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Place 1 Candidates Tussle Over CURE, Mayors Debate CapMetro

Monday, April 6, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Saturday’s “Urban is Core – Austin Super Forum,” at St. David’s Episcopal Church focused on planning issues critical to Austin’s downtown residents and business. Three discussion groups convened, featuring mayoral candidates, Place 1 candidates, and the early morning session that featured a grab bag of other candidates. Place 2 incumbent Mike Martinez had the floor to himself as did unopposed Place 5 candidate Bill Spelman. Between them Sam Osemene and incumbent Sheryl Cole fenced over the Place 6 spot.


Chris Riley and Perla Cavazos discussed their differing Planning Commission votes on a zoning change, offering the candidates a chance to differentiate themselves. At the noon mayoral forum current council members and candidates Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken were joined by David Buttross, whose vocal support for privatization programs and a number of other issues seemed to pull most of McCracken’s attention.


Sheryl Cole floated the idea of public/private partnerships or vendors in the parks. Spelman reiterated the potential for cutting the police and service budgets. Mike Martinez said another round of budget cuts – in addition to the 20 million the city is already shaving off, may be in the near future. Sam Osemene continued to harp about his “anger” at how council members and specifically his opponent had cost the city so much. Martinez also advocated using city owned land to build single-family affordable housing. Spelman  mentioned a Seattle program wherein neighborhood groups would provide sweat equity and receive money from the city to build improvements like playgrounds and parks.


The candidates also discussed the Envision Central Texas plan and the Comprehensive City Plan. Martinez said “There is no one size fits all policy, ever, anywhere and someone who’s going to commit to you that they’re going to agree to a particular plan for an entire city the size of Austin 100 percent of the time I think is going to find themselves in a very difficult position.” He said he supports it without making a blank commitment that every project coming from it should be adopted by council. Cole said she was hopeful that the forthcoming comprehensive plan “will reconcile some of these differences between some of the neighborhood wants and the ECT plan.” Osemene indicated that he would “bring power to the people” by giving neighborhood groups more input into the planning process, while Spelman  discussed the practical difficulties of dealing with neighborhood groups that weren’t well-organized. 


 Riley and Cavazos squared off on the issue of the Rio Grande/Ranch 616 zoning case, which they both voted on while on the Planning Commission. In February of 2007, the commission voted 5-2 against a CURE overlay for a proposed 400-foot tower at the W. Seventh and Rio Grande intersection. The Planning Commission vote also included a recommendation for DMU zoning, which would limit the project to 120 feet. Cavazos said her support for DMU would have been more congruous with the historic neighborhood adjacent to the property. She cited problems with pedestrian scale and the height, “I was really concerned about the transition and thought DMU offered a better transition… I don’t have a problem with density when it’s appropriate but I also want to be able to protect our historic neighborhoods and structures to ensure there’s a well-balanced and responsible transition and we talked a lot about having a pedestrian scale in that area.”  Riley seized a rare chance to criticize his rival and questioned her claims of neighborhood support. “My opponent has taken the opportunity to point out she stood with the neighborhood, she says she stood with the Old West Austin neighborhood, which is on the other side of Lamar, and is ignoring the fact that the Downtown neighborhood supported the project.” Riley said the CBL Tower was “one of many cases when the downtown community came together to support reasonable development with downtown housing.” He said residents, DANA, Old Austin, environment groups and businesses “came out strong in support of this project.” Riley insisted that the 34-story building, which City Council ultimately approved, allows a narrow tower that would not obscure the sunlight from the street and had enough setback for pedestrians. “Street level actually had a nice setback and would have been a vast improvement to what you see there today… If you could step back it had a nice treatment at the pedestrian scale and have a slender tower of residential, it would actually have been better than to have a big blocky DMU office building.”


Both candidates agreed on much more. They favored an urban core rail circular and water rate structures tweaked in order to provoke higher users into conserving more. Riley hinted that WTP#4 could be further delayed due to the effectiveness of conservation. When the issue of crime and safety was broached, Cavzos said she did “not have any specific solutions per se,” to address what questioner Fred Schmidt said was municipal court’s failure to address petty crime properly. Riley explained his involvement with the courts,  “About ten years ago I undertook efforts to address it through the creation of the Austin Downtown Community Court,” He was the chair of the executive committee which oversaw it. He said the idea was to break away from the revolving door of processing minor offenders and put them to work in community service programs. Since he moved to the Planning Commission, Riley said, “I have now been hearing that… it’s not working very well.” He added, “we absolutely need to get to the bottom of that and get it figured out and get it right.”


On the Mayoral side, the usual differences and agreements between Leffingwell and McCracken surfaced, although the presence of David Buttross offered a tempting target for McCracken. Buttross took the opportunity to criticize downtown affordable housing subsidies as unfair handouts and advocate moving the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. He also claimed to have personally and privately brokered a deal with Westinghouse to provide 30 MW of wind power, which would cost significantly less than the $250 million on the solar plant. Buttross floated the idea of charging people to access 6th Street, apparently disregarding the Frat Vote, as a means of cleaning up the street and associated petty crime. At one point McCracken quipped that if Buttross wanted to live in a town where it was every man for himself he could move to Houston. McCracken continued to take Buttross to task referencing urban planning tomes, which prescribed a grater ratio of downtown residents as a means to reduce the negative impact of the shelters.

When the topic turned to transportation, Leffingwell pointed out “We have the honor of being the most congested mid-sized city.” He said he would call a bond in 2010 that would focus on transportation. McCracken has urged a 2012 bond election for parks and quality of life improvements. Turning to CapMetro, Leffingwell said “ I would call on CapMetro to evaluate their ongoing operations,” citing the discontinuation of night and weekend bus service and other route changes. McCracken, meanwhile, said he was proud to have worked with former Cap Metro Chair Lee Walker and called delays in the Red Line “some bumps”. He compared the situation to Houston’s own rail line, plagued with early delays and now, McCracken said, had the second highest ridership in the country.


Leffingwell took issue with McCracken’s characterization, “I don’t quite buy the argument that this is normal for a rail system to experience this kind of problems, they’re not bumps, they’re more like brick walls, frankly.” He then complained that Veolia, the company hired to implement the Red Line, “should have anticipated these bumps, we’re way behind schedule right now… and I think it’s really a shame.” He also brought up the fact that an outside consultant brought in to do an independent audit of the fiasco is coming from Veolia’s own Massachusetts office. “It’s kind of like the fox guarding the hen house,” Leffingwell remarked. He did open up the option that, “help is on the way” referring to Sen. Kirk Watson’s bill which would reconstitute the Cap Metro board and perhaps open up new funding options.


Buttross for his part said, “these guys seem to care a lot more about providing access to alcohol and drugs for the homeless people of downtown Austin than they do providing affordable housing to the working class people downtown.” He called Cap Metro “a huge, ridiculous waste of money” and said hiring cabs for everyone to take would have been a cheaper route.

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