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Reporter’s Notebook: Which side?

Monday, February 5, 2018 by Austin Monitor

More news from the Amazon (bid)… Austin has landed on the bad side of an LGBT rights group’s effort to influence online retail giant Amazon’s decision on where to build its next headquarters. The “No Gay? No Way!” campaign issued a statement last week that singled out nine of the 20 finalist sites for being located in states without anti-gay-discrimination laws on their books. The other cities are Dallas; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; Miami; Raleigh, North Carolina; and a portion of northern Virginia. In addition to lacking protections against discrimination of LGBT residents, Texas earned national attention last year when the state legislature nearly passed a law that would have required transgender individuals to use public restrooms that aligned with their birth gender. Closer to home, an ambitious development at the former Motorola campus in East Austin has been seen as one of the more likely landing spots for Amazon in Austin if the company chooses Central Texas. The 125-acre “Eightfold” project is a private endeavor projected to cost $400 million under its current buildout proposal. No word on if the site was among the “40 or 50” singled out by the Austin Chamber of Commerce when it put together the city’s Amazon bid proposal late last year.

Demolition (by neglect) derby… The most recent Historic Landmark Commission meeting featured two very different “demolition by neglect” cases. The first was a look at 1700 West Ave., where construction seems to have stalled for months. At the behest of commissioners, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky investigated neighbors’ fears that the house was being allowed past the point of restoration. He opened his report by explaining that the city’s “demolition by neglect” ordinance does not apply to the home. He suggested, instead, that the city send a letter to the owners to see what might be done. “It’s a very handsome house. It could be contributing to a historic district Judge’s Hill but that district never made it,” he said. “There’s nothing that prevents demolition right now.” Sadowsky suggested the home could be cited by the Code Department, with the understanding that if the owners sought an actual demolition permit, it would come to the commission for review, at which point it could be considered for individual historic designation. For the moment, commissioners unanimously opted to reach out to the owner and the Code Department before taking any further action. As for the Sebron Sneed House, which has been on the Historic Landmark Commission agenda for years, Sadowsky told commissioners that the time for action had come. After continued silence from the owners of 1801 Nelms Drive, commissioners voted unanimously to refer the case to the Code Department and the Building and Standards Commission for further action and potential prosecution.

Derby Day… After decades of dormancy, roller derby got a fresh start 17 years ago in Austin. However, at no point has any member of the sport had a practice facility that they could call their own. Hoping to change this, roller derby players came to the Bond Oversight Commission on Jan. 31 to ask that the commission consider looking for money to build a practice track that teams all over the city could use. Currently, all teams share outdoor tracks at Pan American and Bartholomew parks, which is not adequate for the thousands of people involved in the sport. Austin is not alone. According to Chip Wright, a roller derby announcer, “There is no city (the teams) know of with an appropriate facility to grow the sport.” In their hope to persuade commissioners that they deserved a new strip of polished concrete, Arturo Rivera, a representative for the Austin men’s league Austin Anarchy, explained that they would be willing to share facilities with other roller sports. A functional track for roller derby requires 12,000 square feet of space, Rivera said. Wright explained that Austin’s roller derby community has been working with Parks and Recreation Board Member Richard DePalma to come up with a solution for the lack of training facilities. Riane Sage, a member of the Texas Rollergirls, explained that it was in the city’s interest to invest in the sport. “In general, we just promote being better human beings,” she said.

Which side are you on?… Stuart Harry Hersh, an affordable housing advocate, told a joint meeting of the Zoning and Platting Commission and Planning Commission on Jan. 30 that he hoped the final draft of CodeNEXT would provide a simpler code that allows more housing to be built in the urban core. Since he hadn’t testified in a few months, Hersh reasoned he owed the commission a song. He chose a “paraphrase” of the labor union classic: “Which Side Are You On?” a song written by Florence Reece about the 1930s coal miner strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. The song was “near and dear” to Hersh’s heart because his own uncle, Harry Simms Hersh, a union organizer from Massachusetts, was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy working for the mine company during the strike. Hersh began: “They say in Austin, Texas, there are no neutrals there. You either sign petitions, or support a code that’s simple and fair. Which side are you on? Which side are you on?”

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Chad Swiatecki, Elizabeth Pagano, Jessi Devenyns and Jack Craver.

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