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Council requests revisions to street closure ordinance

Friday, April 3, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Standing-room only Council chambers and dozens of speakers gave some hint to the sensitive nature the street closure ordinance public hearing had on Thursday night’s agenda. Council members voted unanimously for Lee Leffingwell’s motion to approve the ordinance on first reading with instructions to consult the Downtown Street Closure Task Force and bring back a revised ordinance that incorporated more of their recommendations.


The task force had submitted a letter to council members outlining five issues they found problematic in the staff’s recommended ordinance. Task force member Jamie Lagarde told In Fact Daily there were two points of particular concern for the panel. The first was the lack of a commission that could review the effect of the ordinance and assume other responsibilities. “We’re going to make incremental improvement over time and the only way to get that done is to put an organization in place of citizens that need to be part of the process to make that happen.”


The other issue he pointed out was the closure of Cesar Chavez. The letter task force members sent council acknowledges the importance the redesigned road has for cross-town mobility and suggests limiting events to after 8 pm on Friday evening through Sunday evening.


Throughout the public hearing, citizens brought up a number of competing points. Runners, race promoters and business interests emphasized the events’ positive contributions saying they brought millions into the economy and had important preventative health benefits for Austinites. Churchgoers at the nine downtown churches complained that 15 percent of their Sundays included events that had huge negative effects on congregational presence and ultimately their philanthropic initiatives downtown. Several church representatives gave council history lessons on their parishes some of which have been around before there was an Austin city charter.


There did appear to be a few points of agreement. The new ordinance stipulates that 20 percent of those directly affected by street closures (building owners, tenants) would need to object to an event rather than having 80 percent approve it (as had been the case). Everyone also seemed to agree that barricades needed to come down much more quickly after races.


Dave Merhar has been organizing on behalf of the downtown parishes for nearly a year and a half and is a task force member. “For us, the issue was we wanted to be a part of the process. We’d get a letter that said ‘Dear Church, on April 25 we’re going to have a race downtown that’s going to run in front of your church, thank you for your consideration. Respectfully, Race Promoter.”


Council Member Laura Morrison said, “To me, it’s really important to try to stick with the full set of recommendations,” from the task force. “I think it’s important to appreciate the integrity of that process.” She also addressed two other concerns that had cropped up during the hearing. Morrison said it was important to “understand the unintended consequences on the east side… and also I think it would be great for us to work with staff and talk about how we can incorporate a more productive police presence during the races so they may be a more helpful part of the solution.”


The combination of postponing final reading and asking for further additions to the ordinance seemed to appease the gathered masses. “I think that council did the right thing,” Merhar told In Fact Daily after the vote. “We’ve got to move forward and this is the first step in the process.… I’m very comfortable that we’ll get to a point where we can all co-exist. There will always be issues but we’ll have a vehicle in place where we can resolve those differences.”  Lagarde also said he was pleased that the approval included the stipulations it did. “I think that’s a very positive step, I think it was necessary for council to provide that instruction… without it, I wouldn’t be able to support (the motion).”  A date for the second reading of the ordinance has not been set.

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