all of Downtown Austin, focused on land use, transportation and the environment. Members of the Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee reviewed that plan Monday and approved sending it on the full Council.

The plan, backed by the Downtown Austin Alliance, would integrate transportation planning, including the Convention Center rail and bus terminal, into an overall redevelopment strategy for the area bounded by Town Lake, I-35, MLK Jr. Boulevard, and Lamar Boulevard.

A series of seven transit stations are planned along the route between Leander and downtown Austin for commuter rail service, which is scheduled to arrive in Austin sometime in 2008. The area around each of those stations is being developed under plans called for in the city’s Transit Oriented Development ordinance approved in May. (See In Fact Daily, May 20, 2005)

“I think you will find that this plan is in tune with the goal of focusing on land use,” said DAA President Charlie Betts. “It will integrate transportation into the overall plans for downtown, including the Convention Center transit station. We strongly support moving in that direction.”

Along with the city, players in what is being called the Downtown Station Area Plan include the DAA, a TOD consultant with urban or downtown experience, Capital Metro, Travis County and the State of Texas, and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association.

Expanding the downtown TOD plan into a strategic plan for the downtown area will allow consultants and planners to take a holistic approach to planning for the area, which may gain as many as 25,000 residents in the next 10 years.

City staff is looking at a series of development issues and recommendations for the downtown area, including where and to what extent should density be increased; development of a future land use map; plan for rezoning properties as needed; code amendments which include density bonuses, FAR and height limits; assessing the development potential of underutilized government owned land; and a plans for traffic circulation.

Also under study are plans to enhance and expand mass transit and public parking options; and plans for flood and erosion control along Waller and Shoal creeks. The downtown station plan would also include requirements for the Convention Center area, use and site development regulations, public area improvement rules, housing studies, public parking, and civic art.

The second step in the downtown planning process is finding the money. City staff will be developing recommendations for funding mechanisms for constructing infrastructure improvements and items recommended in the plan.

The planning process, estimated to take between 12 and 18 months, will begin with the selection of a consultant, who along with city staff will perform the initial research, then begin gathering public input on the process. A strategic plan will be drafted, followed by additional public input. A final plan will then go through the city’s board and commission process before it goes to the City Council for final approval.

Historic districts could help resolve issue

A tiny frame house on Garden Street in the Holly Neighborhood illustrated the need at last night’s Historic Landmark Commission for creation of local historic districts.

Two basic cases are made at most Historic Landmark Commission meetings for the initiation of historic preservation when demolition permits are pulled: First, the house in question has obvious historic or architectural value. Or, second, the demolition of the house destroys the fabric of the neighborhood because it is likely to be replaced with some form of condos, duplexes or even a super-duplex.

The HLC has applied the historic preservation ordinance to both types of cases equally, regardless of the actual historic value of the building, be it historically or architecturally. In the case of 1613 Garden Street, neighbors presented a passionate and united front about the integrity of their 1920s working-class street. And the commission unanimously agreed to initiate a historic landmark designation case, trying to determine a good reason to save the building.

The problem with 1613 Garden Street, however, is that structure, in and of itself, presents no real historical value. As Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky described to the commissioners, 1613 Garden Street is a historic bungalow built in 1927. It was the home of a projectionist at a local movie theater, the owner of a local upholstery company and a man who was best known as the owner of West Brothers Auto Sales.

In other words, any case made on the historic merits of the house would probably be a stretch. Neighbors, however, were adamant about the value of the house. Jonathan Weinstein said the house, with its wide side and back yard, was a beauty mark on an otherwise attractive face known as Garden Street. It was a source of pride and beauty in a block of proud owners who worked hard to preserve their modest homes, even in the face of skyrocketing property taxes, Weinstein told the commission.

“We survive despite all the city’s intentions,” Weinstein told the commission. “We survive despite the city’s neglect.”

Christopher Jacob spoke of the loving restoration of his 944-square-foot home, including the preservation of the pine walls in his bedroom. Cora Rodriguez Cottrell, who grew up on the street, spoke of the area’s history as a farming community. And Laura Schwartz, who lived across the street from the original farmhouse, spoke of the pride of her neighbors in their street and their Holly neighborhood.

“We love our street. We really hope you do not demolish a perfectly good home, in good condition, that will enhance the neighborhood. This is a wonderful place to live,” Schwartz said. “Do not let a four-plex ruin the integrity of our neighborhood. If you do this, it’s all over for our street, for the whole Holly Street neighborhood.”

Even given the limitations of the house, however, the HLC could choose to send it on to Council with a recommendation for historic zoning, and Council, quite easily, could approve that zoning in a sympathy vote. But as some on the Historic Preservation Task Force might suggest, that’s hardly fair to the property owner, who also has rights. In the case of 1613 Garden, the house is part of the estate of Arthur and Adelina Munoz. The house is currently in probate, with a contract on it for purchase, so that the proceeds can be divided among the Munoz’s 10 heirs.

The answer to such a situation, according to the Historic Preservation Task Force, is a local historic district. Nothing requires a local historic district to have historically designated houses, but the district could include homes of a certain age, like those on Garden Street. Once owners agreed to the local historic district, design standards could be set so that anything that might go on the lot would follow the setback, massing and height of the other structures in the Holly neighborhood.

The Historic Preservation Task Force, headed by Betty Baker, is still reviewing its work on the local historic district applications. The group, which will meet again next Monday night, intends to have its work wrapped up by the end of December.

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

What you missed . . . Chances are pretty good that you were asleep by the time last week's City Council meeting finally ended at 2:36am last Friday. Michael Knox of the city's Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office had the final two items on the agenda, both of which dealt with the assessment for the Downtown Improvement District. The only person in the audience who stayed through the entire meeting for that item besides Knox was Charlie Betts, stalwart executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance. Also waiting in the shadows for more than 12 hours was Juan Garza, general manager of Austin Energy. Garza was there to talk about Austin Energy's need to increase the fuel adjustment charge due to increases in the price of natural gas. No member of the audience signed up to speak on that matter but Garza explained to Mayor Will Wynn, "I actually had a fairly decent, long presentation . . ." The Mayor responded, "Do not use the word 'long.' " A lengthy report was the last thing the very weary Council needed after more than five hours of zoning presentations and arguments . . . Meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall. On the agenda is a zoning change request for The Crescent Development in the 900 block of Cesar Chavez from public right-of-way to DMU . . . The Parks and Recreation Board meets at 6:30pm in the PARD Headquarters at 200 South Lamar . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th Street . . . Williamson County Commissioners meet at 9:30am in the Pct. 3 JP Courtroom at 301 SE Inner Loop Dr. in Georgetown. . . . I-35 Corridor Summit . . . If you have a stake in what happened along I-35, you may want to attend the I-35 Corridor Summit planned Thursday in San Marcos. The meeting, mainly sponsored by the San Antonio and Austin Business Journals, will examine opportunities for business growth and development along the corridor. A discussion of growth and opportunities will include Bob Daigh, TxDOT; Denise Trauth, Texas State University; Joe Beal, LCRA; Susan Narvaiz, Mayor of San Marcos; Ross Milloy, Greater Austin – San Antonio Corridor Council, and Will Conley, Hays County Commissioner. The meeting is planned from 11am to 2pm at the LBJ Visitors Center at Texas State University, 601 University Drive in San Marcos. To register, contact S loan Bonfield at (512).494.2548 or . . I n the Big Apple . . . Mayor Will Wynn is leading a group of Central Texas leaders in New York City on an economic development trip this week. "This is an excellent opportunity to pay a visit to companies currently investing in Austin and groups that want to invest in Austin," said Wynn. "My goal is job creation and we can accomplish that by marketing our area for what it is; a great place to live, work, play and grow a business." The 20-member delegation is in New York through today to market the Greater Austin area. Most of its planned 45 visits are aimed at acquainting businesses with the advantages our region can offer should they plan expansion or relocation. However, five visits are now scheduled with national media outlets, including Inc. Magazine, FSB (Fortune Small Business), Fortune Magazine, Nikkei (the Japanese Wall Street Journal) and the New York Times.

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