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City Council headed for showdown vote Jan. 27 on retail in CSC buildings

Wednesday, January 19, 2000 by

The vision for major urban retail center is at stake

The City of Austin is working hard to make West 2nd Street into a major urban retail center and two city commissions yesterday took action to hold the city's feet to the fire to make it happen.

The Downtown Commission and Planning Commission refused to take no for an answer when it comes to putting retail storefronts on all parts of the ground floors of the first two office buildings to be built by Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC).

The Downtown Commission held a special-called meeting yesterday and voted 10-0 to approve the motion by Chris Riley to recommend that:

• The City Council approve the additional $950,000 needed to build out the additional 11,000 square feet (SF) of leasable space needed for larger, improved retail on 2nd Street, and

• The Planning Commission either take no action on or deny the city's requested waiver of Section 25-6-591(A)(5) of the Land Development Code, requiring that parking garages be separated from an adjacent street by pedestrian-oriented use that fronts the street at the ground level for CSC's two office buildings.

The Planning Commission last night voted 6-2 to deny the waiver, on a motion by Commissioner Jean Mather, who is also on the Downtown Commission. Voting against the motion were Commissioners Betty Baker and Gwen Webb. Baker said she works in a building that was designated for retail on the ground floor and it never worked. Commissioner Ben Heimsath left the meeting before the case was heard.

"If we deny the waiver, you have to wrap the buildings with retail," said Commissioner Jim Robertson. "It's not our job to worry about CSC taking over the space," he said, referring to the fact that the lease contract would allow the retail space to revert to CSC if it stood vacant for a certain period. Commissioner Robin Cravey said, "If we were six to eight years down the road and retail had been there for five years and it was not doing anything and the city wanted a waiver, I'd probably support that." But he would not vote to start out with a waiver that might short circuit a sincere effort to make retail work. Robertson said it was a matter of equity that the city should adhere to the requirements it places on private developers. "If the city cannot be bold when it asks others to be bold, that's not right," he said. "We need to walk the walk."

Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell attended the Planning Commission meeting last night but did not speak. The request for waiver was presented by Architect Nathan Schneider, the city's project manager for the construction of CSC and the new City Hall. After the Planning Commission voted to deny the waiver, Futrell told In Fact Daily that the Planning Commission's action to deny the waiver is not appealable to the City Council.

Schneider said the waiver regarding pedestrian-oriented uses on 2nd Street would have been desirable even if the City Council approves the $950,000 for more retail space. It would have assured CSC that if retail operations did not prove successful, the space could be used for other purposes, such as offices, by either the city or CSC. Otherwise the firm's corporate headquarters might be left with unusable ground floor space. Futrell said because the waiver was denied, however, the city will have to find some other way to address CSC's concerns for certainty throughout the 99-year term of the lease. "We'll build in contingency plan language," she said.

Floor plans for the two CSC buildings as currently designed show a gap of 180 linear feet in the retail space along 2nd Street on Block 2 and a gap of 80 linear feet in retail space along 2nd Street on Block 4. Schneider provided floor plans to both commissions that showed the additional $950,000, for which council approval will be sought Jan. 27, would allow increasing retail on Block 2 from 28,290 square feet (SF) to 36,430 SF, and increasing retail on Block 4 from 37,180 SF to 40,050 SF. The retail spaces fronting Cesar Chavez Street and the side streets would also be reconfigured.

If the City Council does not approve additional funds to build better leasable retail space on the 2nd Street frontage of the two CSC buildings, Senior Planner Carl McClendon, case manager for the CSC project in the Development Review and Inspection Department, told the Downtown Commission the facade of parts of the frontage would be glassed in like the rest of the buildings exteriors but the space inside would be unsuitable for many retail uses. Futrell told In Fact Daily if the City Council does not approve the additional $950,000, the gaps in retail in the existing floor plan would be filled with space that is 10 to 15 feet deep and have standard ceiling heights. It could be leased by coffee shops and small businesses with counters, but that would bring less rent than the larger retail space to be built if the City Council approves the additional funding.

Futrell said the city's three retail consultants ( Jerry Trimble of Keyser Marston Associates Inc., Barry Elbasani of Elbasani & Logan Architects, and Richard Heapes of Street-Works Development and Consulting Services) have all advised the city to make 2nd Street into a retail corridor. That strategy is being coordinated with apartment builder Amli and its retail partner Bonner Carrington, Futrell said, so that complimentary rather than competing businesses go into the Amli buildings that will be across 2nd Street from CSC's first two office buildings.

"Capturing the opportunity to enliven the street north of our new City Hall and to create a unique retail environment along Second Street from Green Water Treatment Plant to Congress Avenue has been strongly recommended by all our retail consultants," City Manager Jesus Garza wrote in a Jan. 10 memo to the mayor and council members.

Futrell said the City Council will take up the funding issue Jan. 27, and staff will present a cost-benefit analysis to show the effect of enhancing the configuration and size of the retail space. She said the analysis shows the cost of enhancing the retail space can be recaptured from an incremental increase in rental income. "The revenue stream pays for itself with profit," she said, "and additional sales tax revenue is gravy."

The city is in discussions with Federal Realty Investment Trust about incorporating the city's retail plans into a larger vision for a retail corridor along 2nd Street. Futrell is excited about the possibility of working with Federal, which she says is "a successful, urban, street-level retail developer." She said that City Manager Garza, Schneider and she visited Federal's Bethesda Row project in Bethesda, Maryland, and were very impressed. The company's web site shows Bethesda Row consists of 330,000 SF with anchors including Barnes & Noble, Giant Food, and Giant Pharmacy. Retail utilizes 221,000 SF and offices take up the other 109,000 SF over a five-block area. Futrell said Federal is currently doing the Houston Street retail project in San Antonio. The company's web site shows Federal owns 10 properties in the Houston Street area acquired in 1998 totaling 355,000 square feet.

Futrell says that Federal needs for Austin to assemble about 1,200 linear feet of retail on both sides of 2nd Street (about four blocks in length) before it would begin a six-to-nine month feasibility study. Hence the need to keep the Amli-Bonner Carrington project closely aligned with the city retail that could include space in City Hall, such as mini-plaza, fountain, tables and chairs. She notes that the Portland, Oregon, City Hall has retail space in it. "The advantage of Federal is they would buy out our interest and take our risk," Futrell said. "They would buy out the first floor lease and cost of improvements and they would run it."

If Federal can't be enticed to take the carrot that Futrell and the city consultants are trying to put together, she said other retail developers would be sought but the city might wind up hiring a manager who takes a percentage to operate the city's retail space. But she's confident that retail space on the CSC and City Hall property would operate successfully, given that a total of up to 5,000 employees will work in these buildings and the nearby Hobby Building.

Futrell said, "The question for the City Council on Jan. 27 is, 'Do you want better retail?' If so, here's the cost. If not, here's the plan."

Stuart Shaw, president of Bonner Carrington, and the man Futrell credits for bring Federal to the table, told the Downtown Commissioners, "Our big chance to have retail downtown is right now. We'll never have this opportunity again."

Planning Commission says no to Home Depot's request for zoning

Neighbors say they don't need another hardware store

Planning commissioners last night turned down a request that they recommend a small zoning change that would put Home Depot at the corner of South I-35 and Woodward. In rejecting the change from GR (general retail) to CS (commercial services), and refusing to recommend that City Council authorize release of a restrictive covenant, commissioners were responding to pleas from more than a dozen residents of nearby neighborhoods. Commission Vice Chair Betty Baker was the lone vote against denial of the zoning change. Commissioner Ben Heimsath departed before the case was heard.

Rene Barrera, president of South River City Citizens (SRCC), explained that the group has been working on neighborhood planning for several years. Barrera said the neighborhood believes that "Hotels and restaurants would be more appropriate" for the 17-acre property, which is directly north of the Assumption Cemetery.

Richard Suttle of Armbrust Brown & Davis, representing the applicant, said the only reason his client needs the zoning change is because of a quirk in Austin's zoning ordinance. In other cities, Suttle said, Home Depot is allowed to operate as the retailer it really is. Suttle explained that when the zoning classifications were written, the city was only served by construction businesses "like the old Stripling-Blake, with big trucks pulling in and lumber stacked outdoors." Although Home Depot sells lumber, he said, it is not in the same category because the lumber is inside and the store does not deal with large trucks, which would disturb neighbors. Home Depot, Suttle said, "is essentially a big hardware store." He listed all the things that can be sold in general retail, such as paint, hardware, fertilizers and pesticides, which could be sold from the property as currently zoned. "The only thing you couldn't sell there is a two-by-four," he said. "If not on I-35, in the Desired Development Zone, where would this go?" Suttle asked.

But Paula Bacon, representing the South Central Coalition, said the commission should support the SRCC's master plan and vision. "Putting a Home Depot there would be like coming home and finding King Kong sitting on your grandmother's sofa," she said.

Jeff Kessel, a Travis Heights resident, told the commission he is concerned about the pollution of Blunn Creek, as well as the imposition of an incompatible use upon the neighborhood. "It's not that we're good and they're evil," Kessel said. "The uses are just not compatible."

Nearby resident Neal Nuwash said he bicycles to and from work on Woodward. Putting all the extra traffic on that street would make it much less friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists, he said.

Several neighborhood residents pointed to the Furrow Building Materials store on South Congress and a new Lowe's store under construction at I-35 and Stassney, as well as the Home Depot in Sunset Valley as reasons why a new Home Depot is not needed on the property.

Commissioner Ray Vrudhula, who seconded Commissioner Gwen Webb's motion to recommend denial, told Suttle he thought Home Depot was for homeowners. "All the homeowners say they don't want it. What motivates Home Depot?" Suttle said Home Depot would be serving many other people besides those in the nearby neighborhoods because it would be on I-35.

The City Council will make the final decision on the zoning.

Council Member Willie Lewis makes official his reelection bid

Announces initiative to build or repair sidewalks to schools throughout city

Council Member Willie Lewis told a crowd of reporters at the Pecan Springs Elementary School yesterday he would run for reelection. Lewis took credit for repairs to the roof of Doris Miller Auditorium, which he said needed fixing for 10 years before he took office, and were done within six months of his taking office. In addition, Lewis said railroad crossings at five East Austin intersections–on Manor Road, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Rosewood Avenue, 12th Street and Loyola Lane–were repaired at his urging. He said he had spent 41 years in Austin, but the crossings were not fixed until he was on the council.

Lewis said in his next term he wants to make sure sidewalks to schools throughout the city are repaired or constructed. Lewis, who lives close to the Pecan Springs school, said he chose that locale for his announcement because children must cross the street twice to walk on sidewalks to that school. He said between 1994 and 1997, 54 percent of child pedestrian accidents occurred in East Austin. Lewis said, "People can trust me to do the things I say."

Asked to respond to allegations regarding the stalled SCIP 2 housing project made by Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, Lewis' only announced opponent, Lewis said the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is the culprit, not the city. When a television reporter tried to pull Lewis into an argument with Henderson, Lewis refused. "He's a man," Lewis said of Henderson. "He has his ideas, like everyone else." However, Lewis said, "In his Lexus, I'm sure (Henderson) rides a lot smoother over those railroad tracks."

The crowd at Fado Irish Pub at Lewis' fund-raiser last night was high on the candidate, including former Mayor Roy Butler, Balie Griffith, Shudde Fath, Constable Bruce Elfant, Solid Waste Advisory Commission Chairman J.D. Porter, Seaholm Reuse Committee Chair Leslie Pool, Beverly Kimbrough, attorney Jim Cousar of Thompson & Knight, Texas Disposal Systems executives Dennis Hobbs and Ralph Wueller, Van Johnson of the East Austin Economic Development Corp., and Cecilia Crossley of the South Austin Democrats, among others.

"I like my candidates with clean records," Pool said of Lewis.

"Willie was the only council member to show up at neighborhood meetings on landfills," Porter says of his reasons for supporting the incumbent.

Kimbrough said of Lewis, "He's got a good heart."

Johnson credits Lewis with getting the Austin Revitalization Authority back on track. "He came to meetings at odd hours and on weekends and stayed involved till he got consensus," Johnson said. "He got property owners who were left out of the process involved and made sure their interests were heard."

Lewis' campaign consultants are Todd Main, Mike Blizzard and Richard Fawal. His campaign manager is David Terrell.

She's in the money… Ann Kitchen, a candidate for the seat in the Texas House of Representatives being given up by Sherri Greenberg, is holding her fund-raiser tonight but she's claiming to have collected upwards of $100,000 already for the District 48 race. She claims she had accumulated $95,000 in contributions, pledges and loans by Dec. 31 and has added $20,000 in contributions and pledges since then, according to a press release last night. Those who want to aid her cause should head over to Green Pastures, 811 W. Live Oak, tonight from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Her only opponent for the Democratic Party nomination is Mandy Dealey. Six Republicans are seeking the nomination to oppose the winning Democrat, and Linda Curtis will try for the post on the Reform Party ticket.

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