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Rainey Street neighbors ready to decide the district's future

Thursday, February 10, 2000 by

Overwhelming majority ready to go for high-intensity development

Two competing plans are on the table for consideration by people with a stake in the redevelopment of the historic Rainey Street Neighborhood, and the door is open for other plans as well. So says Robert Knight, chair of the Downtown Commission and the proponent of what appears to be the plan with the biggest head start. Knight and the author of a competing vision for the area–architect R. Craig Nasso–took turns briefing commissioners on their plans last night. The goal was not to bring the matter to a vote but to bring commissioners up to speed on what's happening in this neighborhood on the southeast corner of downtown, whose borders are I-35, Cesar Chavez, Red River and Town Lake.

Knight offered two conceptual plans. Plan No. 1 would bring dense, mixed-uses with a town square in a traditional neighborhood design. Downtown Commissioner Linda Johnston of LS Johnston Architects has produced conceptual drawings of what the area might look like, including the town square and an aerial view to encompass much of the surrounding area. At least some of the historic structures in the neighborhood would be moved and clustered in one area, like the Waterloo Compound on 3rd Street, Knight said. High-intensity uses along I-35 would stair-step down toward the lake. Red River Street, which now ends at Davis Street, two blocks south of Cesar Chavez, would dogleg one block east and continue in the path of Rainey Street to near Town Lake, serving as a mass transit corridor. High-rise buildings similar to the 2nd Street plan for Computer Sciences Corp., a new City Hall and Amli residential buildings, would line Red River, with ground-level retail and residential uses above, all tied to the Mexican-American Cultural Center and the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail.

Knight's Plan No. 2 is similar to the first but tiptoes around some 11 properties whose owners have not yet decided to go along with the first plan, although he said that some of those owners would be willing to sell their property when the time comes to carry out this plan. Nine of those 11 are clustered on Rainey Street mid-block between Davis and River Streets.

In both of Knight's plans, all of the land fronting Cesar Chavez would be tentatively reserved for uses related to the Convention Center, which lies catty-cornered across the intersection of Red River. Knight said one of the obstacles to carrying out the first plan is the Historic Landmark Commission wants to retain Rainey Street intact. "We don't think that will work with the economics but they're welcome to try," Knight said.

Asked how the first plan fits with the city's compatibility standards, Knight replied, "If the current compatibility standards apply, we assume none of this will happen and we'll forget the whole idea." Success depends on everyone buying into the idea its in their best interest to go along with the plan, he said. "The difference between Plan 1 and Plan 2 is mostly economics. We believe (Plan 1) allows for much more intense development and because it does retailers who would be on the main drag there have a better chance to draw a crowd."

Commissioner Bill Mullane asked if there were other obstacles besides compatibility standards. "This will be incredibly complex because there's 50 properties," Knight said, not to mention high-power lines, moving Red River Street, closing other streets and vacating alleys. "It would be an amazingly complex project and it may not happen. This is something that has been proposed before and always failed. What's different now is a strong market and Smart Growth. It may fail."

Commissioner Perry Lorenz, Knight's partner in this project, said there is a consensus of "85-plus percent" of neighbors to do the mixed-use, high-density plan.

Nasso's alternative vision

Craig Nasso has lived on Rainey Street five years and wants to see the neighborhood remain in its historic form. He just finished a fat preliminary first draft for a site assessment and development strategy concept for what he calls the Rainey Street District, an area encompassing about 12 acres of land. Rainey Street was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, the draft states. Thirty-four homes and three vacant lots are in the district, all that remains of more than 140 homes that were standing in 1967.

Nasso researched the original residents of homes in the district. "I found a lot of them worked downtown and they had access to downtown in a trolley car that ran along (what is now) Cesar Chavez," he said. "This neighborhood already is Smart Growth." He said the objective of his plan is "to embrace history, growth and diversity…as well as bringing value to the property." He touted the desirability of single-family housing.

While Nasso conceded that most residents and owners want to sell their property, he believes his plan can be executed quicker to enhance the values so they can sell and move on. His plan for Red River Street would be to extend it straight south to River Street. Davis Street might be opened eastward to East Avenue if needed for traffic. The plan calls for two-story structures–perhaps condos and apartments–adjacent to the single-story houses and taller buildings away from those. Design guidelines would ensure new buildings are compatible with historic structures. He envisions a grocery store at River Street and East Avenue.

"My finding is this strategy is real competitive (with Knight's plan) in bringing value to the landowner because of the shorter time in bringing value, fewer costs…and it's unique in downtown, it's one of a kind," Nasso said. "I think people will pay for this type of environment."

What's the next step?

Summing up the situation, Knight said, "The news flash is there's a debate."

Robert Velasquez, vice president of the Rainey Street Neighborhood Association, said he represented the Mexican-Americans in the area. "They want to sell (their property) to live their dreams…and give something to their kids." He added, "I've lived there 40 years. I support higher density. These people should get the most they can for their property."

Commissioner Stan Haas, an architect, said a perceived obstacle to Knight's high-density plan was nonsensical. Compatibility standards "are an oxymoron with Smart Growth because they encourage sprawl. I think they're contradictory to many people who would like to live in an urban area."

Resident and former Council Member Brigid Shea said the neighborhood is no longer viable for families and she believes there are no other small children such as the two she has. It's unsafe outside because even with traffic-calming measures in place pets are routinely ran over. The neighborhood is hemmed in by surrounding property uses. "I'm looking at it like a species," she said. "If you choke off enough habitat you can't live." As a result, through meetings with neighbors, her thinking has evolved from keeping it residential. "People started saying change the zoning and get more money."

Shea said the strategy is to bring the competing plans to the neighborhood for a vote. She said residents are committed to a component in the redevelopment for affordable housing and a mechanism for assisting low-income people with the transition. Shea said that she and some other residents want to move their homes when redevelopment begins.

Senior Planner Carol Barrett of the Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department, reminded the group that neighborhood planning staff was carrying out the City Council's directive to find out how residents wanted the area to develop and bring that to the council as a framework for zoning. "The large majority of the residents and property owners say we would like to develop at the highest possible intensity," she said. "To put it in shorthand, we're ready to blow and go."

"The question is what do you want to happen to Rainey Street area," Barrett added, "and people understood they were voting for 10- and 12-story buildings, not one- and two-stories." She said the city is waiting for the neighborhood to say when it's ready to go and the city will respond.

Velasquez said an effort will be made to schedule a neighborhood meeting in early March for a vote on these issues and to authorize a zoning change. "We will set a meeting for the vote," he said.

Haas said, "No great planning vision has been voted on. Waller didn't have a vote on the size of the grid. It's a dumb way to do a really great plan." Knight replied the plans are just concepts. After the vision is decided, he said, professionals will be invited in for further planning.

Quintanilla's council campaign shaping up as business vs. enviro-neighborhoods

With the difference that the Brown Machine backs Quintanilla, too

In Fact Daily was double-booked Tuesday night and couldn't make Rafael Quintanilla's campaign kickoff and fund-raiser at Serranos at Symphony Square but caught up with the candidate yesterday for an after-action report. Quintanilla claims more than 150 supporters showed up, including a big hunk of the boards of the Greater Austin and Hispanic Chambers of Commerce. If so, the face-off between Quintanilla and Raul Alvarez (profiled by In Fact Daily Jan. 11) promises to be an old-style classic political race between the business community and the environmental-neighborhood block, a face-off that the business community has not won since 1994, when Bruce Todd turned back Daryl Slusher in the mayoral contest and Ronney Reynolds beat Mary Arnold. In 1996, 1997, and 1999, the enviro-neighbor coalition has been 100 percent successful in thumping challengers. Only this time the business community will have a lot more color in it than the days of yore.

Further underlining the business vs. environmental campaign confrontation is the fact that Quintanilla says he did not support the Save Our Springs Ordinance that voters approved in 1992. But he vows to make amends: "As your council member, I would respect the will of the voters. I will not look back; I will enforce SOS, in language and spirit," says the written speech he delivered to supporters. Further, he says he supported the Proposition 2 ballot item of May 1998 that authorized $65 million to acquire land through purchases and easements in the Barton Springs contributing and recharge zones.

Another twist to his candidacy is that Quintanilla has apparently garnered the backing of the so-called Brown Machine that ushered Hispanics into local political office. State Senator Gonzalo Barriento s, who in 1974 became the first Hispanic elected to state representative in Travis County, was on hand to back Quintanilla. And John Treviño, who broke the brown barrier on the City Council in 1975, introduced Quintanilla to the crowd of well wishers. Quintanilla's speech noted that both Barrientos and Treviño had to run twice to make those breakthroughs.

"We had the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce types and barrio types and everything in between," says Quintanilla, a 53-year-old attorney and sole practitioner. "We were all pretty impressed with ourselves."

Quintanilla's treasurer, real estate agent John Hernandez, said he had 150 labels and ran out of them, and judged the crowd ranged far larger than that. He declined to say how much money was raised. Boosting the odds that Quintanilla will have no trouble raising funds for a viable campaign is the fact that Glenn West, former president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, is chairing Quintanilla's finance committee.

Also trying for the Place 2 council seat is Gloria Mata Pennington, who recently retired from the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

Not so fast there, pardner, Dailey's not a City Council candidate after all

Citing personal reasons, Dailey drops out and backs Thomas

In what must be one of the shortest City Council campaigns on record, nurse Linda Dailey announced yesterday she would abort her Place 6 candidacy and try to help raise the pulse of Austin police officer Danny Thomas' campaign. In Fact Daily reported Dailey's intention to run Feb. 4, including her claim of support from Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, who had dropped out after learning his felony conviction barred a candidacy.

Dailey tells In Fact Daily that a personal family situation arose Monday that caused her to rethink her chances. "It would probably be unwise for me to pursue a seat on the council," she says. "I spoke to Danny Thomas to get his views and came to the realization that I could support him." So instead of announcing her own candidacy yesterday as she had intended, she signed on to back Thomas.

Dailey placed in the middle of the pack in her 1999 attempt to displace incumbent Place 4 Council Member Beverly Griffith, who turned back eight challengers without a runoff.

Dailey's withdrawal leaves Thomas and insurance agent Nelson Linder opposing incumbent Place 6 Council Member Willie Lewis.

"I withdrew this year," Dailey says, adding, "I will be back."

Wanna live downtown?…Attorney Chris Riley and architect Linda Johnston, members of the Austin Downtown Commission, are working as a subcommittee on a project to find odd spaces in downtown buildings that can be made residential. Call these spaces do-it-yourself lofts and you get the idea. They are targeting prospects and contacting property owners to see if something can be worked out. One hot prospect is 619 Congress Ave., which has 1,700 square feet for lease on the second floor above Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers. For more info, call Riley at 476-7600 or Johnston at 478-4952… Gramm squared…The wife of U.S. Senator Phil Gramm has been named chair of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, succeeding William McMinn of Houston. Wendy Lee Gramm will head the organization "guided by the core principles of limited government, free enterprise, private property rights and individual responsibility." Gramm currently serves as distinguished senior fellow and director of regulatory studies at George Mason University in Virginia.

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