Monday, March 20, 2000 by

Sarah Crocker

Owner, Sarah Crocker Consultants

Sarah Crocker, owner of Sarah Crocker Consultants, represents property owners in every stage of the labyrinth that is the City of Austin's land development process. "We do subdivisions, site plans, building permits, the whole gamut," she said.

Crocker started her business in 1988, coming to Austin after spending several years in San Antonio as general manager for a restaurant and nightclub development business. Crocker said her former employer's holdings include Austin's Dallas Nightclub, as well as other bars and restaurants around the country.

"I always liked Austin and knew it was where I wanted to end up," she said in explaining her decision to move from San Antonio to start her own company. Crocker said it was Austin's lifestyle that attracted her to the city, in addition to the career opportunities here.

Crocker said what she enjoys most about her job is taking projects from inception to completion. "It's exciting to have somebody come in and have a concept and be able to work with them…make that project fit on the piece of property and then to work with them and stay with them through the whole process we have in the City of Austin, to get them to the point you can open the door and there's an ongoing business. It's fun. It's a challenge," Crocker said. Asked if the challenge is greater in Austin than other cities, Crocker replied, "Definitely. If you can work in the development business in Austin you can do it anywhere."

Asked what she likes least about her job, Crocker said, "I don't mind having a set of rules to go by. I just wish we could have a set of rules that lasted more than a year. For a lot of what I do, people shouldn't have to pay me to do it. They should be able to walk in off the street and do it themselves. What I dislike most is that our system's gotten so complicated, it's very difficult for a person to walk in off the street and figure out how to get from Point A to Point B. I'd say it's virtually impossible."

Crocker said she has more than 45 projects pending, including a number of zoning cases. She said she could not predict which of those would be controversial and what length of time it would take to get each through the process. Crocker said she did 30 zoning cases last year.

Crocker said she encourages her clients to look for property that is zoned correctly for what they want to build, but the projects without such zoning are often the most publicly visible ones. Last year, Crocker successfully directed Dallas developer Gordon Dunaway through the zoning process for the Rainey Street Condominiums, which will be built on the north side of Town Lake next to the Mexican American Cultural Center. The zoning case for that project took almost a year, Crocker said. She said she expects a site development permit to be issued shortly. Another condominium project, Gotham, was postponed indefinitely by the City Council after numerous citizens spoke out against it.

Crocker was born in Marietta, Ohio, which she described as, "the first settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains…a beautiful town, of 33,000. "I took a bus out of town the night I graduated from high school," she said, "for New York City." Crocker attended Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and waited tables in the summer in the Big Apple. After three years of studying speech pathology, Crocker said, she moved to Houston, following a man she intended to marry. Once in Houston, she said, she decided not to marry after all. Instead, Crocker became an airline attendant. "I flew for about six or eight years," she said, then moved to San Antonio, where she married, had two children," and got divorced. While in San Antonio, Crocker said, she had an antique retail business, followed by a horse racing business. "I bought a race horse–that's the most guaranteed way to lose money that you'll every find," she said. The horse racing turned into horse boarding and building a 5-acre show facility, Crocker said. "I have a habit of reinventing myself every few years," Crocker said.

Asked to define Austin's biggest problem, Crocker said, "We seem to be a city that swings all one way and then the other. In my line of work, the toughest thing is to try to find a middle ground where everybody can meet in the middle, and reach a compromise. "Right now, in the current climate, there's been an unfortunate shift where people don't feel like they have to come to the table. Both sides have lost it. I don't want to put it all on the neighbors, because that's not true. We're going back to the days of having public hearing wars and it's very unfortunate. I don't think it bodes well for developers or for anybody. I've never had a time where both sides felt very strongly, where if we were able to sit down and reach some time of a conclusion, some kind of agreement from all sides, (that) we didn't end up with a better project than we started out with," she said.

Crocker praised the city's pilot mediation process, which is being directed by Tracy Watson, director of special projects and development dispute resolution. "Regardless of whether you're able to reach a compromise, I think both sides come out with a much better understanding of each other and I think that process sort of takes the mean-spiritedness out of" the disagreements, she said. "If you're going to oppose each other you can do so in a much more gracious manner," Crocker concluded.

Crocker's daughter, Mandy, 23, has recently joined her in the consulting business. Her son, Morgan, is 17, and attends school in Virginia, Crocker said. In her spare time, Crocker said she enjoys kickboxing, working out, and travel to New Orleans where she has a condominium.

Council to vote on second part to launch Power Partner Program

Austin Energy shooting for 2,000 home installations by June 1

You don't need your home air-conditioner yet, but hot weather and high electricity bills aren't all that far away. To help with that problem, Austin Energy will soon launch a pilot program that will help to alleviate high air-conditioning bills for some 2,000 customers picked for the new Power Partner Program. While the utility won't sell as much electricity, it would nevertheless benefit from shaving peak electric loads, which otherwise would put a bigger demand on generators and substations. The program would also help build customer loyalty to Austin Energy, in case the City Council should ever opt to open its monopoly service area to competition. That's a decision that can't be implemented until Jan. 1, 2002, but once made is irrevocable.

Under the Power Partner Program, programmable thermostats will be installed free in the homes of volunteers in the initially targeted service area near MoPac Expressway and Steck Avenue, mainly west of MoPac. A receiver in the thermostat would pick up radio signals from Mount Larson that would turn off the homes' air-conditioners for 10 minutes out of each half hour for four hours per day. Air-conditioners would be cycled only on workdays, not weekends and holidays, and it can be overridden for days at home or when entertaining.

On Thursday, the City Council will consider a $2.4 million, three-year contract with Honeywell DMC Services of Saugus, Mass. The contract would cover the installation and testing of programmable thermostats and one year's operation of a service center that customers can call for information or repair. The first year would cost $233,776. Two one-year options at $735,007 per year would complete the contract. The first year contract covers installation of 2,500 programmable thermostats, plus the installation of 400 switches for electric water heaters. The Electric Utility Commission is scheduled to review the contract tonight and make a recommendation to the council.

Steve Saenz, Austin Energy's program coordinator for load control, says Honeywell's service center will handle enrollment in the program and service, based on calls routed by Austin Energy's call center to a free 800 number. "Their staff is experienced in these devices through working with several utilities," Saenz says. "They can troubleshoot calls on the phone and hopefully eliminate site visits." The troubleshooting will be crucial, Saenz says, because in a similar program the utility ran 12 years ago, "every problem with air-conditioning, customers associated with the device."

Saenz says the programmable thermostats will be "co-branded," meaning they will bear Austin Energy's name as well as that of the manufacturer.

As reported by In Fact Daily Feb. 22, a separate $3.5 million contract with Converge Technology was established for procurement of computer hardware, customized software and 22,500 SuperStat programmable thermostats made by Scientific Atlanta and Honeywell. That contract was approved by the City Council March 9, Saenz says.

If the Power Partner Program performs well in this summer's pilot test, Austin Energy plans to install a minimum of 10,000 programmable thermostats per year for the following four years, with the ultimate goal of installing 50,000 by 2004. This would defer an estimate 50 megawatts of peak load during summer months.

A targeted marketing effort would be launched April 1, including direct mail to some 3,000 customers.

Stop SH 130…That's the message being promoted by ROUTE, Rethinking Our Urban Transportation Environment, an offshoot of the Austin Sierra Club. The group is urging folks to come to tonight's meeting of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization for a public hearing on funding for State Highway 130. "It is critical that people make their voices heard to tell CAMPO not to fund this land scam," says ROUTE's flier. The CAMPO meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the Joe Thompson Conference Center Auditorium, Red River at Dean Keeton. For more info, call Dick Kallerman at 444-1326, Dave Dobbs at 282-1149, or Roger Baker at 454-9060… Dash to 'Dillo meetings… Capital Metro is holding public meetings on 'Dillo bus service to obtain passenger input about a new park-and-ride lot and major route changes. The new park-and-ride would be under MoPac Expressway, just west of Zilker Park, to replace Palmer Auditorium's parking lot when it closes. The first meeting is at noon, Tuesday, March 21, at the Capital Metro Customer Information Center, 801 Congress Ave. The second is at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, at the Capital Metro Ticket and Pass Office, 106 E. 8th St. The last is at 6 p.m. Monday, March 27, at Capital Metro Admin Offices, 2910 E. 5th St. For more info, call Juliana Fernandez at 389-7550… Alvarez fund-raiser…Food, music and fun are promised by the campaign of Raul Alvarez for City Council Place 2 this Thursday, March 23, 5:30-8 p.m. at Juan in a Million, 2300 E. Cesar Chavez. For more info call 478-7969… Lewis fund-raiser bombs… Raul Alvarez must be hoping for better turnout at Juan in a Million than Council Member Willie Lewis got last week. As reported by In Fact Daily March 15, architect John Nyfeler raised questions about the propriety of architect Juan Cotera being one of the sponsors for a fund-raiser for Lewis, implying the favor might be seen as an attempt to sway Lewis' vote March 23 on the architectural contract to design the new City Hall and Plaza. As it turned out, it was much ado about nothing. Few people showed up at the event for which letters were sent to some 500 targeted Hispanics. Lewis' campaign manager, David Terrell, says, "Attendance wasn't very good, with tornado and hail warnings and people doing other things. We didn't lose any money but just didn't reach our goals."… Gilmore moves on…Lawyer Henry Gilmore has left the nest at Locke Lidell & Sapp and announced the opening of his own practice. He's now doing business as Henry H. Gilmore, Attorney at Law, specializing in land-use law with an emphasis on zoning, subdivision, annexations and master-planned communities. For more info, call Gilmore at 320-9159… Candidates forum…The Retirees Coordinating Board, a group of more than 20 senior organizations, is sponsoring a Candidates Forum for mayoral and council candidates Tuesday, March 28, 9:30-11 a.m. at the Senior Activity Center, 29th and Lamar. For more info, call Board President Margarine Beaman at 451-4802… City manager talks…The Real Estate Council of Austin will hear City Manager Jesus Garza speak on the State of the City Wednesday, March 29, at 11:30 a.m. The lunch and membership meeting will be held at The Four Seasons Hotel. RSVP to 320-4151.

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