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Council OKs new projects to displace old apartments

Wednesday, December 20, 2006 by

Robert Singleton, a one-time candidate for Austin Mayor, was more than a bit miffed that Council intended to give developers the right to pull down his home at Stoneridge Apartments, on South Lamar. In fact, he was downright angry.

“Maybe we should elect some poor people to Council,” Singleton said on a day when, ironically, Council had voted itself a raise. “I honestly don’t know if you know what it’s like to try to work a minimum wage job and try to keep a roof over your head.”

Welcome to gentrification west of I-35, where opponents claim the Council is replacing low-rent apartments with high-priced condos that conform to Council’s ideals of new urbanism, obliterating affordable housing stock. Council dealt with two cases last night that displaced current residents – one case on Town Lake with few protesters and the other on Lamar where both residents and local homeowners were unhappy.

In both cases, the city was losing housing units that were somewhere between very poor and extremely wealthy. On South Lamar, the new owners of the Stoneridge Apartments were proposing a vacation of an existing street to join two properties into one in order to create a new vertical mixed-use community price well above the current residents.

Attorney Steve Metcalfe of Drenner & Golden, representing the new owners, said the goal is 390 apartments in four-story units with 10,000 feet of first-floor specialty retail. Parking would be structured parking wrapped around the apartments. Metcalfe said the developer could provide 10 percent affordable housing – probably no more – and pointed to a survey commissioned by the developer that showed that the current 138 units would hardly be a loss because of the high concentration of affordable housing in the area.

Replacing the current units – more than three decades old and failing to meet fire safety codes – would be impractical, Metcalfe said. He pointed to the fact that 9,000 multi-family units exist in the area, with 91 percent of them at 80 percent median family income (about $900 per month) and 79 percent at 60 percent median income.

During testimony, some like architect Richard Weiss of the Design Commission loved the new vertical mixed-use design, which he said, fit the city’s new commercial design standards. Others, like Singleton, were angry the city could manage to vote to spend $55 million on bonds for affordable housing, yet hardly blink an eye when 140 units of housing that was considered more than affordable disappeared from the tax rolls.

Others who testified included Ann Dockens, a single mother who worked two jobs and could barely afford the $440 rent at Stoneridge with her minimum wage job. Cory Walton of the Bouldin Neighborhood Association and Jeff Jack of the Zilker Neighborhood Association both spoke of keeping affordable housing stock.

Jack said a vote to rezone the property could effectively wipe out 140 affordable housing units in the city. If that was translated into bonds, it would be $12 to $15 million to replace 140 units that a zoning change was about to wipe out. Jack chastised the Council for failing to implement many of the affordable housing measures recommended under the “Through the Roof” proposal, which was issued in 1999.

Singleton, one of a number of residents who spoke, was the most critical, calling the Council’s support of vertical mixed-use development “a Disneyland version of new urbanism.” Singleton said the city had the form of new urbanism but not the function – specifically, the transit that would take the people to and front the development. He called The Triangle – with its fake bricked windows – the height of faux urbanism.

Council members were clearly concerned by the discussion, but they also recognized the rights of the developer. In subsequent discussion, council members spoke of a need to bolster affordable housing on the Stoneridge site, possibly rebating the cost of vacating the street between the two properties to provide affordable housing.

Many of the residents of Stoneridge were long-term residents, and Council Member Mike Martinez said rebating fees to provide 10 percent of the proposed units at 60 percent of median family income could go far toward providing a place for long-term Stonebridge tenants.

Martinez, among others, returned to the affordable housing component repeatedly, suggesting the developer could do more. Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley proposed additional rebates that could reduce the cost of the project and increase affordability. Council Member Lee Leffingwell agreed that more could be done. And Council Member Sheryl Cole said that the new development, Arden, could well be trying to offer “a bite-sized solution for a whale of a problem.”

The new zoning was unanimously approved on first reading, with the goal of revisiting reasonable suggestions for affordable housing on second and third reading.

Council quietly enacts pay raise

It may have riled a few bloggers and those who have the time to call into radio talk shows, but not one citizen showed up at Thursday’s City Council meeting to complain, cajole or castigate the Council for its decision to enact a pay raise after six years without one. (How much do those talk show hosts make, anyway?)

“No elected official relishes the opportunity to vote for one’s own pay raise.” said Mayor Will Wynn, just before the Council voted 7-0 to raise salaries for Council Members and the Mayor. "I'm voting for what I think is the right thing to do for the office, but it is not for me personally."

Council members’ salaries will grow from about $45,000 a year to almost $58,000, and the Mayor’s pay from about $53,000 to almost $68,000—about the same as an aide with several years of experience . Each member and the Mayor also get a $5,400 car allowance.

Two on the Council, Mayor Wynn and Member Jennifer Kim, said they would not accept the pay increase. Asked why he was not taking the money, Wynn hinted that it would be the same as painting a political bull’s-eye on the back of his jacket. Kim has stated before Thursday’s meeting that she would not accept the raise (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 15, 2006)

Indeed, when word of the proposal for a Council pay raise became public early this week, Internet bloggers and callers to talk radio shows skewered the mayor and council members, calling them greedy, opportunistic, and worse.

“I’m doing it because it will take the pressure off the next mayor, whoever he or she might be,” he said. “It’s a fair salary, though it gets pretty depressing when you break it out by the number of hours we put in.”

He said the funds for the raise would not increase the city’s budget. Funds would merely be shifted from each member’s existing expense budget to cover the increase.

“Next year, it can be brought up by the Council during the budget process, should they choose to do so,” said City Manager Toby Futrell. If they choose to vote on it, they can. Or they can decide not to.”

Council Members are playing catch-up with their salaries, having had no increase in pay since 2000. The raise they approved Thursday was based on the same pay increase given city employees in 2004 and 2005, plus 8 percent, the same amount the city donates to employees’ retirement. Council members are not eligible for the retirement plan. Any future pay raises for Council members will be tied to raises for city employees.

Council Member Brewster McCracken said he believes the Council handled the matter properly, waiting until salary and benefits lost by most city employees were restored before giving themselves a raise.

“We chose to have us all forgo any adjustments after 9/11 caused a budget catastrophe,” he said. “We put the workforce first.”

Thursday’s vote was the second try at a pay raise for the Council. A measure two weeks ago proposed that the city’s Ethics Commission recommend Council salaries, but Council Member Lee Leffingwell objected to putting a committee appointed by the Council in charge of determining their salaries.

Richards family thanks Council for bridge honor

Relatives of the late Governor Ann Richards attended Thursday’s City Council meeting to offer their thanks for the Council’s decision to rename the Congress Avenue Bridge in her honor. The Council voted 7-0 to officially name the bridge the “Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge” and will install a plaque with information about Richards’ accomplishments and contributions to Austin.

“Obviously we were surprised that the city wanted to do this, but it’s a terrific honor,” said Richard’s daughter, Ellen Richards, following a ceremony to unveil the plaque, “and it’s a totally appropriate symbol, I think, given that it’s right in the middle of the city. She lived here over 40 years. She loved Austin. She always talked to other people about how great a city Austin was, and she was proud to make it her home.”

Naming the bridge after Richards was just one of several ideas proposed to Council Members following her death in September. “There were some great suggestions,” said Mayor Will Wynn. “We took an appropriate amount of time to sort through them and then talked to the family at length, and I’m really pleased with how it came together,” said Wynn. “I think the bridge is so appropriate.”

When the Mayor contacted Richards’ son Dan, a local attorney, to tell him about the Council’s plans, he got an alternative proposal. “I told him they needed to name the city the City of Ann Richards,” said Dan Richards, “and he was real quiet for a while. Then I told him we would be honored, of course. So that’s how it went. I love my mother very much, and to have something right here in the middle of downtown…since I live here it will be in the middle of my town…it is a wonderful thing and I couldn’t be more pleased.”

Council Members took turns before Thursday’s vote praising Richards’ efforts to include women and minorities in state government along with her passion for public service. Wynn also had a personal recollection of Richards, who contributed to his first campaign. “She wrote me my first $100 check, and of course I refused to cash the check because it’s far more valuable to me than $100,” he said. The Mayor had the check framed and keeps it in his office at City Hall. “She was a friend, an advisor, an inspiration,” he said.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Further cab franchise follies . . . Evidently it’s not that easy to get a cab franchise in Austin. It’s not even clear what the rules are. Cab franchise bids have come in, but one of the bidders failed to make the deadline—Capital City Cab Company. Capital City was considered a strong contender until their representative failed to show up by the appointed deadline of 5pm on Nov. 3. Under the city’s purchasing process, deadlines are firm and those who miss them are ineligible. However, in this case, the city has backed off of an earlier determination that prevented Capital City from submitting its bid late. According to a letter from Public Works Director Sondra Creighton, “Since this selection process is not a purchasing process, it is not governed by the same code requirements . . . Since we believe it is in the best interest of the city to be able to consider all applications . . . we have decided to accept Capital City Cab Company’s application for review. In the future, however, as this process is further developed, the city will be looking to implement firm timelines for these submissions” . . . Passed on . . . We would be remiss if we failed to note the passing of Tom Medders, a hard-working and enthusiastic expert in the erection of campaign signs. Medders, 53, died of a heart attack this week. Former Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said, "The first thing you think of when you think about Tom is that he had incredible energy, not just for campaigns but in life.” Democrats and labor activists remember him as the go-to guy for sign information. He worked in campaigns for Goodman beginning in 1993, and she remembered him as a friend who can't be replaced. Matt Curtis said, "Tom Medders could drive a large political sign into the hardest ground imaginable. He taught almost every young campaigner the art of sign placement, and I spent hundreds of hours being schooled," Judge Gisela Triana said, “Tom was one of the most enthusiastic Democrats and union members I have known. He was the ‘go to guy’ when it came to placing election signs in Travis County. He worked tirelessly to get good folks elected. I consider myself fortunate to have worked with him and to have called him my friend.” In Fact Daily will have more information next week on a service for Medders. Thomas G. Medders was born on 9/10/1953. . . Kim offers help to Fix 290 . . . Council Member Jennifer Kim notes that she asked the City Manager “to see if they can help look at alternative designs” to the TxDOT plan. Kim sees the current plan as not only hard on residents but inimical to a future rail line. “To have an elevated highway makes it cost prohibitive to do rail. We need to think about this now,” she said. Kim’s staffer said he expects representatives of TxDOT, Fix 290 and CAMPO to meet with him on the problem today . . . City to sponsor Austin Music Memorial . . . Austin Music Memorial . . . At its next meeting, Council will consider an ordinance backing the Austin Music Commission’s proposal to create an Austin Music Memorial at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, currently under construction. The AMC proposal would place plaques along a wall at the new center to honor persons who have made a major contribution to the Austin music scene. AMC is requesting that the city pay for the first 10 memorials, costing about $500 to $700 each, and in subsequent years. AMC is also asking the Council to designate the Music Commission as the agency empowered to designate inductees into the memorial. Plans are for the first set of plaques to be unveiled at the opening of the Long Center on March 28, 2008. . . . Homeless state released . . . Going into today’s Homeless Educational Forum, the Community Action Network has released some startling statistics from a recent study about homelessness in Austin. Key findings in the study Include: Over a 12 month period, there were over 6,200 homeless people in the Austin area. Between Sept 12, 2005 and Sept. 12, 2006, 6,242 unique individuals received services from Austin area homeless service providers. On any given day, there are approximately 4,000 homeless individuals, of which 1,900 are downtown. And, more than Over 1,500 children are affected by homelessness in the Austin Independent School District. In the 2005-2006 school year, AISD Project Help served 1,556 homeless students. The forum is planned from 11am to 1pm today at St David’s Episcopal Church, 8th and San Jacinto streets. . . . Water conservation . . . The Water Conservation Task Force meets at 2:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall. The task force will consider adopting policies on outdoor irrigation strategies.

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