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Council to pick architects to design new City Hall and Plaza

Monday, March 6, 2000 by

Four teams competing for $4 million in fees

On Thursday the City Council will authorize negotiation and execution of a $4 million professional services agreement for architectural and engineering design of the new City Hall and Plaza to be built on the site of current City Hall Annex on 2nd Street between Guadalupe and Lavaca. Four teams vying for that contract put on presentations last week to show the type of work they've done before and pitch their vision for the project. In the space of about 20 minutes apiece each team tried to capture the imagination of council members who will vote this week.

Mayor Kirk Watson said each council member will be briefed in private regarding the project. He asked each council member to rank the four teams No. 1 through No. 4. "If it's not close, there will be an opportunity to discuss it before we vote," he said.

Highlights of each team's presentation are as follows:

(1) Cotera Kolar Negrete & Reed Architects; lead designer Antoine Predock; associate architect/sustainability consultant Lars Stanley.

Architect Juan Cotera said his firm has been in business in Austin 29 years. "We are the oldest firm in Austin with a founding member still practicing with the firm," he said. Introducing Predock, Cotera said, "If you pick up any book anywhere in the world on top architects, one of those will always be Antoine. He will be the heart and soul of this project."

Predock, who lives in New Mexico, called himself a "lateral carpetbagger." Speaking of how he sized up Austin, Predock said, "What I see is a place that's really happening. On MTV it seems like you're partying all the time but you seem to balance that spirit we all sense at a distance with getting a job done, with environmental values in particular." He called the building site, "amazing." He said his designs are achieved through a hands-on phase to define components of the building and translate that to the site.

Predock's slide show featured an array of buildings, including the Green Valley Performing Arts Center in Tucson. He also designed a $53 million City Hall, Plaza and Performing Arts Center for Thousand Oaks, Calif. "Our building should become a theater that involves the building and people, where events play out to invite people and draw people," he said. "I know you have music at meetings but it could be taken a step further." The Tucson project includes a 2,000-seat theater, a city hall chamber that can be converted for community theater use. Predock's design of a $30 million ballpark for the San Diego Padres, in conjunction with HOK Architects, includes six city blocks of retail and mixed-use surrounding the park.

"I think Austin can really use a building that has an iconic quality. Many buildings here do but we can up the ante with the plaza facing Town Lake," he said. His city hall project in Las Vegas is a building that images can be projected upon. "The building should have dignity and timeliness but should have playfulness that Austin communicates to the world," Predock said.

Not above name dropping, Predock said that Uma Thurman may be seen "cruising my building in (the movie) Gattica. I can't guarantee it here."

(2) Carter-Burgess Inc.; lead designer/sustainability consultant Rick Archer of Overland Partners; plaza designer Robert Murase.

Bob Sims of Carter-Burgess noted that his 100-member firm has been doing the architectural programming for the new City Hall. "We could wallpaper this room with the ideas we've gotten so far and you can imagine the designer's challenge to listen and boil it all down," he said. "More importantly, we've been listening and have become acutely aware of a team that has a designer that can listen and distill ideas down to a project that's uniquely Austin."

Archer held up a glass globe that retailers sell to tourists in Austin, which has in it replicas of the University of Texas Tower, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center and others. "The question is, will the City Hall find its place in this globe?" he said. "Today we're here to talk about designing the new City Hall. How will future generations read the history of Austin at this point in time?"

Archer's firm designed the Wildflower Center, which he said speaks to the mission of presenting and conserving natural plants. The facility utilizes rainwater harvesting and employs a plaza 'that's so typical to this part of Texas," he said.

The team's plaza designer, Murase, is currently working on an entrance to Grand Canyon Park that "takes about 4 million people a year out of their cars and orients them to the North Rim." Archer gave Murasi credit for helping to recreate Portland.

Archer talked about the Clear Channel Communications headquarters in San Antonio, a 90,000-square-foot building that is engineered to furnish about 900 watts of electricity per cubicle, about three times the usual amount. "This is the building of the future," Archer said. "It's very much in the scale of the City Hall site, over a subterranean parking garage. It was built for $160 a square foot." Archer said 10 percent of costs go into a building and 90 percent go into people. "You need to invest in a building to invest in people, to give it character for a good place to work."

"When we began the Wildflower Center, we sat down and asked Mrs. Johnson what she wanted this place to be. She said, 'I want it to look like God put it there.' We said, 'Whoa, that's an impossibility.' She raised the bar so high we had to jump as high as we ever have. I'm not sure which is harder: God speaks in one voice and Austin speaks with many voices."

(3) B lack & Vernooy + Barnes Architects joint venture; lead designer Sinclair Black; plaza designer Dan Biederman; sustainability consultant Stewardship Inc. of Austin; interior design Laurie Smith Design Associates.

Jay Barnes said, "We bring passion." He said Sinclair Black has been prepared for this project for 20 years, having won a national design competition in 1984 for his City Hall design for Austin. "No one knows the issues better than Sinclair. Over the past 30 years he's devoted one-third of his professional time to pro bono projects for Austin. No one has a track record that comes close to that. We offer the ultimate regional material: Austin architects…If you want a City Hall that truly reflects Austin you can't do better than this team," Barnes said.

Black said, "The City Hall and Plaza should celebrate citizens as a partner in everyday life. The City Hall and Plaza should occupy the site with dignity and reach out to surrounding public spaces, break down boundaries of inside and outside." The City Hall and Plaza "should be a symbol of democratic ideals, our common ground, open and accepting. It should be strong and solid as well as open an impermeable, stately, sacred to human beings," he said. Black said this can be achieved through urban design. "You start with the city, not the building, and understand the context. You listen to citizens and respond appropriately."

"We design places and buildings that feel like us," Black said. "We have been designing Austin's character one small building at a time for 34 years." As examples he pointed to the Texas School for the Deaf, rebuilt over a decade while sustaining operations, and Town Lake Center designed by Barnes Architects. Among Black's designs are the Central Park Master Plan and Central Market.

Biederman's reputation was earned by forming business improvement districts and he is credited with transforming New York's drug-infested Bryant Park into a clean, vital, busy park. He says he's been doing such projects for 20 years by working with people. "Austin is different from the Northeast," he said. "It's safe and relatively well attended and has much better weather." He reeled off a list of items necessary for a good park, including security and sanitation, lighting, and moveable chairs instead of benches. There must be programs. "Our parks are self-sustaining. They don't cost the Parks Department money," he said. "This plaza cannot work unless its filled with people and we will fill it with people."

Summing up, Black said, "We don't know what this project should look like but it will combine values. It will be a building we've never seen before in a place we've always wished for."

(4) Moore/Andersson Architects; leader designer Arthur Andersson; plaza designer Richard Verdoorn; sustainability consultant The Weidt Group.

John Nyfeler introduced Anderrson, saying "Success is always a team effort and every team needs a leader." He said Andersson will act as coach and minister for the team.

Andersson said, "The amount of human energy put into a project comes back, as bread cast on the water comes back as club sandwiches. We're proud of not monumental or gemlike qualities but that they are intensively collaborative, from programming all the way through to design."

As examples of his work, Andersson pointed to the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, a 100,000-square-foot facility incorporating the Burlington Northern Railroad terminal. An amphitheater is built in the inverse shape of the dome of Union Station, with a garden in the center that reflects the rocks and vegetation from the nearby Cascade Mountains. "This shows how our building looks fresh and weaves in what's already there," Andersson said.

Andersson also showed how he invigorated the bleak campus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "My contention is they never even introduced the baby into the bath water," he said.

Council Member Willie Lewis asked City Architect Nathan Schneider to explain the budget for the City Hall and Plaza. Schneider said the city has a budget of about $24 million, about $240 a square foot, which translates to about $150 to $160 per square foot for construction.

Planning Commission offers council half a loaf on Brown Distributing

Commissioners say yes to administrative services only

Planning Commissioners last week reluctantly recommended a zoning change and approved a modified conditional-use permit for the Brown Distributing Co. warehouse at 411 Chicon, so the city can use the property to house its Building Services Department. Last month the city council passed an ordinance stating that failure of the commission to act on Feb. 29 would be treated as if the commission had forwarded the zoning request, from LI (limited industrial) to P (public) without a recommendation. In the same ordinance, council stated that failure to act on the conditional-use permit would be treated as a denial. Council hears appeals on such denials. The Planning Commission vote had been postponed twice, prompting council to pass the ordinance ( In Fact Daily Feb. 18).

The old beer warehouse has been a sore point with surrounding neighbors for years, as 18-wheel trucks pulled in and out of the property day and night. The city has argued that Building Services, which plans to house and dispatch employees to locations throughout the city, will generate far fewer trips with much smaller vehicles, resulting in a 60 percent decrease in traffic from the site. Because the land is located within the East Austin Overlay Combining District, the city was required to seek a change in use from warehouse/distribution to warehouse/distribution and administrative services.

Jill Horton, representing Building Services, told the commission that her department would not be doing warehousing operations at the Chicon site. The department stores uniforms and hoped to relocate its mail room operation from the current site on St. Elmo Road to Chicon, Horton said. She said the mailroom could stay at the St. Elmo property, but that building has an expensive lease.

Members of El Concilio, a coalition of Mexican-American neighborhood associations, have argued strenuously that the neighborhood needs housing, not more traffic-generating business. The Planning Commission generally has been sympathetic to the neighborhood. (See In Fact Daily Feb. 2, 9 and 14.) But Commissioner Susana Almanza could not muster a majority of the commission for her motion to deny the conditional-use permit. Almanza said she felt like the city was preempting the neighborhood planning process. The neighborhood has recently started its planning process and the city has promised to be part of the planning, according to Planning Commission documents. Commissioners Gwen Webb, Jean Mather, and Jim Robertson voted for Almanza's motion.

Webb said, "In considering this item several weeks ago I experienced a lot of frustration with this (city planning) process. The saddest thing is the missed opportunity." Although the Building Services staff relocation will mean improved conditions at the site, she said, the city should have worked with the neighborhood to "develop the whole tract in a way that is consistent with the neighborhood plan. It's not too late," to negotiate such an agreement, she said. Webb also criticized the city for paying more attention to the Bradley Interests land in Hays County than redevelopment of East Austin.

Webb's comments were applauded by some in the audience, including El Concilio member Gavino Fernandez, who held a sign that read: "City wants to keep slum and blight alive in East Austin." Fernandez told the commission, "The people I have spoken to (near the site) do not want to see this type of industry in the area. We want a brand new facility." Will Bozeman, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC), said ANC had adopted a position supporting acquisition of the 5.2-acre property for mixed-use development. He said, "Neighborhood representatives had a great deal of concern and empathy (for neighbors of the site)." He said the city would not be placing such a facility in a neighborhood anywhere else in the city.

However, Ray Ramirez said, "People I've talked to are very happy all the big trucks have left. They're content with similar uses. We don't want Brown Distributing back. My family owns four pieces of property in the immediate area" of the warehouse. Laurie Watson, vice president of Brown Distributing, said her company wanted to sell the property to a business that would be compatible with the neighborhood. She said if the city could not use the property for Building Services, Brown Distributing would have to consider selling the property to another beer distributor or moving part of Brown's business back to the warehouse. "From a business standpoint, we can't afford this valuable property" to continue to sit unused, she said.

In addition, Watson said Brown Distributing has a contract with the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp. to sell three lots at 2nd and Chicon to the association at below-market value. The lots have commercial zoning, she said, but will be sold for housing. The deal with the neighborhood is contingent upon the city buying the warehouse property, she said. According to material provided to the Planning Commission, Father Bill Elliott and Mark Rogers of Guadalupe neighborhood suggested connecting acquisition of those lots to the city's acquisition of the warehouse site.

Commissioner Ben Heimsath proposed the compromise, which allows administrative services to be conducted on the site, but apparently would not allow storage of uniforms or mail room functions. He said, "We have the opportunity to make something (better) out of this…We don't just have to say no." Part of Heimsath's motion was a request that the city explore other options for any part of the property Building Services does not need. Alice Glasco, director of the Development Review and Inspection Department, told Heimsath that any change in use would require a change in the conditional-use permit. Voting with Heimsath were Commissioners Robertson, Navarro, Mather and Robin Cravey. Commissioners Betty Baker and Webb abstained. Almanza voted no. Commissioner Ray Vrudhula was absent. City Council has already set a public hearing on the matter for March 23.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman told In Fact Daily, "We'll have to see what our options are perceived to be." Goodman said she would talk to Horton about options for the mail room and uniform storage. The city is trying to address many of East Austin's problems, Goodman said, but does not have the resources to completely cure every ill that exists. "The city as a financial resource doesn't have the ability to put down all it would take to do everything at this moment. So moving forward, in some cases, is certainly better than leaving it as-is."

Cut me, I like it…In the dialog that ensued between the City Council and the architectural teams that want to design the new City Hall and Plaza last Thursday, architect Arthur Anderrson said, "I believe a 30 percent budget cut improves a building because it forces you to improve what you're doing." To which Mayor Kirk Watson retorted, "Then you'll be ecstatic with a 50 percent budget cut."… Cut some slack…At last Thursday's City Council meeting, consultant Sarah Crocker won over South Austin neighborhood watchdog Betty Edgemond and got first-reading approval for an apartment project zoning that was technically over the line by a hair. "Let's go with Sarah on this one. If it goes wrong we'll never let her in here again," Edgemond said. The council voted 6-0 with Mayor Kirk Watson off the dais to grant a zoning change from SF-3 to MF-3 with a cap of 200 units for the Minerva Ltd. project at 7201-7401 S. Congress… Church zoning postponed…The request of Grace Christian Center to change zoning on its property at 12007 N. Lamar Blvd. from SF-2 to MF-1 was postponed for a week by the City Council for more staff research. Attorney Jeff Howard said the church bought the land in 1996 with plans to build a church but the plans fell through. Now they want to sell the land to ease the drain on finances. Jeb Boyt, president of Austin Metro Trails and Greenways, said he is trying to negotiate a trail easement on the land in the 100-year floodplain.. Hike and Bike charrette…Speaking of Austin Metro Trails and Greenways, the group will host a planning charrette for the T own Lake Hike and Bike Trail in mid-April. The workshop will examine current conditions, planned and proposed improvements, and additional needs. For info, contact Jeb Boyt at 475-3786 or e-mail to jeboyt@hotmail.com… First step to annex…After allowing each side 20 minutes to speak and debating the matter, the City Council last Thursday approved on first reading the annexation of some 164 acres of the Regents Tract along Foster Ranch Road. Annexation was pushed by Travis Country residents who feared the Regents School of Austin would be incompatible with their neighborhood. Council Member Bill Spelman, who has been mediating this matter, assured school officials the annexation should not be seen as interfering with the school's master plan… Sheffield celebration…At noon Tuesday, March 7, the community will celebrate the birthday of the late Beverly Sheffield, longtime director of the Parks and Recreation Department who died last Dec. 10. Feel free to bring flowers to float in the pool to kickoff Swimming Around the World to honor Sheffied… Poll workers needed…The City Clerk is recruiting Austin voters to work at precinct polling places for the May 6 election. The job provides training and pay of $6 an hour. Deadline to apply is March 15. Call 499-2210 for more info… Super Tuesday watchers…The Austin Women's Political Caucus is having a member mixer tomorrow night, Tuesday, March 7, at Jalisco's on Barton Springs Road. Complimentary appetizers will be served for the big-screen TV Super Tuesday Watch Party. The event's free but a hat will be passed for victory fund candidates Maria Canchola, Kerrie Key, Darlene Burne and Gisela Triana. For info call Celia Israel at 459-8095.

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