Monday, November 20, 2000 by

Commission gives Hilton Convention Hotel

Variance so trucks may turn in street

Several city policies seem to conflict

The city should consider revising its policy requiring downtown buildings to provide on-site space for large trucks to maneuver, according to Planning Commissioner Ben Heimsath.

Heimsath and six other members of the commission voted Tuesday to allow trucks loading and unloading at the Hilton’s Convention Center Hotel at 400 Neches to use the public right of way. Chair Betty Baker, who works for the Austin Convention Center and Visitors Bureau, abstained and Commissioner Jim Robertson was absent.

City law says vehicles in the Central Business District may not use the right-of-way— sidewalks or streets—to back into or out of a loading facility or trash receptacle location. The Planning Commission has authority to waive that requirement if it finds use of the right-of-way will pose no threat to pedestrians or other vehicles.

Architect Phillip Reed of Cotera Kolar & Negrete said the Landmark Organization asked his firm to design the building with ground-floor pedestrian uses, including “an evening wine bar or a bakery.”

Reed said the hotel would provide meeting rooms, 25,000 square feet of retail and 100,000 square feet of loft apartments. Two restaurants and two bars will open onto the streets, he said. “These functions all relate to each other and they work only at sidewalk level. If you abide by the ordinance you obliterate the ability to do that,” he told the commission.

Commissioner Silver Garza made the motion to grant the variance, saying, “I think they’re doing an admirable job in getting the peripheral uses around the edge of the building.”

Heimsath said, “The ordinance flies in the face of otherwise stated city policy, which directs downtown builders to provide streetscapes. Right now the code requires you to turn your big trucks around on site. This lets them turn them around on the street. That’s what we want downtown.”

Commissioner Robin Cravey said it would be preferable to have an alley through the site so that trucks wouldn’t have to turn around. “They could pass straight through. The alley was vacated,” so the space is no longer available. “I think we need to protect the alleys downtown.” Commissioners have balked at alley vacations downtown on a number of occasions because deleting the alleys leads to greater congestion on the streets.

Reed said the hotel would be 26 stories, but less than 300 feet.

Environmental Board ponders

Stratus Settlement proposal

Council hearings to start November 30

By Doug McLeod

Members of the Environmental Board voted Wednesday night to create a subcommittee to study the city’s proposed $6.3 million settlement with Stratus Properties Inc. (formerly FM Properties). Vice Chair Tim Jones, Secretary Joyce Conner and Members Debra Williams and George Avery comprise the subcommittee, which will meet next Tuesday to analyze the Circle C Ranch, Lantana and Barton Creek developments agreement. The board will decide what to recommend to the City Council at its December 6 meeting.

Despite delegating the issue to subcommittee, the board decided to listen to a presentation on the settlement agreement. City Attorney Andy Martin said the city has already paid Stratus what it believes is owed as reimbursement for land the city annexed. According to Stratus, the city owes “$13 million and counting.” He said a penalty of 1 percent each month, imposed by the state legislature, keeps the figure rising.

Richard Suttle of Armbrust Brown & Davis, who represents Stratus, said reaching the $6.3 million figure was not merely cutting the $13 million in half. The deal is a complex matrix of land swaps and other considerations. Changing one part of the deal could upset the delicate balance of the agreement, throwing the whole deal off. “We believe we have a lot of rights today, under current law,” he said, referring to House Bill 1704, which allows developers to build under “grandfather” provisions, bypassing compliance with the more strict SOS Ordinance.

Both sides “rushed to the middle” to put this deal together in September. “I’d rather do this because it’s a good arrangement for the environment, it’s a good arrangement for the city and a good arrangement for Stratus to stay in the business they are in,” he said.

Steve Beers, a member of the local Sierra Club, said, “the current deal is a rush to the exits.” He said it’s true that some of the land tracts and details have changed over the years, but “it’s virtually exactly the same as what’s been rejected before. Why did we fight over 10 years? Why have we wasted this time?” He claimed the whole deal violates SOS standards. “And most egregious is the lack of water quality controls,” he said.

“When is enough enough?” he asked, looking in Suttle’s direction. “How much money do you want to make? You can make money trying to work with the citizens instead of running over them.” He cited a traffic study that says over 80,000 more vehicles a day will travel through the area if this development goes through. “There’s going to be a hydrogen bomb of development over this area,” he said.

Suttle broached the subject of swapping land in the proposed development area for land at Robert Mueller Airport. If the city doesn’t want development in that area, he asked, how about a swap with Mueller? “We’re not pushing it, but we would certainly consider it,” the lawyer said.

Beers said, “I think that would be the best possible outcome,” since it would take development off the Barton Creek Watershed. He added that he thinks Mayor Kirk Watson has the talent to pull together such a deal, which would create a win-win situation.

Suttle also mentioned Council Member Daryl Slusher’s recent request that future City Council discussion of Stratus be in open, public meetings rather than in executive session. How the city handles this is the city’s business, he said, “we (Stratus) have no problem with open (City Council) discussions.”

Suttle told the board members how valuable their input has been, noting that all of their recommendations on the Steiner Ranch deal, were adopted. “Some were tweaked a little bit, but for the most part all of your work was incorporated in(to) the agreement…it was not in vain at all, it ended up in the deal,” he said.

Conner said they spent 12 hours discussing the Steiner Ranch deal, and as this one is just as important, she wants to have ample time to consider it. Martin said, “every deal is different and there’s a lot more history with this one than Steiner…there’s a huge amount of history here.”

Board member George Avery said, “this is definitely much more difficult” than the Steiner deal. As far as SOS compliance goes, “this seems like we’re still a little ways off.”

Martin said this settlement is intended to solve all disputes between the city and Stratus. He said that although this deal is similar to the recent Steiner Ranch agreement it differs in the complexities related to SOS compliance over the Barton Springs watershed and vagaries in the law. Stratus certainly has a claim if the company wants to develop under the old rules, he said, in reference to HB 1704. He said there are a number of instances where the development will not be in compliance with SOS. The Barton Creek area is proposed to have 21.8 percent impervious cover, whereas SOS compliance stipulates no more than 20 percent impervious cover, he said. The property referred to as Section N, 600 acres near Southwest Parkway, which stands to be commercially developed with offices, multi-family homes and a golf course, is about 95 percent SOS compliant, he said. The proposal calls for the city to provide a sewer system in this area to serve 1,200 multi-family units, some of which would be SMART housing. Impervious cover would be about 25 percent, he said.

“I’m very concerned about what happens to section N,” said Jones. A tremendous amount of recharge occurs in that section along Sycamore Creek, he said. “It sounds like a freight train—an enormous amount of water goes off of Travis Country into Sycamore Creek.” He said he has videotaped how the creek actually disappears into the ground in many places, sending water directly into the aquifer.

He said he would like Section N to be considered as part of a swap with Mueller. “I’ve fought for this for 10 years. Please incorporate Section N,” he said.The Planning Commission subcomittee on Stratus will also meet Tuesday, according to Commissioner Robin Cravey. The committee could report to the full commission on Nov. 28. The City Council is scheduled to hold public hearings on Nov. 30 and Dec. 7.The last Council meeting of the year is scheduled for Dec. 14.

Jim Walker of the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition told In Fact Daily that his group will meet at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Asbury United Methodist Church, 1605 E. 38th1/2 St. The public is welcome to attend, he said.

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

Electric changes . . . Effective today, Austin Energy will be divided into three major areas: Corporate Operations, Corporate Support and Energy and Market Operations. The latter is likely to be an area of increasing focus as the state moves toward deregulation and Austin Energy prepares to compete as a seller of wholesale electricity. Al Lujan, who has been in charge of power delivery, has been named Senior Vice President for Corporate Operations, which includes power production and delivery . . . Still arguing . . . The Water and Wastewater Commission’s subcommittee studying on-site sewage regulations is scheduled to meet tonight . . . Save Barton Creek Association’s annual party and awards celebration is tonight at the Splash! Exhibit at Barton Springs Pool from 6 to 10 p.m.

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

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