Archive for: March 2015

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Is Rainey Street Washing Away?

Words by Jacob Kerr, Video by Jewel Sharp, Photos By Megan Breckenridge


Rainey Street has seen its fair share of change over the years.

Situated near Lady Bird Lake, Rainey is a small street tucked away between downtown and I-35. But over the past six years, Rainey has also developed into a popular bar district, serving as alternative to Austin’s well-known Austin’s Sixth Street.

“Everybody’s your best friend, and you want to hang out there for a while, have a couple beers [and] go on to the next,” said Natalie Williams, a visitor from Chicago. “That’s how I feel here.”
Long before becoming part of Austin’s nightlife scene, Rainey was a Mexican-American neighborhood. In 1985, the street was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Partly due to its close location to downtown, the city rezoned the street in 2005 as part of the Central Business District.
Beginning in 2009, the rezoning allowed for several developers to refit the historic bungalows along the street into bars.

But in more recent years, the street has seen even more change: high-rise condominiums and apartments – such as SkyHouse Austin and Windsor on the Lake – have slowly popped up on and around Rainey.

Last year, the development directly impacted the young bar district when Lustre Pearl, the first bar on Rainey, closed last year to make way for a new high-rise called Millennium Rainey. The new building is currently under construction on the northeast corner of Rainey.

Some regular visitors to Rainey feel the new construction is taking away from the bar district’s charm.

“I enjoy the atmosphere of Rainey a lot, and I feel like it’s being diminished to a certain extent because of these high rises and the commercial parking garages being built,” UT student Jeffrey Parabo said.

While more high-rise construction is underway or planned for the area, the bar district isn’t showing any signs of caving soon. In fact, a few months after it closed, Lustre Pearl announced the bar would return to Rainey across the street from its original location.

The House of the Rising Sun

By: Anderson Boyd, Carola Guerrero De León, Taylor Turner

In America, “energy” is most often associated with terms like “oil” and “fossil.” UT’s solar decathlon team wants to change that distinction.

The team, made up of University students partnered with students from German university Technische Universität München, has spent the last two years designing a solar-powered home called “Nexushaus.” The project will be a part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition, which promotes the application and use of solar technologies in buildings. Although currently a model, the team plans to marry solar power with water-saving and food-producing technology to create a self-sustaining home that is both eco-friendly and stylish, which they will build in Austin and ship to Irvine, California for the October competition.

“It’s very much motivated by the local water and energy and housing scarcity elements facing Austin,” team co-captain Charles Upshaw said. “The house is trying to reduce water consumption issues…as well as address sustainable electricity production. We’re also trying to incorporate…sustainable food production [as well].”

Upshaw, a fifth-year graduate student who is also the team’s solar engineer, became involved with the project through the University’s architectural engineering department. He said his Ph.D. research into integrated buildings and water systems attracted him to Nexushaus when the DOE approved the project application last March.


The design mock up shows the recyclable and reusable materials the team plans to use for the home.


“Back then it was called the Energy Water Nexus Unit,” Upshaw said. “[It] is in line with my research, and so I got involved.”

Upshaw said the house takes a holistic approach to energy issues by including water-saving technology and food production as well as solar energy into the plans.

“Agriculture is [a large] consumer of water, and it is a big consumer of electricity and natural resources, but it is typically not talked about the same way as energy and water,” Upshaw said. “We are trying to tie all of this together and address them all at once.”

The home, which includes two 400-square-foot modules connected by a central corridor, will be zero net energy, which Upshaw said means it would produce as much or more electricity it consumes over a single year. The home also hosts cisterns on the roof to collect rainwater, which is then treated and used for domestic tasks, such as shower, laundry and wastewater. Once used, Upshaw said that water becomes gray water, which is then used to produce the unit’s food.

“We are not allowed by law to use gray water inside the house,” Upshaw said. “So what we will be doing with the gray water is producing food… In addition, we’ll have an aquaponics system, [which] is a symbiotic system where fish fertilize the plants and the plants clean the water.”

Project manager Ryan McKeman, a second-year architecture masters’ student, said he first became acquainted with the project after seeing a Solar Decathlon competition while consulting in Washington, D.C, where the competition formerly took place.


The model of the house shows the solar panels and sustainable food areas.


“[The project] marries my work in architecture [and] my undergraduate degree in mathematics,” McKeman said. “When I [applied] to graduate schools, I chose UT because they were putting this team together to enter the competition.”

McKeman said besides working with engineers to get the correct building permits and having the project be completely student-led, a problem faced by the team is the partnership with German university Technische Universität München, or TUM.

“We had deep connections with professors at TUM, so the design went from Austin to Munich back to Austin, back to Munich,” McKeman said. “It has been a really collaborative and productive partnership with them at every step, but at the same time we work 6,000 miles and 6-7 hours apart…and we have language barriers and differences to maneuver and negotiate.”

Interior design senior Emily Hightswaggle said working with students from TUM presents a different experience than found at UT.

“[Here] all of our projects are mostly single person-based,” Hightswaggle said, “so actually working with a team and [coordinating] with vendors and students from TUM…makes you realize how crucial everyone is in the project and how much their impact will impact the final design. We’ve made some close relationships not only with the people in the studio but with our vendors and people who are willing to donate [to the project] as well.’”

Hightswaggle, who is a part of designing the home’s interior, said the team is in the process of picking out reusable or recycled material for the home’s construction, which Upshaw said will begin next month.

“[We’re] looking at materials that have less of an impact to the environment and could be reused in the future,” Hightswaggle said.

Upshaw said the energy problems the team is looking to solve are universal issues.

“There is a lot of overlap [in] energy and water scarcity issues [in the U.S.], and they are facing…similar issues around the world,” Upshaw said. “We are trying to get beyond the energy efficiency and water efficiency and get to the bigger picture of things.”

Social animals: rewriting the underdog story in the age of social media


Tuna looks upon the line of fans waiting to get his “pawtograph” for the book titled Tuna Melts My Heart: The Underdog with the Overbite. Tuna fans flocked to BookPeople on Friday, March 6, 2015 for the book signing and opportunity to take photos with the Instafamous dog.

He saw hundreds of people waiting in line — the usual. Fans were squealing his name in adoration. Young and old would wait for two hours on a Friday night in Austin, Texas. For what? They had come from far and wide just for a signed copy of his book and a chance to take a quick picture with him. It was surreal — something you’d expect to be humbling, like playing Madison Square Garden. Yet, all he could think about was the squeaky toy one of his handlers was dangling high up above his face.

Tuna, the Chihuahua-Dachshund mix, internet celebrity, and inspirational figure for the modern era has come a long way from his humble roots on the side of a Southern California road, where he was abandoned as a puppy — presumably, because of the trademark underbite and crumpled neck for which he is now famous.

“You know, I like to call him Sir,” said Tuna’s owner Courtney Dasher, to a packed house at BookPeople for a book signing to promote his new book, Tuna Melts My Heart: The Underdog with the Overbite.

Tuna’s inspirational underdog story starts in 2011, when Dasher adopted him and quickly began posting pictures of her pup’s peculiarly pronounced pearly whites to an Instagram account.

“[Tuna] reaches all demographics,” Dasher said. “I think people from all different walks of life are drawn to him so he speaks to different people’s hearts and situations by being quirky and unconventional.”

Now his website, TunaMeltsMyHeart, has more than 1.2 million Instagram followers. That’s right — this dog has more Instagram followers than you. That’s also more Instagram followers than actor John Stamos (553k), actress Amanda Seyfried (831k) and just slightly less than comedienne and star of The Mindy Project,  Mindy Kaling (1.4m). Somebody get this dog a Super Bowl commercial!

In 2012, Tuna's Instagram went viral, increasing from 8,500 followers to over 32,000 in less than 24 hours. Tuna now has over 1.2 million Instagram followers.

In 2012, Tuna’s Instagram went viral, increasing from 8,500 followers to over 32,000 in less than 24 hours. Tuna now has over 1.2 million Instagram followers.

If you think this is all just the work of a fame-hungry Chiweenie, however, you’d be wrong.  Tuna has not forgotten his roots and is using his celebrity to give back to his favorite cause, according to Dasher.

“We’re being used as a catalyst to change people’s days,” said Dasher. “I look at him as a vehicle to bring people a lot of joy, and on our tours, like anytime we do anything, we want to be able to support animal rescue groups.”

Donations that night went to local animal rescue group Austin Pets Alive!, which brought to BookPeople a puppy who, much like Tuna, was born with a congenital defect that could hurt his chances for adoption. Tuna was only too happy to pose for a picture with the puppy whose front paw will likely be removed due to lack of sufficient bone structure.


Tuna poses for a photo with Austin Pets Alive puppy, Scooter who was born with a defect in his front paw and abandoned by previous owners before APA rescued him.

An APA! volunteer said Tuna’s celebrity helps raise the visibility of the nonprofit’s work in an important way.

“It’s one thing to hear Austin Pets Alive!, you can adopt an animal from them,” the volunteer said. “It’s a different thing to see the puppies and kittens and cats and dogs that we’re saving at an event like this.”

She also said social media is huge for promoting animal rescue — even in a city like Austin, with a thriving network of animal rescue groups and an army of volunteers touting its dog-friendly distinction as the largest no-kill city in the nation.

“Social media is how people find out about us: without social media all you’ve got is word of mouth, which isn’t going to get you very far,” she said. “Social media within your own organization is even big for us: it’s how we can plead for a new foster home.”


Fans hold up their smart phones to snap photos while Courtney Dasher introduces Tuna before the book signing on Friday, March 6th, 2015.

Tuna’s Instagram has become a social media tool more powerful than Dasher ever expected.

“Social media is an outlet to connect with a community that is global, which is so fascinating to me,” Dasher said. “I don’t look at this as just an Instagram account. I have a lot of responsibility attached to me now and I want to make sure to use it to promote things that are encouraging and uplifting.”

Tuna may be the first Instagram pet to go on tour, but if he’s the first one you’ve heard of, you must not be one of Milla the cat’s 200k Instagram followers. The feline with comically small ears, whose owners ask for donations to fund treatment for her heart disease, is just one of an increasing number of Instagram pets with followings that dwarf those which rescue organizations can attract.  Compare the 8,400 followers of APA!’s Instagram to the 97k followers of Elfie and Gimli, two brother and sister cats born with dwarfism.

Tuna’s cartoonish appearance has helped catapult him to the top of the pack, but there is also a place on Instagram for more conventionally cute cats and canines. If you would like to share your own rescue pet’s story, but feel you don’t have time to cultivate a following,  you can submit a photo and story to Rescue Pets of Instagram. It has 71k followers.

While social media on Facebook and Twitter have played a significant role in grassroots movements for social change in recent years, University of Texas at Austin journalism professor Robert Quigley says there may be a reason Instagram is appealing for promoting animal rescue, in particular.

“Considering Instagram has more than 200 million users, it’s a great place to spread a message and get people involved,” Quigley said. “It’s the perfect place for an animal rescue message, because Instagram is a visual medium. Who can turn down Tuna?”

Tejano Hero Honored at Texas State Cemetery



by Lazaro Hernandez, Claire Hogan, and Scarlett Klein

Navarro Cenotaph

AUSTIN- He is a man you will not find in many Texas history books.

On Feb. 27, Jose Antonio Navarro, a little-known hero of the Texas Revolution, was honored with a cenotaph dedication ceremony at the Texas State Cemetery. The ceremony coincided with his 220th birthday.

A self-educated lawyer and statesman, Navarro was one of the three Tejano signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence. Born in San Antonio, where he lived from 1795 to 1871, he was one of the earliest supporters of Texas independence. Navarro was a central player in the events surrounding the revolution and a close friend of Stephen F. Austin.

The audience was filled with descendants of Navarro, many of them able to trace their ancestry back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

navarro gif guns shooting

Texas Legacy Reenactors shoot rifles at the end of the dedication ceremony to honor Jose Antonio Navarro’s legacy.

Speakers included multiple historians, Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott, Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, and Sylvia Navarro-Tillotson, a direct descendant of Navarro who was instrumental in bringing about the event.

For her son, James Tillotson, the event was a monumental occasion.

“It seems that history is often recorded by the dominating political force wherever you are. Not just old white men, but whatever the dominating political force is. In Mexico, they don’t write much about the Indians who were there. I think that it’s really interesting that people are still very interested in some of what these other contributors did.”

Tillotson said he is impressed by Navarro’s refusal to denounce Texas.

“He was imprisoned in Mexico by Santa Anna for two years and tried as a traitor to Mexico… he was told that all he had to do was foreswear his allegiance and he said no. Can you imagine being in a prison for two years? They promised him money and a title and all he would have had to do was denounce Texas.”

navarro gif guns raising

Texas Legacy Reenactors exclaim a traditional “hip-hip-hooray!” for Jose Antonio Navarro.

Numerous Texas historical societies were represented at the dedication ceremony, including The Tejano Genealogy Society of Texas and the United Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Lorenzo Lopez, a member of The Tejano Genealogy Society of Texas, hopes that more people will become aware of Navarro’s legacy and impact on the state.

“There’s a lot that happened that we aren’t taught in schools,” he said.

Many descendants at the ceremony said that they were not aware of Navarro’s accomplishments and legacy until they reached adulthood, having not been taught about him in public schools.

Mary Ann Wiles, a 7th generation descendant, would tell her teachers about him as a child. For her, the dedication ceremony was a long time coming.

“The event encapsulates so much. In San Antonio, they don’t even know about him. His bust should be in the state capitol,” she said.

Visitors can view Navarro’s memorial in the Texas State Cemetery which is free and open seven days a week.

Gallery: Navarro Dedication Ceremony


For more information on Jose Antonio Navarro:


Take a Look Back at Pivotal Moments in Tejano History:

Weather Doesn’t Damper Spirits at Kite Festival

Story by Bobby Blanchard, video by Colleen Nelson and photos by Chelsey Pena

Long-time kite flyers and sunny day fans Gene and Kerry Raymond were hoping it would rain hard on Sunday, March 1, so officials would postpone the Zilker Kite Festival.

But it didn’t. While weather forecasts had promised an ugly day with low temperatures and heavy clouds, Austin did not receive heavy rain. Gene and Kerry said they would rather it rain heavily so the Kite Festival could be rescheduled for a sunnier, cheery day. But that didn’t happen.

“Even this doesn’t keep us away though,” said Gene, a 36-year-old Austinite who’s been going to the festival with his wife since their first date in 2002. “We come here for the memories…to remind ourselves of the good times behind us and the good times ahead.”

Despite an average temperature of 43 degrees, more than 10,000 people swarmed Zilker Park on March 1 for the 86th annual Kite Festival in Austin. Attendees said the kite festival brings out Austin’s southern friendliness and urban weirdness.

Gene and Kerry Raymond were just two of those 10,000 attendees. They were there for tradition — they had their first date at the Zilker Kite Festival in 2002. Unlike the 2015 Kite Festival, 2002 was a sunny and warm year, they said. After attending the festival for the first time in 2002, they got ice cream.

Some fun Kite facts, and Kite history

“It was a warmer day than this, and we were hot and sweaty from running around with kites,” Kerry said. “I was really worried I smelled awful and he’d would be grossed out.”

Since then, the couple said they have only missed two kite festivals. Once in 2006, when it was scheduled on a weekend when they had work obligations. And again in 2009, when Kerry was pregnant and expecting her first son – Zachary Raymond. He was born three days after the Kite Festival.

Zachary, a soon-to-be six-year-old, was shy at the Kite Festival on Sunday. But he said his favorite kind of kites were the red ones because “you can see them in the sky.”

This year, the Raymond’s made a simple, red diamond-kite for the festival. They said they had made more complex designs in the past, but did not have time this year.

“We were a little bit lazy,” Gene said. “But that’s okay, maybe we’ll make one of those dragon kites next year.”

The Zilker Kite Festival began in 1929 and continues to this day, to “encourage creativity in children,” according to the event’s website. The City of Austin claims it is the longest running kite festival in the United States. It is hosted every year by the Exchange Club of Austin, and money raised from the event go to charity organizations.

While the Raymond family attended the kite festival as part of family tradition, others said they took to the Kite Festival because it reminded them of Austin culture.

“It keeps Austin weird — this is just our spirit,” said Melissa Lloyd, 27. “It also keeps Austin friendly. What’s nicer about flying a bunch of kites?”

Not everyone thinks kite flying is so “nice”, however. Crystal Webb, a 29-year-old Austinite who says she participates in “kite fighting,” viewed the kite festival through a different pair of eyes. She did not bring a kite to the festival this year. She said she was there to “watch and observe.”

“I come every year, sometimes I bring a kite and sometimes I don’t,” Webb said. “Mostly though, I am here to scope out new designs and ideas.”

Some people just want to have fun, however.

“A lot of work goes into making a kite,” Kate Raymond said. “Every year, when I see ours flying, I like to think we’ll do better next year. And hopefully the sun comes out next year, too.”

Water Allocation…Is It Fair?

By: Judy Hong, Mackenzie Drake, Garrett Callahan, Samantha Rivera


When Taiki Miki woke up in the morning, his usual routine involved a quick shower, brushing his teeth and possibility drinking a glass or two of water.


The sink water running in an Austin apartment.

Miki estimates he uses about 18 gallons of water each morning. But when he lived at his former apartment in Austin, he didn’t have to worry about the individual amount of water he used.

“I wasn’t very lenient in my use of water,” Miki said. “I didn’t use excess water than I needed, but I knew that any additional gallon of water that I used wasn’t going towards my individual bill.”

This is because Miki lived in an apartment that used a water allocation system. Instead of each residential unit paying for the amount of water it uses individually under submeters, residents are charged a part of the water usage of the whole apartment complex, which is calculated by the utility company.


Austin Water Utility in downtown Austin takes part in the water allocations.

Some older apartments in Austin use a master meter for the entire complex, which measures the total amount of water used throughout all of the units. Based on this usage, the property gets a master bill, which is then split among the tenants using an allocation method approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality or Public Utility Commission.

Some properties divide water usage based on the square footage of each apartment or based on a percentage for each unit, along with the number of residents.

Many properties use the allocation system because it is the only method possible. If properties have only one master meter for the entire complex, they are unable to see the individual usage of each apartment. For this reason, many of Austin’s older complexes, such as Tanglewood North and Su Casa Apartments, use the allocation system.


Taped-up water pipes in various apartments in Austin.

However, many residents think this type of billing system constitutes an imbalanced system, as some units typically use far less or far more water than others.

“I think it’s very unfair,” said Jeff Haniuk, a tenant at Heritage at Hillcrest in Austin. “Because if you’re somebody like my wife who takes a lot of baths, I would hate for somebody to be charged for her bath water if they don’t use as much water.”

Under Texas law, water allocation is a legal practice. As long as property owners outline specific rules and disclosures in the rental agreement, they are able to allocate water based on the whole property’s usage.

In the lease, tenants must be made aware they will be billed on an allocation basis, the exact allocation method, and the average monthly water bill for the last calendar year, along with other procedures.

“I don’t think it’s a good system,” said Andy McClintic, a tenant of a complex that uses a submeter system. “Why would I even turn our water off, if we’re being billed for everyone’s water?”

Water Saving Tips-2

Although the water allocation system can be backwards from the conservation efforts that Austin is pushing for, there are other ways for individuals to save water.

There is not much residents can do to combat the water allocation system, if they don’t agree with it. Since it is allowed under Texas law, properties have the right to use their own metering system. The Austin Water Utility suggests getting into contact with property managers to make them aware of water conservation issues and educate them on the best practices to save water.

Many tenants believe that water allocation opposes Austin’s water conservation efforts. Currently in a Stage 2 drought restriction phase, Austin is making a push to lower water usage within residents and businesses.

However, under the water allocation system, tenants face almost no consequences to using more water than they need, since they are not paying for their individual usage.

“If you’re trying to encourage water conservation the best way would be the individual approach,” said Austin Batson, whose apartment uses the allocation system. “Having every unit responsible for their own bill or even more ideally you could track where the water is actually being used.”



Austin likes to Laugh


Jennifer Dorsey (far left) and Tyler Bryce (far right) announce the winner of The Monologue Jam on March 7. The winner, Amanda Smith (center) won a jar of Amish Jam. Photo by: Andie Rogers


How comedy clubs have taken off in the city that keeps things weird.

There is something naturally contagious about laughter, but what is it? It could be the product of a sly comment from a friend or a punchy joke by a comedian. Whether it’s inane, heartfelt or cheerful people simply love laughing and Austinites are no exception. There are more than a dozen comedy clubs and improv theaters in and around Austin. The thriving community of comedians and aspiring comedians are provoking roars of laughter all over.

Austin likes to laugh so much that at one point it even boasted its own comedy radio station 102.7 FM which broadcasted old and new comedians 24/7. Instead of songs, listeners would tune their dials to 102.7 for short sets of jokes. Despite the fact ratings were strong the comedy radio station made little revenue. In 2013 the owners, Emmis Austin Radio, turned the station into a Latino Pop channel.

Comedy and Its Forms

Comedy Central and YouTube have made accessing good comedy easier in recent years and now anyone can watch comedy from the comfort of their home. In Austin however, the comedic audience likes to go out to get their comedy fix. Going into a comedy club or improv theater can be intimidating at first but there are a few things to know before you go in to get the most out of your experience.

Austin has a wide selection of comedy venues which serve up everything from ridged stand-up to funny sketches and even zany improv. Stand up consists of one comedian standing on stage telling stories with jokes sprinkled throughout that can end up going in any direction based on the comedians response from the audience. Sketches are planned and rehearsed lines or skits by one or more comedian while improv is completly random comedy made by the comedian in the moment based on suggestions from the audience. While all comedy, these three are extremely different and may not appeal to everyone.

Unlike live music performances, comedy shows involve a little more engagement from the audience. Timid audience members may feel weary under the dim lights or even targeted by aggressive comedic tactics. For improv studios like the Institution Theater, brainstorm some suggestions beforehand so you are fumbling for funny places or fake band names to shout out to inspire the comedian. Stand up comedy is always rehearsed so going in blind is okay.

Comedy clubs or improv theaters are a place to engage in great bouts of laughter and comedians aren’t afraid to push the boundaries to get the laughs. Comedian Cynthia Oelkers regards the improv act as a bond between the comedian and the audience. “Everybody’s got different boundaries,” she says. You usually talk about them with your troupe.” The comedic boundaries may not always be clear to the audience but even comedians have limits on what the feel comfortable with.

A Look Inside the Institution Theater

Comedy Infographic

Test Your Comedic Abilities

Austin holds plenty of opportunities for those itching to get on stage. Almost all of the improve clubs offer courses for all skill levels. Aspiring stand-up comedians can participate in open mic nights almost every night of the week. “My advice would be to take classes. Everywhere has superb teachers,” said Cynthia Oelkers, an improviser with 14 years of experience. Oelkers credits the classes she took with introducing her to several new people and opening doors for auditions.

It all comes down to the laugh and if you are looking to have a good time, one of Austin’s many comedy clubs and improv theaters are just the right place to go. Hear crude or silly jokes, interact with quick-witted improv comedians or just go to laugh your a$$ off. Find out what is funny in the city that keeps things weird in this interactive quiz that will help you find out which type of comedy and Austin theater is right for you.

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Aquaponics: A Tell All

by Selina Bonilla, Claire Bontempo, Christine Dickerson, and Jorge Guerra
Check out our website, including a short documentary and infographics all about aquaponics!

Art for the People

by Paige Atkinson, Olivia Leitch, James Grandberry, Taylor Smith, and Hannah Smothers

Setting up the People's Gallery, photo courtesy of City Hall

Setting up the People’s Gallery, photo courtesy of City Hall

“Tell me this: I can’t turn. Can you tell me what’s behind me?” the text message read. In a normal instance, this message would seem strange. However, it’s just the type of messages street furniture all over Austin are sending.

This specific message came from a fire hydrant, one of hundreds of objects around Austin participating in a public art piece called Hello Lamppost. Hello Lamppost enables Austin residents and visitors to interact with their surroundings and learn a little more about each other and their city through their cell phones.

To read more about public art in Austin, visit