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Capital Metro to narrow light rail alignment options

Monday, September 25, 2000 by

Austin Neighborhoods Council watches in anticipation of position on rail

More information critical to neighborhood support of light rail–the removal of various alignment options–will be presented at a special called Capital Metro Board meeting today at noon.

Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) President Will Bozeman led a discussion of the alignment options at the group's meeting last week. ANC is expected to vote on a position for light rail on Oct. 25. That position could be for, against or a choice to take no position on the Nov. 7 ballot issue to approve light rail. Many ANC members last week agreed alignment was a critical issue when it came to a position on the rail referendum.

Bozeman told the neighborhood representatives that a visit to Dallas' light rail system had taught Austin civic leaders a number of lessons. One of the biggest lessons, he said, was that civic groups must negotiate for the best mitigation plan possible when rail lines are going to pass through their neighborhoods.

The initial 20-mile starter line passes from Howard Lane on the north to Ben White on the south and out Third Street to the east. In the preliminary engineering/environmental impact statement, the rail line is divided into nine segments and the majority of those segments have multiple alignment options. Bozeman said half the starter line–some to the north from Lamar and Airport and another segment out to the east–will use existing railroad right-of-way.

No one doubts that at least some options in certain areas of town will be left on the table, especially for the thornier areas along the rail line. For instance, the Cap Metro report offers at least five options for the segment that will include the University of Texas campus and downtown Austin. One option would put a double-track line down San Jacinto and through the campus up to Eleventh Street, where the tracks would run on the parallel streets of Guadalupe and Lavaca down to the First Street Bridge.

In another option, the south-bound tracks run down Nueces and San Antonio while the north-bound tracks head up Guadalupe between 29th Street and Cesar Chavez. A third option divides the north- and south-bound rails but rejoins the tracks at Eleventh Street to put the rail line down Congress Avenue to Fourth Street. Another option is a straight shot down Guadalupe from 29th Street to Cesar Chavez.

Neighborhood representatives like Joyce Basciano of the Bryker Woods Neighborhood Association, had plenty of questions for Bozeman. One option would elevate the rail off the right-of-way of US 183 into and out of the North Lamar Transit Center. The lanes would transition back to grade at Lamar Boulevard at Airport Boulevard. Basciano asked just how smoothly that transition would take place. She said she had a hard time picturing how the various types of traffic would mingle. Bozeman said plans could include elevated stations if the choice of raising the rail line is picked.

Others were concerned about how well the city's bus system would interface with the nodes of the light rail system. Rene Barrera, a Travis Heights civic leader who is currently completing ANC's observational report on the Dallas light rail system, said at least 10 bus routes would be run out of light rail nodes.

Bozeman answered a number of other questions: No location has been determined for layover yards for the light rail cars, although both North and East Austin have been discussed. Freight companies using the existing rail lines will be required to run cars overnight when light rail is out of operation. And at-grade rail lines means emergency vehicles could block and stop rail traffic for situations such as fires.

Rob Smith, Capital Metro director of strategic planning and development, will discuss alignment options at Monday afternoon's meeting. Other items on tomorrow afternoon's agenda include a presentation on best practices for construction mitigation and the possible amendment of Capital Metro's commitment to the regional mobility plan.

Seaholm stakeholders react to developer's

plans for mixed-use complex at Sand Beach Reserve

Representatives from Lumberman's Investment Corp. (LIC) received a lukewarm response to their plans for the Sand Beach Reserve at a meeting hosted by the city Thursday.

As one neighborhood activist pointed out, it wasn't so long ago that LIC was considered an adversary. Now the company–partnering with LBJ Holdings to develop the 5-acre tract on Town Lake next to the old Seaholm Power Plant–is supposed to be one of the good guys.

LIC has until Oct. 12 to get final approval from the City Council on a legal settlement of the Sand Beach Reserve boundary line dispute before continuing its plans for a mixed-use development at the site.

The meeting–moderated by city urban design officer, Jana McCann–was arranged so Lumberman's could present plans drafted by the same architects who designed the Lady Bird Wildflower Center. Attendees included many members of the Seaholm Re-use Committee, supporters of the Technology & Science Museum of Austin and others who would like Seaholm to become an aquarium.

It didn't take long for tempers to flare. Those who had spearheaded efforts to redevelop the Seaholm Power Plant–like Leslie Poole–considered the meeting too late to matter.

"I would like some folks to give me some kind of assurance that this isn't a 'Johnny come lately' kind of meeting," Poole told the developer's representatives. "I would like to know that it matters what we say and what we think and what we've done after a number of years."

Attorney Jay Hailey of Locke Liddle & Sapp, who represents LIC, admitted that the activists in the room "have the political power to torpedo this settlement." The unresolved lawsuit, however, would likely drag out for at least three years and leave the city with a far less desirable project, Hailey warned.

And while Hailey said repeatedly that developers were willing to work with neighbors, he also pointed out that Lumbermanís was a private owner with entitlements to develop its land. It's been more than 15 years since Lumberman's first purchased the Town Lake property.

Still, activists were frustrated. Many consider the relationship between Seaholm and its neighbors to be crucial to its reuse, which may someday be an aquarium or a science museum. The city's fully formed Seaholm District Master Plan–with stakeholder meetings, an urban design plan and a cost-benefits analysis–is still six months away. A blueprint by the ROMA Design Group of San Francisco is in its earliest stages. In the midst of it all, Lumberman's has moved forward with its own plans, hoping to show the city a good faith effort to resolve its lawsuit and get the new development underway.

That effort was not appreciated by most in the crowd, no matter how much the architects stressed they had met and discussed Seaholm issues with ROMA and others. Architect Sinclair Black told Hailey that the Seaholm District could be a part of the city but that "it's going to take a different master plan than this one, maybe a different project."

Black said much of his frustration was aimed at the city, not Lumberman's. ROMA's efforts so far have focused on the area nearest to the Seaholm Plant, an area far smaller than the original Seaholm District promised by the city. Larger urban issues in the surrounding area–such as traffic–still remain disconnected and unresolved, Black said. What's missing, he said, is a major commitment from the city.

For instance, he said the city lost out in its negotiations with Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) for redevelopment downtown. "CSC gets everything and the city gets nothing," Black told the room–but a good master plan for the Seaholm District "could lock the city into an intelligent future."

McCann said a broader Seaholm District plan will be completed. Black's comments and frustration, however, were echoed by others throughout the evening.

Architects Madison Smith and Rick Archer of San Antonio-based Overland Partners presented the Lumberman's/LBJ Holdings project. According to current plans, the site would be primarily residential. Between three and five buildings on the site would be residential towers. Another two buildings–between 60,000 and 100,000 square feet apiece–would be office buildings with ground floor retail. Most of the buildings would sit on top of a two-story parking garage camouflaged by both design and the slope of the land.

Current design plans call for the buildings to graduate from four stories for the commercial buildings on the southeast end of the property to a 14-story residential tower on the corner at Lamar Boulevard and the Amtrak platform. Architects acknowledged that the residential tower would require a variance from the city, but pointed out that the development was far more attractive than the 15-story office tower and 9-story parking garage originally planned for the property. Smith stressed that the plans were still flexible and that the developer could modify the project so that it required no variances.

The boundary settlement–if approved by the City Council–will provide a crescent-shaped plot on the east side of the Sand Beach Reserve for 152 parking spaces for the redeveloped Seaholm power plant. The parking abuts the Union Pacific Main Line, which is proposed to be used by a commuter train between Austin and Georgetown. Light rail, if approved by voters, would pass on the north side of the property on Third Street, with an Intermodal Transfer Plaza next door, just north of Seaholm.

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

Family income and taxes both on the rise…The Real Estate Council of Austin's annual Austin Combined Cost of Governments Index, which tracks trends in household income and taxes, notes that local taxes rose 4.1 percent in 1999 while median income for a family of four jumped 9.1 percent. "I wish we could draw comfort from these numbers, but we can't," said Pete Winstead, president of RECA. "The fact is, affordability is a difficult daily issue for many working families, and taxes are a huge component. Taxes are a serious strain on those whose incomes can't keep pace." The study also noted that income growth still lags behind that of taxes when compared over the last decade. The RECA index includes property taxes, sales tax revenue, and utility system transfers for the City of Austin, Travis County, Austin Independent School District, Capital Metro, and Austin Community College… Film group updates neighbors on stage plans…Representatives of the Austin Film Society (AFS) will attend the September 26, 6:30 p.m. meeting of Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition to discuss the film group's negotiations with the city and plans for sound stages on East 51st Street. AFS wants their lease with the city to be put on the Sept. 28 City Council agenda. The group also will update neighbors on its internship program, which will accept high school students for work on film projects… Symposium highlights children's health issues…The Children's Environmental Health Institute, in conjunction with the Texas Medical Association, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Lower Colorado River Authority, is hosting the Scientific Symposium on Environmental Contaminants Affecting Children on Oct. 27 and 28 in Austin. National leaders in environmental research and practice will discuss trends, exemplary projects, and current research in developmental effects, asthma and respiratory disease, endocrine disrupters, and childhood cancer. Ethics in environmental health issues also will be discussed. Information and on-line registration is available at www.cehi.org or by calling Janie Fields at 657-7405.

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

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