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Downtown Commission takes on panhandlers

Thursday, October 22, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Last night, the Downtown Commission raised no serious objections to a proposed all-hours panhandling prohibition downtown, which would turn solicitations for money in the area of the Convention Center and its hotels into a Class C misdemeanor.

Four years ago, the City Council passed a ban for most of downtown from 7pm to 7am. This new proposal, the result of a year’s worth of discussion among stakeholders and social service groups, would carve out a smaller slice of downtown for stricter enforcement, basically in the areas around the Convention Center and Sixth Street.

Downtown Austin Alliance’s Program Manager Bill Brice, who was joined by Radisson Hotel & Suites Manager Tom Schurr, said the proposal centers around building value and vitality for Austin’s downtown convention and tourism traffic.

“We also intend to implement a communications plan on responsible giving and the pitfalls of giving money to panhandlers,” Brice said. “It stresses the importance of supporting the essential organizations that provide shelter and services, especially in the downtown area.”

Austin spends plenty of money luring convention planners to Austin, said Schurr, who sits on the Convention & Visitors Bureau board, and  a panhandling problem – which is even more prevalent downtown during daytime hours – can hurt the city.

“What we’re really asking for is that you do what you do everyday well, and that’s to use some good ole-fashioned common sense,” Schurr said. “What makes sense and what doesn’t?”

And, as Brice noted, enforcing the current ordinance, even as it is, can be difficult. Currently, an officer can cite a panhandler only if the panhandler’s behavior is aggressive and if the panhandling is taking place at a bus stop, in a cross walk, or within 25 feet of an automated teller machine or bank.

A total of 34 organizations, from BOMA and Front Steps to the Radisson Hotel and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, have signed on to the proposal. The no-panhandling district would extend from 11th Street to Cesar Chavez and from San Antonio to Interstate 35.

Why aren’t the boundaries bigger or simply as large as the area covered by the overnight ban? Brian Cady asked. Cady lives in the Rainey Street area, which has new neighbors in high-rises and local bars. Brice said the decision came down to a free speech issue. The members of the working group could comfortably agree to the smaller sub-set of land based upon the rationale of addressing tourism.

Paul Oveisi of the Austin Music Commission made sure that language about “buskers” versus “beggars” was clarified. The city does not oppose musicians on the street who offer an open guitar case for donations. More concerns arise when it’s a panhandler aggressively begging for money.

And Richard Weiss of the Design Commission asked whether banning panhandling downtown might push it out further to the surrounding neighborhoods. Brice said that was not anticipated. Panhandlers tend to congregate in areas with crowds, Brice said, which gives them a greater chance of success.

The only opponent of the motion, and the single commissioner who voted against it, was Linda Guerrero of the Parks and Recreation Board. Guerrero was concerned the ban would drive panhandlers into the trails system, which already suffers from serious vagrancy problems. Guerrero also delivered the best bon mot of the evening:

“I don’t have a problem setting boundaries, with panhandlers or commissioners,” Guerrero told her colleagues. “I think the boundaries on this really should be a personal preference.”

In other business, the commission had no problem supporting variances for the proposed downtown eco-friendly hotel or the Capitol Terrace project, both of which have been wending their way through the commission process. Chair Mandy Dealey called the 275-room hotel’s treatment “sympathetic,” since height is limited on the block face that would be facing the historic warehouse district.

Weiss did express concerns about the garage treatment on Capitol Terrace, on the southwest corner of 14th Street and Lavaca, but that did not stop the commission from voting to support a zoning change from DMU to CBD. The new zoning category would get rid of compatibility requirements with the two nearby churches, which both support the zoning change for the property. It would also give the building an extra 45 feet in height and up the floor-to-area ratio from 5-to-1 to 8-to-1.

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