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Whispers

Thursday, April 11, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Planning Commission has new officer lineup

The beginning of April is that magical time when officer elections take place at the Planning Commission. After a year of service, most of which occurred during the all-consuming discussions of CodeNEXT, the commission’s executive team decided to really change things up this year. Chair James Shieh’s experience with CodeNEXT gave him the epiphany that instead of busying himself with the administrative tasks of chair, “I would actually enjoy taking the time and diving back into (the issues).” After he stepped down from the role of chair, he was elected unanimously to serve as parliamentarian. Former Vice Chair Fayez Kazi took his place as chair. The newly vacated vice chair position was filled by Conor Kenny after Yvette Flores declined a nomination for the position, filling up the commission’s executive team with fervent urbanists. Commissioner Todd Shaw noted that this chair/vice chair duo was likely to set the commission up for success as the new land development code starts to come through commissions. In an unexpected twist, the secretary, Patricia Seeger, was absent from the April 8 meeting and was unable to acknowledge on the record whether or not she wanted to continue in her position. Although she was nominated, only Commissioner Shaw voted for her. The remaining commissioners voted for Commissioner Flores as secretary, a position she happily accepted.


Thursday, April 11, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Austin Energy’s EVs for Schools program wins two awards

This week, Austin’s EVs for Schools program made headlines for providing electric vehicle charging stations to Akins, Lanier and Travis high schools and Kealing Middle School. Fast Company recognized the initiative in its 2019 World Changing Ideas Awards and the program received a 2019 Smart 50 Award at the Smart Cities Connect Gala in Denver. Along with the charging stations, the EVs for Schools initiative provides AISD teachers with a related curriculum that allows teachers and students to use the stations to collect data and measure usage for STEM-related projects on electric vehicles, green energy and sustainable mobility. The program began in November 2018 with the goal of educating city residents about the power of electricity. “Ensuring we included schools with significant representation of low-income students is important to demonstrate that these new technologies are accessible and for everyone,” said Amy Atchley, Austin Energy’s senior project lead for the program. Now that the city utility has been awarded for its work combating one of the major issues facing humanity, there is almost no likelihood that this innovative EV technology will slow down.


Thursday, April 11, 2019 by Tai Moses

Art museum director leaving post

Louis Grachos, who has served as executive director and CEO of the Contemporary Austin since 2013, will be stepping down from his position to take up a new post as executive director of the Palm Springs Art Museum. Margie Rine, currently the museum’s deputy director, will act as interim director until a new leader is found. Said Kathleen Loughlin, president of the museum’s board of trustees, “The Board of Trustees is grateful to Louis for the dedication and enthusiasm he brought to The Contemporary Austin, to its staff, and to the broader arts community over the past seven years. He is leaving the organization stronger than it has ever been.” The board is preparing to launch an international search for a new director and CEO.

 

 


Wednesday, April 10, 2019 by Tai Moses

With spring, the Soil Kitchen gets cooking

For many people, spring means planting season. And what’s the single most important element of successful gardening? Healthy soil, of course! The city of Austin has all sorts of resources to help home gardeners, and one of the coolest is the Austin Soil Kitchen, which offers free soil testing to determine whether there is any harmful stuff in your soil or if your soil needs amending so it can nurture the plants you’re cultivating. Just bring a sample of your dirt – ahem, soil – to the kitchen and it will be tested for nutrients and screened for heavy metals by representatives from the city’s Brownfields Office, which runs the Soil Kitchen. Bring soil from your backyard, neighborhood school or community garden. Visit the Soil Kitchen at the East Austin Garden Fair at Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center, 2608 Gonzales St., on Saturday, April 13, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Sunday, April 14, from 9 a.m. to noon. Learn how to collect a soil sample on the Soil Kitchen page. For more info about gardening in Central Texas, visit the city’s Grow Green page or Travis County Master Gardeners.


Wednesday, April 10, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Elliott to talk about raising people out of poverty

Capital Idea and Austin Interfaith are extending invitations to presentations in Austin today by researcher Mark Elliott about the positive economic impact of helping low-income adults earn credentials that give them access to strong sectors of the economy, particularly health care, trades and technology. Elliott and his team have done a study of Project QUEST in San Antonio to determine the project’s impact on earnings, following graduates over a nine-year period. According to Elliott, the study found that “investing in the skills of low-income workers not only can make a difference, it can move families out of poverty into the middle class.” Steve Jackobs of Capital Idea notes that Elliott has received $1 million from the nonprofit Arnold Ventures so that he and his colleagues can do a study of the impact of training provided by Capital Idea, which is modeled after Project QUEST. The city of Austin has provided funding for Capital Idea. Elliott will be making a presentation at noon in Room E1.010 at the Texas State Capitol, and at 3:30 p.m. in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall. Everyone is invited.


Wednesday, April 10, 2019 by Tai Moses

Slaughter Lane open house

Those who live or work near Slaughter Lane will want to stay in the know about planned improvements to the corridor funded by the 2016 Mobility Bond. In fact, you can spend this Saturday afternoon at the city’s Slaughter Lane Corridor Public Office Hours event learning all about the mobility, safety and connectivity improvements planned for Slaughter Lane between FM 1826 and Bluff Springs Road. Stop by anytime between 1:30 and 4:30 p.m to meet members of the Slaughter Lane corridor team, who will be happy to answer all of your questions and provide updates. Saturday, April 13, Circle C Community Center, 7817 La Crosse Ave.


Tuesday, April 9, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Heavy lifting starts today on new land code

At today’s work session, Council is scheduled to begin the process of answering the questions posed by City Manager Spencer Cronk concerning revisions to the city’s land development code. Cronk asked Council members to make clear whether they wanted a wholesale revision of the code or merely a rewrite of certain portions. From their postings on the City Council Message Board, it seems most Council members agree they want a complete rewrite. The other questions will prove more difficult as they relate to density, compatibility standards and parking requirements. Council Member Greg Casar and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, as well as Mayor Steve Adler, have stressed the importance of moving forward with the goal of making major changes in 2019. Everyone agrees that the new rewrite “should ensure that the housing capacity for the city is significantly increased,” as Garza and Casar have stated. However, it is difficult to see how the city can achieve the goal of increasing the number of housing units by 135,000 in the next 10 years, even with a radical change to land use regulations. Council members Jimmy Flannigan, Pio Renteria, Ann Kitchen and Natasha Harper-Madison pose a number of questions and suggest their answers. For example, what should the city do about parking requirements? Their answer is: “One option could be to eliminate parking minimums city-wide and adopt parking maximums or minimum unit-yield in areas necessary to ensure sufficient transit-supportive development. Another option could be to eliminate parking minimums except in areas that require a more context-sensitive approach. Both options should be done with the understanding that parking supply will still be determined by both the market and federally mandated ADA-accessible parking and Transportation Demand Management (TDM) requirements.” Today’s conversation could be lengthy and will continue at Thursday’s Council meeting with the public invited to offer input.


Tuesday, April 9, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

‘Agent of change,’ still

The city’s ongoing work to gather community feedback regarding sound compatibility and noise issues between entertainment venues and nearby residents continues this weekend. The next community engagement session connected to the so-called “agent of change” issue will take place Saturday, April 13, at 1:30 p.m. at City Hall on West Second Street, with the city’s consultant presenting draft recommendations that will shape possible ordinance language for City Council consideration later this spring. Stakeholders in the live music community have pushed for city action on the issue for nearly four years, with a 2017 proposed ordinance process getting shut down prior to reaching Council because of lack of agreement between hotel interests, neighborhood groups and live music venue representatives. Those three groups appear to have found more common ground this time. Most seem optimistic that the city can implement expectations for soundproofing and prior notification for developers building near venues, and clear expectations for noise limits and sound mitigation for venues near hotels and residential areas.


Tuesday, April 9, 2019 by Tai Moses

Help the parks department plan for the future

On May 2, Austin Parks & Recreation is set to launch its second round of community conversations around the theme “Our Parks, Our Future.” Feedback from the public will assist park planners in selecting which parks and facilities to update over the next decade as well as what kind of recreational programming is most popular.  During the first phase of this long-range planning process, more than 4,000 Austinites weighed in with suggestions and ideas. PARD Environmental Conservation Program Manager Kim McKnight says the next round of discussions “will provide an opportunity for us to combine what we heard from the public with the data we gathered about needs and gaps in services and amenities.” Five community engagement meetings held in locations across the city will take place May 2-4. For the dates and locations of the meetings, visit the website.


Monday, April 8, 2019 by Elizabeth Pagano

Equity Office awards grants

Austin’s Equity Office has awarded 10 “mini grants.” According to an April 5 memo from Chief Equity Officer Brion Oaks, “The awardees were selected by a community review panel composed of one representative from each of our four Quality of Life Commissions: African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic/Latino, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer. Interest, and participation, in the Equity Mini-Grant Fund exceeded expectations. Over 120 applications were received and the review panel logged over 100 hours of volunteer time in the review and decision-making process.” In the end, the city awarded the $75,000 in grants to NAMI Austin, Black Mamas Community Collective, Texas Legal Services/People’s Community Clinic, Hand to Hold, Book Boosters, Austin Community Design and Development Center, Youth Unlimited, Educators in Solidarity, Perez Elementary, and North Shoal Creek Community Garden. For more information about the grants and organizations, the full memo is available online. The Equity Office and Mayor Steve Adler will be recognizing the awardees and reviewers in a ceremony to be held April 24 at City Hall.


Monday, April 8, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin’s job market, again

The most recent jobs report from the Austin Chamber paints the local economy as typically rosy and pointed upward. In its summary for the month of March, the chamber showed Austin adding 23,800 new jobs in the 12 months that ended in February, with approximately 46,000 jobs available in March. That second number was 1,300 less than in March 2018, but still shows Austin companies are dealing with a need to find talent and people to fill open positions. Of those available jobs, 19 percent were classified under “Computer and Mathematical Operations,” with “Management Occupations” and “Food Preparation and Serving Related Occupations” also making up growing portions of the local job landscape. The area’s unemployment rate remains low at 3 percent – 36,500 in February – with a total area labor force of more than 1.2 million.


Monday, April 8, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Sexual assault exams on the rise in Austin

Non-report evidence collection for sexual assaults is up. But that’s a good thing, Jenny Black, the director of forensic nursing at SAFE Alliance’s Eloise House, told the Public Safety Commission at its April 1 meeting. “I think it’s important that we have strong numbers of non-reports,” said Black, explaining that having collected evidence allows victims time to make a decision on whether or not they want to press charges at a later date. According to her, the average time an evidence kit sits on a shelf before an assault is reported to law enforcement is 9.5 weeks. Due to the traumatic nature of sexual assault, under-reporting of the crime is rampant. Data shows that in Texas, only about 9 percent of sexual assault victims report their assaults to police, and an even smaller percentage (3.5 percent) ever see a sexual assault nurse. At Eloise House, the numbers are higher, and those who see a nurse but don’t report has risen from 8 percent of patients in 2015 to 22 percent last year. While no one wants to see more patients that would help increase those numbers, Black noted that she is hopeful the numbers will continue to rise in order to give more survivors a path to justice when they are ready to pursue it.


Monday, April 8, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Austin’s changing demographics cause for concern in the Barton Springs Zone

It’s no secret that Austin’s population is exploding, and forecasts that the city’s population will expand to 1 million by 2020 is a subject of concern for many. What is surprising about this boom is that it is actually nothing new. Since 1900, Austin’s population has doubled every 20 years, according to Environmental Commissioner Hank Smith and city demographer Ryan Robinson. Robinson came to the April 3 meeting of the Environmental Commission to give commissioners an overview of the changing demographics and the corresponding changes in the cityscape and its effect on the environment. In Austin proper, it turns out that growth is declining. However, that decrease in humanity is made up for by the meteoric growth in surrounding suburbs and counties, especially northern Hays County. Robinson said the sheer population growth in this area should have environmentalists and residents concerned about the preservation of water quality within the Barton Springs Zone. Commissioner Pam Thompson pointed out that water is of great concern in the Central Texas region, and that “it would be interesting to see water use and how that has been affected (by population growth).” While Robinson didn’t have any data on water usage, he did have data on housing – and prices are rising dramatically. The average median home price in 2000 was $144,500; by 2018, it had risen to $325,000. Robinson said the steep rise is a result of continued demand for high-end home stock and that the challenge for the city could require widening the definition of “home” to something other than a single-family house with a yard. Beyond that, he added, “To me, the ultimate fix is high-capacity transit.”


Friday, April 5, 2019 by Tai Moses

Bus or light rail? FTA wants your input

Interested in Austin’s transportation future? If so, this public meeting on the future Orange Line rapid transit corridor is your chance to help transportation authorities choose between light rail, bus rapid transit and autonomous rapid transit. The meeting is hosted by Capital Metro and the Federal Transit Administration and takes place Monday, April 8, 3-7 p.m. at Austin Central Library, 710 W. Cesar Chavez St. After hearing the proposals, you’ll be able to tell city, federal and agency leadership what you want to see on the 2020 ballot.


Friday, April 5, 2019 by Tai Moses

Find your dream job at city job expo

Looking for a new job or thinking of switching careers? Sometimes there really is a good reason to attend a job fair. The Austin Career Expo is hosted by the city in the interest of building a more vibrant – and gainfully employed – community. The expo features a wide range of local employers all hoping to attract talent; check out this impressive list of all the employers who have registered to attend the expo. The free event is on April 17, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs Road. As the expo’s motto says, “Keep Austin hired!


Friday, April 5, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Wildland-Urban Interface Code under development a year past original adoption date

As Austin tops lists for U.S. cities at risk of wildfire damage, having a code that accounts for everything from managing vegetation to fire-safe requirements for new development is crucial. However, after Council provided a plan and a timeline for adoption in November 2016, the Austin Fire Department’s Wildland-Urban Interface Code has still not been implemented. Originally, the WUI was to be adopted in January 2018, but KXAN reported that as early as summer 2017 there were delays in its implementation. The timeline has continued to be pushed back, and in an update to the Public Safety Commission on April 1, the Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Division gave a revised timeline that said, “Due to extensive engagement with key partners … a reasonable target for Council adoption would be early summer of this year, May or June, with actual implementation as early as January 2020.” However, implementation will be contingent on approval of program and personnel funding, neither of which were listed in the fire department’s preliminary 2020 budget.


Thursday, April 4, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

City searches for consultant to review APD sexual assault cases

After Council mandated an independent review of police handling of sexual assault cases, the city manager’s office has been busy laying the groundwork to engage a consultant to examine sexual assaults reported to Austin police over the past seven years. Joe Silva from the city manager’s office came to the April 1 meeting of the Public Safety Commission to inform the commissioners that city management expects to have the engagement process finalized in the next couple of weeks. On April 8, the department will release the solicitation for consultant which will be available for a month before the application is closed and the procurement process begins. Silva said that they anticipate coming before Council in August with a proposed contract. To better participate in the procurement process, Chair Rebecca Webber initiated the formation of a working group that will comprise herself; Rebecca Gonzales, an expert in contract procurement and consulting; and Rebecca Bernhardt, a subject matter expert in sexual assault victim advocacy. Silva also cleared up the confusion surrounding the age of victims and when an assault should be classified as statutory rape or rape; the age limit is 17 years old.


Thursday, April 4, 2019 by Tai Moses

A civil rights history maker comes to Kealing

Dr. Terrence Roberts, one of the famed Little Rock Nine, will be speaking with Kealing Middle School seventh-graders today, Thursday, as part of the students’ Civil Rights and Social Justice Seminar. The Little Rock Nine was a group of African-American teens who became the first black students ever to attend classes at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. Roberts was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton in 1999. Roberts will speak with two groups of students, at 9:30-11:30 a.m. and 1- 2:30 p.m. at Kealing Middle School, 1607 Pennsylvania Ave.


Thursday, April 4, 2019 by Elizabeth Pagano

Coming soon: State of the City

Mayor Steve Adler will deliver this year’s State of the City at a familiar venue: Austin City Hall. Adler will deliver his speech on Wednesday, April 17, from 5-6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, but those hoping to catch the action live should reserve a ticket. Those OK with watching from their couch can catch the event on the city’s television station, ATXN.


Wednesday, April 3, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

RECA offers its help with land use code reboot

The Real Estate Council of Austin has weighed in on the future of the city’s land use code rewrite, and wants local leaders to take aggressive steps to add housing supply as an answer to the growing affordability crisis. Last week the group submitted a two-page memo responding to City Manager Spencer Cronk’s five policy questions for City Council members related to the now-idle CodeNEXT process. The memo advocates for a whole new land development code and zoning map, a goal of adding 287,000 new housing units, gradually expanding the variety of allowed housing types to address “missing middle” options to add density, relaxed compatibility standards especially along transportation corridors and transit-oriented developments, and reducing on-site parking requirements. In a letter to members, RECA explained its positions and offered information or other expertise to those leading the rewrite once it is rebooted in the coming months. The letter restated the group’s emphasis on policies that can address affordability by making it easier and less expensive to add new housing to the Austin market.


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