Mayor’s Chief of Staff Exits And Why You Should Care

Mayor’s Chief of Staff Exits And Why You Should Care

austin city hall

Casual observers of city hall, at first glance, might take little notice that Mark Nathan, Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s chief of staff, has announced his departure.

But it is a noteworthy event whenever an executive politician’s chief of staff exits. A chief of staff is the one who gets stuff done, while their boss is smiling for the camera. The office of chief of staff and the person holding it become synonymous.

To that point, the mayor said on his own website “Mark has been a driving force behind almost every major initiative we’ve undertaken.”

As a nerdish observer of City Hall, which is one level above casual, I can read into that a few ways, but the simplest is just to look at three things the mayor’s office has pushed in the past 12-16 months: A new downtown hotel, an urban rail system and the United States Grand Prix F1 race. (As for the F1 race, one could say Lee isn’t a “pusher” maybe just an adamant supporter. He was the only council member who wanted to approve the contract about 60 days ago, when his six other colleagues — including Randi Shade on her last day — voted to postpone the vote under threats it could blow the entire deal. That’s telling.) [Read more…]

A Tale Of Two Hotels

A Tale Of Two Hotels

Hilton hotel rules

Anyone listening in at City Hall might have heard city staff remind city council not to call the new hotel hotels being pitched downtown a “convention hotel.”

If you are wondering why, check out this story I wrote while at the Austin Business Journal in December.  It is curious why this point has been overlooked or ignored by other media outlets.

To plagiarize, well, myself: “The city barred itself nine years ago from designating any other hotel as one of the city’s ‘convention center hotels’ when it agreed to a contract that called for issuing more than $250 million in bonds to build the downtown Austin Hilton, according to public records filed with the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, or MSRP. The city reaffirmed that pledge when it refinanced the bonds in 2006.”

The second hotel developers are quick to point out they are not asking for subsidies, like the Marriott project planned on 2nd Street and Congress Avenue is.

But they can’t, according to the contract.

Interestingly, the Statesman reported on June 23 that the second hotel, planned by Austin developers Perry Lorenz and Robert Knight, could be a Hilton.

But according to the same contract I sourced above, the Hilton can’t build another hotel unless they cut through some red tape.

Just goes to show, I guess, a contract with the city is only as good as the litigators you want to enforce it.

Mega Hotel Subsidy Draws Fire From Austin Council

Mega Hotel Subsidy Draws Fire From Austin Council

congress ave hotel

It seems that having Armbrust & Brown attorney Richard Suttle as the representative of the hotel developers I wrote about Monday may be a little too hot for some council members to handle.

On Tuesday morning, Council Members Bill Spelman, Sheryl Cole and Laura Morrison seemed skeptical that his clients need almost $4 million in city breaks to help to build a hotel downtown.

Students of city politics should note that the power base at city council has now shifted from Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Chris Riley — who are losing defeated incumbent Randi Shade — to the other council members, who are gaining Kathie Tovo next month.

[Read more…]

Mega Presentation On Urban Rail Tuesday

Mega Presentation On Urban Rail Tuesday

austin rail

NEWS FLASH: According to a source at City Hall, the Austin Transportation Department is slated to give a big presentation June 14 that will be “a substantial briefing” on urban rail and begins to start answering Uncle Lee’s 30 crucial questions and “then some.”

The mayor has pushed a 2012 bond election funding a first leg for a new mode of mass transit in Austin.

[Read more…]

Is Austin Bicycle Theft On The Rise?

Is Austin Bicycle Theft On The Rise?


There were more bike thefts reported in the heart of downtown Austin during the first five months of 2011, compared to 2010, according to city police records I compiled. However, reports are down in the South Congress area.

I know this because I decided to do my best Council Member Chris Riley impression — sans silver hair — and work on reducing my car usage in favor of pedal power to commute to the Capitol area. I bought a bike over the weekend, did some research and promptly shelled out another $200 for accessories, aimed mostly at anti-theft.

[Read more…]



Boardwalk Pic-Battleship Rest Area

Part 2 of 2 Parts (click here to read Part 1 – The Overview of the project and its design)

1. It is not a “boardwalk”. Look closely. It is an elevated concrete human highway. 14-feet wide, 6-feet above the water, up to 70 feet out from shore. Built of concrete and steel. Out over the open waters of our beautiful and naturally pristine lake/river.

Existing LBL Trail in front of Hyatt Hotel

2. Cheaper alternatives exist. Either fully on land, closer to land, or a combination of both. With specifications that start with the minimum specs of the existing Trail: the Hyatt Regency segment, 5 to 6 feet wide, between the First Street and Congress Avenue bridges. This CAN be built across nearly the entire 1.2 mile stretch. For far less cost. However the necessary analysis and conceptual design work has never been done. The necessary conversations have never been had.

3. The “full project cost” could actually be over $20 million. Nearly $4.3 million has already been allocated toward consultants and design over the past two years out of existing city budgets of which $2.4 million has been spent or obligated to date. Plus the $16 million more now sought for construction. All for 1.2 miles of roadway. This road should be paved with gold.

Existing LBL Trail pedestrian crossing over Longhorn Dam

4. This project does not “complete” the trail gap. It will lead users east along the shoreline to the Longhorn Dam. That dam has a narrow and dangerous sidewalk crossing – where two strollers can barely pass each other over the Dam – alongside heavy traffic flow on Pleasant Valley Road. Clearly a “Pfluger-style” pedestrian bridge needs to be built parallel to the west side of the dam. A very expensive bridge. Then there is another “gap” on the North Shore around the former Holly Power Plant. Those segments? Not addressed.

5. The cleverly packaged and named “Boardwalk” is itself a hazardous solution for the need it is trying to fill and the improved safety it is attempting to yield. True, the existing sidewalk-based trail routing along Riverside Drive has a challenging crossing at IH-35 and some close proximity to road traffic. Interestingly, though, no ped-bike-vehicle accidents statistics have ever been produced. Folks know they must be very careful getting through there. But the 14-foot wide Boardwalk over-design intentionally promotes high-speed, two-abreast, bicycle traffic…in two directions…out over the open river waters…in direct conflict with pedestrians, strollers, wheelchairs, dog-walkers, and others who would also be on the same pathway. There is nowhere to jump out of the way of danger. There is no easy way to reach injured parties. There is no shade out in the open water.

Some folks have been asking how this project came to be?  Good question.  Please read on…

[Read more…]

A Concrete Human Highway IN Our River? No. YES! And Why You Oughtta Care

A Concrete Human Highway IN Our River? No. YES! And Why You Oughtta Care

Pic of Real Boardwalk in Forest

Part 1 of 2 Parts – The Overview

If you browsed the Austin American-Statesman or Austin Business Journal yesterday, no doubt you saw the headlines:

“$16 million boardwalk leads Austin bond proposal. City releases draft list of $84.8 million in transportation projects for possible November election.” (AAS)

“City unveils $85M bond package” (ABJ)

At first glance, it might sound like an appealing proposition, this Boardwalk project.  What’s not to like?

A sample "Boardwalk" you may envision.

Or maybe something like this.

The term “boardwalk” itself conjures up images of a pretty little wooden footbridge traversing burbling creeks and meandering through soggy sections of beautiful dense forest.  It’s a project of the Parks Department, and we all do love our parks, yes?

Finding a way to “extend” Downtown Austin’s wonderful riverfront hike-bike path through one of the sections where it currently follows a narrow sidewalk along a busy road, Riverside Drive — well, that sounds like a no-brainer, too, right?  At least to those of us who frequent the Town Lake Trail multiple times a week.

(Sidenote for those of you paying attention: City Council changed the name of the urban portion of the river from Town Lake to Lady Bird Lake after the former First Lady and Trail Founder passed away in 2007.  The name of “the simple walking path along the shore” that she envisioned back in 1971 is still called the Town Lake Trail in Parks Department materials.  Hard to tell what to properly call it.)

And $85 million, though it’s a big number for a still-sluggish economic recovery, nevertheless is a comparatively small chunk of change when you apply that spend against a truckload of “transportation projects”.  Concrete and asphalt don’t come cheap.

To find the serious problems in this equation I’m afraid there’s no substitute for having to dive into the details.  As with so many of life’s problems and issues, that’s where the devil is hiding.  Let’s take a look.

First off there’s the topline math.  $16 million for a single project — one that is a luxury add and carries no financial ROI with it — out of a total $85 million bonding capacity.  That’s almost one-fifth of the total ask!  For just one project.  According to the ABJ story, the Transportation Department and the Bond Review Task Force were charged with evaluating 500 projects that had to be divided into “A,” “B” and “C” categories.

The “A” list of “highest priority” projects added up to about 45 and still carried an estimated total cost between $2 billion and $3 billion, three to four times the total bonding capacity.  Somehow the Boardwalk, in its totality, made it to the further shortened list of  “A” projects left standing.  What about the other 480 or so projects?  What about all the other regions of the city and their transportation, sidewalk, pothole and trail needs?

Then there is the matter of the Boardwalk project itself.  While it hasn’t been an entirely secretive endeavor, its details have been less than well publicized or understood by the broad Austin citizenry, that’s for sure.  For the past three years, this project has been marching its determined way through the city conceptual and design process, rubber-stamped by two unanimous city councils every step of the way, and fueled by almost $4.3 million in dedicated allocations out of the past couple city budgets.  For the past year, that’s been a reported spend rate of about $40,000 per week for consultants, plans and documentation.

Next let’s check out this purported Boardwalk and find out what it’s really made of using the City’s own slides from its presentation decks.  The following pictures are quite self-explanatory.





How can this be?

There are no boards in this boardwalk!

The entire battleship structure is made of concrete and steel!

And it’s out IN the friggin’ river!

And that, friends, is how we end up with something like THIS rather than the “simple walking path along the shore” that Lady Bird Johnson had sought.

Can’t help but wonder: what would she think of all this?

Though about a year out of date now, what information the city has provided on this project can be found here.  There is some bare bones stuff there about the proposed routing, construction materials and answers to about 20 FAQs. Check it out.

In Part 2 of this story I’ll tell you about:  The Top 5 Issues of Concern about the Boardwalk project.
Finally, in Part 3 we’ll contemplate some other realities about our crown jewel community asset, the Town Lake Trail, that may finally be time to come to grips with: bicycles vs. pedestrians.

Sundance and SXSW Considering "Echotone": A "Cultural Portrait" of Austin Music and Downtown Development

Don’t look now, but Austin may be on the verge of becoming the center of America’s next cultural moment. If Nathan Christ’s documentary “Echotone,” a low-budget film about the combustion of Austin’s booming inner-city development and its rocking music scene breaks through the final selection at the Sundance Film Festival, prepare for the nation’s eyes to fix again on the “Music Capital of the World.” As Christ’s film suggests, Austin may be the place where America’s economic recovery and its cultural renaissance intersect.

Or where they collide.

The rapid development of Austin’s central neighborhoods means larger audiences, bigger venues and more national attention.  It’s also brought higher housing costs and the proliferation of new sound ordinances.  The film asks us to weigh the effect of such changes on the city’s cultural bedrock and offers us a chance to take a larger view.

The films striking trailer touches off with the words, “Austin, TX: Present Day” as it soars over the cities burgeoning developments in a construction crane. In an interview with the Daily Texan, Christ eluded to the contemporary focus of the film: “There’re a lot of music films that are about looking back at a bygone era,” Christ said. “This is what history is. You should’ve been there. But, I realized in the past few years that a documentary can be in the present. You can make a powerful story about your age and about your peers.”

Right now SXSW is considering Echotone for a premier in March. If the film is selected, people in downtown Austin will be presented with a uniquely self-referential experience. On the films blog, Christ writes about  “the greater emotional vision of what a SXSW premiere could provide for the viewer,” At the climax, “the credits roll, and the audience walks out into the precisely the world they’ve just experienced for 90 minutes.”

Juxtaposing scenes of Austin’s quirky musical underground with the sights and sound of industrial construction, the film presents a town on the verge of awakening from a long slumber only to discover that it has become a city with an international reputation.

Featuring bands Belaire, “poised for commercial success, but conflicted over the thought of her music turning into a commodity” the “experimental troubadour” Bill Baird, and Black Joe Lewis’ man who fills music halls by night and delivers fish for a living by day, the film tells the story of the cities young artists while promising to deliver “a cultural portrait of the modern American city examined through the lyrics and lens of its creative class.”

Longtime residents of Austin will be surprised to find through Christ’s lens, that their city has suddenly acquired the magic appeal of San Francisco in the 1960s. For the outsider, the film may well crystallize everything they’ve been told about the little gem in the south.

What do you think about sound ordinances? Where should we draw the line between the needs of the Austin music scene and Downtown Austin’s growing residential community? Are these communities at odds or are they mutually beneficial?

Why can’t we be friends?