Raul Alvarez is transportation coordinator for People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER), an environmental justice group based in East Austin, Texas. He is also environmental justice director for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter in Texas.

Monday, 23 Aug 1999

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AUSTIN, Texas

I am happy to report that I had a productive yet enjoyable and restful weekend. I was fortunate enough to see a performance by the New York City salsa/latin jazz band, Manny Oquendo y Grupo Libre, at Antone’s, Austin’s Home of the Blues. This is not a typical act for Antone’s, although Poncho Sanchez, Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalapeno Band, Ruben Ramos, Flaco Jimenez, Randy Garibay, and other latin acts with diverse repertoires have played there in the past. One of the benefits of Austin’s growth and popularity is the quality of performers who make it through town. This summer, international superstars Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Caetano Veloso, Chucho Valdez, and Arturo Sandoval paid a visit to the capitol city. The next few weeks will bring performances by Ruben Blades, Gilberto Gil, and Larry Harlow. Having hosted a salsa/latin jazz program on a community radio station in Austin (KO-OP, 91.7 FM) for almost three years, I am ecstatic about the fact that artists of this caliber are coming to town and I appreciate the opportunity to take a break from the community work that is necessitated by other aspects of Austin’s growth and popularity.

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Austin has become one of the places to be. The city offers a great variety of educational, recreational, entertainment, and employment opportunities. In addition, Austin’s relatively small size, natural landscape, and reputation as a liberal city make it that much more attractive as a place to live. Not surprisingly, Austin is growing at an incredible rate. The rapid development that Austin has been experiencing now threatens the quality of life and character of the city. Public officials and concerned members of the community are engaged in a debate about how to best combat urban sprawl and are working to achieve “smart growth.”

I tend to view my work on environmental and economic justice issues as being directly related to ongoing efforts to define “smart growth” at the local and national levels. My work with PODER has focused on the impact of local land use and transportation policies and decisions on East Austin, a predominantly low-income African-American and Latino community. PODER has worked with many other neighborhood associations and community organizations to call attention to and address the adverse impacts associated with existing and proposed industrial facilities as well as unsafe streets and intersections. In addition, PODER works towards systematic change in the local planning and decision-making processes that have allowed these problems to materialize in the first place.

The problems confronting East Austin may not be solely attributed to local decision-making. Inequities in the permitting of industrial facilities and the enforcement of environmental laws at the state and federal levels have also contributed to the serious public health hazards that exist in East Austin and other communities of color around the country. On the transportation side, state and federal transportation programs that focused almost exclusively on highway building for the better part of four decades have depleted the resources that are available to create safe, walkable, and livable neighborhoods. I am fortunate that my volunteer work with PODER and my “day job” at Sierra Club have allowed me to work toward institutional and policy changes at all of these different levels.

This being my first diary entry, I will not delve into specifics about my work on the issues mentioned above. I would, however, like to share the following. I am currently reading the book Wisdom of the Elders: Sacred Native Stories of Nature by David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson. The book explores “shared beliefs about the delicate interrelationship between humans and the environment that are contained in both Western science and the age-old wisdom of Native peoples from around the world.” Although the holistic view of nature held by Native peoples has greatly influenced my own personal views on the environment, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is the insightful observations made by scientists of varying disciplines whose life work has focused on different aspects of nature. It is unfortunate that these scientific views are not more widely held.

“The statement that the earth is our mother is more than a sentimental platitude: we are shaped by the earth. The characteristics of the environment in which we develop condition our biological and mental being and the quality of our life. Even were it only for selfish reasons, therefore, we must maintain variety and harmony in nature.”
— Rene Dubos, microbiologist, as quoted in Wisdom of the Elders

Tuesday, 24 Aug 1999

AUSTIN, Texas

The earthquake in Turkey has been a sobering reminder of the awesome and unpredictable power of nature. The totality of the disaster is difficult to grasp: large-scale structural damage and loss of human life; the threat of death and disease from lack of food, water, and sanitation; the additional threat of disease from flies and mosquitoes brought on by torrential rain; the pollution of the air, water, and land from a refinery blaze; etc. A BBC News article reported that a toxic waste dump has been exposed by the quake and that there is possible damage to a PVC factory, a waste treatment plant, and an incinerator.

Nature unleashed another threat this past week in the form of Hurricane Bret right here in Texas’s gulf coast area. Although a hurricane does provide some advanced warning, I could not help but be concerned for the safety of my family, friends, and everyone else living in south Texas. I was also concerned about the potential environmental impacts that could occur if facilities in Corpus Christi’s northeast industrial district were damaged. The district contains seven refineries, a sour-gas processing plant, two smelting/refining plants, approximately 550 fuel storage tanks, several chemical/gas/crude oil pipelines, ship barge loading/unloading terminals, petroleum coke and coal piles, and more. Luckily, Bret struck in a relatively unpopulated area, missing Corpus Christi, Brownsville, and my hometown.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club has worked extensively since 1992 with several refinery communities in the state, including those in Corpus Christi. In 1994, the Lone Star Chapter spent considerable time over several months researching and drafting a lengthy administrative Title VI (civil rights) complaint on behalf of several Corpus Christi community groups. The complaint was filed in 1994 with the EPA against the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) for not adequately enforcing environmental laws and against the City of Corpus Christi for creating an industrial district adjacent to neighborhoods extensively populated by people of color. The complaint remains pending at EPA.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has emerged as a potentially powerful tool for community organizations that are engaged in the struggle for environmental justice. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance.

The first Title VI complaints concerning environmental justice were filed with EPA in 1993. As of June 1999, some 79 complaints had been
filed with EPA. Out of these, 35 have already been rejected or dismissed and 44 are still active in one form or another. In Texas, 12 complaints have been filed, of which five have been accepted for investigation, three have been rejected, and four are under consideration for investigation.

Two of the pending Title VI complaints in Texas were filed by PODER and pertain to facilities located in East Austin, a predominantly African-American and Latino community. The first complaint was filed in 1995 against both the City of Austin and the TNRCC for allowing a high-technology company to bypass normal processes in order to get approval for construction of their facility in the Montopolis community. The second was filed on March 29, 1999 against the City of Austin for failing to meet the commitment it made in 1995 to begin phasing out the use of a power plant that is located in a residential area. The complaints also allege systematic discrimination by the city because of land-use policies that have directed a disproportionate amount of industrial growth to East Austin.

Due to the growing number of civil rights complaints, EPA was under a lot of pressure to begin the process of resolving them. As a result, in February 1998, EPA issued an interim guidance policy intended to provide a framework for such processing. If EPA finds discrimination in a recipient’s permitting program, and the recipient is not able to come into compliance voluntarily, EPA must initiate procedures to terminate funding to the recipient.

EPA’s interim guidance policy has come under attack from industry and state governments. States, through organizations such as the Environmental Council of States and the National Governors Association, have claimed that the policy will impede companies from redeveloping abandoned, contaminated industrial sites in urban areas, also known as “brownfields.” A recent EPA report found that this is not the case. An analysis by the Transnational Resource Action Center found that corporations are furthering their claims by using front groups such as the Business Network for Environmental Justice, which is a corporate coalition run by the National Association of Manufacturers.

EPA is expected to release a draft final guidance policy sometime in the fall. The fate of all pending complaints and the usefulness of Title VI to communities disproportionately affected by environmental hazards will depend on the strength of this policy.

“A disenchanted world is, at the same time, a world liable to control and manipulation. Any science that conceives the world as being governed according to a universal theoretical plan that reduces its riches to the drab applications of general laws thereby becomes an instrument of domination. And man, a stranger to the world, sets himself up as its master.”
— Ilya Prigogine, physicist and Isabelle Stengers, chemist as quoted in Wisdom of the Elders

Wednesday, 25 Aug 1999

AUSTIN, Texas

Today I am meeting with Austin city staff to discuss funding for transportation projects. As part of my work for Sierra Club, I have been developing tools for evaluating transportation investments at the local and state levels. This often involves delving into thick reports from the City of Austin and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), trying, among other things, to figure out how planned expenditures for transportation projects differ from actual expenditures.

This is just one of the many hoops that need to be jumped through as we work to improve the transportation system. The bottom line is that priorities will have to change at the federal, state, and metropolitan levels if we are going to succeed in developing a balanced transportation system that provides improved access to goods, services, jobs, and recreational opportunities to all segments of the population. It is clear that the operative word here is “we.” Before the priorities change, “we,” the informed members of the public, will have to work hard to ensure this change occurs.

One crucial step is raising awareness about transportation and its impacts on our communities. Other important strategies include obtaining information about community transportation needs; developing tools for affecting the transportation decision-making process; and networking with other like-minded individuals and organizations in order to learn from each other’s experiences.

PODER has put these strategies into action in developing its Transportation and Quality of Life Campaign in East Austin, with the aim of getting communities of color involved in transportation planning and decision-making. As part of this campaign, PODER works with community groups to identify their transportation needs and specific steps that will ensure those needs are met. One way we do this is through door-to-door surveys, asking citizens about road, pedestrian, and bicycle improvements that they would like to see in their neighborhoods.

PODER currently has three neighborhood transportation improvement projects underway. Our transportation campaign has had great success in obtaining improvements to sidewalks, bus shelters, bike racks, street lights, street signs, and specific intersections. Since initiating this campaign, PODER has made presentations about our transportation work at various conferences around the country.

PODER’s involvement in transportation issues was precipitated by my attendance at a meeting of grassroots transportation organizations from around the country, sponsored by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, an organization working for transportation reform at the national level. Trans-Texas Alliance has undertaken a similar mission but at the state level.

The story of our transportation work would not be complete without mentioning some notable hoops we’ve cleared:

  • As part of our first transportation project in 1995, PODER and neighborhood members were able to get the metropolitan planning organization and the TxDOT to build a sidewalk along a major U.S. highway, a project costing upwards of $150,000. TxDOT’s participation in sidewalk construction was very rare at the time.
  • As part of our second project, PODER and neighborhood members succeeded in having the City of Austin initiate a study of ways to improve a very dangerous intersection, the first study of its kind in East Austin. A draft version of the study was circulated in early 1998, and it has yet to be finalized, a point I raised before the city council just last week during a public hearing on the budget.
  • Third, PODER and neighborhood members have worked with our transit authority, Capital Metro, to establish a good model of coordination between the different transportation agencies that don’t have the necessary systems of communication in place to address the variety of issues that are raised through the neighborhood planning process.

“When a person is part of a system, he cannot easily see what his role accomplishes. Unless he understands the system thoroughly, he will not have any inkling of the network of controls that may or may not exist to keep the flow(s) continuous, adapted to inputs, adapted to outside demands, and stabilized in the face of fluctuations.”
— Howard T. Odum, systems ecologist, as quoted in Wisdom of the Elders

Thursday, 26 Aug 1999

AUSTIN, Texas

Today I’m going to make some calls about the status of a case that went before the Austin Planning Commission last week. It involves a dispute over the development of a tract of land on 6th Street, east of I-35. Most people in the Austin area are familiar with 6th Street, but not this part of it. Until recently, many have feared to tread “east of the freeway” — East Austin
has historically been perceived as an unsafe place to visit, much less live or operate a business. In Austin, “the other side of the freeway” as opposed to “the other side of the tracks” is where low-income people of color have resided for many years.

Without getting into all of the social, economic, and environmental problems affecting East Austin, I would like to focus for a moment on the issue of land use in East Austin. A 1997 study conducted by the city found that this part of town is host to more than its fair share of land zoned for industrial use. These land-use designations are the fundamental reasons that fuel storage tanks, recycling plants, a power plant, and other industrial operations are allowed to locate in residential areas.

A 1928 plan for Austin designated East Austin as an industrial zoning district and called for the relocation of people of color to this area in order to solve what was called “the race segregation problem.” This relocation was accomplished by moving and/or establishing public housing, churches, schools, and parks for people of color in East Austin.

Since it was formed, PODER has been working with many other community groups and residents to address hazards associated with specific industrial facilities, as well as to deal with the industrial zoning problem. In November 1996, various East Austin community organizations and neighborhood associations formed a network called “El Pueblo” to rectify inequities in the city’s land-use policies. In a landmark decision, the Austin City Council voted in December 1996 to place a moratorium on land development in East Austin for 90 days and initiate the land-use study mentioned above. El Pueblo scored a big victory in 1997 when the City Council voted to place conditions on certain industrial and commercial lots in East Austin. Neighborhood residents must now be notified any time certain industrial and commercial facilities seek to locate or expand their operations in East Austin.

PODER and other community members are now utilizing different strategies to begin the process of actually down-zoning industrial properties to more restrictive zoning categories. Several industrial properties that are in use or proposed for industrial redevelopment were down-zoned in order to protect the surrounding neighborhoods. Current efforts are focused on down-zoning existing residential areas that are zoned industrial so that the zoning reflects the actual use. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Another avenue we’ve used to down-zone industrial properties is Austin’s neighborhood planning process. I happen to live in the East Austin neighborhood that was selected to participate in this process (the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood), so I decided that it would be worthwhile to participate. After what may be described by some as a grueling process, several commercial and industrial corridors in the neighborhood were recommended for “mixed-use” zoning, a category that allows for a mix of housing and commercial development and is integral to the whole idea of “smart growth.” This brings me back to the case I was discussing initially.

The proposed development that has raised concerns with some community members would be located in one of the mixed-use corridors in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood. The development is mixed only in the sense that there is more than one use proposed for the site — it would be a three-story structure with computer assembly on the first floor, office space on the second floor, and condominiums on the third floor. The building would occupy a square block and displace a historic building and more than ten affordable housing units.

Because the city has not yet defined the criteria for mixed-use development in the central city, a difference of opinion exists within the community about whether this is the type of mixed-use development that should be allowed in this corridor. This case is not as clear-cut as a case of industrial development would be because of the various social and economic needs of East Austin. Proponents of the project call attention to the fact that the computer business would be Hispanic-owned and would provide jobs in the neighborhood. Opponents are concerned about issues of scale and compatibility as well as the precedent that would be set if we permit a development that wipes out several affordable housing units and a structure of historical significance.

Although the only issue being decided at the moment is that of historic preservation, the city’s handling of this proposed development will be indicative of its commitment to the neighborhood planning process and the principles espoused in its Smart Growth Initiative.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of words. Much of the damage inflicted on the land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be a doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
— Aldo Leopold, ecologist, as quoted in Wisdom of the Elders

Friday, 27 Aug 1999

AUSTIN, Texas

I have signed up to go before the Austin City Council next week to speak about a recently proposed equity initiative. One might ask, why is Austin developing an equity initiative? Part of the reason (but not the only reason, since the “need” is obviously there) is that much of the discussion in Austin about “smart growth” has centered around three E’s (economy, environment, and equity). The city’s background documents about its Smart Growth Initiative and a relatively recent report commissioned by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce discuss the need to take a balanced approach to growth management in these three areas. It is not too surprising that advocates of the environment and equity would be asking that governmental priorities be more balanced in these respective areas. The fact that the city and the chamber are also pushing this idea suggests that this approach may actually produce some positive results.

The economic and environmental benefits of curbing sprawl through smart growth initiatives have been well documented in print. The Sierra Club, the American Farmland Trust, and the Natural Resources Defense Council working jointly with the Surface Transportation Policy Project all have produced reports that document some of the negative consequences of sprawl and identify recommendations for change. Two recent publications by the Trust for Public Land and the National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals speak to the issue of growing smart because it’s good for the economy.

The equity implications of smart growth, on other hand, have not been dealt with specifically from an academic point of view. The closest thing you can find is the debate about redevelopment of “brownfields,” abandoned and often contaminated industrial sites in urban areas. From a neighborhood point of view, the relevant issues related to equity and growth are: (1) what type and intensity of development will occur; (2) will it serve the existing community; and (3) will it have any adverse environmental, economic, or social impacts on the existing community. If you look at it from a historical point of view, the issues are not much different than those related to urban renewal.

If the city is going to direct growth to desired development areas and away from the environmentally sensitive zone in West Austin, it must be willing to address all of the development questions listed above with honesty and in good faith. The proposed development of a light-rail system should be handled in this manner. These concerns are articulated well in the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan that the city adopted earlier this year. Many other neighborhood associations and r
esidents have expressed similar concerns about development proposals.

The reason I am interested in commenting on the city’s proposed equity initiative is because I want to raise concerns about issues that are not explicitly included in it — like some development issues. The equity initiative is a budget initiative more than anything and will likely deal with issues of affordable housing, workforce development, early education, child care, neighborhood planning, etc. All of these issues are legitimate and necessary components of a plan for equity in the city. At the same time, the need to address the development-related concerns listed above should not be overlooked. The policy issues related to equity in development are not as easy to accomplish with a budget line item but are equally important.

Now, on to my weekend. Here’s what’s in store: Accordion Kings Festival in Round Rock (including a performance by Valerio Longoria) on Saturday and Ruben Blades show at La Zona Rosa on Sunday.

“Early in the history of life, Nature began to shape new species to fit into habitats already occupied by other species. Never since the Archaean Period has a living thing evolved alone. Whole communities have evolved as if they were one great organism. Thus all evolution is coevolution and the biosphere is now a confederation of dependencies.”
— Victor B. Scheffer, marine mammologist and author, as quoted in Wisdom of the Elders