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Council removes hurdles for $15 million investment in Southpark Meadows venue

Friday, April 21, 2000 by

Appeal by neighbor denied, with three neighborhood groups supporting project

The City Council voted 7-0 last night to deny the appeal of Clara Touchet concerning the Planning Commission's granting of a conditional-use permit site plan with variances for the Southpark Meadows music venue at 9600 S. I-35 southbound. The decision clears the way for applicant House of Blues to invest $15 million in upgrading the facility, said General Manager Larry Fontana, who said he also oversees the Starplex in Dallas.

In the same motion the council confirmed that the property line to which music is limited to 65 decibels (db) on the north is Slaughter Lane. Noise on all other boundaries is limited to 80 db. The westernmost drainway on the property will be considered the western boundary. The decision came after two and a half hours of testimony and debate.

Touchet fought hard to get legal standing to make an appeal. (See In Fact Daily March 31.) The hearing on the appeals by Touchet and by the applicant's attorney, Richard Suttle of Armbrust Brown & Davis, was to have been heard April 6. But Touchet instead showed up that night with attorney Steve Adler to object on grounds she had not been given the required 16 days written notice of the hearing. (In Fact Daily April 7.) That technicality won her an agreed delay to April 20.

Touchet, who gained legal standing in part by creating the South Austin Neighborhood Organization after the Planning Commission had heard the case, showed up last night with a list of 27 additional restrictions she wanted the council to put on the project. These included limiting noise to 65 db at all site boundaries, setting a maximum capacity of 7,000, capping the total number of tickets sold per month, and requiring the applicant to improve the shoulder of the I-35 frontage road in the southbound 9600 block.

She wasn't the only neighbor to object to the project. Patricia Michael of the Texas Oaks Neighborhood, which is adjacent to Mary Moore Searight Metro Park and west of Southpark Meadows, also brought a long laundry list of concerns and proposed solutions. With donated time she addressed the council for 13 minutes, going over perceived problems with parking and traffic, noise pollution, light pollution, solid waste pollution, human waste pollution, soil erosion, air pollution, watershed disturbance, fire, personal health and safety, crime and lowered property values. Several other individual neighbors also argued against the project.

Three neighborhood organizations supported the project. Trey Wattinger, president of the Slaughter Lane Neighborhood Association, said his association had voted unanimously to approve the project. Wayne Sanders, president of the Onion Creek Neighborhood Association, said the developers had satisfied all concerns.

The Park Ridge Owners Association was on record supporting the project as well, and Paul Bennett of its board of directors testified to that fact. He claimed that neighborhood balloting showed "60 percent of the vote were in favor of this." However, Amy Simpson of the Park Ridge neighborhood complained that, "an independent poll showed 59 percent of the people polled are in opposition who live in my neighborhood."

Will Bozeman, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said the project showed a lot of attention to its parking plan, but none to park-and-ride, shuttle, or other mass transit options that may be provided by Capital Metro. "It's of concern to us that issues which affect large numbers of neighborhoods are not handled well," Bozeman said. "We see neighborhoods on both sides. It shouldn't happen like this." He said San Diego has a more mature neighborhood system that resolves conflict at the outset. "I don't see that present in this case," he said.

The council debate of the project revolved around gaining an understanding that the issues raised by neighbors who object have either already been addressed or will be when Part B of the site plan comes forward for technical review of construction plans. At Council Member Beverly Griffith's urging Suttle agreed to hold at least quarterly meetings with neighbors to air any concerns that may arise. Suttle said, "House of Blues is willing to meet after every concert." Checking noise levels within neighborhoods, as Griffith requested, is not feasible, as noise limitations are measured by police at property boundaries.

Council Member Daryl Slusher asked what recourse there is if House of Blues does not abide by the limits set on the project. Suttle said any violations of restrictions of the conditional use permit or agreements with the neighborhoods could result in the city pulling the permit for the project. Slusher asked what recourse the city has if noise is worse than allowed or the traffic plan does not work adequately. Trann Lackey of the Development Review and Inspection Department (DRID) said, "The city can suspend the site plan if the director determines it's not meeting conditions."

When completed the revamped Southpark Meadows facility will seat up to 7,500 people in reserved theater seats under a roof and another 12,500 on blankets. Fontana said the facility will have 8,000 parking spaces, sufficient to accommodate 20,000 patrons at a ratio of 2.5 people per vehicle. He said parking is included free in the price of admission, so patrons should have no incentive to park off-site in neighborhoods. Shows will be limited to two per week, Fontana said.

Suttle said he will likely be back before the council again in the future, as he has requested a waiver from the city's noise ordinance at two points on the east side of Southpark Meadows. "That's not part of the hearing tonight because we may be back for a small waiver," he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman asked about the status of a proposed amendment to the city's noise ordinance. Greg Guernsey, a principal planner in DRID, said a meeting would be held Monday on the ordinance to deal with outdoor noise. He said staff would bring that ordinance to the council after it goes to the Planning Commission.

Goodman asked Suttle if a rollback of zoning for Southpark is acceptable if the city modifies the noise ordinance in such a way that it addresses Southpark Meadows' need for alcohol sales. Suttle said in the interim the protection is in the low floor-to-area ratio for this project. He said a rollback would be agreeable after the ordinance is amended "as long as it doesn't affect the House of Blues' operation."

Goodman asked that Touchet consider changing the name of her newly formed group, the South Austin Neighborhood Organization, to "put a little more specificity in your group's name so it's not so confusing."

City Council launches ambitious new program for more affordable housing

$1 million put into a new Housing Trust Fund

The City Council Thursday enthusiastically and unanimously approved establishment of a Housing Trust Fund Grant Program for creating and preserving affordable housing. In doing so, the council responded to what has been identified as the number one priority of citizens, as expressed in focus groups and surveys done by the Department of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development (NHCD). The Council also approved a resolution authorizing waiving capital recovery fees for builders willing to meet the city's SMART Housing guidelines.

Paul Hilgers, director of the NHCD, told the council his department plans to have 5,000 new or retained affordable housing units by 2005. Margaret Shaw, of NHCD's finance department, said there would be a demand for more than 7,700 apartments renting at less than $625 per month by 2005. At the same time, residents will need 3,800 new homes costing less than $90,000. Current supply meets only 20 percent of demand, Shaw said. Shaw said the departmental survey showed an average two-bedroom, two-bath apartment was renting for $872 per month last December.

Mayor Kirk Watson responded, "These numbers are startling…If affordability is going to be a priority, we need to establish it as a priority." Where the council has been most successful, Watson said, is where "we've also been able to move beyond the special interest of any one community. I think this council has said we want affordability." Affordability, he said, is one of the things people are seeking when they talk about "keeping Austin Austin."

Watson said to get more money into the trust fund, "I m going to commit as mayor and as president of the Austin HFC ( Housing Finance Corp.) to challenge the banks to help us."

Watson said every person in Austin should care about housing affordability, whether they currently have affordable housing or not.

The mayor pointed out that those who have secured housing within the city acquire a greater tax burden as more middle-income residents move to outlying areas. He said, such a tax burden is obvious from national trends.

In addition, he said, "As more residents commute, traffic is going to worsen for all of us and air quality erodes." He said, "Employers need to pay attention to the fact that their employees need to live near where they work."

He also said that some question why the city should help people by providing down payment or rental assistance. "I didn't pull myself up by my bootstraps. My subsidy was from Don and Billie Watson," he said, referring to his parents.

At Watson's urging, council also directed the city manager to look at what city properties have been historically underutilized, and which will be adding significantly to the city's tax base within the next few years, such as the Computer Sciences Corp. buildings to be built on three downtown city blocks.

Watson said the CSC property should be paying about $800,000 per year in property taxes when complete, as compared to $3,600 being generated by the property before the CSC deal. The city's electric pole yard, which will become upscale housing, should generate about $200,000 in taxes per year, he said. As a pole yard, it paid no taxes. Watson suggested that the manager look at how much revenue could be generated for the housing fund if the city dedicated 40 percent of the money from the previously underutilized properties to housing. He suggested that such a plan might last for 10 years, after which time, the fund might be self-sufficient.

Watson also suggested that the council seek legislative assistance to prevent housing upgrades or rehabilitation from becoming a tax problem for homeowners.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said, "We don't want to preclude a way for this trust fund to be a real generating fund of its own." The city should ask its financial advisors to assist in making sure that the fund becomes self-sufficient so it does not become an expensive budget item every year, she said. In addition, Goodman said she wanted a timeframe for each part of the process and assurances that the Development Review and Inspection Department does not delay council's plans. "Here lately it seems like development review is not aware of neighborhood plans, etc.," she said.

Council Member Beverly Griffith said she wants to make sure that no park land or conservation land gets classified as "underutilized city property." In addition, Griffith said she would like to see the fund to be made available for very small loan amounts for housing rehabilitation.

Council Member Daryl Slusher said corporations are making billions of dollars in Austin, and need to make donations to the trust fund. "It seems to me with the level of corporate profits we have in Austin, we really need the corporate sector to plug into this." He said some companies who should be participating in the city's work force development programs have held back, asking for more and more from the city. Those corporations are acting "like Lucy with the football," he said. "When do we get to kick the football?"

Following the hearing, Hilgers said he was pleased with the mayor and council's strong commitment to affordable housing.

Later in the meeting, acting as the board of the Austin Housing Finance Corp., the council voted 7-0 to accept $1 million from the city to create a Housing Trust Fund. Mayor Watson, as part of the motion, directed the city manager to determine as part of the upcoming annual budget process if the city can put another $1 million into the Housing Trust Fund.

Griffith interviewing for aide…With the departure of Council Member Beverly Griffith's executive assistant, John Gilvar, rumors about who will get the job have been flying about City Hall. Architect Jeff Jack, former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and current president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, is one of many qualified applicants, Griffith said. She said, Jack is among several applicants being interviewed by the city's Human Resources Department. She said she was very pleasantly surprised by the high quality of applicants, including lawyers and graduates of the LBJ School of Public Affairs… You're on candid camera…After Mayor Kirk Watson and other council members had made lengthy remarks in favor of affordable housing, Council Member Willie Lewis said the others had taken the words out of his mouth. Lewis said, "You must have a microphone in my office." The mayor responded, "Actually, it's a video camera."… Shorter–gasp–council meetings?… Mayor Kirk Watson came up with a winner last night. At the conclusion of the council meeting, which adjourned uncharacteristically early at 9 p.m., he directed the city manager to by May 11 come forward with recommendations for better handling council meetings. Manager Jesus Garza said he would make recommendations so the council meetings could finish between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m… Build it Jamail…With little discussion the council voted 7-0 last night to approve a variance for Emile Jamail Properties Inc. to construct a building and parking area and exclude the building's footprint from a drainage easement to be dedicated as a result of development in the 100-year floodplain at 1209 and 1301 South 1st St. "This will have no impact on adjoining property," said a visibly flustered Mike Heitz, director of the Watershed Protection Department, who was forced to stand in for a missing staff member… Bigger Convention Center…With no citizens speaking at the public hearing, the City Council quickly approved a resolution regarding a site plan and establishing development regulations applicable to the Austin Convention Center Expansion at 500 E. Cesar Chavez. The vote was 5-0 with Council Members Beverly Griffith and Daryl Slusher off the dais.

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