Austin City Council declares Juneteenth a holiday, steps toward new vision for St. John property


Austin City Council held a special called meeting on July 29, 2020. Screenshot from ATXN Live.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — At Austin City Council’s special called meeting Wednesday, the council passed many items on its consent agenda within the first half of the day.

The fully updated list of council actions can be viewed online, but it includes the approval of Juneteenth as a city holiday, a follow-through on a new vision for a St. Johns neighborhood property and the use of eminent domain to extend a trail in northwest Austin.

Declaring racism a public health crisis

A resolution by Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison was passed on consent declaring racism a public health crisis and calling on the city manager as well as state leaders to take direct action to address it.

Juneteenth as a city holiday

Council passed a resolution that establishes Juneteenth as a city holiday starting in 2021 to “memorialize the end of chattel slavery in the United States and to celebrate the Africans and African descendants who survived an inhumane economic system and thrived as American citizens.”

The resolution directs the city manager to come up with options in the next few weeks for establishing Juneteenth as a paid holiday for city employees.

Juneteenth is marked with celebrations each year to recognize the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the Civil War was over and enslaved Africans and African descendants were free. This happened two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The city resolution states in east Austin, people who were freed after the 1865 announcement worked together to purchase Emancipation Park — present day Rosewood Courts — to celebrate.

Renaming city assets tied to the Confederacy

Council approved a resolution directing the city to rename all city assets dedicated to the Confederacy, white supremacy or that have tangential ties to the Confederacy.

This process will involve the city manager, the Austin City Council and the Equity Office, the resolution said.

“Our city’s institutions were built on a foundation of white supremacy,” said Harper-Madison. “And we have to recognize it before we can resolve it.”

Eminent domain for park land

The council approved a resolution to allow the city to use eminent domain to acquire two tracts of land totaling 11 acres to complete the Upper Bull Creek Greenbelt from Loop 360 to Canyon Vista Middle School. The city plans to pay out $4.5 million from the Capital Budget of the parks department for public use of this land for the city’s parks system in northwest Austin in the area northwest of Loop 360 and South of Spicewood Springs.

The city says this will close a “critical gap” in the trail system and would address current “unsafe on-street parking conditions for hikers.”

David Kahn, the owner of the property, spoke at the meeting in objection. Kahn said he was planning to build a small hotel in that location, and he was offering to provide a trail through the property for free. He told the council that he asked city staff to negotiate a free easement with him, but they were not receptive to that idea.

Kahn said the project he planned to work on there was “a perfectly legal and environmentally sound project.”

“There is no pressing need for another park in this area,” he said.

“The government’s right to force people to sell property should only be used in an abundance of caution,” he said.

Another public speaker said that while Kahn is offering up use of the trail, the whole area is a “gem” that Austinites could enjoy if it was used as public land.

New vision for St. Johns property

Council approved on consent a resolution supporting the new vision for a property in the St. Johns neighborhood at 7211 North I-35 and 7309 North I-35. This also cements the council’s intent to rezone these properties to mixed use, which will be finalized after an initial agreement with any developers.

Qincy Dunlap of the Austin Area Urban League said he wants the project to come into fruition

“I am supporting this because hopefully, the Urban League can be one of the anchor organizations so [these sites] can serve the community in ways it hasn’t been served in the past,” Dunlap said.

He added that this action shows the city is “committed to investing necessary resources to revitalize the St. John’s neighborhood.

Potential transportation funding on the November ballot

The council approved on consent a resolution directing Austin’s City Manager to enhance funding for displacement mitigation and provide options for implementing and funding active transportation improvements. Council called for two potential funding options for this effort, either funding as to be included as part of an anticipated November tax rate election to fund Project Connect of funding as part of a separate general obligation bond program.

The city manager is directed to present options for bringing this to a November election to council.

The measures funded by this effort would be things included in the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan: addressing gaps in the sidewalk system, plans for safe routes to school, bicycle facilities for all ages and abilities, urban trails, and projects that improve safety for everyone regardless of how they travel around the city.

Jay Blazek Crossley, transportation advocate with the nonprofit Farm and City, told the council he believes having a transit bond and a Project Connect tax rate election on the same ballot will help both efforts.

“Now is exactly the time,” Crossley said.

City Manager Spencer Cronk said that preparing for a bond this way would be “unprecedented.”

“It’s gonna take a lot of staff work to make sure we can respond to this resolution in such a short time frame,” he said.

Pandemic child care support

Council approved on consent a resolution asking the State Leaders of Texas to address the state’s “critical child-care infrastructure” as a result of the pandemic.

Contract for cleanup services

After an amendment, the council approved a contract with Relief Enterprise of Texas, Inc. to clean up areas at overpasses, under bridges and in the transportation right of way. The contract would last for up to three years and would not exceed $1.725 million.

This item was pulled for discussion by Council Member Greg Casar. Several public speakers opposed this item, expressing concern that it these cleanups are targeted to address the appearance of encampments of people experiencing homelessness without addressing root issues that led to their homelessness in the first place.

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