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Council split vote moves

Friday, October 27, 2000 by

Central Booking to 10th St.

Police Chief promises increased presence

By Doug McLeod

After two hours of discussion, the City Council voted 4-3 Thursday to move the city’s Central Booking facility from E. 7th and I-35 to 10th and Nueces. The Council meeting room was crowded with concerned citizens, many of whom were residents of the neighborhood where the new facility is located.

Mayor Kirk Watson read the names and comments of dozens of people who signed up to oppose the move. But Watson led the Council in the vote to approve the agreement for a joint city/county-run facility in the historic neighborhood. He garnered yes votes from Council Members Will Wynn, Darryl Slusher and Raul Alvarez.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman offered a substitute motion in an attempt to alleviate safety concerns of neighborhood residents, who worry about children at Pease Elementary School and a nearby day-care facility—both of which are within two blocks of the new Criminal Justice Center.

Council Members Beverly Griffith and Danny Thomas supported Goodman’s effort, but to no avail. The result was a split vote to approve a two–year interlocal agreement with Travis County.

“Understandably, it’s an emotional issue,” Watson said. But the “combined operation is more efficient and will save millions of taxpayer dollars,” he said.

“As ( Austin Police Chief Stanley Knee) said, liability is an issue. But liability and litigation aside…it would (cost) at least $3.1 million—at a minimum—more for the first year,” if the city were to keep Central Booking at the current location without an agreement with the county.

The current facility was built in 1957 and designed for 58 prisoners. The city would need to immediately upgrade the old facility, he said, asking Council members where the funding would come from.

“To do it alone, we would be cutting public safety” by having to take officers off the street to staff a city-run jail, he said. “I think it will be a lot less expensive and better for public safety,” he said.

Slusher, who made the motion to approve the agreement, said, “Sometimes we just have to make really tough votes. This is just something we have to do.”

He said he has spent a lot of time in the neighborhood. “It worries me that children are scared. I’m concerned about the neighborhood,” he said. “I have some really close friends that live in this neighborhood and don’t support this.”

Slusher pointed out that this issue did not spring up over night. Central Booking has been discussed and voted on for a number of years. “It’s been a pretty exhaustive search for alternatives,” he said. “This is the best solution we can come to.” Not approving this now means raising taxes or cutting services, he said.

“I haven’t heard anyone suggest a location for a sobriety center,” he said, but when that comes up it will not be welcomed anywhere either, he said.

Alvarez said, “I don’t see there is much of an option.” He made a friendly motion to include in the ordinance a provision to consider using taxi vouchers as a means to get released prisoners out of the neighborhood quickly, and he asked if there could be a two-month hold on transferring prisoners after the facility begins operation.

Travis County Sheriff Margo Frasier said a two-month delay before transferring prisoners to the facility was already part of the plan.

Susan Sellars, chair of the Pease Elementary School Safety Board and parent of a fifth grader at the school, said, “Increased traffic is a major concern to parents.” She said she doesn’t feel the streets will be safe for children to cross as traffic increases.

Neighborhood resident Lynn Moshier said the decision process had ignored normal business decisions. “The county even refused to do a traffic impact study. We’d like to get some facts here,” she said.

Chris Riley, a ten-year downtown resident who lives about two blocks from the jail, said he still has a lot of questions. Some residents have lived in the neighborhood for 60 to 70 years, he said, and they have many concerns. “We’re scared,” he said, noting how prisoners from the current facility tend to hang around the area after being released.

Frasier pointed out that even if the city kept the current booking facility in place, after prisoners are magistrated by a judge they would still be sent to the new county jail at 10th and Nueces Streets.

The mayor stressed Frasier’s point—even if a person is arrested by APD, that person, by law, becomes a prisoner of Travis County, and will go to the new facility.

Frasier said people booked for class C misdemeanors need to eventually be processed through a different facility, suggesting the need for a detoxification or sobriety center. “Some of these people visit us a few times a week,” she said. “We call them frequent flyers.”

Of 56,000 bookings a year in the county, 50 percent are class C misdemeanors, she said, and 70 percent of those have substance abuse problems.

In response to neighborhood concerns about safety, Chief Knee said there would be an officer at Pease Elementary from one hour before school begins until one hour after school ends. He said the department has money for a sergeant, a detective and seven officers to work in that neighborhood if problems come up.

“I can honestly say we are committed to making this neighborhood as safe as your neighborhood or my neighborhood or any neighborhood in Austin,” he said.

Council approves 60-foot height

For Congress Bridge condos

Each side can declare victory

The City Council voted yesterday to grant the new zoning requested for the Mirabeau condominium project, but cut the building’s height to 60 feet above the adjoining sidewalk, partially addressing complaints from neighborhood groups. The building is at the southwest corner of the Congress Avenue Bridge. Some see it as a part of downtown, but others see it as part of South Austin and therefore distinctly separate from the Central Business District.

Sarah Crocker and Richard Suttle, representing Mirabeau, formerly called Gotham, promised that residents would not use the driveway directly behind the building but would instead use the parking lot of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The vote was 5-2, with Council Members Beverly Griffith and Danny Thomas in opposition.

Crocker, who worked with Houston developer Randall Davis on the original Gotham project, now represents John McKinnerney of Simmons Vedder & Co. Hoping to dampen neighborhood objections, Crocker started her presentation by announcing that the overall building height would be 93 feet, instead of the 108 feet approved on second reading of the zoning ordinance.

However, Jim Johnson, attorney for next door neighbor Doris Finkelstein, said the Council should stick with current zoning categories rather than grant the requested LI-PDA (Limited Industrial, Planned Development Agreement). “They’re asking to custom build their own private zoning district. That’s bad public policy. You have an existing waterfront overlay that applies. It had a 60-foot height requirement on Congress between the Town Lake and Riverside.”

Suttle, of Armbrust Brown & Davis, responded, “We’re talking about a piece of property that is 30 feet below the bridge, so everything we’re talking about is over the bridge.” Suttle then read aloud the definition of a Downtown Mixed Use district from the Land Development Code. He said it’s “a district used on (the) edge of downtown. . . may be used as a transition district between downtown (and other districts). This property is in the downtown PID.” A Public Improvement District is a designation that imposes extra taxes on the property owner.

Crocker had previously explained that when the applicant attempted to request a zoning change from LI to DMU, city staff discouraged her because it is against city tradition to give that designation to properties outside the Central Business District.

Crocker said, “This is a very small project. It keeps being talked about as if it’s a huge project. It will generate only 250 trips per day. We have no intentions of going near the Finkelstein’s driveway.”

Bob Sessa of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, told the Council, “You have to take into account the impact on Town Lake and the property around it. Town Lake is our competitive advantage.” He pointed out a number of studies recommending lower floor to area ratios than those currently being requested. “We have to follow these studies or they’re not worth anything,” he said. Sessa suggested that the owner of the building might have to “wait 5 or 10 years before it’s developable. . . . This building shouldn’t be going on right here. And I really think by your vote today you’re going to answer the question: Are the guidelines going to dictate the development or is the development going to dictate the guidelines?”

Jim Adams of the ROMA Design Group, who wrote the most recent Town Lake Overlay—not yet been approved by the Council—had said the maximum should be 2:1. However, when an architect for McKinnerney met with Adams, the ROMA planner said he thought the building would be acceptable. The building’s design was approved by the Design Commission earlier this week at 108 feet.

Following the vote, Johnson said his clients were disappointed that the project had been approved, but pleased that condominium residents would not be using the narrow driveway behind their property.

Cocker said she believes that the shorter building dictated by the City Council “will not be nearly as attractive” as the project she presented. She said there will only be one setback, and the rest of the building may be a box the neighbors won’t like. McKinnerney will have to return with his site plan to both the Planning and the Design Commissions.

Mueller advisors don't want

Ugly bunker for first building

Building to house joint emergency operations

The advisory commission charged with oversight of the redevelopment of Robert Mueller airport property has turned to the Austin City Council in frustration over the first construction on the site.

The region's new emergency communication facility—known as the RDMT for the combined radio, data and mobile transmission services it will house—sits on the northern edge of the Mueller property next to the National Guard Armory. Exempted from the proposed Mueller master plan and nine months behind schedule, the proposed box-like building has drawn the ire of some commissioners and complaints from neighbors because of its unattractive design.

Even those who back the building agree that the first design plans for the emergency operations center had it looking very much like a war bunker. For those overseeing the pedestrian- and neighborhood-friendly Mueller plan conceived by ROMA Design, such a flagrant disregard for design principles is difficult to accept.

City Manager Jesus Garza first proposed carving out 13.5 acres from the Mueller property for the multi-agency initiative. David Stone, the city’s coordinator of the RDMT project, said the facility is on a fast track for completion because of a critical need for area law enforcement agencies to share emergency operations and radio traffic.

The design team met with the Mueller-area neighborhood to discuss to project last spring. Six months later, blueprints were already on the table. Construction could start early next year. Neighborhoods in the area say they feel rushed.

Advisory commissioner Chair Jim Walker of the Mueller Neighborhood Coalition said any compromise on design between the RDMT team and the advisory commission would only "band aid" the design problem.

"I have a hard time having sympathy with your time line. You guys knew about this (master plan) document when the architects were hired," Walker said. "It's setting such a bad precedent as far as the process and adhering to the principles that we have set here."

The multi-million dollar RDMT facility was approved during the last legislative session. It will house emergency operations for Travis County, the City of Austin and Capital Metro, as well as the camera system for the Texas Department of Transportation. Austin voters approved $22.9 million in bonds for the project. Travis County has set aside $6.2 million in certificates of obligation and the TxDOT has pledged $9 million toward construction and design.

There are a couple reasons why the design of the RDMT building is so constrained, said architect Craig Fernandez of Los Angeles-based Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall. First, the building must be designed to withstand tornado-force winds, which limits "friendlier" designs. And second, the 13,000-square-foot floor of the building is designed to create one big bullpen for the dispatchers and technical equipment of the various agencies.

Fernandez said his firm had made a number of design concessions to help blend it into the community and the Mueller master plan. They included an increase in glass on the upper floor, the use of local stone for accents and a backlit portico to display public art. The architect also agreed to additional vegetation to disguise the perimeter fence required for the building.

Commissioners eventually conceded that the need for the facility might outweigh the necessity to adhere to the master plan. A resolution drafted by the commission asked the City Council for guidance on the issue. The advisory commission also urged city staff to continue to work with the architect to incorporate more principles of the Mueller master plan into the project. On Thursday, Walker told the Council he was happier than he had been earlier in the week.

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

More Green Power . . . The City Council approved amending a wind power contract with King Wind to purchase an additional 56 MW of wind energy. Austin Energy has already sold out of its initial allotment . . . No so fast . . . SOS Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch left the Council meeting alarmed yesterday. Council set two public hearings on the Stratus Properties development agreement for Nov. 2 and Nov. 9, too soon for input from boards and commissions and too soon for activists to get up to speed on the proposal, Bunch said. Some time after Bunch’s departure, but not before he had sent an email to alert the troops, the Council changed the hearing dates to Nov. 30 and Dec. 7 . . . No expert . . . After some confusion about what the FAR (Floor to Area Ratio) of the Mirabeau condominiums would be with a 60-foot height, Mayor Kirk Watson wanted some audience input. He asked venerable neighborhood activist Shudde Fath what she thought. Fath said, “FAR? I ain’t no expert on FARs.” The mayor responded, “I think we ought to have that put on a plaque and put on the wall behind us.”. . Steiner approved . . . “All they got in this deal is the ability to cluster,” says Casey Dobson, the city’s outside counsel on land development deals. Dobson was responding to a question about why the 4,000-acre Steiner Ranch deal drew no public comment at all. The City Council unanimously approved the agreement reached for development of “the Land between the Lakes.”

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

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