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Bennett Tract zoning set for action as council initiates rollback sequence

Monday, March 13, 2000 by

Existing NCCD wanted by some stakeholders, hated by others

With commercial development booming and developers once again looking east of I-35 for sites, competing visions for a large hunk of land are causing divisions between affected factions. The Bennett Tract was to have been the site of a mall fronting I-35 on land stretching from 9th Street to 11th Street. A Neighborhood Conservation Combining District (NCCD) formed by the East 11th Street Village Association was set to accommodate the development, but the project never happened. More recently, the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA), established by the City Council to rebuild the East 11th and 12th Street corridors, came up with a different vision and in January 1999 the council endorsed the ARA's Central East Austin Master Plan (CEAMP).

Now, Council Member Gus Garcia, who leaves the council June 15, wants to settle the future of this tract before he leaves office, and that means rolling back the zoning from CS (Commercial Services), CS-1 (Liquor Sales) and SF-3 (Family Residence) to DMU (Downtown Mixed Use) with a floor-to-area ratio of less than 5.0.

This zoning rollback would conform to the CEAMP but would fly in the face of plans announced by Riata Development LLC to develop office, hotel, retail and residential uses on the property, in what they would call Robertson Hill. Matt Mathias, one of the principals in Riata, was quoted in the Austin Business Journal Feb. 4, saying the idea of a mall would be abandoned in favor a "mixed-use development that fits within the City of Austin's Smart Growth Initiative."

Garcia, Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Member Willie Lewis sponsored a resolution considered last Thursday to establish an action plan for the property. The council ultimately voted 7-0 to approve the resolution, which orders the city manager to on March 23 make a staff presentation on: (1) the history of the NCCD zoning; (2) a summary of the Aug. 19, 1993, failed attempt to roll back the zoning; (3) a summary of the recently initiated Central East Austin Neighborhood Plan; and (4) a summary of the development of the CEAMP. In addition, the city manager is to present an ordinance initiating interim development controls to prohibit the acceptance of a site plan on the Bennett Tract for 90 days, and a resolution to initiate rezoning. The zoning ordinance is to be presented to the council for discussion and possible action on April 20, with first reading scheduled for May 11.

Residents of the Guadalupe Neighborhood praised the council's plan to rollback zoning and said it's needed to preserve their neighborhood, while members of the East 11th Street Village Association, the East Austin Economic Development Corp. (EAEDC), and Ebenezer Baptist Church are opposed to the plan. The City Council heard emotional, heartfelt comments from both sides.

EAEDC Executive Director Van Johnson, who worked in Willie Lewis' 1997 campaign that unseated Eric Mitchell and has been supporting Lewis for reelection, was adamant in his opposition to the resolution. Johnson said that 80 percent of the Bennett Tract borders land owned by Ebenezer on San Marcos Street. He said Ebenezer has invested $3.5 million in improvements and more investment is needed in the corridor but government invariably stops it. "African Americans bought property, paid taxes, and because of zoning could not develop, and were hit over the head for not developing it. And when we try to develop, someone changes the zoning back so we can't develop it," Johnson said.

The Reverend Freddie Dixon said, "I have 20 years experience dealing with this tract of land and I do not support the resolution…The land should remain as-is, should not be rolled back, and should continue to be a tract for commercial development."

Council Member Garcia said, "I would like to see the communities come together and come up with a plan they can work with." He asked for discussion over the next 90 days to see if what the master plan proposes would work. He said there would be hearings before the Planning Commission. "All we're doing is starting the process," Garcia said. "This issue was on the table when I came to the council nine years ago and it's still on the table and I'd like to resolve it before I leave the council."

The council took up other business for more than an hour before returning to discuss the resolution. Ben Sifuentes said he lived in a house at 1003 E. 9th that had belonged to his grandmother. "The Guadalupe Neighborhood is a fragile neighborhood," he said.

Mark Rogers, of the Guadalupe Association for an Improved Neighborhood and the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp., said, "When I read this resolution I got a little teary eyed. As you know, the neighborhood fought hard against the zoning in 1991." He went on to say that, "The true meaning of Smart Growth is not just densifying the urban core but working with neighborhoods."

Garcia said he was concerned that with current zoning the Bennett Tract could have 1.6 million square feet of development, "which is too much given the Guadalupe Neighborhood. We won't be able to find (the neighborhood) in five or 10 years if that kind of development takes place."

Council Member Bill Spelman–who was laying a case for changing another NCCD for Hyde Park Baptist Church–said, "Why are we changing this (NCCD)? We had a deal between the neighborhood and a landowner…made in 1991 and now we're talking about changing it. What's the justification?"

Garcia replied, "The prospect of 1.6 million square feet on seven acres is an ominous threat to the neighborhood. In the 1980s nobody had any money to do anything and Austin wanted to pull itself out of a recession. Now it could be built." Garcia said he wanted this proposal to go through the process.

Spelman noted the City Council had discussed a week earlier the Hyde Park NCCD ( In Fact Daily March 7). "In both cases, the landowner would build an intense building not in keeping with the character of the neighborhood and in both cases we have neighborhood plans in place," he said, adding a moment later, "Given there will be a unanimous or near unanimous vote today, I hope there will be a unanimous or near unanimous vote to change that other NCCD."

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she was on the Planning Commission when the Bennett Tract zoning was originally changed. "If the Guadalupe Neighborhood is afraid of some concrete, so does the 11th Street Neighborhood feel that without the NCCD it can't do anything about blight," Goodman said. She said there were hard feelings when the NCCD was put in place but a compromise is possible. Goodman said she hoped competing interests could "come to a resolution themselves, rather than us making a decision for them."

After brief additional discussion, including Council Member Lewis' failed motion to remove the NCCD immediately, the council voted unanimously to pass the resolution.

City's settlement with Circle C Homeowners to cost $7.6 million

Deal hinges on completion of Bradley Settlement

The proposed settlement with the Circle C Homeowners Association (CCHA) will cost the City of Austin $7.6 million over the next three years, according to an estimate provided March 8 to City Manager Jesus Garza by John Stephens, director of finance and administrative services for the city. The matter was on the City Council's agenda for action March 9 but, like many other items related to the proposed Bradley Settlement, was postponed until March 23 (see In Fact Daily March 10).

As reported by In Fact Daily March 3, the negotiated settlement if approved would satisfy CCHA's concerns over annexation and the group would end litigation related to the annexation of December 1997, Circle C Homeowners' Association Inc. et al v. City of Austin in Travis County District Court, and City of Austin v. L.S. Ranch Ltd. et al in the 3rd Court of Appeals.

The costliest item on the list is a new fire station, which would cost $1.7 million in 2001, $3.4 million in 2002 and $300,000 in 2003, for a total of $5.4 million. The only other ongoing expense would be $150,000 per year for easement management, for a total of $450,000.

All other expenses would be absorbed in 2001. These include $1.5 million for the extension of Escarpment Boulevard from Aden Lane to State Highway 45; $140,000 for a park fountain and restroom in Slaughter Creek Metropolitan Park; $100,000 for the extension of a hike and bike trail; and $10,000 for a water fountain at the Veloway.

Healthy raises…Two key city officials who work directly for the City Council were awarded equal pay raises of 9.79 percent last Thursday. City Clerk Shirley Brown and City Auditor Helen Niesner will earn $90,500 per year, up from $82,430. Niesner has been with the city for 22 years and is president of the National Association of Local Government Auditors. Brown was hired in November 1998… BFI settlement okayed…The City Council voted 4-0 last Thursday to approve a $3.9 million settlement with BFI Waste Systems of North American Inc. that will eventually remove the company's recycling facility at 4712 Bolm Road–much to the delight of the long-suffering Garden's Neighborhood residents next door. The dollar amount was set for the 6.7 acre site by a panel of three special commissioners Oct. 28 ( In Fact Daily Nov. 9, 1999). To give the company time to build a new facility, the settlement includes a leaseback arrangement whereby the company will pay the city $2,000 a month for 15 months, with one extension of up to six months authorized. The site is to be used for administrative offices by the city's Solid Waste Department… Payback for Porter…Last July 15 In Fact Daily reported the vital role played by Daniel Porter, president and CEO of CCNG Development Co., in the city's $11.3 million acquisition of a 930 acre tract that had already been approved for development by the Village of Bee Cave. The land was bought with Proposition 2 funds for a permanent preserve. In return the city agreed not to intervene in Porter's application for a wastewater permit. The city also agreed to release some of Porter's land from Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction to Bee Cave's ETJ. The council made good on that deal Thursday, voting 6-0 with Council Member Gus Garcia off the dais to release 186 acres. The property is east of Shane Lane, about one mile south of the intersection of State Highway 71 and FM 2244. As part of the release, the developer agreed to subject the land to a conservation easement that extends environmental protections, to include limiting impervious cover to less than 10 percent and providing stormwater treatment equivalent to the Save Our Springs Ordinance… Bigger bucks for the bang…Commercial electric customers of Austin Energy can get double rebates for energy saving improvements for which applications are received by May 31. In addition, the utility has increased the maximum commercial rebates from $40,000 to $100,000. This is all part of a program to cut peak electric demand by 10 megawatts this year through commercial rebates. For more info, call 499-7827… Orange aprons overrun chambers…Scores of Home Depot workers crowded into the council meeting March 9, filling the seats and most available standing space. Clarke Hammond, who was elected president of the South River City Citizens March 6, told In Fact Daily, "We are highly outnumbered. They're being highly aggressive about this. I'm personally a stockholder of Home Depot and I shop there, but to put this (new Home Depot) next to a cemetery is wrong." He said the area was already well served by similar stores within a mile. The case didn't get heard, however. Due to the crowded agenda, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman suggested postponing action to give Home Depot and neighbors more time to talk. Both sides agreed and the City Council voted 7-0 to postpone action till March 30… Will not serve…During discussion of the controversial action plan for the Bennett Tract (see story above), Council Member Gus Garcia was ribbed by Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Member Willie Lewis about running for another term. Garcia's reply had echoes of President Lyndon Johnson's announcement that he would not seek reelection at the height of the Vietnam War. Garcia said, "The only way that will happen is if somebody writes me in and if elected I will refuse to serve."… Barry fund-raise r… City Council candidate Clare Barry will host a campaign kickoff and a pre-St. Patrick's Day party Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Threadgill's World Headquarters, 301 W. Riverside Drive. Barry, who is running for the Place 5 seat being vacated by Council Member Bill Spelman, has served on the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) and various city committees. So it's no surprise to find among those signing the letter of invitation ANC President Will Bozeman, as well as neighborhood activists Susan Moffat, Betty Edgemond and Phyllis Brinkley. Also listed among supporters were local Sierra Club Chair Kay Plavidal, and activists Dick Kallerman, George Cofer and Shudde Fath.

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