Bridge back on track despite crime concerns

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by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and photojournalist ERIN COKER

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on January 24, 2013 at 11:27 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 25 at 8:31 AM

AUSTIN -- In a few months, the City of Austin plans to build a controversial million-dollar pedestrian bridge in Northeast Austin.

On Wednesday, council member Laura Morrison convened a special meeting to discuss it with residents who feel it will bring crime to their neighborhood.

The meeting comes one month after a KVUE Defenders investigation showed how some believe the City broke promises to do it. Andy Pierrotti explains why residents still feel disappointed after that meeting.

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Behind closed doors, residents spoke with city staff, but left more disappointed than before walking inside.

“I thought the meeting was a sham, a complete sham,” explained Duggan Flanakin, a Heritage Hills resident in Northeast Austin.

In December, the KVUE Defenders showed Heritage Hills residents fighting to prevent the City from building a bridge across North Walnut creek. The bridge will connect them to the Windsor Hills neighborhood.

"We think it's a great idea. We just don't think that connecting a high-crime area to a low crime area is the way to do it," argued Mary Jo Hernandez in December.

According to 2009 city records reviewed by the Defenders, we found city staff and the planning commission then recommended the bridge only be built "if crime rates [have] been significantly reduced" in Windsor Hills.

But the Defenders found that didn’t happen in the entire neighborhood. For example, the Austin Police Department reported 10 crimes in Heritage Hills in November. None of them were violent. During that time period in Windsor Hills, there were 53 crimes; 10 of those were assaults involving weapons, suffocation and robberies.

At Wednesday's meeting, Asst. Chief Brian Manley showed that violent crime decreased 19 percent on the roads leading up to the bridge since 2009. He also admits the entire neighborhood saw an increase.

“I believe we've seen a slight uptick in the over-all crime in the Runberg corridor. I want to say in the one percent range,” explained Manley.

At the meeting, the City provided more details about the bridge's design. Staff explained that it will be illuminated and areas underneath the bridge will be filled with cement to prevent loitering.

The bridge could allow hundreds of Windsor Hill students to cross the creek and walk to Hart Elementary School.

Austin ISD says that could potentially remove up to seven buses off the streets in two years. No one has told parents, like Dawn Harris, about that. 

"What if there's a crossing guard there?" KVUE asked.

"It doesn't matter," Harris said. "I wouldn't want my child to walk by herself. She's only seven years old."

Chief Manley says a new million-dollar grant will pay for extra patrols in the area.

At the meeting, Heritage Hills residents were hoping to convince the City to postpone building the bridge until the City determined if the grant reduced crime.

“It was shot down in a nice way I guess,” said Courtney Dibrell, who lives directly across the creek in Heritage Hills.

"We did talk about that. From my point of view, it really makes sense to be working all of these things together," argued council member Morrison.

Two and a half years ago Morrison asked the City to delay the bridge.

“We need to see serious improvements and have a discussion at the council level before proceeding with that bridge in particular because of the crime issues," she said at the 2009 meeting.

Morrison has no plans to ask the city council to delay it again.

"At this point, it doesn't look like there's much hope," said Dibrell.

Construction could start as early as April.

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