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Triangle development gets warm

Thursday, August 17, 2000 by

City to pick up $6 million in parkland, infrastructure costs

It was hard to imagine at Tuesday night's Planning Commission meeting that the Triangle development had ever been looked upon as anything other than a great idea.

The hour-long presentation to the Planning Commission, in which the city was asked to contribute almost $6 million in parkland purchases and infrastructure improvements, was one of the most warmly received in recent memory.(See In Fact Daily, July 27, 2000)

All of it–from the optimistic presentation of the developers, to the well-represented and supportive neighborhood coalition, to the softball questions from most commissioners – would lead one to believe this hybrid development had always been welcome in Central Austin. The vote to recommend the project was such a foregone conclusion that Vice Chair Betty Baker told the audience it was going to pass before the roll was called, in the hopes of curbing the dozen or so neighborhood residents who were eager to speak in support of the project.

Commissioner Susana Almanza was the only member of the board who found anything to criticize in the proposed $100 million Triangle development. The project would combine high-density residential with high-end retail on the vacant land bounded by Lamar Boulevard, Guadalupe and 45th Street. It is scheduled to be constructed in three phases, with completion expected in 2005.

It wasn’t so long ago that attitudes about the Triangle Development were strikingly different. Developer Tom Terkel of Cencor Realty joked it was more like the Bermuda Triangle when Cencor signed a 50-year land lease on state property in 1995, at a cost of slightly more than $9 million. Before the developers and neighbors made peace, with the help of outside consultants, there were the pickets and picnics; the zoning defeat at City Council; the intervention by then- Land Commissioner Garry Mauro; the pull-out (and return) of apartment developer Post Properties; and even Cencor's proposed defection two years ago when a profit appeared unlikely.

Today, the City Council will be asked to approve $5.9 million in support for the project: $3.2 million for the nearly six acres that will become city parkland; $1 million for the construction of public streets; and $1.6 million for water and sewer improvements. Director Sue Edwards of Redevelopment Services assured the board, that the pricetag was reasonable.

The commissioners liked what they heard. Commissioner Ben Heimsath went so far as to label the city's participation in the Triangle as an investment, rather than an expenditure, given the fact the city was likely to see millions in taxable property added to the tax rolls in the near future. "It's a very small investment for an enormous payoff," Heimsath said.

No one other than Almanza balked at the cost. One by one, commissioners praised the project as solid and worthwhile for the city. Almanza, who attacked early and often during the presentation, said the use of city funds to prop up the Triangle project was a betrayal of areas that lacked city support, like East Austin. The Triangle could, and should, get built without corporate subsidies, she told fellow commissioners.

Other commissioners disagreed with Almanza's assessment, saying it was the Planning Commission's job to determine whether projects met city requirements and the City Council's job to prioritize funding. Sterling Lands, who was sympathetic to Almanza’s position, said he could not hold the Triangle hostage because it was such a good project.

Almanza was the lone dissenter in the commissioner vote, although her point of view did have limited support in the audience. Long-time project critic Chris Allen told the commission the city's agreement to buy the 6 acres of parkland would be nothing more than "the city agreeing to buy what the state has already purchased." Allen said the city was diverting attention from the needs of existing neighborhoods by creating a new one.

If the City Council does agree to the subsidies and development moves forward, the first primarily retail phase of the Triangle development should be on the ground in 2002. ..

The Planning Commission Tuesday night voted to recommend adoption of design guidelines for two-family residential use properties. The City Council approved changes to the Land Development Code in May that will allow homeowners who have enough space on their lots to build a second unit. The commission’s committee on codes and ordinances has been meeting with members of the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) and the real estate community to come up with recommendations that would make both sides comfortable.

The major point of disagreement between commissioners, and apparently among those they consulted, was whether to require that one of the units be owner-occupied. After more than an hour of discussion, the commission voted to recommend that Council adopt a requirement that the applicant for a building permit for a two family residential property indicate whether the owner of the property would reside in one of the units, but not requiring the owner to live there. Members of the city staff argued strenuously against requiring owner occupancy.

Stuart Hersh of the Office of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, said, “One of the highest needs in this community is rental housing. The last thing we want to be doing when an owner moves out is saying they have to kick out the renter because we put in an ordinance that says (so)… We wouldn’t be willing to do that if the housing was brand new; and that’s why the staff is very unified on the issue that ownership should not be a part of the process.”

“We think this is a very positive ordinance,” Hersh said. “We think it is very critical…that you not tie this to an ownership requirement because of the negative impact on tenants.”

Commissioner Susana Almanza disagreed. Arguing in favor of the owner occupancy requirement, Almanza said, “ I think we need more home ownership. We could put in a waiver if the owner were to move or pass away. We couldn’t evict that person.” She and Commissioner Jean Mather were in the minority on that argument.

ANC President Will Bozeman told the commission that neighborhood leaders “really wanted to demand an owner-occupied main structure.” He said his group was also concerned about the site plan exemption, one of the most important features of the commission’s recommendations.

Greg Guernsey, a principal planner with the Development Review and Inspection Department, told the commission, “You don’t have a lot of people running out to get the two-family residential use because it triggers a site plan requirement.” That, in turn, “requires the hiring of an engineer, paying the fees and meeting requirements of the landscaping ordinance and stormwater detention requirements. I think that’s why you don’t see them.” Many garage apartments still exist, Guernsey explained, because until 1985 the city code didn’t distinguish between a duplex and a granny flat. “Two dwellings on one lot were treated the same way, connected or not. Now, they would be(again) treated the same as a duplex,” under the new ordinance. He said the two family residential units would require a 7000 square feet lot, like a duplex..

Former Tracor CEO James Skaggs, gave a fact-filled luncheon presentation about the "folly" of Light Rail yesterday at the University of Texas Club. ROAD ( Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars) of which Skaggs serves as chair, appears to have caught up with Light Rail proponents in terms of presentation quality. So much so that a spokesman for Light Rail Now acknowledged, "On numbers alone, ROAD's picture of Light Rail is a bleak one indeed." However, he pointed out that Skaggs was forgetting the "touchy feely" factor that one experiences when riding Light Rail. Skaggs agreed, but noted that for the once or twice a month trip the average person would take on Light Rail, the cost far exceeded the benefits.

ROAD's strongest argument against Light Rail is summed up by this statement from Skaggs: "Light Rail, when it's all said and done, will only serve one percent of the population." He added that, based on the national average of cost overruns for 13 other Light Rail projects, the $2 billion that Cap Metro is projecting for the completed 54 Light Rail miles, will surely escalate to $3 billion dollars.

"Another major difference between Light Rail Proponents and ROAD," Skaggs said, "is that in this morning’s Statesman, Cap Metro General Manager Karen Rae, said that nothing we do will reduce congestion." Skaggs asserted, "Nobody can tell me that MoPac and the elevated portion of 183, once they were completed, didn't dramatically decrease congestion." He maintained that in terms of mobility, "Austin has the worst road system of any city its size. ROAD wants to expand existing roadways, instead of reducing traffic lanes on streets like Lamar, which Light Rail will do," he said.

"If the current bond issue is passed, Cap Metro will have a blank check to do with Light Rail as they please and never again have to go before the voters for additional expansion projects," Skaggs said. ROAD wants the half-cent sales tax currently designated for transportation projects for Cap Metro, to be used instead with 80 percent matching funds from TxDOT for east/west road project(s), and the expansion of existing Austin thoroughfares.

Skaggs reminded everyone of the slowness —the average speed will be 17 M.P.H.—of Light Rail once it becomes fully operational. He closed with a quote from John Kain, Professor of Economics at Harvard University: "The rush to rail is attributable to boosterism, appeals to civic pride and a fondness of politicians of building monuments. That's because when light rail is analyzed in terms of costs and benefits, its performance fails, according to transportation economists. Studies in the past few years have concluded that light rail does not improve transit use noticeably, does not reduce traffic congestion and, in effect, requires a taxpayer subsidy equal to buying every rider a new Ford Explorer."

New Planning Commissioner… Mayor Kirk Watson is expected to name Silver Garza to the Planning Commission today. Garza is president of Byram Properties and represented Town Lake real estate interests on the Town Lake Waterfront Overlay Advisory Board, which advised the ROMA Design Group in drawing up a new overlay for the south shore. He will replace retiring Commission Chair Art Navarro. However, two consensus appointments apparently will be put off for at least another week… Green Winners…Last night the Environmental Board announced winners of 1999-2000 Environmental Awareness Awards. George Cofer, executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy, won the Beth Brown Bottner individual award. The Austin Community Gardens received the award for community groups. Popham Elementary School won the school award for its Blackland Prairie restoration project. The City of Austin Aviation Department won in the governmental catagory. Dell Computer was the winner among private companies with its STAR3 School Recycling Program. … Party moves… South Austin Democrats will hold their annual Yeller Dawg event Tuesday at 5:30 at the Texas AFL-CIO Building, 1106 Lavaca. Previously, the party had been scheduled for the Zilker Clubhouse.This year’s honoree is Sheriff Margo Frazier.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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