At the March 19 meeting, city councilors spent lots of time early in the evening on a land use appeal. Then, as 11 p.m. approached, they quickly passed several bills. In between, they wrangled with the recent controversy over taxes and transportation.
Residents of the Clayton Heights/Lomas del Cielo Heights Neighborhood Association appealed a zoning change allowing 240 rental units on a narrow, arroyo-like, 17-acre strip of land along Gibson east of University. Isabel Cabrera said the neighborhood was already 60 percent rental housing, with attendant problems, and that they wanted retail development like restaurants, groceries or hardware stores that would serve nearby residents. A representative of the developer, Houston-based Alliance Residential, said the neighborhood didn't have the population or the income levels to bring in the commercial development they wanted. The Council denied the appeal 5-4, Councilors Debbie O'Malley, Michael Cadigan, Isaac Benton and Martin Heinrich opposing the high-density construction.
Passing unanimously were the administration's bill banning additional adult businesses Downtown, Cadigan's zone change request allowing a Costco to go in at the intersection of Eagle Ranch Road and the Coors by-pass, Cadigan's study of two extra lanes on Paseo del Norte from Eubank to the Paseo del Volcan alignment, and Benton's bill allocating a portion of Community Revitalization funds to acquire the Barelas railyard property. Council President Debbie O'Malley's bill appropriating $9.254 million for operating costs at the Metropolitan Detention Center passed 6-3, Councilors Sally Mayer, Ken Sanchez and Craig Loy opposed.
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The Really Thin Blue LineAt the beginning of the meeting, APD chief Ray Schultz and District Attorney Kari Brandenburg made a presentation about the advantages of a Family Advocacy Center to be built at 624 Silver SE, designed to concentrate services for victims of crime.
Councilors veered into their frustration that APD had still not reached its recruiting goals, cited long response times attributed to too few officers on the force and asked about the effect of the recent quarter-cent public safety tax.
Unfortunately, one immediate impact of stepped-up APD salary and recruitment efforts is to strip away officers from surrounding communities such as Valencia County, which is losing police and deputies to the city's $10,000 higher starting salaries.
"Kind of a Little Bit of a Mess"Benton led the Council's charge back into the tangle of taxes and trolleys. He presented his bill funding a transportation study as incorporating features of similar bills introduced by Winter and Harris. Benton said the original scope of work was far beyond the amount allocated for a study, and the floor substitute shortened his original bill and addressed multimodal transportation needs. The Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments will manage the study, supplying much of the technical expertise. Speakers representing the Downtown Action Team, Rails, Inc. and EDo Development supported Benton's study bill. Tito Madrid of the Chamber of Commerce urged repeal of the quarter-cent transportation tax that had been extended in the original legislation. Frequent Council speaker Don Couchman said he was sitting on the fence regarding the streetcar and needed good information from the study before he made up his mind.
Heinrich moved an amendment repealing the extended transportation tax to its original 2009 sunset but retaining the Tax Increment Development Districts (TIDDs) previously set up to recover 75 percent of any increased property and gross receipts taxes generated along the streetcar's route to finance the system. The amendment passed 5-4, with Mayer, O'Malley, Benton and Loy opposed. Several councilors, particularly O'Malley and Mayer, talked about the severe damage to transit and road repair if voters didn't extend the transportation tax. Chief Operations Officer Ed Adams said the administration was looking for federal transit money but had to compete with bigger cities for the shrinking funds. Winter tried unsuccessfully to pass another amendment stating that no city tax money would be used in streetcar construction without a public vote. The study bill itself, amended to repeal the transportation tax, passed 5-4, Sanchez, Heinrich, Benton, Cadigan and Harris supporting. O'Malley summarized, "This is kind of a little bit of a mess."
Couchman seems to have the best take: Get more information. We desperately need to discourage people from hauling their personal, 3,000-pound loads of metal and plastic everywhere they go. But questions abound. Will building a Central Avenue line with a Sunport extension concretely benefit the entire city, other than increasing tax revenues along the route to pay for the streetcar? While the streetcar will probably attract more business to Central, will higher costs wipe out existing businesses? What will be the real, rather than the idealized, effect on bus service? Can the streetcar grow ridership if it charges anything like the full operating cost? Can the TIDDs make up the difference? Will the lines expand into underserved areas? Was the initial launch of the project so botched that the public can't be convinced to support it? Will the study's language and task force composition do a truly objective job or just look for ways to justify the streetcar?