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Neighborhood concerned that bridge would be gateway to crime

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The biggest decision in the Heritage Hills/Windsor Hills neighborhood plan in Northeast Austin, after two years of teamwork, came down to a bridge.


Last week, Planning Commission praised the clarity of the plan, which emphasized a compact community of blue- and white-collar businesses and middle-income neighborhoods with an increased pedestrian-friendly emphasis, possibly anchored by a future town center at Norwood Plaza.


Boundaries for Heritage Hills/Windsor Hills, a total of about 1,600 acres or 2.6 square miles according to the neighborhood plan, are US 183 on the south, Cameron Road on the east, Braker Lane on the north and Interstate 35 on the west, putting it almost the furthest east and north of the urban core neighborhoods designated among the city’s neighborhood plans.


The neighborhood plan, and accompanying future land use map, won approval at the Planning Commission last week and is expected to go to Council in January. The vote at Planning Commission, after some motion tweaking, was 6-0.


Heritage Hills/Windsor Hills’ point of dissension — and there almost always are one or two points of contention — came down to a sidewalk and a bridge, but primarily a bridge. In this case, the focal point was the North Acres Bicycle-Pedestrian Bridge, which would connect more crime-ridden multi-family properties and calmer, less-troubled single-family neighborhoods.


According to recommended language, the neighborhoods would support the construction of the North Acres Bridge on Park Plaza Drive if and when the Austin Police Department could prove that crime had been significantly reduced on the north side of the bridge.


The only reason the neighborhood had not rejected the bridge outright, said city liaison Kathleen Fox, was that Council supported the bridge, and neighborhood plans are not allowed to contradict Council policy. The bridge already is part of the city’s bicycle master plan, she noted.


“The concern since this project began in 1995 is that the neighborhood on the south side of the bridge, Little Walnut Creek, has been concerned about the crime rate on the north side of the bridge, from the apartment complexes,” Fox said. “Despite having seven different meetings on this subject, and a meeting with the Public Works Department, there has been no consensus.”


Council asked for an effort to reduce crime in the area of the bridge when the bicycle master plan was amended in 2009. Commissioner Kathryne Tovo asked whether crime reduction efforts had been effective, but Fox said crime was beyond the scope of the Heritage Hills/Windsor Hills neighborhood plan. She did show a graph that showed that crime had gone up and down in the area.


Chair Dave Sullivan noted that there was a gatekeeper on the bridge construction: Council had mandated that Public Works and the Austin Police Department return and update them on crime-reduction efforts in the area.


The bridge, as proposed, would allow children from six different apartment complexes to the north to cross Little Walnut Creek on a path to Hart Elementary School, Fox said, showing the various locations on a map. The bridge would complete a recommended bike route.


The only other seriously contested issue was a sidewalk on Applegate Drive. Opponents considered it a gateway for criminals into their neighborhood that would destroy existing landscapes in the area.


Commissioners struggled to re-craft language in the recommendation on the bridge to define what is an acceptable, or significant reduction in crime. Commissioners Mandy Dealey and Saundra Kirk considered the neighborhood contact team to be the point of reference for proper crime data.


Sullivan countered that the way people perceive safety is sometimes different from the actual risks that exist in the neighborhood. Dealey countered that it was not her sense that the neighborhood wanted to avoid the bridge, if there was some progress on crime statistics.


“There are no groups better to decide whether or not they feel safe than those neighborhood contact teams,” said Commissioner Dave Anderson. “However, I also think that being able to measure success is important. I just think we should let those closest to the topic and most potentially impacted by that topic, be the ones who decide what is acceptable or not.”


The final consensus was that the neighborhood plan contact team should come back with some additional specificity. Contact team member Lowell Rice suggested the use of the term “comparable” be used when it comes to comparing crime north and south of the bridge.


“The concern is not that there is crime. There’s crime in our neighborhood, too,” Rice said. “But we’re you’re talking about 81 crimes a year in our neighborhood and 800 crimes across the creek, up to Rundberg, in just three city blocks. If we can bring crime down in that area where it’s comparable to us, then that meets an acceptable number. Just that it’s more in line with what we’re seeing in our neighborhood.”


Planning Commission ultimately landed on language that required a demonstration, to the neighborhoods and Council, of a significant reduction in crime on the north side of the bridge that would make it comparable with the neighborhoods to the south.

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