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Planning Commission balks at buying East Austin warehouse for city’s use

Wednesday, February 2, 2000 by

Area residents ready to begin neighborhood planning

The City of Austin has agreed to buy the Brown Distributing Co. building at 411 Chicon St. to house the city's Building Services Division. Eastside neighbors of the property, which served as a beer warehouse and distribution point for many years, say they favor the city's purchase of the property, but do not want it to be used as a warehouse. Last night the Planning Commission heard from several of those neighbors, but postponed a vote on the city's request for a change of zoning from LI (limited industrial) to P (public) and an accompanying conditional use permit.

Commissioner Betty Baker was absent and had requested that the item be postponed until she could hear it. However, not one of the eight commissioners present expressed support for the city's decision to continue a warehouse use in a neighborhood which has repeatedly told developers and property owners that warehouses are no longer welcome.

Jill Horton, spokesperson for Building Services, said her department had to move out of leased property across the street from the building the city is hoping to buy because the owner of that property wanted to sell it to another buyer. She said the city would put its central mailroom at the new location, as well as uniforms for police officers and firefighters. Horton told the Commission it is very important that the city's plumbers, carpenters, engineers and other maintenance workers be centrally located because they are required to be available within three minutes of being called to a number of downtown locations, including City Hall and the RBJ Building.

Commissioner Ben Heimsath said, "I can't understand how this was ever chosen as a site for this facility. This is a prime area (for redevelopment). It seems like an anathema to everything else we're trying to do in these neighborhoods. The project is counterproductive to what we're trying to do." Horton told Heimsath, "I don't believe this will be zoned for housing any time in the near future." She said she had been looking for property in the neighborhood for the division for more than five years.

Junie Plummer, a city real estate specialist, said city staff members had met with different groups and individuals in the neighborhood and reported back to the City Council (in executive session) about those meetings. She said the city plans to add landscaping and fencing to the property as a result of neighborhood concerns.

Susan Villarreal, a principal planner with the Development Review and Inspection Department, said the property's intended use would house about 50 employees and generate an estimated 874 trips per day, including about 140 trips per day in light duty trucks or vans, 100 round trips by employees, 20 round trips between city departments, and 140 miscellaneous round trips. This activity would only occur between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

The previous tenant, she said, operated 24 hours per day, housed 310 employees, and caused about 30 round trips by trucks greater than 75 feet in length, 75 trips by trucks greater than 50 feet in length, and 450 round trips for deliveries by cars and pickups. In addition, she said, the former tenant was visited by about 85 customers and UPS trucks each day.

Horton was asked if the city had considered moving the division into the new city hall. She said the division takes up 35,000 square feet and the new city hall is only 100,000 square feet. "Were we to move all of our employees into city hall, we would displace higher value employees," Horton concluded.

Commissioner Robin Cravey said the division only needs one acre of the five-acre lot. "You have an opportunity to give something back to the community." Horton agreed, saying, "The first step is buying it." She said the Mexican-American Cultural Center site on River Street was originally purchased by the city to store equipment and supplies for street repairs.

Robert Donley, president of the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association, said the Commission should recommend against the zoning change and conditional use permit. He said, "The City Council said no more zoning changes until after the property is included in a City Council-adopted neighborhood plan. Meals on Wheels wanted to come in," Donley said. " Austin Community College wanted to move in," to the same building. "We were there to speak and they (Meals on Wheels and ACC) went along with the neighborhood also," Donley said, meaning they did not purchase the property. (See In Fact Daily July 29, 1999, and Aug. 25, 1999.)

Commissioner Susana Almanza tried to get fellow commissioners to go along with an indefinite postponement, rather than the one week Baker had requested. Almanza said the Holly neighborhood is scheduled to have its first official planning meeting with city planners on Feb. 8. She accused the city of using different standards for East Austin than in other parts of the city. She said the city should purchase the property and hold it for future development, giving the neighborhood time to develop its neighborhood plan.

Heimsath said he wanted the commission to vote on the matter next week. A record vote, he said, would tell the city, "that we should and can do better." Planning Commission Chair Art Navarro said, "I'd rather vote next week to deny," than postpone the matter indefinitely. The public hearing was continued until next week also.

Plummer said the city has paid $100,000 in earnest money for the property. The total price on the property is $2.6 million. Funding for the project would come from the city's 1999-2000 CIP contingency project budget, according to Planning Commission documents.

Update on planned interruptions to development services during move

Shutdowns scheduled to start Feb. 10 and end Feb. 23

Steve Wilkinson, operations manager for the Development Review and Inspection Department, said movers have changed plans for closure of the department's sales office, which was originally scheduled to be closed Feb. 11-14. That office will now be open those days, but closed Feb. 18-22, Wilkinson said. The office will be open for zoning verifications only on Feb. 17, he said.

Wilkinson also said anyone needing an inspection during the move from the annex may call 480-0623, the city's automated inspection setup line. However, Wilkinson said, he expects phone lines to supervisors of various inspection divisions to be inoperable Feb. 11- Feb. 14, as reported in Tuesday's In Fact.

The Planning Commission has canceled its meetings of Feb. 15 and Feb. 22.

No to Alcoa…The Save Our Springs Alliance's board of directors voted unanimously to support the Austin City Council's resolution to ask the Texas Railroad Commission to deny Alcoa's permit to strip mine in Bastrop and Lee counties. As reported by In Fact Daily Jan. 28, the City Council voted 5-0 to pass the resolution (with Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Member Willie Lewis absent)… New environmental site…The Bastrop County Environmental Network (BCEN) was founded in 1990 and has weighed in on a number of important issues, including endangered species, Alcoa's strip-mining and the Longhorn Pipeline. You can learn more about the group on their web site … Big bucks… ARTS Center Stage, the group raising money to overhaul Palmer Auditorium and rename it the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Center for the Performing Arts, has raked up $36 million so far, according to the group's February issue of Curtain Up! While the budget won't be firm till architects Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP finish schematic designs, writes Chair Ben Bentzin, "we know that the $36 million raised to date puts us less than halfway toward our campaign goal." Later this year the group will launch the public portion of the fund-raising effort… Improve Bull Creek…That's the aim of a volunteer event this Saturday, Feb. 5, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., to work on a three-mile stretch of the hike and bike trail. Sponsored by the Bull Creek Foundation. For more info, call Charlie McCabe at home at 335-0942, work at 678-8814 or send e-mail to… Light rail election…The Austin American-Statesman yesterday carried a front-page story about November being the preferred date for a light-rail election. This must be the first time that former City Council candidate Vic Vreeland agreed with Capital Metro. A press release issued Feb. 1 by Vreeland on behalf of his Railroading America web site also calls for a November election to give opponents more time to get their message to the public… Whistleblowers speak…Two journalists who are suing Fox-TV are scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 9, at Bass Lecture Hall on the UT Campus, Dean Keeton at Red River. The reporters claim they were "fired for refusing to tell corporate lies" concerning a censored story about Milk and the Media. Reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, plaintiffs, will be introduced by Neil Carman, clean air director for the Sierra Club's Lone Star Chapter. For more info, call Joni Gilton at 912-8598.

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