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Home Depot promises no orange box, neighbors now welcoming new store

Wednesday, May 10, 2000 by

Home improvement retailer promises to leave 40 percent of property in trees

The South River City Citizens (SRCC) and Home Depot have reached an agreement that sets the stage for the home improvement giant to build a new store on the southwest corner of Woodward and South I-35. Clark Hammond, president of SRCC, said, "The Home Depot people have been very, very accommodating and very willing to talk with us, to allay our concerns on just about every issue we raised. Their honesty and sincerity was kind of unexpected by some of the people in the neighborhood."

SRCC voted last November to oppose Home Depot's request for a zoning change, from GR (general retail) to CS (commercial services). The group opposed Home Depot's request at the Planning Commission and the commission recommended that the change not be approved. The City Council later postponed the matter. However, after several months of discussions, and numerous concessions on the part of Home Depot, the group has agreed to support the request. City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the zoning case Thursday and will also hold a public hearing on amending a restrictive covenant. Both hearings are scheduled after 4 p.m.

"What we've come up with is a good deal for the neighborhood and I think it's going to be good for Home Depot," Hammond said. "They're going to leave 40 percent of the property with trees, like an urban forest. They're going to do a good job of dressing up that site and making it sort of a showcase for being a good corporate neighbor within an older neighborhood," Hammond said. He said Home Depot has also promised to build a rainwater-collection system in the store's garden area, and to consult with neighbors about landscaping.

Richard Suttle of Armbrust Brown & Davis, who represents Home Depot, said his client has agreed to leave a large greenbelt on Woodward and buffering between the store and the cemetery to the south. In addition, he said the store would only operate between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., unlike a number of Home Depot stores, which operate 24 hours a day. Suttle said there would be two driveways on the I-35 frontage road. The business has agreed not to use the parking lot for storage, he said. Some neighbors have been especially concerned about the building's appearance. "We've talked about what they're looking for, as far as a façade" Suttle said, "and we're not going to do the standard orange box."

Hammond said, "the property is currently so densely wooded that there's a homeless encampment in the middle of it. It's a lot of property, and its very valuable property (on Woodward) that they've agreed not to develop. They could put in two fast food restaurants, maybe three. They've agreed not to do that."

Hammond said, "The City Council spends so much of their time now hearing zoning cases and kind of dealing with this very public and often acrimonious arbitration between the neighborhoods and developers. I'm looking for full support from the council."

Property owners, neighbors seek delay to resolve Bennett Tract differences

Would come back to Planning Commission July 11, go to council in August

The Planning Commission Tuesday night postponed action on the rezoning of the Bennett Tract, thereby preventing the City Council from taking action this week. The commission postponed making a recommendation at the request of neighbors and property owners, who have been negotiating over the future of the East 11th Street Neighborhood Conservation Combining District (NCCD).

Greg Guernsey, principal planner with the Development Review and Inspection Department, asked the commission to postpone action and presented a document that sets forth the group's guiding principles.

Guernsey said the group "has engaged in about 12 hours of meetings," during which they reached agreement on goals and guiding principles. He said those involved in the negotiations now plan to work on a new master development plan for the area.

Guernsey said the group was asking for a postponement until the July 11 commission meeting. The group will ask City Council to put off consideration of the rollback until Aug. 3, he said, because there will be no council meetings in July.

Commissioner Betty Baker said, "I thought it was made rather clear to us to put this on an accelerated schedule. I am hesitant to postpone this without hearing how the City Council feels about this." Baker said, "If we postpone this as requested, there could be a new commission," because several commissioners terms expire in July. "That's not fair," Baker said, because a number of people from the neighborhood have already testified before the current group of commissioners.

Commissioner Jean Mather said some postponement should be granted because, "last week when we heard testimony it seemed like the people involved were getting close to a resolution."

Dick Dunbar, representing the Bennett trustees, said, "We have spent over 12 hours to come to a resolution of how we will move forward to address major concerns." He said it would take time for a developer to address the many concerns of surrounding neighbors. "We want to maintain quality of neighborhood," he said. "In my opinion (the tract) is the best piece of property in the State of Texas."

Chair Art Navarro said he had received no communication from council indicating that the case should be postponed.

Dunbar said he wanted to "explain the time frame" to the commission, but Commissioner Ben Heimsath told him, "You'll have a chance to explain that (to the council) on Thursday."

The Commission voted 8-0 to postpone the item for one week. Commissioner Robin Cravey was absent.

After the hearing, Guernsey told In Fact Daily that state law says the governing body of a city must consider the recommendation of its Planning Commission on all zoning cases. The commission can send a case to council without a recommendation, but if the commission merely takes no action, council cannot act either.

Council took tentative steps to initiate a zoning rollback on the Bennett Tract March 9 (In Fact Daily March 13), after hearing arguments from Hispanic neighbors who generally supported the rollback and African-American neighbors, who generally opposed the change. On March 23, the council enacted a moratorium ending June 16 on filing site plans for the area (In Fact Daily March 24).

The zoning rollback would conform to the Central East Austin Master Plan produced by the Austin Revitalization Authority and endorsed by the City Council. But it flies in the face of plans announced by Riata Development LLC to develop office, hotel, retail and residential uses on the property, in what would be called Robertson Hill (In Fact Daily March 13).

The tract, which is generally bounded by I-35, 11th Street, 9th Street, and San Marcos Street, was supposed to become a mall under an NCCD in 1991 (In Fact Daily March 13). Since the mall was never built, a restrictive covenant in the deed states that the property's owners cannot object to a zoning rollback.

Guiding principles for the East 11th Street NCCD

The following guiding principles are intended to allow economically feasible development for the landowners and developers while preserving the quality of life for the neighborhoods:

• Housing shall be included within the NCCD with a goal of providing at least 5 percent affordable housing.

• The NCCD should not result in any barriers between the project and the community.

• The development standards of the NCCD shall be amended to assure compatibility with and access to the community. The standards shall be tailored to the different "faces" of the area, i.e., I-35, San Marcos Street, 11th Street, etc.

• San Marcos Street should be made discontinuous and designed so that commercial traffic is not allowed through the neighborhood.

• Parking for the NCCD should be structured and underground as much as practical. NCCD parking will be made available to civic uses in the immediate community as agreed to by property owners. These parking issues require financial assistance from the city, in the form of a tax-increment financing (TIF) district, parking authority or other means.

• Additional view corridors need to be identified and considered for preservation, particularly from 9th Street and San Marcos.

• A minimum of 10 percent open space needs to be provided throughout the NCCD.

• The NCCD shall identify and provide for direct benefits in the community, possibly including the use of a TIF.

Been there, done that…Former County Judge Bill Aleshire has written a pungent letter (could he write any other kind?) to Council Members Gus Garcia and Bill Spelman to give them some hard-won advice about their proposal to boost the pay of the mayor and City Council members. In a nutshell: don't do it! "Nothing I did in 17 years of public service got me in more trouble than voting for a pay raise for the Commissioners Court on which I served," he wrote May 9. "You should learn from this sinner." Aleshire wrote that the issue was not fair pay for full-time work by elected officials. "The issue was conflict of interest. As a result, the technical correctness of the salary decision is made irrelevant by the taint of self-interest." While no one should be unfairly paid, no one should set his own salary, Aleshire wrote. "It's the process, not necessarily the result that stinks." He advises that the council seek to amend the City Charter to establish a process for setting council salaries that is totally independent from the council. "In short, with all your good intentions as departing council members, you should not ask any of your colleagues to vote on a pay raise," Aleshire warns. "Perhaps you can escape, but they cannot escape the conflict of interest. Here again, the end will not justify the means."

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