ex­pec­ta­tions change as area does

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By asher Price

Austin . d R Just about twice a year dur­ing the 1970s, as Is­rael Lopez grew up in his home on Vasquez Street in South­east Austin, the front yard would flood with sewage. One Christ­mas Day in the early 1980s, he was not able to go out­doors un­til city work­ers cleaned up the mess, which the fam­ily blamed on de­crepit city sewer lines.

His mother still lives in the house, which sits across the street from the weedy Mon­topo­lis Lit­tle League base­ball fields — and Lopez bought a place of his own two doors down. The oc­ca­sional flood­ing con­tin­ued de­spite what he says were years of calls to the city to re­place ag­ing sewer pipes. So it was not much of a sur­prise to him one day this May when a pool of stinky wa­ter ap­peared in a storm out­let ditch by the ball fields.

“It smelled like dead fish,” said Lopez, 40, but he was du­bi­ous any­thing would be done.

As it hap­pened, Ste­fan Wray and his wife, Pam Thomp­son, neigh­bors who had re­cently moved in as part of a larger de­mo­graphic shake-up that has brought more whites and high­er­in­come fam­i­lies to the area, walked by with two city of­fi­cials whom they were per­suad­ing to sup­port a pro­posed walk­ing trail through a nearby trash-strewn creek. The city of­fi­cials promptly di­rected city ve­hi­cles to suck away the wa­ter.

Wray and Thomp­son fol­lowed up with a slew of e-mails, and, in

a project that be­gan in early June and is due to end by midAu­gust, the city is re­plac­ing nearly 1,200 feet of cor­roded con­crete pipe, dat­ing to 1957, at a cost of $112,000, said Steven Schrader, who man­ages a sewer en­gi­neer­ing di­vi­sion at the Austin Wa­ter Util­ity.

The de­mand for the pipe over­haul is a mi­cro­cosm of what some res­i­dents and city of­fi­cials say is a change in en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­pec­ta­tions, even if it’s a mod­est one, prompted by a com­bi­na­tion of chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics and stepped-up en­gage­ment from City Hall. Nowhere else might the jux­ta­po­si­tion of old and new Austin, of en­vi­ron­men­tally ne­glected and en­vi­ron­men­tally hip, be so pro­nounced.

At the same time, the so­cioe­co­nomic ten­sion and the tinc­ture of race have dripped into dis­cus­sions of the area’s green aims, as the neigh­bor­hood mulls is­sues of who ought to set its en­vi­ron­men­tal agenda.

On Wed­nes­day, Mon­topo­lis res­i­dents will meet to de­cide whether to ex­pand lan­guage in the neigh­bor­hood plan to en­cour­age a net­work of trails and the use of open park­land.

Packed to­gether in the neigh­bor­hood are old hous­ing stock, some of it di­lap­i­dated, mo­bile homes and small, hand­some new houses that look like some­thing out of a new ur­ban­ist man­ual.

Those new homes are the Fron­tier at Mon­tana, an am­bi­tious city project that broke ground in 2006 and meant to be the first af­ford­able hous­ing neigh­bor­hood in the nation com­posed of homes that would use less en­ergy than they would gen­er­ate. That aim has failed — the city was new to the home­build­ing busi­ness and fi­nances didn’t work out, said Fred McGhee, a home­builder who has been ac­tive in the Mon­topo­lis Neigh­bor­hood As­so­ci­a­tion, and cur­rently only three of the 60-odd homes in the neigh­bor­hood have so­lar pan­els, a cru­cial com­po­nent of most zero net en­ergy homes.

But even with the af­ford­able hous­ing com­po­nent — which re­quires that home­own­ers in the new neigh­bor­hood make no more than 80 per­cent of me­dian fam­ily in­come, or $59,050 for a fam­ily of four in Travis County — new­com­ers tend to be bet­ter off than their neigh­bors. And, un­used to the feel­ing among many old-time East Aus­tinites that they have been un­heard by City Hall, they are more likely to de­mand city ser­vices.

While the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hood av­er­ages 43 per­cent of me­dian fam­ily in­come, ac­cord­ing to 2000 cen­sus data, the most re­cent avail­able, the 63 homes at the Fron­tier at Mon­tana neigh­bor­hood earn, on av­er­age, 52 per­cent of me­dian fam­ily in­come, ac­cord­ing to records with Austin Hous- ing Fi­nance Corp.

The new neigh­bor­hood is also sig­nif­i­cantly whiter: Nine out of the 63 house­holds, or 14 per­cent, iden­tify them­selves as white. Ac­cord­ing to the cen­sus data, 0.4 per­cent of res­i­dents in sur­round­ing homes in the Mon­topo­lis area are white.

Across this part of East Austin, builders have raised flocks of houses, chang­ing the pop­u­la­tion’s makeup in ways that might not be clear un­til the 2010 cen­sus is re­leased.

“You have an in­flux of new res­i­dents com­ing in who are more en­vi­ron­men­tally aware and prob­a­bly know of par­tic­u­lar city pro­grams and in­cen­tives they can use,” said Os­car Garza, an en­vi­ron­men­tal com­pli­ance spe­cial­ist with the city’s Wa­ter­shed Pro­tec­tion Depart­ment and co­or­di­na­tor of the city’s East Austin En­vi­ron­men­tal Ini­tia­tive, an out­reach pro­gram that be­gan in the 1990s. “They put more fo­cus on en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness, and that in­fuses that into the neigh­bor­hood.”

For decades, East Aus­tinites felt tram­pled on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. The most fa­mous ex­am­ple might be the res­i­dents’ re­ac­tion to the place­ment of the Holly Power Plant in a His­panic neigh­bor­hood in the 1950s. East Austin has had its en­vi­ron­men­tal suc­cesses, too, such as the staving off a fuel tank farm, the es­tab­lish­ment of the Roy G. Guer­rero Colorado River Park, and the clos­ing of the Holly plant in 2007.

Lately the city higher-ups have com­mit­ted more money to East Austin projects.

Howard Lazarus, the city’s di­rec­tor of pub­lic works, com­piled a re­cent re­port show­ing that in the 2009-11 fis­cal years the city will have spent $47.9 mil­lion an­nu­ally on East Austin pub­lic works projects. That is up from $25.7 mil­lion an­nu­ally from 1998 to 2008.

And in the Mon­topo­lis neigh­bor­hood, the city is be­gin­ning to hand out door hang­ers that say, in English and Span­ish: “Plas­tic bags hang­ing from the trees … Plas­tic bot­tles float­ing to the river … Bro­ken glass lit­ter­ing your park ... Don’t trash Mon­topo­lis!”

That mes­sage, meant to ward off ap­a­thy, points to a larger is­sue: East Aus­tinites are un­der­rep­re­sented at the bal­lot box, ac­cord­ing to city de­mog­ra­pher Ryan Robin­son, and they don’t make phone calls to put pres­sure on City Coun­cil mem­bers, said McGhee.

“A lot of it has to do with who’s do­ing the ask­ing, and as much or more is how it’s be­ing asked,” he said.

As far as get­ting city ser­vices goes, “ob­vi­ously there was a lan­guage bar­rier some­times, and some of the folks don’t know what depart­ment to call,” Garza said. “They get frus­trated, they quit call­ing, and the prob­lem keeps go­ing.”

One of the peo­ple now do­ing the ask­ing is Wray, a 49-yearold who moved into the Fron­tier neigh­bor­hood in Oc­to­ber and does com­mu­ni­ca­tions work for an Austin pub­lic ac­cess chan­nel. On a large pri­vate lot and on some pub­lic prop­erty, only a cou­ple of hun­dred feet from his five-star en­ergy-rated house, equipped with so­lar pan­els and a xeriscaped front yard, sits what he calls the “trash la­goon.”

“Stand­ing there at the edge look­ing down into the mess, the tires, the garbage, felt like I was in a Third World coun­try,” Wray said of a re­cent visit. In a space cut through by a trib­u­tary and shared with toads, deer, wood­peck­ers and hawks, a home­less en­camp­ment left a clear­ing lit­tered, a rusted-out car sat sen­tinel, and tires were piled ev­ery­where. “I wasn’t in the cool, green, clean, hip, high-tech Austin.”

He and some other Fron­tier at Mon­topo­lis res­i­dents are try­ing to build a walk­ing trail through the area — they have set up a Face­book page aimed at im­prov­ing the neigh­bor­hood and press­ing the city into ac­tion. He and Thomp­son, a 59-year-old house­cleaner, have long been civi­cally en­gaged: They served as Demo­cratic del­e­gates at the past three state party con­ven­tions, he has served on the board of the Save Our Springs Al­liance, and she has served on the board of the Save Barton Creek As­so­ci­a­tion.

“It could be a great place for kids, but it’s re­ally nasty,” Thomp­son said.

The trail pro­posal is part of a se­ries of amend­ments to the neigh­bor­hood plan to be dis­cussed Wed­nes­day. The amend­ments are “pos­i­tive changes” and are ex­pected to pass, said Susana Al­manza, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the East Austin en­vi­ron­men­tal group Peo­ple Or­ga­nized in De­fense of Earth and her Re­sources and the chair­woman of the Mon­topo­lis neigh­bor­hood con­tact team.

But she said she has had to spend some of her time mod­er­at­ing the aims of new­com­ers and mas­sag­ing the feel­ings of long­time res­i­dents.

“New­com­ers have to re­spect those who have been there gen­er­a­tions as well,” Al­manza said.

Some res­i­dents, such as Lopez, don’t want the trail pro­posal to de­tract from more press­ing is­sues in Mon­topo­lis.“

Let’s fix our fields, our streets, our street signs and work on the is­sues at hand — not try to con­nect roads to those new homes with these trails,” said Lopez.

“These peo­ple just moved in, and I’m not go­ing to let any­one who just moved in dic­tate what we do,” he said.

Res­i­dents push­ing for the trail hope it can be a uni­fy­ing project.

“The en­tire Mon­topo­lis trib­u­tary (to Car­son Creek) wa­ter­shed is in pretty bad shape from an en­vi­ron­men­tal stand­point, and that, in part, is why we have started this trail project,” said Wray. “Be­cause when you have a trail, you shed light on the pol­lu­tion prob­lems. What we’ve un­cov­ered so far is only the tip of the ice­berg, and that’s just with a few eyes watch­ing it.”

Larry Kolvo­ord

The city is com­mit­ting more money to East Austin and has al­most dou­bled an­nual spend­ing on pub­lic works projects in the area. Old, dam­aged sewer pipes are be­ing re­placed in Mon­topo­lis.

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