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Reporter’s Notebook: Conspiracies

Tuesday, May 30, 2017 by Austin Monitor

Think before you speak… As we reported, last week’s final meeting of the Visitor Impact Task Force was a marathon affair. After nearly six months of meetings, the group kicked off the final round of bargaining over the details of a potential Austin Convention Center expansion with rumors swirling that the final confab could last some three hours. Five hours later, of course, the body finally took its ultimate vote and called it a night. While that extended period – the equivalent of a drive to Houston and back – took its toll on the unfortunate parties who for whatever wild reasons had decided to attend the proceedings as spectators, the grind was especially obvious on the members of the task force, whose gradual exhaustion began to betray mild agitation and mental fatigue. Doing a yeoman’s job of presiding over the affair, city staffer Larry Schooler frequently tried to keep spirits high with a charming, game show host’s kind of levity. Close to the end though, with brains running on fumes, that strategy took a turn for the absurd. Schooler noted the redundancy of the abbreviated term “HOT tax” to refer to the Hotel Occupancy Tax. “It’s like saying, ‘ATM machine,’” Schooler chuckled, along with the rest of the group. That drew a suggestion from Convention Center Director Mark Tester that scored an even bigger though probably unintentional round of laughter. “Why not the HO tax,” Tester offered, an idea whose homophonic humor he apparently only understood once he verbalized it. Assessing the collective delirium, Schooler noted, “Our wheels have come off the wagon.”

Drawing on hope… The mantra of every public planning process conducted by every agency and every jurisdiction is that no decisions are final until all of the necessary public engagement has been conducted and the relevant executive bodies make their ultimate decision. Of course, there are some clues sometimes of the outcomes that planning staff are partial to, or at least banking on. Take, for example, the renderings of three potential canopy designs for the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s proposed Downtown Station overhaul. The artist included in the background of those drawings the skybridge connecting the Austin Convention Center to the Hilton Austin hotel across the street. Of course, that’s the only plane of existence wherein the skybridge exists since it was just approved by the Planning Commission and City Council will still have to discuss the matter. Despite support from several relevant boards and commissions, the skybridge is no lock, primarily because the 2011 Downtown Austin Plan minces no words in its opposition to elevated walkways that remove pedestrians from the urban street space. The skybridge does look visually arresting though and, despite questions of its functionality, adds to Capital Metro’s illustrations, which, if we were in, say, Dallas, would probably be reason enough alone to build it.

Oh, let’s just call it ‘chill out spring’… Last week, Mayor Steve Adler replied publicly to an email from the Austin Neighborhoods Council Executive Committee asking for an extension until the end of October for comments on CodeNEXT draft code and maps. The letter from ANC points out that the current June 6 and July 7 deadlines are unrealistic, “particularly since some of the code chapters are missing (such as the impervious cover regulations and the detailed flood plain analyses), and the maps have changed since their release on April 18, 2017.” Plus, they note, the online tool is tricky, neighborhoods meet sporadically, and reviewing 1,100 pages of land development code takes a minute. In addition to a general soothing from the mayor, Adler stresses the importance of clearing up a fundamental misconception that underpins the ANC letter. “I want to assure you that June 6 and July 7 are merely the initial deadlines for feedback on the first drafts of both the code and the map, and not final deadlines for overall public input and comments. Would you please let everyone know in case they’re mistakenly believing that their opportunity for input will shortly be cut off?”

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Caleb Pritchard and Elizabeth Pagano.

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