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Two downtown high-rises get good reception from Design Commission

Tuesday, January 25, 2000 by

Office tower at 300 West 6th and residential tower at 5th and West Avenue

Two downtown high-rise projects were reviewed by the Austin Design Commission last night, one a major new office building and the other a proposed residential project on the banks of Shoal Creek. Architect Larry Speck of Page Southerland Page is the design architect for both projects, and presented information about both. Jeff Pace, managing director of CarrAmerica Realty Corp. in Austin, also took part in the discussion of the office building. Both of the projects were warmly received by the commissioners but no votes were taken because the projects were not posted for action. These projects were to be posted for action at the commission's next meeting.

The office building is 300 West 6th St., a 22 story structure with 425,000 square feet (SF) of space, excluding five floors of parking that would cover virtually all of the space on the block bounded by 6th, Lavaca, 7th and Guadalupe, except for the Masonic Temple at the corner of 7th and Lavaca and ground floor retail. ( In Fact Daily Jan. 13 reported the Downtown Commission's review of this project.) The structure will serve as home to two major law firms, Clark Thomas & Winters and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Pace said the schedule calls for starting foundation work on the office in June and being able to move the first tenants into the building in December 2001.

Speck presented a scale model to show how 300 West 6th would look in relation to adjacent structures, including the Chase Bank Building immediately north, the University of Texas System building immediately east, and the Bank One tower cater-cornered across 6th Street. He walked the Design Commission through how the structure fits within the draft Downtown Design Guidelines prepared by the commission. Speck noted that it would have ample street-level retail space on all four sides, would accentuate the primary entrance, would echo existing downtown structures in terms of scale, and be clad in both dark gray granite and ochre limestone on the lower portions. The design also calls for wide sidewalks made of gray pavers compatible with the granite, and trees, although the size and number of trees will be subject to the structure's budget. Speck said if squeezed by the budget he would prefer to put larger trees on 6th Street and no trees on 7th Street rather than install the same size trees all the way around.

Pace said the sidewalk pavers and trees would be extended to front the Masonic Temple as well if the budget permits. There would be no residential component, he said. Pace said that would involve bringing in a residential developer. "We're interested in being involved in something like that but we can't do it here," he said. Speck noted that other residential projects were nearby, including the Brown Building at 8th and Colorado.

Pace praised the Downtown Design Guidelines, though he confessed he had been skeptical when PSP's Matt Kreisle pulled them out initially. "It's a better project and made us think more about the project and we'll have something better because of it," he said.

After Speck had departed Chair Juan Cotera asked each member for comments. Improvements called for included using pavers like the sidewalk in parking areas on the street, inclusion of awnings to protect pedestrians, better articulation on the exterior surfaces of the parking garage that will rise five stories on the northern half of the block, and a concern that the Masonic Temple not be dwarfed.

John Patterson called for running the 300 West 6th project through the matrix in the Downtown Design Guidelines and couching the commission's recommendations in those terms (as it had done for the proposed Gotham condominium project).

Commissioner Edgar Farrera said, "We should be very proud because we can claim some credit. This is maybe the first project presented to us which conformed to our guidelines in one way or another."

The residential project is a proposed tower on the east bank of Shoal Creek on the north side of 5th Street at the corner of West Avenue. The project is owned by Amicus Partners, a relatively new firm that includes partners Robert Shaw, formerly of Columbus Realty Trust, which has done major downtown residential projects in Dallas, and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, chairman and CEO of The Staubach Co.

"This one is real, real preliminary," Speck said in introducing his sketches to the Design Commissioners. He presented two concepts, one calling for an 11-story, 120-foot tower built under the existing DMU zoning, the other a 15-story, 155-foot tower built if the zoning could be changed to CBD. Under DMU zoning, Speck said, the property allows a floor-to-area ratio (FAR) of 5. If CBD, as is the property immediately east, the FAR could be 8, he said. If CBD zoning were sought, he said it would be only for that portion of the tract 60 feet from Shoal Creek. The structure would be five stories high on the west side, toward the creek, and the rest of it would be taller. In any case the plan calls for ground-floor retail, he said.

"The question is whether to get a zoning change or build what you can build," Speck said. "It doesn't make any sense to do it if not for superior community values. The only reason to do it is if it serves the city better. We've talked to the Downtown Neighborhood Association and they will do anything for higher height and preferential treatment on Shoal Creek."

Speck said he was trying to be responsive to his clients by advising them how much of a hassle it might be to get the zoning changed. "But if a good developer comes in to do good things it should be slippery easy," he said. "I'm worried, frankly, because I know what we're getting into by asking for a zoning change."

"If everyone feels like, damn, this is a good thing and we ought to do it, fine, let's do it," Speck said. "But if not, let's do their project" (with existing zoning).

Chair Cotera said, "I would admire you going for the zoning change."

Speck said the project should score well under the city's Smart Growth Matrix, and if bonuses are possible the developers would like them in the form of sidewalk and creek improvements. The hike and bike trail runs along the opposite, west bank of the creek.

Girard Kinney said, "I would very much support a zoning change…if we can get some fairly serious concessions from the developer." Kinney asked for a covered walkway along 5th Street.

Speck said he'd be willing to do the covered walkway. He asked for more direction and a "real honest assessment." "It's good to know where people stand."

Cotera, Kinney, and Eleanor McKinney called for ensuring that access to the west bank of Shoal Creek not be closed off to the public.

Amicus Partners was represented last night by Dick Obenhaus of First Austin Properties. Asked the timetable on the project, he said it would have to go through site plan and zoning, "so it's at least a year off."

At the end of the meeting, commissioners expressed their views on the project. All were favorable, if the CBD zoning were pulled back from the creek, pedestrian improvements were made on 5th Street and access to Shoal Creek were preserved. Farrera asked for more graphic documentation. "We're going on a very basic plan with a verbal description," he said. "I have confidence in this team but I don't want a precedent of an attractive verbal presentation for a zoning change."

Police Oversight Focus Group hung up over independent investigations

Question is whether city manager should get say-so in authorization

Working toward a March 15 deadline to make final recommendations to the Austin City Council, the council-appointed Police Oversight Focus Group yesterday reached consensus that independent investigations of police cases involving serious bodily injury or death, as defined in the Penal Code, should be authorized if called for by a two-third's vote of the Civilian Review Board (CRB) and concurred in by the Police Auditor. However they disagreed on whether the independent investigations must also be approved by the city manager.

Ann del Llano, an attorney on the Focus Group and a leader in the Sunshine Project for Police Accountability, said she would not agree to the requirement that the city manager have authority over whether independent investigations are conducted. Michael Supancic, who teaches criminal justice at Southwest Texas State University, also expressed concern. "My only reservation is having a scenario with two-thirds of the panel and the auditor calling for an investigation and the city manager having a trump card to say no," he said.

Detective Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association (APA), said if the independent investigation were authorized by the city manager it would be within his realm of comfort. Sheffield also noted that a grand jury routinely reviews all cases involving bodily injury or death. "We're talking about duplication of effort here," he said. Del Llano countered that most of the evidence examined by grand juries is collected through police investigations. Sheffield said prosecutors have investigators who add to the evidence.

It has been generally accepted by the Focus Group that to achieve acceptance by police officers, whatever system of civilian oversight is adopted must be negotiated through the Meet and Confer Agreement. Whether that comes to pass will in large part depend upon the reaction of the City Council to the recommendations it receives from the Focus Group. Sheffield said no agreements made by the three police officers on the Focus Group would be binding on the APA's bargaining team if police oversight is negotiated through the Meet and Confer Agreement.

The Focus Group voted last October ( In Fact Daily Oct. 14) that the Austin Police Department (APD) needs civilian oversight and it should consist of police auditor who reports to an independent CRB whose members are appointed by the City Council. It has recently been agreed the police auditor should work for the City Manager.

The Focus Group has been working since June 30 to study how civilian oversight of police is handled in other cities and to devise a system for Austin. In addition, Focus Group members have twice taken trips out of state, once to attend the annual conference of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement in Kansas City, and again to visit with officials involved in civilian oversight in the Bay Area. Two public hearings were held to solicit public input.

While many issues remain to be resolved among Focus Group members, perhaps the most sensitive is the question of whether there should be independent investigations in those cases in which the auditor and CRB believe that the APD's internal investigation of a complaint seems inadequate. Civilian members of the Focus Group have generally taken the position that without this power civilian oversight would be little more than a paper tiger, while police officers on the Focus Group fear the intrusion of politics and usurpation of the police chief's power to run the department. Both sides agree there would be few occasions in which independent investigations would be needed.

Another significant issue is how much power the CRB should have. Most see its role as purely advisory, a place to hear appeals of either police officers or citizens whose complaints were not resolved earlier through the APD's own investigation or through conferences with the police auditor. Sheffield said the CRB should not be viewed as a tribunal. In that regard, the Focus Group agreed that no witnesses should be heard by the CRB unless previously interviewed by the APD's investigators.

General agreement was reached on the topic of training for CRB members. Training should consist of two to three days of instruction by police, plus a series of rides with patrol officers in all six sectors of the city of not less than three hours each. Members would serve two-year staggered terms.

A tentative flow chart of how complaints would be processed has been drafted and will be refined for further discussion at the next meeting, Feb. 7 at the Waller Creek Center, 625 E. 10th St., beginning at 2 p.m. The number of people who should be appointed to the CRB will be debated as well. Also to be discussed are the qualifications the police auditor should have and the size of the police auditor's staff and budget. In San Jose, Calif., the auditor has a staff of three and a budget of $350,000 a year, not including rent, Focus Group members said.

Former Mayor Roy Butler remains unconvinced that civilian oversight is needed and used APD statistics to make his point. He said that out of a total of 99 complaints filed in 1999, only three had been appealed.

Supancic said there might have been more appeals if there had been a different process. Del Llano added, "If we have a system that's credible we'll get more complaints."

Engineer Robert Martinez said the CRB serves a larger function than just addressing complaints and can make recommendations to improve police procedures. "I'm looking at a bigger picture than just a few cases," he said.

Three members of the Focus Group were absent for yesterday's meeting. They are Janet Blake, Officer Lisa Morrill and Parisrice Robinson, president of the NAACP Austin Chapter. Robinson has attended only two meetings during the seven months the Focus Group has been meeting.

Council meetings update…Contrary to the information that the City of Austin's Public Information Office put out Jan. 6 about the location of future City Council meetings, the locations have changed. The morning sessions will now begin at 9 a.m. in City Hall, 124 W. 8th St., Room 304. A new press release issued yesterday states, "The morning sessions generally will include executive session, staff briefings and the consent agenda. Afternoon sessions begin at 1:30 p.m. and will be either at" Austin Bergstrom-International Airport (ABIA) or at the Lower Colorado River Authority. Because of limited parking during regular business hours at the new locations, proclamations and general citizen communication have been moved to 5 p.m. So, this Thursday, Jan. 27, the council meeting will kickoff at 9 a.m. in City Hall and then pick up again at 1:30 p.m. at ABIA, 2716 Spirit of Texas Drive.

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