Friday, November 17, 2000 by

Rainey Street poised to

Make historic changes

Developer sets deadline for contracts

To the casual observer, Rainey Street is a collection of dilapidated homes with sagging roofs and a few small, well-kept homes on the southern edge of downtown. To historian Amy Dase, Rainey Street is “a remarkably intact historic neighborhood that includes a high concentration of modest Victorian-era, classically inspired, Craftsman-influenced bungalow dwellings, and traditional Mexican-American housescapes.” Dase was hired by the Heritage Society of Austin to do a survey of the neighborhood last April.

To Gordon Dunaway, who is building the condominiums at the end of Rainey Street next to the hike and bike trail, the area represents an opportunity to develop close to Town Lake, the Convention Center, the Mexican-American Cultural Center and probably Vignette. Rainey Street is a one-street historic district running from Cesar Chavez to Town Lake just west of I-35.

Homeowners on Rainey Street have talked for years about the possibility of aggregating their property for sale to a developer. However, until this year disputes over how to accomplish that and the fact that many of the residents wanted to remain in their homes prevented anyone from buying the property as a whole. Dunaway is offering an average of $400,000 to the holders of 38 separate pieces of property.

Mike Kelly, who represents Dunaway, told In Fact Daily that all property owners have received contracts. Kelly said the deadline for returning each signed contract to the developer is next Wednesday. His client needs agreement from approximately 90 percent of the property owners to do the project he envisions. If the homeowners fail to meet the deadline, the offer will be withdrawn, he said. If enough property owners do sign, each will receive $5,000 in non-refundable earnest money per parcel within about 10 days.

According to Kelly, Dunaway is willing to provide private financing for relocation and preservation of homes that are in good condition—if the homeowners want that to happen. Brigid Shea, who lives at the corner of Davis and Rainey, said she and her husband, John Umphress, plan to relocate their house somewhere east of I-35. Shea is on the negotiating team for the neighborhood. Shea is also representing Vignette, which plans to build its world headquarters on Cesar Chavez. Neighborhood co-presidents Bobby Velasquez and Maria Elena Bernhardt signed up in favor of Vignette’s zoning request this week before the Planning Commission. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 15, 2000)

Julie Morgan, executive director of the Heritage Society, contends that the historic value of the district will be lost if the houses are moved. Morgan said the preservation community worries that loss of the Rainey Street District would set a precedent for razing other historic homes.

Morgan said even though the district is not the home of grand mansions, it has historic significance. When she was reminded that a number of the houses have plastic roof coverings and disintegrating chimneys, Morgan said she thought those homes were occupied by renters. “This is an example of demolition by neglect,” she said. The owners just let these places sort of rot—because they figure after 20 years they’ll get to sell the land. We shouldn’t be rewarding that. I also wonder, where do the renters go?” Morgan said she wished the city would find a way to assist development of affordable housing downtown. She also said she believed that homeowners could get a good price for their homes if they put them on the market as historic properties.

Most of those living along Rainey Street appear to be Hispanic, unlike most of the members of the Heritage Society. A good number of Rainey Street’s residents are elderly. They don’t drive fancy cars. Some have refrigerators and stoves on their front porches. Since the process began, Kelly said, one owner has died and another has lost a second leg to diabetes.

Morgan said, a number of property owners do not have Hispanic surnames. “We’ve been told, as the Heritage Society, ‘How could you not support this because this is the opportunity for poor, elderly Hispanic people to make money?’ And when you look at the (appraisal records) you find that at least 50 percent of the property owners are absentee and live in Waco (or elsewhere) . I’m not saying there aren’t Hispanic people. There are, because I’ve met with them. But I don’t think this is what this is about—at all. If you have lots of compelling reasons for demolishing the district, you wouldn’t even need to be talking about race.”

Kelly said a number of people who live along the street are family members of the people listed on the tax rolls as owners. He said the project will comply with the city’s Smart Growth guidelines.He sees the situation as beneficial to both the families and the city.

Morgan does not. “I think the precedent you’re setting here is that Austin will be developed by whatever developer is willing to pay to get to do whatever he wants to do. It’s urban renewal. It’s not Smart Growth.”

South Congress merchants reject

Idea of more parking for avenue

Bouldin Neighborhood threatened by traffic

If the City of Austin officials plan to add parking along South Congress Avenue they can expect a fight from South Congress merchants and Bouldin Creek homeowners.

A modest number of those merchants and homeowners were at the third of three public forums on the current and future parking needs of Central Austin. The parking study—a joint effort by Wilbur Smith Associates, the Urban Design Group and Jose E. Martinez & Associates—will be presented to the Austin City Council.

Locals along South Congress told consultant Mike McAnelly they like the small and funky neighborhood they've cultivated and were not eager to see downtown development creep over Town Lake into South Austin. Bouldin Creek resident Elliott Mitchell expressed concern that merchants’ demands for parking would erode the Bouldin Creek neighborhood. The neighborhood was trading its character for the chance to buy a good taco, Mitchell said.

"It's very short-sighted and inequitable to place on the backs of the Bouldin Creek neighborhood what was in essence a mistake by restaurants and bars," Mitchell said. "With some of the restaurants and bars, I can't even see where they have on-site parking. How did they pull a permit for a restaurant at that location? I don't see how you could have accommodated the parking on South Congress."

South Congress merchant Gail Armstrong insisted it was the commercial property owners, not the merchants, who were squeezing more business and its parking onto South Congress. He also said the South Congress Improvement Project would never have added South Congress to the parking study if there hadn't been a push by the South Congress Improvement Plan. Armstrong called the South Congress Improvement Project a thinly veiled campaign for light rail in South Austin that was supported by no one in the area.

The locals' criticism of light rail did not go unanswered. Rail supporters Floyd Davis and Chris Riley both pointed out that the goal of light rail was to decrease the pressure for parking. Too many historic houses downtown, Riley said, have been lost to surface parking lots.

Davis, referring to parking plans for 11th and 12th Streets, encouraged the consultants to use satellite parking to maximize the redevelopment opportunities along both streets. Better that the street fronts be used for projects such as day care centers or restaurants that are needed by the neighborhood, he said.

A great deal of downtown parking is not well distributed, Riley said. He said there are two realistic responses to the parking problem: putting additional parking where it is needed, or transporting people from parking areas to where they need to go. He pointed out that the report had strong recommendations for possible locations for parking garages, but was virtually silent on mass transit options such as a commuter shuttle from Convention Center parking to Fourth and Sixth Streets.

McAnelly said the study had been limited to parking, but agreed that transportation and parking often go hand in hand.

MexicArte Museum and office tower

Gains Planning Commission okay

New building will be tallest, densest in city

The Planning Commission, on Tuesday night, approved a zoning overlay and variances for the Mexic-Arte Museum and a proposed 33-floor office tower on Congress Avenue.

Two months ago, the Austin City Council closed a deal two months ago to waive up to $1.1 million on city development fees in exchange for a fair price on the site of the Mexic-Arte Museum on 5th and Congress. The city will either purchase the Mexic-Arte building for $740,000 or give the museum the money to purchase the building on the condition the site remains a museum for at least 25 years.

The commission voted to allow vacation of the alley between 4th and 5th Streets and between Congress Avenue and Brazos Street, while retaining all easements and access rights. The Planning Commission also recommended a zoning designation of CURE (Central Urban Redevelopment District), which would increase the floor-to-area ratio on the block from 8-to-1 to 12-to-1, with variances on right-of-way on Congress Avenue. Block 42 Congress Partners, Ltd owns the property. The City Council will consider those changes at its next meeting on Nov. 30.

The building in which the Mexic-Arte Museum sits is designated historic, so the developers also requested that setbacks and height limitations for structures adjacent to historic buildings be waived.

The zoning changes will affect most of the 400 block of Congress Avenue. A number of long-time landmarks—among them Oscar Snowden's and Ted's Greek Steakhouse—will be demolished when construction on the skyscraper begins. Attorney Richard Suttle of Armbrust Brown Davis said the zoning change would make the new building the tallest and densest in the city.

The only aspects of the agreement that met with any opposition from the Planning Commission were the Congress Avenue setback and the vacation of the alleys. After reviewing the agreement Commissioner Jean Mather said Block 42 Congress Partners Ltd. had gotten quite a deal.

“We're saving the Mexic-Arte Museum, but it seems to me that's a minor condition for all of these wonderful gifts that we're giving to this building,” Mather told Suttle. “I would really like to have the same setbacks that we would expect of any other building.”

Suttle pointed out the building did not require a variance on setback requirements; rather, the zoning changes were aimed at the floor-to-area ratio and vacation of the alleys. He insisted both the city and the owners of the property came out well in the deal. Council Member Will Wynn is a partner in the Block 42 project with developer Tom Stacy. He bought the property before running for his seat and abstains on matters relating to it.

Commissioner Robin Cravey offered an amendment to delete the setback from Congress Avenue from the Planning Commission recommendation, but Commissioner Silver Garza refused to consider the motion. Garza said a decrease from 60 feet to 40 feet in a setback was not significant.

Commissioner Sterling Lands said the deal was a win-win situation that would benefit all parties involved in the deal. Mather said she could not ignore the setbacks on the property, saying it was necessary to preserve the light, air and street level views of the sky and city.

“I think those are important values we should protect,” Mather said. “I understand why Commissioner Garza and Commissioner Lands want to be a part of this… but I understand we have another problem to wrestle with, which is how these downtown buildings compete with suburban buildings.”

For that reason, the setback should be preserved, Mather said. At the vote, Mather was the only commissioner who could not support the zoning recommendation. Cravey abstained and Commissioner Jim Robertson was absent.

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

Not getting a tan . . . Local precinct judge and attorney Ginny Agnew just returned from Palm Beach, Fla., where she assisted Democrats in gathering information about use of the infamous “butterfly ballot.” Agnew said, “I spoke with complainants who felt their vote had been registered wrong or had problems because they needed to have a new ballot and were refused. It was fascinating. There were a great variety of different stories and a great number of people who really couldn’t tell who they voted for. The butterfly ballot was a big mistake.” Agnew noted that the punch card ballots used in Florida are “just like what we used to have” in Travis County. She said numerous votes here in Austin required hand correction because of various problems. For example, she said, quite a few voters colored in the George Bush oval, marked the ballot for a straight party ticket and then wrote his name into the write-in section. Without a manual correction, she said, those votes would not have been counted. Other Austinites cited as participants in the Florida after-election entertainment include Dee Simpson of the AFL-CIO, Republican Pct. 3 Commissioner Todd Baxter, and lobbyist Buddy Jones . . . New lobbyist . . . Former City Council Member Brigid Shea registered this week as a lobbyist with the city. She is working on behalf of Vignette..

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

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