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Whispers

Monday, June 26, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

‘Sanctuary cities’ law hearing starts today

Today, some members of City Council will kick off their so-called summer break in San Antonio, for the first hearing for the preliminary injunction that could block Senate Bill 4 (the “sanctuary cities” law) from being implemented this September. (Mayor Steve Adler has made the job of getting up-to-date a little easier by collecting last week’s press conference and all of the city’s legal filings online here.) Council Member Greg Casar, who was arrested for protesting the bill this spring, released a statement Friday that said, in part, “Just last month we launched the Summer of Resistance against Texas’ show-me-your-papers law, SB 4. People across Texas have joined this movement because they know SB 4 has nothing to do with public safety, and everything to do with politicians attacking immigrants and their families for nothing but political gain. … Stopping SB 4 is bigger than Texas. Today, Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions filed a brief in support of SB 4. If SB 4 is allowed to go into effect, we can expect similar laws across the country.” Casar will be attending a live-streamed rally at 8:30 Monday morning, in advance of the hearing, with members of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, LUPE, Workers Defense Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and Texas Organizing Project.


Monday, June 26, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

City surveys creative community

The city’s Economic Development Department wants to hear from members of the creative community about the challenges they face in securing and keeping performance, exhibition and administrative spaces. In the Creative Space Survey, stakeholders can help the city better understand how they work, in what sort of spaces and what things are currently impeding their success. That could be a need for teaching space, a photo studio or air conditioning. The survey runs until Aug. 31, so fill it out while there is time. In related news, the city is hosting an informational meeting about its Art Space Assistance Program on Thursday, June 29, in the the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall. Beginning at 6 p.m., the city will explain how to apply for the tenant improvement and rent stipend grants.


Monday, June 26, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Sabre salute for new Hyatt Place Austin Airport

The new Hyatt Place Austin Airport, the four-story hotel on the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport campus, celebrated its grand opening last week with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, complete with a sabre salute to the Texas flag. The hotel boasts close proximity to the Barbara Jordan Terminal, 139 suites, a cafe and dining area, meeting rooms and a “resort style” pool. Outside, there’s a “Texas-sized state flag (15x25) atop a 60’ flagpole,” presumably so that guests can discern their location with a quick glance out of the window. (Seriously, though, the flag is the result of a collaboration between Journeyman Construction, JCI Hospitality LLC and nonprofit Celebrate Texas.) A press release announcing the grand opening also noted the environmentally friendly aspects of the project, including “its LEED Silver Certification, Austin Energy Green Building Two Star Rating, and four electric vehicle charging stations.”


Monday, June 26, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

CodeNEXT Game Night is tomorrow!

Is the problem with our Land Development Code rewrite the fact that it’s just not enough fun? Well, uh, yeah! Luckily, the Austin Monitor, Austin Tech Alliance, Downtown Austin Alliance, Austin Board of Realtors and Glasshouse Policy are teaming up to put on a CodeNEXT Game Night later this month. The evening will consist of an interactive Lego-based game that is designed to help residents understand how population increases, land availability and pricing affect the layout of the city. There will also be other games, prizes, food and refreshments. CodeNEXT Game Night will take place on June 27 in the Capital Factory, beginning at 5:30 p.m.


Friday, June 23, 2017 by Lisa Dreher

Council bans electronic smoking devices

City Council approved an ordinance adding electronic smoking devices to the city’s general ordinance banning smoking in public areas on Thursday. In May, the city manager was directed to draft code amendments to add these devices, which include e-cigarettes and vape pens that allow ingestion of nicotine in vapor, liquid or aerosol form, to the code. In a separate agenda item, Council approved prohibiting vending machines that sell electronic smoking devices in public. The ordinance amending the city code also added language prohibiting giving free electronic smoking devices or coupons for those smoking devices to minors, which is punishable with a fine no less than $100 for the first offense, no less than $200 for the second offense within 12 months of the first and no less than $500 for the third. The ordinance also officially changed the name of the Health and Human Services Department to the Austin Public Health Department, so update your files accordingly.


Friday, June 23, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

AISD board preps for special called meeting

The Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees will spend next Monday tying up the loose ends of its November bond proposal. Before taking a formal vote to call the election, the board will first hear from the community. At the last board meeting earlier this week, trustees emphasized the fact that any plan would not result in a tax increase, and heard from residents with mixed feelings about a proposal to relocate the Liberal Arts and Science Academy. At this special called meeting, trustees will also vote to appoint board officers. It begins at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, June 26, at the Carruth Administration Center, 1111 W. Sixth Street, Room B100.


Friday, June 23, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

Cheers!

With temperatures expected to climb over 100 degrees today, you might not be in the mood to celebrate water conservation, but the Austin Water Utility is doing it anyway. Yesterday, City Council officially honored a decade of water conservation and “Austin Water’s commitment to providing a sustainable, reliable water supply for all Austin citizens, now and into the future.” A press release commemorating Water Conservation Day (which was technically yesterday) explained, “In spite of tremendous population growth and historic drought, Austin has exceeded ambitious water conservation goals set by City Council. Water use in Austin has dropped to 122 gallons per capita per day (GPCD), down more than 35% from a high of 190 GPCD a decade ago.”


Thursday, June 22, 2017 by Jack Craver

Council to vote on new CodeNEXT timeline

City Council is scheduled to vote on a new timeline for CodeNEXT at its meeting today. The current timeline has the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission deliberating on the second draft of the code in October, after which Council will take up the code, ideally approving it on first reading in December and on third and final reading in either March or April. The proposed new timeline, put forward by Council Member Alison Alter, offers the land use commissions more time to give input, including on the third and final draft of the code drawn up by the CodeNEXT consultants. Alter’s resolution does not have Council doing a vote on first reading until February, although it still aims for the third reading to take place in April.


Thursday, June 22, 2017 by Sommer Brugal

Austin Energy seeks new power purchase agreement

Austin Energy requested the approval of a 15-year power purchase agreement at the Electric Utility Commission meeting Monday evening. The recommended purchase is for 200 megawatts of utility-scale, wind-generated electricity capacity expected to cost $17.5 million per year. It is estimated to cost a total of $262.5 million. Khalil Shalabi, Austin Energy’s vice president of energy market operations and resource planning, explained why the utility feels it’s a good time to enter into a power purchase agreement. “The reason we’re doing it now is because the production tax credits are to be rolled off by the federal government unless they’re extended another time,” said Shalabi. He said this technology is quite mature and prices for such technologies aren’t expected to go down. Still, many commissioners questioned the higher-than-usual price. According to Shalabi, though, the utility stands to gain because this project is set to generate high revenues. “This particular project is a coastal wind project, and we saw that it really did generate a lot of revenue during peak hours during the day,” he said. The commission passed the request unanimously, and the proposal is scheduled for discussion before City Council today.


Thursday, June 22, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Real Estate Council welcomes new vice president

The Real Estate Council of Austin has hired Geoffrey Tahuahua as its new vice president of policy and government affairs. Most recently, Tahuahua was vice president of public policy for the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, a post he took in 2015. He’s also worked for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and as district director for state Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio). In this new position, Tahuahua will oversee the council’s policy and advocacy, work on issues affecting the commercial real estate industry, and manage its City of Austin Policy & CodeNEXT and Regional Issues committees.


Thursday, June 22, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

Out of reach

There’s a new report that examines the gap between what Travis County renters earn and what they can afford, and Out of Reach 2017 lives up to its name. The report, which is online here, found that Travis County residents that work full time must earn a wage of $21.65 to afford a two-bedroom apartment (or work 117 hours a week at minimum wage). That puts our area in the high range of housing costs for renters, who make up about 48 percent of county households.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017 by Austin Monitor

Downtown bus lanes to get rehab

Yesterday, the city began emergency spot repairs of Guadalupe and Lavaca bus lanes between Second and 18th streets. Now, far be it from we modest journalists at the Austin Monitor to spike the ball, but you might remember our coverage on how bus traffic on this section of the road is causing the pavement in the outside of the lanes to fail. In an email, Public Works Department spokesperson Alexandria Bruton told us, “This has been on our radar for a while but your coverage certainly helped raised the profile. We heard a lot from the community, which coupled with the fast deteriorating conditions, made this project a high priority to get done.” We’re absolutely happy to share the credit with the concerned public at large, and our greatest satisfaction is that bus riders, drivers and cyclists will enjoy a less teeth-shattering experience on one of the city’s busiest roadways. As for the project details themselves, according to a city press release, repairs “will involve removing the existing asphalt and subgrade material, and replacing it with a new, more robust pavement structure.” Repairs will also involve lane reductions while the repairs are made – Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. – through the end of June. The Public Works Department continued, “The emergency spot repairs in the downtown area are the first phase of a larger effort to address failing pavement in the bus lanes along the Guadalupe corridor. Additional repair work is planned this summer for Guadalupe from 20th Street to Koenig Lane.” The department promised to release more information once it becomes available.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017 by Jo Clifton

State complex deal may be postponed

The Texas Facilities Commission has plans to create a pedestrian-oriented Texas Mall with two new state office buildings, just north of the state Capitol, as part of the Texas Capitol Project Master Plan. It is asking the city to help out in that process by waiving $6.9 million in utility tunnel easement and right-of-way usage fees. In addition, the state is asking the city to vacate and convey to the state some right-of-way at North Congress Avenue and 17th Street. But it’s all moving a little too fast for some members of City Council, including Council Member Ann Kitchen. Council got details on the project at Tuesday’s work session from Rodney Gonzales, director of the Development Services Department. Gonzales noted that the state is asking for an expedited process, including Council approval on Thursday. Kitchen told the Austin Monitor she and perhaps other Council members would be asking for a postponement on Thursday. If the item is postponed, the state can still go forward with its excavations in June but Council would not direct staff to negotiate an interlocal agreement with the facilities commission until August. She said, “I don’t think that two days provides sufficient time for the public to provide us with any feedback they might have. … So normally on projects as large as this we would take more time. We’re being asked to invest well over $6.9 million of the city’s dollars, so I think it’s prudent,” to wait and study the issues. Kitchen said she would be asking for the postponement “whether it was the state or anyone else, I would be asking the same question.”


Wednesday, June 21, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Project Connect steams into Commissioners Court

Staff from the Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority on Tuesday gave the Travis County Commissioners Court an update on Project Connect, the high-capacity transit planning effort aimed at getting residents into, out of and around Central Austin. The agency is wrapping up the first phase of the rebooted process, in which planners identified potential corridors suitable for big new investments, as well as existing services ripe for substantial enhancements. Capital Metro’s Joe Clemens specifically mentioned three projects that he identified as relevant to the county’s interests: the planned Green Line MetroRail service from downtown Austin to Elgin; MetroExpress service from Austin to Hutto; and bus-rapid transit on I-35 that would connect to the southern reaches of the county (left unmentioned were any enhanced services along Guadalupe Street downtown, where the county’s criminal and civil justice complex sits blocks away from the county’s administrative headquarters). While Commissioner Brigid Shea expressed pleasure with the idea of utilizing existing rail to establish commuter service to the eastern parts of the county, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was blunt in his distaste for what he suggested would be a low-ridership line. “The Green Line, as far as I’m concerned is the stupidest thing we can do,” Daugherty said.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

County seeks input on potential bond projects

The Travis County Citizens Bond Advisory Committee is ready to take its ranked list of more than a billion dollars’ worth of potential bond projects out for public review. The committee has spent the last four months weighing the $1.1 billion list and has at last ascribed each one a priority ranking on a four-part scale. This evening, county staff and members of the committee will trot out the revised list at the first of six public meetings to be held across the county. Feedback from those events will be collected and weighed in future revisions of the list. The Travis County Commissioners Court will ultimately decide later this summer which, if any, projects will go before the voters this November.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

AISD Board Approves Item List for 2017 Bond Election

Short of initiating the bond election itself, the Austin Independent School District Board moved closer to setting it in motion by voting to approve the list of items for the bond 8-1 at their June 19th regular meeting, with Trustee Ted Gordon dissenting. The current project total sits at $990 million $952,644,000, and superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz explained that the majority of the package would be funded by the bond itself, contingency funds, and land sales. The administration cautioned the board before their deliberation that going too far over $1 billion would increase the tax rate. Board president Kendall Pace cited a recent poll where the majority of those surveyed said that they would not vote for a bond that increased the tax rate, and fears still linger from the last bond election in 2013 when two propositions of the package failed. Several amendments adding or subtracting projects were proposed at the meeting, but all of them failed except for one from Trustee Ann Teich, which passed 4-1-4. Her amendment proposed to add the Northeast Middle School to the list if that could be done at a cost that would keep the total under $1 billion. However, there was some confusion among some of the trustees as to what the vote was about, and the board later voted to rescind the amendment 7-1-1. Still, Cruz said he would look into it and report back next week. There remains a possibility that more amendments will be added next Monday when the board meets again before they are expected to officially make the order to call for the 2017 bond election.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Austin’s federal housing funds to continue for now

Although staff members in the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department have worried about their budget since President Donald Trump announced his proposal to eliminate numerous federal programs, they were able to breathe a sigh of relief after learning late last week that funding for such stalwarts as the Community Development Block Grant Program would continue through Fiscal Year 2017-18. In a press release issued on Monday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development noted that Austin would receive almost $7.2 million in block grant funding as well as more than $2.5 million for the HOME Investment Partnerships Program. Through the use of these grants, the department is able to provide housing assistance to low-income residents and the homeless, as well as services for special needs populations, including people with HIV/AIDS. These amounts represent roughly the same amount that the city is receiving this year. Those two programs currently pay for the salaries of 33 employees in the department. Federal funding will also continue for services in the Department of Health and Human Services. In his budget announcement, Trump proposed to eliminate more than $4 billion for HUD and $4.8 billion for health and human services. It remains to be seen what kind of budget Congress will adopt in September, which will impact the city’s FY 2018-19 budget.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Help shape the Seaholm Waterfront

The city is currently working on plans for transforming the Seaholm Waterfront, made up of the historic intake facility and associated parkland along Lady Bird Lake. Give the Parks and Recreation Department, along with the Austin Parks Foundation and Trail Foundation, your two cents at the first community input meeting on Saturday, June 24. Beginning at 9 a.m., residents can share their thoughts at four different locations: the Seaholm Intake Facility, the Butler Splash Pad, the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge and Vic Mathias Auditorium Shores Deck. There will be snacks on hand at each station. Those who can’t make it during the event (which wraps at 11 a.m.) can give their feedback in an online survey. Find a map of the public input stations here.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017 by Nina Hernandez

Mabel Davis Pool closed for the summer

Yesterday, the city announced Mabel Davis Pool won’t open this swim season. The Southeast Austin facility was temporarily closed earlier this summer when the Parks and Recreation Department found it was leaking more than 200,000 gallons of water per day. According to a press release, crews found “significant leaks in the pool’s return lines” upon further inspection. As for the rest of the summer: Residents can take advantage of shuttle service from the site to the nearby Garrison Pool. Find a full list of pools and splash pads on the city’s website.


Monday, June 19, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Updated: Car-free Congress Ave.

The Main Street of Texas could soon borrow a page from the French, if Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo has her way. The District 9 City Council member is planning on introducing a proposal at Thursday’s meeting that could clear all cars from a lengthy stretch of Congress Avenue, at least for one as-yet-undetermined day next year. The item would direct the city manager to explore the costs of the proposal, which is aimed at paving the way for what would be Bike Austin’s largest-ever Ciclovia, an event focused on spreading the gospel of two-wheeled transportation. However, the scale of this proposed Ciclovia would also allow for a much larger outdoor party in general: Tovo is looking to ban cars from Congress Avenue from 11th Street all the way down to Mary Street, a total distance of about two miles.The proposal is reminiscent of action other cities have taken to occasionally reclaim streets for pedestrians and bicyclists, include the monthly car bans on Paris’ iconic Champs-Elysees. Tovo’s office tells the Austin Monitor that major stakeholders are on board, including the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, the South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association, South Congress Merchants Association and the Downtown Austin Alliance. If Council approves the mayor pro tem’s resolution on Thursday, the city manager would bring a full report back on Oct. 1.

Update: Tovo’s office told the Monitor on Monday afternoon that the Mayor Pro Tem has decided to ask the city manager to report back to Council on Sept. 1 in order for Council to have the information well in hand ahead of budget adoption later that month.


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