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Austinites pitch pet projects for upcoming bond election

Tuesday, August 7, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Citizens lined up last week to try to persuade City Council that their projects were worthy of funding from a proposed $385 million city bond issue that will go to voters on Nov. 6.


Last week, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said he expects the City Council to decide by Aug. 14 which projects will be included in the City of Austin‘s 2012 bond election, but today’s work session agenda includes an item relating to discussion of the bonds and possible direction to staff. Thursday’s special called meeting has been cancelled.


City Manager Marc Ott has recommended a $385 million bond package that includes $139.4 million for transportation, $104.9 million for parks and open space, $76.1 million for city facilities and $65 million for affordable housing. But the proposal leaves off the list many Austinites’ pet projects.


Late last Thursday – indeed, late enough that many citizens didn’t stick around to plead their cases – representatives from such projects as Austin Studios and the East 51st Street Vision Project offered their best pitches on the value of their projects. Housing advocates also turned out to, as Ending Community Homelessness Coalition chair Ed McHorse put it, ask for “as much as we can possibly get for affordable housing.”


Representatives of other projects already included in Ott’s list came out as well, hoping to solidify or improve their positions in the bond election. Supporters of the project to redevelop Waller Creek applauded the proposed open-space dollars that would include $10 million for Waller Creek (though supporters continued to push for $13 million, as was recommended by city staff).


Representatives from the Austin film community asked for funds to help Austin Studios acquire a former armory building, which will be vacated by the National Guard later this month. Austin Film Society Executive Director Rebecca Campbell promised Council members that Austin Studios would turn the armory into “a hub of creative activity.”


Austin’s large-scale film economy has languished of late. In the face of cuts in state incentives, film and television production teams have elected to work in neighboring states such as New Mexico and Louisiana.


Others touted the East 51st Street Vision Project, which supporters said would connect the Windsor Park and Mueller neighborhoods by remaking a stretch of East 51st Street from Old Manor Road to Interstate 35.The developer behind the Mueller project, Catellus, has committed $735,000 to help fund the East 51st Street project. Supporters are asking for $3.5 million to finish it off.


Architect Jim Adams of McCann Adams Studio works on the project. “We believe that this project is one that helps to implement the policies of (the city’s comprehensive plan called) Imagine Austin, as well as the goals of both the Mueller and Windsor Park neighborhoods,” Adams told Council members. “We hope that … you can endorse this project, as the neighborhoods have done.”


Multiple speakers told Council members that they supported a bond package with heavy funding for various affordable housing projects. Their ranks included Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) Board Chair Pamela Powers. “The DAA supports inclusion of affordable housing in the package, but I’m here tonight to talk specifically about a significant allocation for low-barrier or housing first permanent supportive housing,” Powers said. “The lack of affordable housing threatens Austin’s continued success as a vibrant, healthy, economically viable city. But more importantly, the critically short supply of permanent supportive housing is literally a matter of life or death.”


Though Ott recommended a $385 million package that would fund specific items, Council members remain free to structure the bond package however they see fit. However, Leffingwell has indicated that he does not want to vote for a package that requires a tax increase. He will probably not be alone in that.


When Council approves the size and list of projects included in he bond election, the package will have plenty of company on the November general election ballot, including a host of charter amendments that will address various items concerning City of Austin government, national and local elections, and requests for a tax increase from other governmental bodies, perhaps including Travis County Central Health.


Among other considerations, Central Health is looking toward its contributions to the construction of a full four-year University of Texas medical school. Central Health representatives are set to announce their ballot intentions around Aug. 15.

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