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Thursday, May 23, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki
Austin’s park system gets rated
Austin ranked 43rd in a recent index looking at the quality of parks systems in 100 U.S. cities by the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore index. The analysis – the group’s eighth – is based on the belief that city residents should have easy access to parks, with the goal of having a park located within a 10-minute walk from where they live. Washington, D.C., claimed the top spot in the rankings, with Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Minneapolis claiming second and third place, respectively. The finer points of Austin’s ranking show the city ranks low in access – 59 percent of residents achieving the 10-minute rule – but better in terms of acreage and total investment made to the city’s 359 parks. The study also looks at the demographic breakdown of park access as well as the geographic distribution of parks across the city.
Thursday, May 23, 2019 by Katy McElroy
Cap MetroRail construction begins June 3
Heads up: Capital Metro’s MetroRail construction begins next month and it will affect service. Starting June 3, the Downtown Station will close through the end of 2019 to accommodate work to expand and enhance the current temporary station. In addition, MetroRail’s weekend service will be discontinued until the end of the year to allow for the implementation of a positive train control system to meet federal requirements. The agency will be amping up its MetroExpress service and the High-Frequency Network to cover the service interruption. Of note on weekdays:
- The Route 451 Downtown/Saltillo Shuttle will take MetroRail riders from Plaza Saltillo to Fourth and Trinity streets. Note that MetroRail trains will leave at their scheduled times and not wait for shuttles, so customers heading north should plan accordingly.
- MetroExpress Routes 980 and 985 will have additional service to accommodate new riders.
- Commuters catching the bus home from downtown should use the MetroExpress bus stop at Guadalupe and Fifth streets (Stop ID 2612).
On weekends, instead of the Saturday rail service, the following buses will run:
- MetroExpress Route 980 North MoPac Express will operate between 4 p.m. and midnight, serving Howard Station, downtown and the UT campus.
- MetroExpress Route 985 Leander/Lakeline Direct will operate between 4 p.m. and midnight, serving Leander and Lakeline stations, downtown and the UT campus.
Wednesday, May 22, 2019 by Tai Moses
Eighth-grader launches campaign to pay off school lunch debt
Eighth-grader Ben Hofer doesn’t think any kid deserves to go hungry at lunchtime. When he learned that about 5,000 Austin school kids carry a school lunch debt, he didn’t think it was very fair. So he started a fundraising campaign to raise $18,000 to pay off all of the school lunch debt at Austin ISD’s 129 schools. He calls the project LunchCounts! and to date, he’s raised more than $10,000 with the GoFundMe campaign he launched on April 21. This Thursday, May 23, at 2 p.m. Ben will present the district with a check at a ceremony at Blazier Elementary School, 8601 Vertex Blvd. The 14-year-old says that if he reaches his fundraising goal this year, he will make Lunch Counts! an annual fundraiser.
Wednesday, May 22, 2019 by Jack Craver
New online tax protest system leads to fewer settlements, more appeals
The May 20 meeting of the Travis Central Appraisal District Board did not assuage former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire’s concerns about TCAD’s new process for dealing with tax protests. Under the new system, the first step for property owners who want to protest their tax appraisals is no longer a face-to-face meeting with TCAD staff. Instead, they submit their evidence online and wait for an electronic response. Ninety percent of the face-to-face meetings ended with settlements, with taxpayers getting an average of a 6 percent reduction from the initial appraisal, said Aleshire, who works as an attorney for ProTax, which represents property owners protesting appraisals. At the May 20 meeting, Betty Thompson, the chair of the board, reported that only 20 percent of protests were expected to be settled via the new online system. As a result, there will be far more taxpayers taking their protests to the Appraisal Review Board, which will now set up 40 three-person panels to hear the protests. The hearings will begin June 4 and are expected to wrap up on Aug. 30. Each panel will be expected to hear 40 cases a day, beginning at 8 a.m. During the meeting, members of the ARB discussed providing lunch to the panelists out of concern that there wouldn’t be enough time for lunch breaks. Aleshire said he expects the process to be grueling and that many of the appointees may quit as a result. “It’s a train wreck,” he said.
Wednesday, May 22, 2019 by Tai Moses
AISD greets new leaders
Austin Independent School District has announced a new crop of school principals. Chaolin Chang has been named principal of Joslin Elementary School. Chang was previously the principal of a Mandarin immersion magnet school in Houston, and prior to that was assistant principal at AISD’s Graham Elementary School. Stacy Foss, who was the assistant principal at Maplewood Elementary, will be principal of Pease Elementary School. Melissa Rodriguez, who has been with AISD for 15 years, is the new principal at Linder Elementary School. Kara Karam Schultz will be principal at Ridgetop Elementary School, where she has served as assistant principal since 2012. Steven Covin has been appointed the new principal of Lanier Early College High School, where he started as an English teacher in 2004. Said AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz, “Our principals are the leaders of school communities, and I know our schools are in great hands with our new principals. I look forward to seeing their positive impact on students, families and staff.” Meanwhile, AISD trustees have approved the appointments of three new executive directors. LaKesha Drinks and Deborah Warnken were both named executive directors of school leadership while Rosa Pena will be the executive director of human resource services.
Wednesday, May 22, 2019 by Katy McElroy
Transit work begins on Guadalupe
Construction began Monday on extensive improvements to Guadalupe Street and Lavaca Street. Those passing through the area should expect to experience delays during the initial construction phase, which will last at least four weeks. Access to all properties adjacent to the project will be maintained. The work involves a full 24-hour lane closure on Guadalupe Street between 18th Street and 100 feet north of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which went into place Saturday, and there will be intermittent lane closures on parts of Lavaca and 18th streets. The project is a collaboration of the Austin Transportation Department, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Corridor Program Office and is funded by the 2016 mobility bond. This area is one of the highest-volume passenger corridors in the city. Following these improvements, each bus traveling through the corridor is projected to move approximately 18 percent faster, saving 65 seconds during peak evening travel periods. General purpose traffic travel times are anticipated to remain the same.
- a new full traffic signal at Lavaca Street and 18th Street, including a bus-only signal phase
- a transit signal at Guadalupe Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard
- striping changes on Guadalupe Street, 18th Street and Lavaca Street
- a new northbound contraflow bus lane on Guadalupe Street between 18th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard
- upgrades to the existing bicycle infrastructure on these streets and a new shared-use bike and pedestrian path on the east side of Guadalupe Street between 18th Street and Martin Luther King Jr.
You can see an illustration of the planned improvements and transit corridor here.
Tuesday, May 21, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns
Watershed Protection Department set to update master plan
The first time the Watershed Protection Department put its mission to “Protect the lives, property, and environment of our community by reducing the impact of flooding, erosion, and water pollution” into an actionable, long-range plan was in 2001. The Environmental Commission approved a major update in 2015. Now, with the 20th anniversary of putting pen to paper coming up, it’s time to modernize the plan. Matt Hollon with the Watershed Protection Department told the Environmental Commission at its May 15 meeting that the department is headed into the second phase of its three-phase plan update. Hollon said the “original goals and objectives are still in the plan today,” and that right now the department is “drafting and publishing minor content updates.” Phase two, which begins in September, is a public engagement phase where the department will ask for input on the overall community vision for the Watershed Protection Department and discuss incorporating climate change considerations into the plan. Then the plan is to “put all this stuff together in 2021,” said Hollon. The commissioners approved of the intentions and approach to the master plan update but asked that the plan be considered in a wider context of city climate goals and environmental concerns. Commissioner Katie Coyne encouraged the department to “think more holistically what a watershed master plan should be” and put it in the context of the Green Infrastructure Priority Program and the Austin Community Climate Plan. Chair Linda Guerrero suggested taking some of the commission’s suggestions from the two-year CodeNEXT planning process to see “how they might jive with this updated version (of the plan).”
Tuesday, May 21, 2019 by Katy McElroy
Norman modernization project kicks off
This Thursday, May 23, parents, students, teachers and staff will celebrate the groundbreaking of the Norman Elementary Modernization Project and invite the entire community to join them. The 12 months of construction aims to turn the school into a 21st-century learning space, characterized by the smart use of space, integration of technology, collaborative workstations, outdoor learning spaces and student mobility in the classroom. “We are inviting all former students of Norman and Sims elementary schools to attend the groundbreaking. This is the next step in a bold new beginning for both the school and our community,” said Norman Principal Wendy Mills in a press release. Mills serves as principal of the currently co-located Sims and Norman schools. The celebration kicks off at 9 a.m. with a student parade from Sims to Norman and will be followed by a ceremony at the Norman campus at 9:30. Then, a community construction meeting will be held at Norman at 10:15 a.m., where the public is invited to meet the architects in charge of the project and discuss the construction schedule and the plan for housing students in an alternative location (if needed).
Tuesday, May 21, 2019 by Tai Moses
Kids eat free with AISD
Summer vacation doesn’t have to mean the end of free school lunches. The Austin Independent School District, in partnership with the Texas Department of Agriculture, is offering free breakfasts and lunches to all children up to the age of 18 this summer, regardless of their school affiliation. A lot of kids rely on school meals during the academic year, and when school lets out, their nutrition suffers. With AISD’s Summer Food Service Program, kids can show up to get a healthy meal at no cost, without any ID – they just have to be human and hungry. Anneliese Tanner, AISD’s executive director of food services, said in the program announcement, “Children need good nutrition year-round so they can learn, grow and succeed in life. With nearly one in four children food-insecure in Austin, these healthy meals are vital to nourishing young Texans during the summer vacation.” Here’s a list of AISD summer meal sites, dates and times. You can also text FOODTX to 877-877.
Tuesday, May 21, 2019 by Katy McElroy
Spring Fling at the Dougherty
The Dougherty Arts Center is celebrating the waning days of spring with a one-day juried art show. The Art Happens Here Spring Fling Festival is billed as a show-and-tell exhibit, sale and all-day art workshop party, where members of the community can meet artists, watch artist demonstrations and play around with hands-on art activities for all ages. To join the fun, head to the Dougherty on Saturday, June 1, from noon to 5 pm.
Monday, May 20, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki
Coalition joins Palm School discussion
The Save Palm School Coalition will hold a press conference this morning to weigh in on the escalating community debate over the future of the historic downtown Palm School property. The group appears to land heavily on the side of using the site as a cultural and community space after 2020 when staff from Travis County departments are set to vacate the building. Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Kathie Tovo are among the officials expected to attend. Last week Tovo produced a 23-page resolution regarding long-term planning for the southeastern portion of downtown, with Palm School as a centerpiece. Several city plans have called for a less development-centric use of the property while leaders from Travis County, which owns the property, seem to be in favor of maximizing the real estate return it could offer. The coalition’s Facebook page makes the differing objectives clear, noting “During the last few years, the Travis County Commissioner’s Court has been in discussions regarding the future of the Palm School site. And while the Court has NOT taken a formal vote regarding the future of the property, the main emphasis to date by County staff has centered around drafting restrictive covenants for the sale or a long-term lease of the Palm School Property to maximize the real estate value of the property. This would inevitably lead towards the maximum redevelopment of the property violating the integrity of Palm School and the nearby Palm Park.”
Monday, May 20, 2019 by Jo Clifton
Tax appraisal battle continues
Watch for some fireworks today at the Travis Appraisal Review Board meeting. Attorney Bill Aleshire tells the Austin Monitor that he plans to testify, not just as an attorney for ProTax tax advisers, but as an outraged citizen. And the war of words continues via email between tax protest companies and the agency assigned to determine the appraised values of Travis County properties. Lorri Michel, an attorney for Five Stone Tax Advisers, has shared with the Monitor letters between her client and Travis Appraisal Review Board Chair Betty Thompson. In the past, up to 90 percent of protests were resolved in face-to-face informal meetings between an ARB agent and a representative of the property owner. This year, Thompson announced an end to the informal hearings but said property owners could submit their protest information in writing and wait for a response from the agency. It is not clear exactly when the formal hearings will begin. Michel said Thompson will not give a date but they first heard a rumor that the hearings would start on May 20; then on June 10, and most recently, June 3. “Keep in mind, Harris County started their formal hearings on May 3,” Michel said. Five Stone has approximately 18,000 clients, each of whom expects that their tax adviser will represent them in a hearing. But as was the case last year, with a reduced schedule and multiple hearings taking place at one time, it will not be possible for the agents to attend all of those hearings. In an email to Thompson, John P. Krueger of Five Stone wrote, “because Five Stone cannot plan, thousands of Travis County taxpayers are being denied due process under the law. It doesn’t have to be that way. You have the power to protect Travis County taxpayers and ensure that all Travis County’s taxpayers receive due process.” Thompson responded, “First, I am not here to reach an agreement with Five Stone re: scheduling any more than I am making agreements with any other firm. That would constitute special treatment.” She also stated, “The ARB’s mission is not and never has been to protect taxpayers; we are charged with certifying the appraisal rolls for the various taxing entities in Travis County by providing a hearing to property owners who are protesting their property value.” It appears to be only a matter of time before Five Stone, ProTax and other tax advisers file suit against the ARB, leaving thousands of taxpayers to wonder whether they will have an opportunity to protest their appraised values.
Monday, May 20, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns
Environmental Commission approves park plans for new East Austin PUD
In far East Austin there’s a sand and gravel mine that also operates as a concrete batch plant, which produces a large portion of the construction concrete for Austin. Spread over 2,000 acres, this plot of land is in the process of becoming a mixed-use planned unit development. “It’s a really interesting project, especially from an environmental perspective,” said Atha Phillips of the Watershed Protection Department at the May 15 meeting of the Environmental Commission. “There are endless possibilities.” Some of these possibilities include 701 acres of open space along the Colorado River with shoreline frontage that is longer than the distance of the shoreline of Lady Bird Lake. “The designs are intended to restore the river’s edge to a natural ecosystem,” Phillips said. Besides restoring wetlands and riparian vegetation, the PUD plans show flood mitigation ponds that are large enough for water recreation activities. The idea, said Steven Spears of GroundWork Development, is that “when major storm events come in they actually go into these areas and not into our adjacent neighbors.” While it’s still in the very early planning stages, the commission unanimously recommended approval of the request for Austin Green Improvement District No. 1. Commissioners Andrew Creel and Curtis Smith were absent.
Correction: An earlier version of this whisper stated that the entire PUD had been recommended for approval by the commission. The whisper has been updated.
Monday, May 20, 2019 by Tai Moses
Downtown Austin Alliance adds new members
The Downtown Austin Alliance has named six new members to its board of directors. The new members were announced at the DAA’s annual meeting on Thursday, May 16. Chinna Natesan, Richard Paddock, Steve Scheibal, Tara Shaikh, Julia Taylor and Mark Terry will each serve a three-year term and be deeply involved in shaping future initiatives at the DAA. Dewitt Peart, president and CEO of the DAA, said in the press release, “As we make major steps toward fulfilling the 20-year vision for downtown, the leadership and influence of this new group will be invaluable. They were selected because of their diverse skills and knowledge and will have the expertise to help support our ongoing work in downtown Austin.” For more information about the DAA and to read bios of all 50 board members, visit the website.
Friday, May 17, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns
Moody Foundation donated $2.1 million to help restore Barton Springs bathhouse
After 72 years of constant public use, it’s no surprise that the Barton Springs bathhouse needs a little TLC. The state of the deteriorating bathhouse prompted Barton Springs Conservancy to begin its “For the Love of the Springs” campaign in 2016 to raise funds to rehabilitate the historic bathhouse on-site. Three years later, the Conservancy has reached its fundraising goal, securing $8 million in public and private funds for a facility rehabilitation and renovation, thanks in large part to the $2.1 million donation from the Moody Foundation. Other sources of funding include $1.8 million from a voter-approved, 2012 city bond, $3 million in hotel occupancy tax funding and $1 million in private philanthropic donations. “With this gift, and the support of the Austin community, we can begin our efforts to rehabilitate the Historic Barton Springs bathhouse to its original splendor, restore the rotunda and dressing areas, and make the facilities usable for modern needs,” said Emma Lindrose-Siegel, executive director of Barton Springs Conservancy, in a statement. The Conservancy has worked closely with local architects to determine how best to respect the historic architecture of the 1947 structure that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated Historic Landmark by the city of Austin and state of Texas. Limbacher & Godfrey Architects, the designers behind the restoration project, will work to remodel the front entrance, reopen the original men’s and women’s bathhouse accesses at the central rotunda locations, restore and brighten the women’s dressing area, which was partly taken over by the management office, modernize the bathroom facilities, and enhance the educational components of the space. After all is said and done, Barton Springs bathhouse will once again have a glittering grand entrance through which to welcome its ever-increasing number of visitors.
Friday, May 17, 2019 by Ryan Thornton
How scooters go the way of taxis
The Austin Transportation Department’s proposed franchise model for dockless mobility companies was up for debate again at Tuesday’s Urban Transportation Commission meeting. With the franchise model largely failing the city’s taxicab industry and leaving it vulnerable to the recent takeover by ride-share companies like Lyft and Uber, commissioners and members of the public alike had lots of questions about the need to imitate that model with a burgeoning new industry like dockless electric scooters. Parking enterprise manager Jason Redfern argued the franchise model will let the city maximize operator fees above the city’s cost of service in order to fill in the infrastructural gaps that will ultimately enhance the safety and experience of dockless users. Despite this prediction of added revenue, Commissioner Samuel Franco questioned what will be done differently from the taxi model to allow for competition that can strengthen the dockless market in Austin so it can be most effective. Mobility enthusiast Dan Keshet agreed that some of ATD’s language – like requiring new dockless operators to prove they are filling an existing need in the market – could have the effect of keeping newer innovators out of Austin and effectively safeguarding the profits of more established providers. But Redfern emphasized that the goal is to remain open to new mobility services as they enter the market while ensuring that demand is sufficient for new units added to Austin’s streets. Commissioners also took issue with the legal requirement that new operators entering a regulated franchise would each need to be approved by City Council, creating an additional barrier to dockless innovation. Redfern said ATD “would have loved” to be able to permit operators administratively but it wouldn’t legally be possible if the franchise model is adopted. He added that any limitations imposed on the numbers of operators or dockless units allowed in the city should be temporary until the city is able to use operator fees to further build out dockless parking areas and paths for safer use.
Friday, May 17, 2019 by Tai Moses
Be prepared for fire season
It’s never too early or to late to be prepared for fire season, especially here in Austin, which is considered one of the nation’s most at-risk communities for wildfire. Peak fire season is April through October, and the Austin Fire Department says it’s not a question of if, but when the next major wildland fire will occur. There’s a lot you can do to make your home or business fire-safe – you’ll find some of the basics here. At the top of the to-do list, emergency management officials urge all Travis County residents to sign up for WarnCentralTexas.org, a free emergency notification system that will send hyper-local, targeted alerts by phone, text or email in the event of a threat to public safety in your area. And if you’re not familiar with the term “fire-adapted community,” you’ve got some homework to do.
Friday, May 17, 2019 by Katy McElroy
Austin celebrates its streetcar history
The Austin History Center is celebrating the impact that over six decades of streetcar operation had on the city’s growth and development. From 1875 to 1940, streetcars were an everyday part of the transportation system in Austin, and a current exhibit at the center documents this legacy with photographs and other information. Off the Rails: The Rise and Fall of Austin’s Streetcars runs through May 26. On Saturday, May 18, visitors are invited for a special tour hosted by the exhibit’s curator. This exclusive inside look will run from 2-3 p.m.
Thursday, May 16, 2019 by Katy McElroy
Austin waterway bans in effect
Due to the heavy rains in Austin this month, combined with floodgate operations on the Highland Lakes, Fire Chief Joel Baker has determined that several Austin waterways are experiencing flood conditions and are unsafe for recreational and commercial use. Effective noon yesterday, there is a ban on all commercial or navigational boating in and around the following lake areas:
- Lady Bird Lake
- Mansfield Dam downstream to Commons Ford Park
- Walsh Boat Landing to Tom Miller Dam
The ban also extends to all commercial boating, with an exception of commercial boats over 40 feet, on Lake Austin between Walsh Boat Landing and the Loop 360 Bridge. Watercraft that are operated on areas within the ban zone could be impounded. The order will expire at noon on Friday, May 17.
Thursday, May 16, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki
Mayor and Council kick off initiative to make workplaces more family-friendly
Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison joined more than two dozen businesses Wednesday in promoting a new effort to make Austin workplaces more family-friendly. The Family-Friendly Workforce Initiative kickoff at City Hall was held to encourage Austin businesses to look for ways to change their policies to be more accessible for employees with children under the age of 5. The nonprofit Early Matters Greater Austin has created a toolkit to make it easier for employers to make their workplace more family-friendly. The Austin Chamber is among the organizations that has endorsed the toolkit, in part because more than 26 percent of full-time employees in Austin have young children and 83 percent of millennials say they would leave their current job for a new employer with more family-friendly programs and benefits.