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Council members stake out

Wednesday, November 22, 2000 by

Stratus, Mueller positions

Current term sheet inadequate

Mayor Kirk Watson announced Tuesday that he does not support the current term sheet for settling matters between the City of Austin and Stratus Properties. Watson released a memo suggesting that those who oppose the term sheet must decide whether they want Stratus to develop under HB 1704 or to discuss a trade for land at Robert Mueller Airport. In the memo, he announced that he and Council Members Daryl Slusher and Will Wynn have placed three items on next week’s Council agenda. The three propose that the Council accept the Mueller Master Plan by resolution and direct the City Manager to begin the process of codifying the plan, including zoning and infrastructure evaluation. The third item directs staff to execute a contract with ROMA Design to assist the city through the community process.

Jim Walker, chair of the Robert Mueller Implementation Committee, said the adoption of the master plan is “a very important step.” He said, “none of us object to exploring the possibility of a swap. It’s rational and logical.” He said the Council action would help reassure the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition that the mixed-use, master-planned neighborhood would be built.

Slusher, Wynn and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman have all indicated a desire to look into the swap. Council Members Beverly Griffith and Danny Thomas have both opposed even discussing a swap of Mueller.

Griffith put out a proposal that the city “undertake a comprehensive Barton Springs Preservation Analysis to learn exactly what we have to do to protect the aquifer.” Griffith wants the Council to cancel public hearings scheduled for Nov. 30 and Dec. 7 because the city lacks scientific information. “The fundamental and essential component in any discussion of development over the Barton Springs Zone is a critical analysis of how much land area in the BSZ…has to be set aside to ensure the protection and preservation of the aquifer,” Griffith said.

Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, issued an action alert yesterday afternoon, telling SOSA supporters they should contact council members to try to get the hearings cancelled. If the hearings go on as scheduled, Bunch urged an outpouring of citizens to let the City Council hear their thoughts.

Goodman told In Fact Daily she believes all seven council members would vote against the current settlement term sheet. She said it is possible that the city already has enough data to do what Griffith suggests while moving ahead with the hearings. “Considering the many studies and the matrix we designed for the Prop 2 lands, it might be a relatively quick process to understand what the carrying capacity of the southwest quadrant is. It might be possible to determine which land has to be preserved and how much of it,” she said.

Goodman said a swap between Mueller and Stratus could not happen too quickly. “If it was possible to get it into a settlement agreement, there would have to be an enormous number of contingencies in it. But at least you have a point of dialogue—perhaps,” she said.

Casey Dobson of Scott Douglass & McConnico said the city is set to go to trial against Stratus on Jan. 29 in Travis County district court. That suit concerns up to $14 million in reimbursable expenses the city may or may not owe the developer. Dobson, who represents the city, said although the lawsuit and the land development do not have to be settled together, “common sense and the history of the parties” leads him to believe the city would get a better deal by settling the matters together. Stratus has agreed to accept about $6.3 million for its Municipal Utility District reimbursables.

Richard Suttle, attorney for Stratus, told In Fact Daily, he and his clients have read all the memos from the council members. The Mayor, Slusher and Wynn “are very interested in protecting the aquifer and the environment out there and they don’t think the term sheet goes far enough. They are interested in making it better through land swaps and other imaginative methods. It is also clear that not only does (Council Member Griffith) not want to talk about Mueller, she doesn’t want to talk about anything. A lot of work has gone into the term sheet and negotiations on water quality. We want the process to proceed and we want a public hearing even though one council member wants to shelve all that.” Suttle said several Lantana tracts are already in the development review process. He said those were submitted under the terms set forth in the term sheet. “We have a couple Lantana tracts along Rialto and the Southwest Parkway area. They’re in for review for subdivisions and site plans.” Site plans are administratively approved, so there will be no review by either the Planning Commission or the City Council. The commission reviews subdivision applications but has little authority to deny such applications under state law. “Under the agreement we’ve agreed to increase the capture volume in ponds and to lower the impervious cover over what we would be required to do under 1704,” he said.

Both the Environmental Board and the Planning Commission subcommittees studying the proposal met Tuesday. Each plans to meet again next week.

Developer plans apartments at

Barton Springs Rd. and Dawson

Bouldin Creek neighbors nervous

The word repeated by many last night in a discussion between the Bouldin Creek neighborhood and the developer of a new 44-unit apartment complex on Barton Springs Road was “precedent.”

Apartment complex owner Steffen Waltz and architect Marley Porter of Living Architecture have assured the Barton Creek Neighborhood Association that the proposed project on Barton Springs Road at Dawson will not seriously block the neighborhood's view of downtown— even with a 30-foot height variance. The apartment complex, which would replace the long-vacant Tree House nightclub, will be no taller than the Elks Lodge up the road behind it.

Yet neighbors continue to be worried about what their approval might mean to the city. Even a year into discussions, trust is still a big issue with Bouldin Creek, Sean Kelly said. “This neighborhood has never met a developer it could trust,” said Kelly, the newly elected president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association. “Because of past history, there's probably a very good reason for those feelings.”

Kelly was alluding to the office buildings that rose on Barton Springs in front of the Bouldin Creek neighborhood almost 20 years ago. The hillside neighborhood's view of downtown was then partially—and permanently—blocked. More recently, the Austin Lyric Opera has failed to keep traffic out of the neighborhood, as it had promised when it sought a parking variance from the city, neighbors said.

With properties up and down Barton Springs on short-term land leases—and the city's new performing arts center under construction—residents in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood feel they have something to protect. They want to minimize new development that could shield the remaining view from their neighborhood.

Waltz has already made substantial concessions to Bouldin Creek. He assured the small group that met with him last night that he did not buy the property with the intention to immediately seek variances. When Waltz initially purchased the Tree House, he had planned building an office complex. That was the most economically viable option, but not one preferred by Bouldin Creek neighbors. Neighbors didn't want retail either, preferring apartments to high-priced condominiums that could mean substantial increases in their own home values.

Waltz's compromise was a 44-unit apartment complex that will rise more than 100 feet from base to top. That includes two levels of parking garage, as well as some sections of the project that will rise five stories above the ground. Porter reminded neighbors that variances are judged on a case-by-case basis and approving the Dawson project would not establish a precedent. A hearing on the variance is scheduled before the Board of Adjustment on Dec. 11. A final agreement with the neighborhood may or may not be reached before the hearings, which could push the decision to January.

“We can create a relationship between a responsible development team and a responsible neighborhood association. It's a real opportunity,” Waltz said. “We can show it can be done.”

The Dawson project is a unique case and would not block local residents’ view of downtown, Porter said. The project, on a hill, did step down current CS-1 zoning and will face topographical challenges. Could granting this variance cause a ripple effect on other nearby properties? “I don't think it can,” Porter told the group, stressing that the developer had taken “the harder course and the better case” by working with the neighborhood, something that should weigh in a final variance decision.

Every apartment in the proposed Dawson project will also have a view of downtown, clearly a key selling point. Flattening the project—and avoiding the variance—would necessitate increasing the size of the apartment units, Porter told the Bouldin Creek residents. It would also make the multi-tiered apartment project substantially less pleasing to the eye.

Kelly asked whether the top units could be redistributed to other parts of the project. Porter assured him that decreasing the number of units from 48 to 44, and further to 37, would make the project economically unviable, given the cost of the parking garage.

Waltz has also put the Hillside Apartments behind the Dawson project under contract and should close on the property by the end of the year. The developer who started renovating the older 65-unit apartment complex last year gave up on the project. Waltz intends to finish the job.

Waltz and Porter did agree to attach a schematic drawing—approved by the neighborhood—to their variance application. They also agreed to draft a binding covenant with the neighborhood. Bouldin Creek neighbors are leery of agreements from being burned so many times in the past. Most recently, after an agreement was reached with the developer of the San Jose Motel, the city tossed it out. Ronnie Dittmar, an officer in the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, said the developer subsequently failed to meet two of the three promises made to the Bouldin Creek neighborhood.

Waltz has also agreed to sign over $50,000 to the Bouldin Creek neighborhood to mitigate any impact his project would have on the neighborhood. Kelly encouraged Waltz to provide that money to a non-profit organization set up by the area with a board of directors that could have direct input on the Dawson project. “I don't want anyone to perceive this as a quid pro quo,” Kelly said.

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

Longhorn . . . Federal District Judge Sam Sparks will hold a status conference at 10 a.m. this morning on the lawsuit filed by ranchers, the City of Austin, the LCRA and other parties to stop the Longhorn Partners’ pipeline. The Department of Justice is expected to let the judge know when to expect official notice that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation are not requiring additional environmental studies before the pipeline can move forward. Several parties are expected to ask the judge to set aside the agencies’ decision . . . City holidays . . . City offices will be closed Thursday and Friday. In Fact Daily will not publish on those days. Enjoy the holiday . . . Christmas shopping . . . The Victorian Christmas Arts and Crafts Fair will cover the 100-500 blocks of E. 6th Street and the 500-600 blocks of Brazos, San Jacinto, Trinity and Neches Saturday and Sunday.

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

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