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Council candidates hit wide range of topics at Downtown forum

Tuesday, April 5, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

City Council candidates attended a distinctly downtown-centric forum last night, hosted by the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, among others, which focused on topics such as urban rail, permanent supportive housing and the relationship between the city’s ongoing comprehensive plan and neighborhood plans.


With multiple forums going on last night, candidates came and went, but it was clear many shared similar views about high-profile issues: a general support for urban rail; a commitment to permanent supportive housing; and agreement that a cheaper land-bound alternative to the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk would be a preference. The difference appeared to be strength of opinion on the subject.


For instance, every candidate supported urban rail, to some degree. But former assistant city manager Roger Chan, for instance, said the option was unfeasible given Austin’s density and terrain. And Josiah Ingalls, running a second time for Council, said he supported transit options that strengthened the downtown core, but not if those options increased urban sprawl in the city.


Both are challenging incumbent Chris Riley, who made the strongest statement in support of rail but noted a number of questions still needed to be figured out between now and next November: where to cross Lady Bird Lake; who would run the line; and how maintenance would be funded.


“We have some time to figure that out,” said Riley, noting he had seen a number of attendees at yesterday afternoon’s urban rail scoping meeting downtown that are being held to kick off the environmental assessment process. “It is a critical option, and it has a role in helping shape urban development.”


One-time Council candidate and DANA member Cid Galindo also tossed out a question to the candidates, asking them whether they would support the Waterfront Overlay Task Force’s exploration of a cheaper alternative to the Lady Bird Lake boardwalk if it was land-bound, had better access and was cheaper.


The answer from Place 3 incumbent Randi Shade, and just about everybody else, was “of course,” with Council Member Laura Morrison noting she had suggested pre-bond issue that the board walk be broken into two pieces, given that the $17 million project had come to dominate the overall $90 million bond campaign.


“There was a fair amount of criticism about truth in advertising, but I heard from more people than not, that this is a vision, long in the making, about completing that loop around the lake,” Shade said. “I’m really anxious to see what (the task force) comes up with, and if there is this other alternative, I would be the first to say yes.”


Shade’s challengers offered other variations on the theme. One-time Council member Max Nofziger said he never supported the ballot proposition and certainly not in the context of an economy where teachers were being laid off and schools might be closed. A financial tsunami, Nofziger said, was headed for Austin. And Kathie Tovo said the easy answer to the question was yes, as long as the project could be configured to be accessible to all Austinites.


Unlike East Austin neighbors, the candidates had little opposition to the idea of creating 350 units of permanent supportive housing in the city, as long as it was sprinkled across the city. The last thing the city needed, Eric Rangel said, was to create areas like Compton, Fifth Ward or Harlem, where compounding community issues with supportive housing caused more harm than good. Rangel is running against Morrison.


“Nothing good comes from that,” Rangel said. “We need to be smart.”


Asked how neighborhood plans should interface with the ongoing city Comprehensive Plan, candidates ranged on answers. Morrison and Tovo, both endorsed by the Austin Neighborhoods Council, came out strongest in favor of neighborhood interests, with Morrison noting the zoning capacity analysis, or potential density forecast, that was being built into the plan.


Among the other answers, Riley suggested that neighborhood plans were detailed while the comprehensive plan was a high-level view, Tovo expressed hope in a newly formed working group to negotiate issues and Rangel used the question as a tangent to stress the need for single-member districts, in which Council members would have familiarity with neighborhood plan issues. Tovo agreed single-member districts would bolster neighborhood planning.


Questions also were solicited from the audience. Asked to define “family friendly” housing, most candidates discussed the need to keep housing stock with multiple units downtown affordable, with Riley stressing family friendly amenities like parks. And on a question about eliminating billboards from Scenic Austin’s Girard Kinney, Riley said he would be happy to carry a resolution to eliminate billboards.


By the time closing statements were offered, a number of candidates had departed for other forums. Tovo stressed her endorsement from ANC. Morrison talked about the school closure issue and her work on the AISD-County-City task force. Riley, a 20-year resident of downtown, talked about the area turning a corner in terms of revitalization.


And Rangel contrasted service on Council with a newlywed buying a new home. Newlyweds are not considering the moment, but the future, and that’s the way Council should be considering its own decisions, with a view of long-term impact.

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