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Met Center apology insufficient for Houston

Thursday, May 10, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Council Member Ora Houston raised objections during Tuesday’s work session to an item on Thursday’s Council agenda authorizing staff to enter into a 120-month lease agreement for 96,000 square feet of office space at the Met Center on Montopolis Drive in Southeast Austin. The building is intended to house courthouse employees from the downtown location on East Seventh Street, the Cherry Creek substation and the Criminal Prosecution Division of the Law Department.

After reporters learned that the developer of the Met Center had posted a satirical map of Austin that included a reference to the southeast part of town as “Tortilla Canyon,” Zydeco Development apologized, but that was not enough for Houston or for state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin.

Rodriguez told the Statesman, “I’ve seen ‘satirical maps’ like this before, but never from an entity seeking a contract with the city of Austin. The map maligned much of Austin’s residents with gross generalizations and went so far as to label Hispanic neighborhoods in my district as ‘Tortilla Canyon.’ Zydeco Development’s tone deafness calls into question whether or not the Met Center is the right fit” for Austin’s Municipal Court.

Not only did Houston find the statements offensive, she also questioned whether the city should be entering into a $31 million contract for a court that is intended to serve the downtown area. Alex Gale, acting real estate officer, told Houston that staff had been directed to come back with a lease agreement by April 26 because of the urgent need to move the Municipal Court offices. They had looked at four locations and this was the best choice, he said.

The main Municipal Court building “has deteriorated to the point that systems failure could cause a long-term closure of the facility at any time. Severe building conditions include leaking roof, poor distribution of heat and air-conditioning, basement flooding, frequent mildew … and a disintegrated sewer line,” according to staff’s report. The proposed lease agreement “will provide a stable, safe and healthy environment until permanent facilities are available,” the report says.

Houston said that although she recognized that the Municipal Court needed to temporarily relocate, her concern was that “we will be lining a developer’s pocket to the tune of $31 million. … Our property taxes come from the same places that have been so disrespected. … And so I’m having a real problem with being able to justify paying the developer that kind of money, and I know that the apologies are out there.” However, she pointed out that just about a year ago a city staff member was fired after producing the same kind of satirical map.

“That made big news all over the city, and for them not to know that this is going to be insensitive and disrespectful to a whole population to me is just inexcusable – so I’m going to have a real problem paying this kind of money from property tax dollars that come from the same people they disparaged.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said that although he was not happy that the map had labeled his District 6 as the “Sea of Sameness,” that would not stop him from voting for the contract.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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