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Thomas says Mueller off limits

Tuesday, October 31, 2000 by

In city's settlement with Stratus

Save Barton Creek postpones comment on deal

Council Member Danny Thomas has written a memo to his Council colleagues informing them that he will not support any settlement with Stratus Properties “that has Robert Mueller in the equation.”

Thomas said a swap of Mueller for land the outside the city limits “takes property away from the tax base.”

The Council Member said the city has gone through “an exhaustive public process,” that included strong neighborhood input. To simply swap the property to Stratus (formerly Freeport McMoran) circumvents that process, since Stratus has not gone through the request for qualifications procedure. In addition, Thomas said he is concerned that the city would “not have the option of changing master developers if that became necessary.” In its plans for Mueller, the city has said that a plan would be drawn up and a master developer chosen afterward.

Finally, Thomas said, if Stratus were the developer there would be no guarantee of M/WBE (minority and women enterprise) participation. Thomas said he believes it is “not in the best interests of the community to fast-track” Mueller redevelopment, which he called “one of the most important projects in East Austin this decade.”

Jim Walker of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition has worried that Mueller’s importance would get lost as environmentalists rush to find an apparently easy solution to the Stratus development problem. Walker told Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) members last night that he and his neighbors do not oppose a swap. However, he added, “We want an adopted plan” for the development first. Walker’s comments came after SBCA board member Shudde Fath asked the city’s outside counsel, Casey Dobson, about the possibility of a swap. Dobson said, “ I don’t have anything to tell you tonight. It’s talk, but I think that talk is going to move forward.”

Dobson of Scott Douglas & McConnico and Les Tull of the city’s Watershed Protection Department attended the meeting to give SBCA an overview of the deal and to answer questions.

Bill Bunch, general counsel for the Save Our Springs Alliance, was also present. He asked that SBCA endorse recommendations made to the City Council by a committee of environmentalists last week. Among the recommendations was one that Dobson said would certainly prevent a deal. The group wrote, “No deal should be considered without full and complete compliance with the SOS Ordinance. The current proposal does not come close to meeting SOS ordinance requirements.”

However, SBCA board members decided to mull over their recommendations to the Council, putting off consideration for a week. Council hearings on the deal are scheduled for Nov. 30 and Dec. 7.

The city and Stratus are scheduled to go to trial in January over a mostly monetary question—how much the city owes Stratus for Municipal Utility District reimbursable expenses. However, the bigger question is what land use rules the developer will follow to change the face of about 4,000 acres of land in Southwest Travis County. Dobson said, “There is not one acre (involved in the Stratus proposal) that does not have a (Chapter) 245 claim.”

Chapter 245 of the Local Government Code, also known as HB 1704, gives developers the right to build under earlier versions of city environmental ordinances than are currently in place. The Legislature passed the law to prevent cities from changing development rules on projects that are already in the approval process. Dobson said, “I’m not conceding that Stratus’ Chapter 245 claims are valid, but the city has already publicly stated” that it could not apply the SOS ordinance to the Lantana section of Stratus’ holdings. The Lantana tract has 452-acre undeveloped section, which Stratus intends to develop as multi-family residences.

The property referred to as Section N stands to be developed commercially, Dobson said, with 1.56 million square feet of office space. If the developer prevailed under Chapter 245 claims, he said, the company could build 1.94 million square feet. Kevin Zarling of Save Travis Country told Dobson he lives very close to Section N. He and his neighbors are worried about traffic the new development will generate, as well as lack of compatibility standards.

Dobson said the city wants to annex Section N, but the task will not be easy because of Barton Creek Municipal Utility District. The city cannot enforce compatibility standards outside the city limits. Dobson asked Zarling to call him at his office. He told the whole group, “I think even the implacable foes can make it a better deal. Even if you are one, don’t lose my phone number.”

Slusher, Nofziger debate light

Rail at neighborhood meeting

Nofziger supported rail while on Council

By hosting a panel on light rail, the Zilker Neighborhood Association guaranteed a lively session for its general meeting Monday night. Former City Council Member Max Nofziger teamed up with Gerald Daugherty, a board member of ROAD (Reclaim Our Allocated Dollars), opposing light rail. The pair squared off against rail supporters City Council Member Daryl Slusher and Dr. Steven Tomlinson, an economist with the Department of Finance at the University of Texas.

Association President Jeff Jack introduced the panelists and demonstrated public interest in light rail by holding up a nearly five-inch-thick file of e-mail messages he’s received on the subject over the last three months.

Nofziger, who was a proponent of light rail when he served on the City Council, compared the light rail referendum to Austin’s involvement in the South Texas Nuclear Project. “The nuke (STNP) ended up costing a billion dollars. It was only supposed to cost $160 million,” he said, expressing concern that Capital Metro’s $1.9 billion light rail system could turn into a similar boondoggle. “The Convention Center and the airport together cost less than a billion dollars,” he said.

“There is a ripple effect, and it’s those second and third ripples that concern me,” Nofziger said. “It’s very expensive and it will deliver so little.”

Slusher said he thought Nofziger implying that light rail would be a disaster like the STNP was a symptom of dissatisfaction. He said when people aren’t happy with the way things are in Austin, they project their disappointment onto light rail. He was quick to point out that Nofziger was a very vocal supporter of light rail for nine years. “We have an entirely different government now than when we got into the nuke,” he said, “and we have a new Capital Metro board.” When Nofziger was on the City Council he was for light rail, Slusher said. “Now he says it’s a disaster.”

Under Lee Walker’s leadership, Capital Metro’s new board is getting “straight A’s,” Slusher said, “top marks. The ridership is increasing at twice the levels of population growth, and at the same time the amount of money has decreased.”

Nofziger said light rail would not alleviate congestion or reduce air pollution. “This plan, this enormous expenditure, will not do that,” he said. The rail lines would run along “smart growth” corridors, in the middle of streets, thereby reducing the number of traffic lanes in the busiest parts of the city, creating more congestion.

Jack pointed out the number of traffic lanes, at least on South Congress, would remain the same, but parking along the street would be reduced.

“Rail is not going to cure congestion, and neither are roads,” Slusher said, “but it’s the best solution we have. It’s reliable and convenient.” He said people are moving to the area so rapidly, we have to find a way to accommodate them. “I wish they wouldn’t come here so fast,” he said. “I think rail is our best shot.”

Tomlinson said about 125,000 people work downtown each day. If all those people drive, everyone ends up fighting for the same, limited number of parking places, he said. But 40,000 people a day coming downtown on light rail would alleviate the need to build so many more parking garages. As an example, he said, “ Vignette is considering spending $200 million for a multi-use facility downtown. Fifty million dollars of that is earmarked just for parking.” “We’re talking about spending a billion dollars of our money and a billion of federal money,” he said, citing numerous cities across the country that have built successful light rail systems. “Buses are great, they are part of the system, but rail is the spine of the system.”

When asked about the effect of light rail on air pollution, Nofziger said, “Light rail is a net polluter.” He said seven years of construction with diesel powered, heavy equipment would cause “the worst kind of pollution.”

Slusher disagreed, saying “if you have less people in their cars, and instead they’re riding light rail, that’s less pollution. It’s the best shot we have at reducing air pollution because cars are the biggest polluters we have.” He said when light rail is up and running, it will take 250 buses a day off the streets.

Nofziger said, “I had been a supporter of light rail for a long time. In fact, I appointed people to the (Capital Metro) board who I thought would support light rail.” But he changed his mind when he saw what kind of system was being planned for Austin. He also said what would have benefited the economy of Austin as it was during his years on the council would be a disaster today.

“Whoever thought that most of the transit would be down the middle of the street? I thought the point was to get it off the streets.” Nofziger expressed particular concern for Congress Avenue, especially south of Town Lake where trendy shops and restaurants thrive. “To put rail down the middle of the street is to put a dagger in the heart of South Congress. It will kill that area,” he said. Years of construction will force businesses out of the area and the ugly, overhead electric wires that power the trains will obscure one of the best views of the capital, he said.

Daugherty suggested trying a cheaper alternative before spending nearly $2 billion on light rail. He said he’s not philosophically opposed to light rail, just against mixing it with automobile traffic. He said mixing trains with street traffic would only increase congestion, since they will pass by every few minutes during rush hour. And you can’t add more cars to a train, he said, because a train of more than two or three cars will block intersections.

“If you can’t get from point A to point B faster with light rail—forget it,” he said. If Austin wants to get into the rail business, Daugherty said, then build it either above or below ground—but get it out of the street so it’s not in the middle of traffic causing more congestion.

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

Party plans . . . The Community Partnership for the Homeless, the Austin Lyric Opera and the Armstrong Community Music School of Lyric Opera will celebrate their partnership with music, food and a silent auction at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 18. Sponsors are promising fun and great food—including a giant birthday cake. The date marks the 10th anniversary of the Community Partnership for the Homeless. For more information call 469-9130 or visit the web site: www.austinhomeless.org . . . Appointed last week . . . Julia Bunton, Jim Fowler, Lisa Laky and Teresa O’Connell were re-appointed to the Historic Landmark Commission by a consensus of the City Council. Girard Kinney and Phillip Reed were re-appointed by consensus to the Design Commission. Patrick Goetz and Jay Wyatt were re-appointed to the Urban Transportation Commission by consensus. Charlie Jones and Nan McRaven are new appointments to the Downtown Commission. Reappointments to the Downtown Commission include Jean Mather, Scheleen Johnson, Perry Lorenz and Chris Riley. Edward Sledge was re-appointed to the Human Rights Commission . . . Mayor & sons on Halloween. . . Mayor Kirk Watson and his sons, Preston and Cooper, plan to demonstrate Halloween safety tips at 4 p.m. today at Givens Recreation Center, 3811 E. 12th. All three have promised to wear costumes. The press is invited . . . Austin Music Network re-assigned . . . Management of Austin’s Channel 15 has been assigned by its contractor, Music Management Group, to the Threadgill Foundation. The city has approved the assignment administratively. At some point, the foundation will probably go to the City Council for additional funding. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 30, 2000 for more details).

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

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