Property crimes were up in April over last year, but violent crimes were down, as Austin residents settled deeper into quarantine mode during the first full month the city was shut down to avoid spread of the coronavirus, according to a new report from Austin Police Chief Brian Manley.
The April numbers, released this week in the Chief's Monthly Crime Report, count the number of times police were called for crimes ranging from homicide to gambling.
They appear to tell the story of a city hunkering down and staying off the streets—with fewer crimes like pick-pocketing and shoplifting, fewer violent incidents, and more property crimes that are easier done with no one around.
There's also an overall 38% drop, compared with April 2019, in crimes typically encountered by patrols or neighborhood watch groups: weapons violations, drug charges, prostitution, gambling and other violations known as "crimes against society."
"It all has to do with people not being outside," said Austin police Det. Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. "They're locked up and scared to go outside. I think the more you see people going out and feeling comfortable leaving the house, the more crime you'll see."
When the lockdown began in mid-March, police saw an uptick in violence, which they attributed to tensions boiling over in the early days of the pandemic.
In April, violent crime dropped, dipping some 13% below last year's rate.
Casaday said those changes could be attributed to regular statistical swings, less reporting and fewer opportunities.
The sharpest decline in violence, both from March to April and over last year's numbers, came in simple assaults, which commonly occur during bar fights and muggings—no deadly weapons and no major injuries.
But with no bars open and fewer people roaming the streets, these types of attacks were down from 933 in March to 791 in April. The numbers are similar when compared with April 2019.
Casaday said the lack of nightlife activity is a clear contributor to that drop, likely short lived.
"Once you start seeing the bars open up, I think you'll see more of that," he said.
Property crimes like robberies, arsons, burglaries, auto thefts and car break-ins saw significant increases from the same month and time span as last year.
Manley said a large chunk of those are typically perpetrated by teenagers, who now have no school or activities to occupy their time.
"With the kids not being in school and a lot of the parents working, it's a good mix for property crime," he said.
Asked whether economic desperation is a factor, Manley said he hasn't seen that yet.
"But the longer this goes on, and the more people that become homeless or without a paycheck, I would expect those types of things to increase," he said.
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By Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission was split Tuesday on whether to help save an eclectic lakefront estate from demolition by zoning it historic amid concerns over tax breaks and the likelihood that a previous owner participated in segregation as a business owner.
The property in question, known as the Delisle House, is located at 2002 Scenic Drive in Tarrytown. The main house, with Spanish and Modern influences, was built in 1923 by Raymond Delisle, an optician. A Gothic Revival accessory apartment was built in 1946. The current owner applied to demolish the structures in order to build a new home.'
Historic preservationists, for their part, overwhelmingly support historic zoning, which would preserve the buildings in perpetuity. The Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to initiate historic zoning in July, citing architectural significance, landscape features and association to historic figures. City staffers recommend historic zoning, calling both structures one-of-a-kind examples of vernacular architecture.
Tarrytown neighbors have also banded together to stop the demolition. Many have written letters, and a few spoke at the meeting. “How could anyone buy this property with the intent of destroying it?” Ila Falvey said. “I think it’s an architectural treasure.”
Michael Whellan, an attorney representing the property owner, said that the claims made by preservationists are shaky. The buildings are run down, he said, and have had substantial renovations. A structural engineer hired by the owner said any attempt at preservation would involve tearing down and rebuilding – an undertaking Whellan said would likely cost millions.
Whellan also argued that any historical significance derived from the property’s association with Delisle and longtime owner C.H. Slator is dubious. “These men are not noted for any civic, philanthropic or historic impact,” he said.
What’s more, according to Whellan, Slator likely participated in segregation as the owner of the Tavern on North Lamar Boulevard between 1953 and 1960.
A city staffer, however, said she found no evidence to support the claim. “We would never landmark a property where a segregationist lived, or there was a racist person,” Kimberly Collins with the Historic Preservation Office said.
Commissioner Awais Azhar couldn’t support historic zoning in part due to lingering uncertainty about Slator. “Focusing on that factor is not here to disparage an individual or family. It is not about playing the race card. This is an important assertion for us to consider as Planning commissioners,” Azhar said.
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said that allegations of racism should come as no surprise. “We’re talking about white male property owners in the 1950s, in Austin, on the west side – and of course they were racist,” she said. But she argued that allowing the house to be demolished based on these grounds does nothing to help people of color who have been harmed by racism and segregation.
The question of tax breaks was also controversial. Michael Gaudini, representing the property owner, said that the tax breaks associated with historic zoning would exacerbate inequality by shifting property tax burdens to less affluent communities. City staffers estimate that the property, appraised at $3.5 million, would get either a $8,500 or $16,107 property tax break annually, depending on whether a homestead exemption is applied.
Commissioner Grayson Cox preferred the commission focus not on tax breaks but on whether the structures merit preservation. “To me, nothing in the historic preservation criteria lists, is this person deserving of a tax break or not?”
Azhar, on the other hand, said he plans to propose a code amendment getting rid of city property tax breaks for historic properties.
The commission fell one vote short of recommending historic zoning, with six commissioners in support and three opposed. Azhar and commissioners Claire Hempel and Greg Anderson voted against.
The odds of City Council zoning over an owner’s wishes are slim. Nine out of 11 members must vote in favor, and there have only been a handful of such cases over the past several decades.
What's new in Austin food & drink this week:
- Nau's Enfield Drug closing after losing their lease. Did McGuire Moorman Lambert buy the building, with its vintage soda fountain?
- Nixta Taqueria Chef Edgar Rico named to Time Magazine's Time 100 Next influencer list, after winning a James Beard Award earlier this year.
- Question: From what BBQ joint did pescatarian Harry Styles order food this week?
- Austin Motel is opening the pool and pool bar Wednesday nights in October for Freaky Floats.
- Vincent's on the Lake closing due to "economic conditions and low water levels [at Lake Travis]."
- Cenote has closed its Windsor Park location. The East Cesar Chavez location remains open.
- The Steeping Room on N. Lamar has closed.
- Local startup It's Skinnyscored new financing for its gluten-free pasta business.
- P. Terry's opened a new location in Kyle, at 18940 IH-35.