Archive for December, 2008

Downtown Street Event Closure Taskforce report

Missed in the run-up to the holidays 2: Thursday 18th December saw the Austin Downtown Street Event Closure Taskforce[1][2] report back to the full City Council.

Area considered by the Task Force

Area considered by the Task Force

I had attended the four of the first five or so meetings, including the infamous “Conely mob” meeting on August 11th. At that meeting, an innocent request to get a few sports events participants to some of the meetings, got out of hand in an “Internet connected world” sort-of way, and a hundred or so showed up at one meeting, leaving no standing or sitting room and a lot of disgruntled attendees.[More on this later].

After about a 6-meeting gestation, bi-weekly meetings, went weekly. The task force was co-led by RunTex owner Paul Carrozza, and local political grandee and former Democratic U.S. representative, Jack Hightower, with assistant City Manager Rudy Garza accompanied by a city staff from Parks and Recreation and other effected depts. as well as Lt. Boydston, APD Special Events Unit and other safety related groups to advise. Also heavily involved in the process(from my observation) was Larry Shooler, Policy Director for City Council Member Lee Leffingwell.

However, staff were there primarily as advisors, the bulk of the work was done by the task force members. For those of us from the public that did show up, there was a limited opportunity for people to speak for 3-minutes before the start of the meetings. After that it was down to the old game of passing short notes to task force members on specific points during meetings, a frustrating experience at best. Mid-way through the process the task force seemed to be getting bogged down, lack of clear definition and the [obvious?] groupings for and against events, seemed to be stopping reasonable progress. I also missed about 5-meetings.

It was then with some surprise when I attended the last two meetings. The task force had come up with a good set of recommendations. Seemed to have pulled together some key threads. Presentation of these on the 18th was pretty straight forward with a number of the Task Force members, Shooler and Garza present along with the full council.

The key points and focus areas were:

  • Issues/Challenges
    • Events in “downtown” up from 110 in 2005 to 145 in 2007
    • Number of downtown residents estimated to almost triple between 2000-2010
  • Event Frequency, Number, Variety, Scheduling, Capping etc.
  • Application Approval Process and Timeline etc.
  • Set Race Routes, Street and Building Access etc.
  • Financial Cost/Impact and Event Fee Structure
  • Political Events and Parades were not in-play for the Task Force

And a large number of issues and concerns related to these. From which the Task Force made the following recommendations, presented by Carrozza to the City Council.

  • Create Office of Special Events (OSE) to report to the City Manager’s Office
  • Create Special Events Advisory Commission
  • Create a “no event” zone around 5th/6th Streets to provide open access
  • There should be a no-entrapment rule, all events should provide alternate access
  • Walks should be held in a “moving bubble” rather than blocking streets
  • There should be a cap on events at current levels
  • Timeline for Event submission and review changed from 60 to 210 days prior to the event
  • Events getting 20% or higher objections are referred to Special Events Advisory Commision
  • Organizers must have approved application before marketing events
  • Traffic plan inc. alternate access must be finalized earlier

Of these, when you look at it, the Cap was perhaps most feared by the event community. The problem is that each event community has their own, blinkered view on the disruption caused by their events. Limited by their events own geographic boundaries. What they don’t see is the big picture. The problem is that under the current scheme, nor does anyone person or department in the City, since different types of events are currently permitted and approved through different depts. So while you could take 145 events, and say thats almost 3-every weekend. It isn’t, sometimes it is more, sometimes less, and there are the inevitable clashes which don’t become apparent until Road Closures are processed, sometimes long after the events are approved.

For such a relatively small downtown area, often using public roads, 145 events as a cap seems more than enough. One of the key recommendations of the task force was to tier races and to find and encourage other great parts of the City. This both spreads the benefit and the burden. The continued, unbridled growth of events in the downtown district was perhaps the greatest concern of the non-events stakeholders, including residents, businesses, Churches etc. all of whom suffer regular disruption, which is currently left to the best will of the event organizer to minimize.

The “no event” zone was referred to as both the “Equator” and the “Red Sea”. Using the former designation, it was envisaged that the “Red Sea: would part on Congress for no more than six “grandfathered” events. Other events could start north or south of 5th/6th St but not cross or close them. So You could have a 5k race that went south from 4th, down Chavez, and loop back around, but it couldn’t cross or close 5th/6th, likewise a Walk could start on or north of 7th but not cross or close 5th/6th.

Final recommendations were around the City’s ability to understand, plan, budget and grant waivers for events. Currently there is no clear process, or understanding of the cost or benefit for events, and no tracking or post event evaluation is done to see if event organizers meet their commitments, and if waivers for closures and fees etc. are justified. There is also some work to be done on various ordinances if these recommendations are to become the norm.

The council meeting wrapped up with questions from council members. There were few. Members Leffingwell and Martinez both raised the point of citizen input. This was accepted, and the job is now on staff to turn the recommendations into proposed policy.

As part of that process, and in review with council, it’s clear that a broad coalition of event organizers and participants, and NOT just those from the sports community, need to review and provide feedback, as well as the neighborhoods, including mine Bouldin Creek, and the businesses and other effected parties. It’s our city and its also the events, from art, to music, and sport, are what make downtown Austin the small village it is, in a Capital city.

[1] “Downtown is defined by MLK to the north; Oltorf to the south; I35 to the east; and Lamar to the west.
[2] Minutes, Mission Statement, and full member list(although not including their alliances) can be found on the city website, here.

No additional coins for the meter in 2009!

Missed in the run-up to the holidays 1: Austin City Connection RSS feed included an item noting that Austin Energy is able to hold prices for at least the start of 2009. I checked and they increased prices in 2008 just over half-a-cent per kilowatt hour for the energy part of the bill. This was the first rise for the energy since 1994.

The news item said it was as a result of being able to lock in better prices for future purchases. The cynic in me says it’s because they already put the price up, and over the last 3-months gas prices have slumped back to pre-2008 prices. Of course we all know that the futures market is gamblers paradise for the big boys, and so hopefully Austin Energy are on a safe bet. Of course if gas and natural-gas prices see the same price rises they did for the first 9-months of 2008, in 2009, I wouldn’t bet against a price rise for 2010. Unless you know better?

Resolution clock – see it soon

Resolution Clock(*)

This has got to be seen before it’s too late. I ran past on Saturday, and again on Sunday and stopped by this afternoon to take a look. The Resolution Clock is being hand carved, much of it in place on Auditorium Shores as part of the “A Change in Time” display. It will be a center piece for Austin First Night on Wednesday, visitors will be able to attached messages and resolutions to the clocks chain apparently.

The only thing is, come New Years eve, it will actually be burned as part of the celebrations. That means if you want to see the clock when it’s not in flames, you’ve got Tuesday while they finish it off, and during daylight hours on Wednesday as part of Austin First Night.

[Update: See also this facebook event for pictures and information.]

(*) Picture by atxbill on Flickr, some rights reserved.

Azul Tequila festive lunch

We needed serious sustenance. We’d been on a quest for cracker meal. It’s just one of those ingredients that has mysteriously been sold out during the holiday rush, and we eventually did find it at City Market South, just as we found the needed missing ginger-root at FreshPlus. But that’s another story.

It’s a good thing that we were hungry. The albondigas in chipotle tomato broth are enough to feed five people, and I swear that the giant bowl of chicken tortilla soup could feed one hungry student for 24 hours or could be ladled out to serve a half-dozen people at lunch. The chicken soup has appetizing chicken, lots of tortilla strips, sliced circles of corncob with the corn kernels still on it, celery, tomato, and carrots in a broth that’s very homemade tasting and not over-salted. The usual extra bits of raw onion, fresh cilantro, lime wedges, and rice come on the side to be added to taste. We also shared a dish of puerco meztizo. The pork had been cooked until it was practically melting away. Ours was in green sauce today, but it can be ordered in a red sauce of some sort. Another time, we’ll try a mole dish. There were several fish choices.

The portions were astoundingly large. It has been a long time since our last visit, but we had remembered the albondigas in particular. I’m glad I tried the soup; it’s the sort that’s difficult to find in Austin these days. The azultequila.com site seems to be down just now. Azul Tequila was doing a busy bar business and knows how to make a proper margarita straight up. There’s a television, but it’s silenced. On the sound system were traditional and current sounds from Mexico. Azul Tequla is decorated for the season with lights and giant boxes wrapped in shiny foil with big bows. An added visual bonus was the sight of a man draped in a boa constrictor visible through the front plate-glass window, no doubt either headed toward or away from Herpeton, next door.

Look for Azul Tequila in the strip next to the Target (4211 South Lamar Boulevard, # A2, telephone 416-9667. Children were welcome and happy. Meal service is continuous throughout the day.

Janitzio open today

Janitzio on East Riverside is filled with the holiday spirit and doing very good business, including takeout. There were two tvs going, both without sound. I was facing Maribel Guardia in an infomercial for Caracol Cream, promising to rejuvenate the complexion. The jukebox was busy all the time at two plays for a dollar. We heard oldies, current Mexican pop, corridos of all types, and conjunto music. Janitzio today appeared to have more musician patrons than anybody else, but there were also singletons, family groups, and people who appeared to be construction workers on their day off. The red salsa that arrives with chips is addictive, with fresh tomato, lime juice, and black pepper flavors seeming to predominate. Extra tortillas of both kinds arrive with no need to ask for them. Mexican Coke with real cane sugar, not the corn fructose stuff, is available. At our table, we ordered chuletas de puerco in salsa verde, gilded from the grill, and excellent chile relleno. We saw other tables asking for repeat orders of campechana. Every stool was occupied at a small bar against the back wall. Janitzio shares a parking lot with Mariscos, at 1422 Town Creek Drive (telephone 442-6275). The Farm to Market Grocery on South Congress, where the conversation is livelier than ever on a holiday, was open all morning and on up until 3 this afternoon. I noticed that La Hacienda Market and Joy East Buffet are very, very busy today. BookPeople opened at noon and will stay open until 6 pm today. I love Austin’s small-town atmosphere on major holidays.

"It wasn’t supposed to be like this."

That’s a quote from an article that appeared first on line yesterday and now today in the WSJ real-estate section. The hard-copy title is kinder (“Bigger in Texas? Capital’s Real-Estate Glut Counts,” byline Maura Webber Sadovi) than the one appearing in some searches (“Austin’s Real-Estate Glut”). The print version has numbers comparing office, retail, and warehouse vacancy rates and rent per square foot for the 2008 third quarter and for the same quarter a year ago, as well as the median prices for single-family houses. I may have overlooked this information before seeing it today in this feature, but it’s reported here that the Austin Museum of Art building project has been postponed yet again. There are lots of negative descriptions in this piece, including “binge,” “bloated,” “deteriorating demand,” and more. Just how much of a lag will there be between the facts and the subsequent adjustment of appraised values for tax purposes that will accurately reflect the downward course?

Last-minute shopping

Disliking holiday crowds as I do, plus wanting to shop locally, and with renewed inspiration and spirit, I headed for Northwest Hardware Store (3916 Far West Boulevard, telephone 345-6691). I can’t report a lot about what I bought there; that would be divulging the secrets of Santa Claus. I will, however, say that this is a great place to go for Radio Flyer wagons of all types, three sizes of old-fashioned children’s tricycles, slingshots, Daisy air rifles, garden tools, and much, much more, all in a small store with two knowledgeable people to answer every question. I will say that I had two keys made and came away with a handsome adjustable offset pair of lawn shears. If you edge and trim yourself, you know what I’m talking about.

Headed home, we couldn’t resist a stop at Lammes Candies, open until 6 pm today. As always, in addition to the usual pralines, sherbet mints, nut barks, candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate, fruit slices, divinity, and other old favorites, this year’s gelt (chocolate coins in silver, gold, and copper foil) included coins with an outline of Texas on one side and an armadillo with personality on the other. There were also milk-chocolate shapes wrapped in festive colored foil that included three-dimensional stars in dark chocolate as well as an assortment of “wrapped packages.”

We were happy to be sidetracked by Lammes. If we hadn’t been able to cross the last items off our lists at Northwest Hardware, it would have been on to Zinger and then to Breed & Co., both of which have more additional temptations beyond hardware. Now, I’m fortified to write the last remaining holiday letters. What a beautiful day!

India Kitchen quick-lunch

I don’t like to be involuntarily subjected to the same recorded music over and over again, and at this time of year the repetition can be difficult to avoid. At India Kitchen sometimes the background is classical music from the Subcontinent; today it sounded like instrumental music from the movies.

The food was perfect for a chilly, blustery day. The temperatures are higher today than they were yesterday, but somehow it looks and feels more like winter. We were warmed by the lentil soup from the buffet. I meant to try the tomato version, but was drawn back to enjoy a second bowl of the lentil one. Naan bread came piping hot to the table.

The napkins are still generous in size and still of cloth. Although others did, I did not indulge in tandoor chicken or in chicken vindaloo or in saagh paneer. My favorite was the dish of lamb kofta meatballs, in a tasty sauce and made with no mystery or unsightly ingredients, just beautiful ground meat zestfully seasoned. I also enjoyed a dish of cooked cabbage, one of potatoes and peas, and one of large yellow lentils cooked with dices of tomatoes. The chicken biriyani rice and the pilao rice were both delicious. There were samosas and pakora, which I sampled bits of from others’ plates and enjoyed, but I was very happy that I devoted my attentions to the particular dishes that I did. I loved it that cardamom, one of my favorite spices, was in generous use in one dish.

Except a couple of times when I’ve seen tables of students dining on vegetarian dishes delivered from directly from the kitchen, buffet dining there is all I know so far, because I’ve never been to India Kitchen in the evening. I know that there’s now food at the Whip-In Parlour Cafe and that the Eva B’s Bakery & Cafe across from the Congress / Oltorf H-E-B prepares an Indian meal on Fridays. The survival of India Kitchen south of the river has probably served to encourage these newcomers. Anyhow, India Kitchen saved our lives today with wholesome and tasty food that will see us through the workday, no matter how long it turns out to be. Thank you!

Long Overdue Trip to Aster’s Ethiopian

Reading the reviews on Yelp, it’s pretty clear that there’s no middle ground on Ethiopian food. It seems you either like it or you don’t, especially injera bread, the spongy, slightly sour bread you use if you don’t want to use your hands to eat. I thought some of the reviews there were pretty ignorant and obnoxious, something you *never* see in Internet comments.

Veggie Dishes - photo by yiI first tried Aster’s as a lunch takeout option from Whole Foods, but ever since the restaurant at 26th and I-35 opened, I’ve been wanting to go check it out. My introduction to Ethiopian food was at a restaurant in Washington DC about 8 years ago with an old college friend of my wife’s. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the place, but I enjoyed it. If you’ve never had it, Ethiopian food is a little like Indian food, but different enough to make it a nice alternative.

The decor of the restaurant is pretty spartan, but the place is inviting. It’s not very big, roughly 10-12 tables. The patio looks like it nearly doubles the capacity though it was too cold last night to eat out there. We ordered three meat dishes for three adults and two kids and had plenty of food. Each meat dish includes smaller or side portions of three vegetarian dishes and two injera breads. Our food arrived on a large platter with all of the choices spread across three injera breads opened out flat (this is where taking a picture would’ve been a good idea, but Yi to the rescue via Flickr).

We ordered the DoroWott, Kitfo and the mild lamb dish (either the Keyi- or Alicha- BeggWott). We were served FasoliaWott, Gomen, AlichaMiser, KeyiMiser, Azifa and Bedergan as sides with double-helpings of some of those. Many of the dishes are spicy, but there’s enough mild dishes for those who don’t go for that. I’d never had the Kitfo, which can be served uncooked or seared. I went for the seared version. The flavor isn’t like many things that I’ve had before. I quite liked it. I’ve left out the descriptions, but you can find them on their web site, which, incidentally, needs some help.

The service was good. Our waiter was knowledgable and attentive and the price was reasonable. It was just under $60 for the five of us. I was the only one who ordered beer or wine. My mother-in-law enjoyed the Ethiopian spiced hot tea. If I didn’t work so far away, I’d be all over their lunch buffet and specials. The place was pretty well packed at 7pm last night. I hope they’re doing that well as a general rule because I’d like to see them stick around.

Santa Speedo 2008 – Hot to trot

Some of this years runners

Some of the 2008 speedo runners

The 2nd Austin Santa Speedo to raise awareness for Austin based outyouth.org appears to have a blast, there were more than double last years runners. It’s understandable that people are a little self conciousness but you really are invisible in a crowd of some 4,500 odd.

Ed(Head Santa) and I(CEO, Chief Elf Officer) hope to get the numbers up over the next couple of years to the point we can organize our our direct fundraising event/run. Until then we’ll keep going with the Santa Speedo at the Trail of Lights 5k. Mark your calendars for 2009, come on down, don’t be shy.

Before you ask, most of us are straight, except for the GBF’s who were racing for the 2nd year; you don’t have to have cancer to raise money for it etc. Many of us can completely understand and the need for people to support confused teens at their most vulnerable times, if you enjoy Jasons video and the run, why not donate just a few dollars to outyouth?
They accept paypal etc. http://www.outyouth.org/howtohelp/donate.html

A big thanks this year to Guin for getting Brian, Krista and the Texas State Triathlon team up from San Marcos. Also to Jason for the video. There are more pictures on flickr, here. This year and last years videos are here. The Texas State team also have some pictures on facebook, here.

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