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Town Lake overlay planner unveils denser, mixed-use scene for waterfront

Monday, April 17, 2000 by

Advisory board gives mixed reactions, some fearing traffic gridlock

Jim Adams of the Roma Design Group Inc. of San Francisco last week unveiled a conceptual plan for part of the Town Lake waterfront that includes mixed uses and heights, new streets, streetscapes and denser development than would be allowed under current zoning. Adams made his presentation to the Town Lake Waterfront Overlay Advisory Board, which is made up of representatives of neighborhood and community organizations and affected landowners.

The committee was appointed by the City Council in the wake of the controversial proposal to build the Gotham condominium project at the southwest corner of the Congress Avenue Bridge. While studying the proposal, the City Council found gaps in existing regulations and disagreements over the intent and meaning of ordinances regulating land use along the lake.

In general, Adams said, "This is clearly a place that warrants redevelopment and intensification." However, because of lack of public streets and what Adams called "a haphazard pattern of parcels, (with) a fairly random mixture of uses, it would not be appropriate merely to say, 'increase the density and change the heights.' There needs to be better access to Town Lake. We need more ways of circulating within super blocks and better pedestrian and bicycle access."

In addition, the planner said, "There needs to be improved access (to Town Lake) from Riverside. We need to think about height in terms of views and the urban form. It's a real challenge because what we're dealing with are development regulations," that are difficult to understand. He suggested that the city adopt a two-tier system. There could be a base level of zoning, plus a second level that would encourage consolidation of properties and cooperation among property owners.

Adams' job is to propose new development standards for two segments of the Waterfront Overlay District: the South Shore Central Subdistrict and the Travis Heights Subdistrict. South Shore Central includes property bounded by the Town Lake shoreline on the north, East Bouldin Creek on the south and east, and South 1st Street on the west. The Travis Heights Subdistrict includes property bounded by the Town Lake shoreline on the north, East Bouldin Creek on the west, East Riverside Drive on the south, and I-35 on the east. Adams divided those areas into five smaller subdistricts for planning. The five subdistricts, starting with I-35 and working west, are as follows: residential lakefront, including Bouldin Creek and Landry's Seafood House; the Austin American-Statesman and Crockett Properties, including Texas Department of Transportation offices; the Hyatt Regency Hotel and adjoining properties; the block across South 1st from Palmer Auditorium, where Jalisco Restaurant & Bar and Hooter's restaurant sit; and the area south of Riverside, east of Congress, which adjoins Travis Heights.

In several areas, Adams said zoning would have to be changed and adjacent property owners would have to cooperate with each other to achieve the best uses of their property. For example, Adams said all the property owners around the Hyatt Regency hotel should "coordinate with each other to do higher density mixed-use zoning." The area includes the property proposed for the Gotham development by Randall Davis, as well as his opponents in the battle, next door property owners Doris and Willard Finkelstein. Adams called Gotham's proposed site "a very poor site, with poor easement. That project would not be appropriate because of poor access and mass. But the idea of doing that density of residential development is good."

Under further questioning, Adams said, "We would recommend that the Gotham parcel have an FAR (floor-to-area ratio) of 1." However, "If they are able to achieve a more coordinated deal with the Hyatt," Adams said, with parking below ground and on the Hyatt property, height could be increased to 100 feet.

Davis had proposed a building of 120 feet in height, 60 feet above that allowed by the property's LI (limited industrial) zoning. South Austin neighborhoods were upset by the height and density proposals. Council agreed to postpone the case until June. Adams is scheduled to report to the council by May 15. (See In Fact Daily Dec. 10, 1999, Feb. 18, 2000, and March 9, 2000.)

Adams said the residential lakefront property close to I-35 is 30 years old, and therefore ripe for redevelopment. Change would require a lot of cooperation from property owners, including about 140 condominium owners. He suggested that the city offer incentives to encourage density of development. Along with that, Adams said, the city could set a minimum setback from the lake of 80 feet, with an average of 120 feet. Although the current ordinance requires a 200-foot setback, Adams said the properties in this area were built long before the ordinance and offer no setback and therefore no public access to the lake.

The advisory board, and members of the public attending the meeting, gave Adams specific feedback about various parts of the plan, and asked a lot of questions. Mike Kelly, who represented the Finkelsteins in their opposition to Gotham, participated in the meeting as a member of the public. He said, "This is not a public land deal. All this land is privately owned, and in the whole portion Adams is talking about there's almost no publicly owned land. And the questions we found out during Gotham is that the policy in this area is at best poorly defined."

Board member Elaine Carter, who chairs the Parks & Recreation Board's Land & Facilities Subcommittee, told Adams, "Putting buildings closer to the water is something I'd not wanted." Carter presented a resolution written by a joint committee of the Parks Board and the Planning Commission. The resolution states that the city should impose a height limit of 45 feet "in areas where the subdistrict does not specify a limit." In addition, the resolution states, "bonus provisions in the original ordinance should not be reinstated," and "the term 'basewall'…(should) be replaced by the term 'compatible façade.'"

Adams said, "The Austin code is very frustrating. As soon as you think you understand it, someone comes along and says, 'Take a look at this.'"

He told the group a height of 120 feet might be appropriate for a discrete tower. However, Adams said he wanted to guarantee "solar access to and streetscape improvements on Riverside Drive." Landowner and board member Silver Garza, said, "The height limitation is important, but the FAR is more so." Garza said TxDOT is already in an eight-story building. In order to convince the state to give up its current lease, he said, "You've got to have something (good) to wave in front of the big gorilla."

However, Adams' plan for Riverside, which included sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and an urban frontage road with access to shops and commercial buildings, did not go over well. Several members of the group expressed concern about increasing traffic on Riverside. Wendy Price Todd, a member of the board, told Adams, "The traffic along Riverside is intense. To propose more development in light of traffic…it will be like a parking lot for half the daylight hours."

Summing up opinions expressed by several others, Kelly said, the current zoning "is the reverse of what the Town Lake Overlay was supposed to prevent. The current situation is unarguable, terrible, piecemeal, and controlled individually. The only hope you have (to prevent) a proliferation of Pinky's is to attempt something like this." Pinky's is a former gas station on the southeast corner of Riverside and Congress.

However, Jeff Jack, former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and current president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, said, "The South Austin neighborhoods didn't want downtown jumping over the river. That's why the ordinances have changed." Jack warned that the intensification of development would mean more strain on the city's infrastructure. He said the city should examine the question of cost before making any changes.

The Advisory Board had met once before, on March 8, so that members could give Adams their sense of a vision for the area that's being studied. (See In Fact Daily March 9, 2000.)

Nonresidential drainage fee customers have one last shot at getting big refund

Change effective May 23 limits refunds to two years for overcharges

Commercial customers are going to get one last chance to apply for a big refund for Watershed Protection Drainage Fees charged by the City of Austin. On April 13 the City Council voted to repeal and replace City Code Chapter 18-3 regarding the drainage utility, ordering the change take effect May 23.

Nonresidential customers are charged a monthly drainage fee of $51.12 per month per developed acre, according the city's fee ordinance, which is revised annually as part of the annual budget process. That equates to about $1,022 a month for 20 acres of developed property.

The new Chapter 18-3, in effect, establishes a statute of limitations under which overcharges for the drainage fee may be refunded only for the two years immediately preceding the date the user applied for the adjustment. Up until now, overcharges would have been refundable all the way back to the date the drainage fee was instituted, November 1991.

Chip Morea was the only citizen to address the council during the public hearing on the proposed amendment and he vigorously objected to the change. Morea said, "This is a pretty simple issue. The bottom line is the ordinance would withhold money from customers." He said He said Section 18-3-14(g) was the "most heinous, because it limits refunds to 24 months."

Morea said, "This money is held in trust, at best." He said that rules established by the Public Utility Commission of Texas require refunds for the entire period of overcharge, although he noted that the city is not governed by the PUC. (The PUC governs only electric and telecommunications utilities and has only limited responsibility for municipally owned utilities.)

Vickie Schubert, chief financial officer for Infrastructure Support Services, said the drainage utility has average about $250,000 per year in refunds, although some refunds were granted without appeals. The Recommendation for Council Action for this item states, "Proposed changes to refund procedures would provide an estimated $200,000 per year in additional drainage fee revenue."

Based on Morea's objections, Council Member Bill Spelman asked when the ordinance change was to have gone into effect. Schubert said it was to go into effect immediately. Spelman then moved to approve the change to the ordinance but to have it take effect May 23, after notification is made to customers that they will have one last chance to apply for refunds back to the implementation date of November 1991.

Assistant City Attorney John Steiner said that a request for a refund based on an error in billing that is received by city staff before the effective date of May 23 will not be limited to two years.

"That is exactly my intent," Spelman said, and the council voted 5-0 to approve the change with Council Member Daryl Slusher off the dais and Mayor Kirk Watson absent.

Morea told In Fact Daily afterwards that he is a certified public accountant who lives in Austin. "I have helped some customers get some money back as a consultant," he said. "My experience is there's been a deliberate attempt to overcharge customers. They're now attempting to cover that up.

"No utility should withhold customers' money," he said. "Fees are supposed to be assessed reasonably and equitably. The sole reason (for this ordinance change) is to limit refunds to 24 months–the rest is window dressing."

In Fact Daily of March 16 covered the Environmental Board's reservations about Chapter 18-3-16, which allows a reduced drainage charge if a property has a well-maintained, on-site detention pond that receives stormwater runoff from the property. The ordinance attached to the Recommendation for Council Action was the same draft reviewed by the Environmental Board, and contained none of the changes recommended by the Environmental Board to add restrictions concerning how the reduced charges are administered.

Candidates on parade…The South Austin Civic Club's Candidate Forum will be held Tuesday, April 18, at Bowie High School. Teams of students from five South Austin high schools will serve as panelists in the event, which starts at 5:45 p.m. For more info, call Pascual Piedfort at 291-9556 or Nan Clayton at 442-7103… Barry raising money… City Council Place 5 candidate Clare Barry will hold a fund-raiser Tuesday, April 18, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Iron Cactus, 606 Trinity. For more info call Barry at 451-2356… Candidates on parade II…The Bouldin Neighborhood Association and the South Central Coalition will hold a candidate forum Wednesday, April 19, 6:30- 9:30 p.m. at Becker Elementary School, 906 W. Milton. For more info, contact Ingrid Weigand at… Alvarez dances for dollars… City Council Place 2 candidate Raul Alvarez will host a fund-raiser Wednesday, April 19, 6-10 p.m., at Jovita's, 1617 S. 1st Street. Musician Alejandro Escovedo and Austin poet Raul Salinas will entertain. For info call 478-7969… Wynn wants money, too…Place 5 City Council candidate Will Wynn is holding a fund-raiser at El Arroyo, 1624 W. 5th St., Thursday, April 27, 5-7 p.m. For more info, call 472-2313.

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