Monday, November 13, 2000 by

Vignette dickering with Villas

Neighbors on campus design

Neighborhood leader says company has made no promises

Vignette's consultants plan to work today to hammer out a compromise with neighbors on Town Lake, only a day before they are scheduled to ask the Planning Commission for zoning changes on Vignette's downtown campus.

Vignette has options on parcels of land on Cesar Chavez and along Waller Creek for a downtown campus. The company's consultants will ask the Planning Commission to grant a zoning change for property between Cesar Chavez and Town Lake, from GR (general retail), CS (commercial services) and MF-4 (Multi-family) to CBD (Central Business District). In addition, Vignette is asking for a slightly higher density than most central business district buildings and to vacate portions of Willow and Neches Streets.

These moves so early in the development of the company’s site plans, said downtown neighborhood leader Chris Riley, have left neighbors at the Villas on Town Lake uneasy.

“There's no guarantee that this project is actually going to materialize,” Riley told his colleagues at the Downtown Commission last week. “As long as there's a risk of that not happening, there are real concerns about leaving the door open to everything that would be allowed by CBD zoning.”

Some neighbors would prefer to see the parcels sold before permanent zoning changes are made. CBD zoning would give Vignette—or anyone else who might buy the land if the Vignette deal falls through—the option to build a structure up to 1,000 feet tall. Neighborhood unease is compounded by the fact that Vignette has yet to hire an architect. Instead, consultants visiting the various commissions have presented both a conceptual site plan and computer-generated aerial view that shows two 25-story Vignette towers—a combined 1.1 million square feet of office space—rising on Cesar Chavez.

Vignette's project, so close to the Villas on Town Lake and the Rainey Street neighborhood, will need to be a careful balance between residential and commercial, Riley said. Vignette consultants are considering a design that would stair-step the buildings from Cesar Chavez down toward the neighborhoods that face the project on the south. While Vignette wants to work with neighbors, the company would also like to keep its options open on the property, consultants told the Downtown Commission last week.

“One of the issues for Vignette is being able to acquire the property for this project with as much flexibility as we can," Pat Oles of Barshop & Oles told commissioners. He couldn't help but add a tongue-in-cheek comment, “At the same time, we love world peace, too.”

Vignette's consultants met with the Villas on Town Lake Friday afternoon and are likely to meet with them again today. Janet Gilles, president of the condominium owners association, said the neighborhood's concerns are security and appearance, as well as a respect for Waller Creek. While Vignette is clear about plans for the two office towers that will front on Cesar Chavez, they are less certain about plans for the parcel of the company's campus that will abut the condominium tower, Gilles said.

“They haven't really made any promises,” Gilles said. “We've talked to the people that are representing the developer and told them what we want and they're going to come back and tell us what they can do.”

While the reaction of the neighborhoods around the Vignette project has generally been favorable, Gilles promised on Sunday the Villas on Town Lake “will fight as hard as we can if we don't even know what they're going to put on the piece of land closest to us. They have not committed to anything on that lot to us, but we're hoping they will by tomorrow, since they're going to take their zoning changes to the Planning Commission on Tuesday.”

The Downtown Commission supported Vignette's proposal to vacate Willow Street last week, with Commissioner Perry Lorenz and Chair Robert Knight abstaining from the vote. Lorenz and Knight own some of the property Vignette would buy for its downtown campus. Under the proposed plans, Willow Street will split the middle of the proposed Vignette campus. As has been the case with many Vignette decisions, a request for a positive recommendation on vacation of Willow Street arrived at the Downtown Commission last week with the notation on the paperwork, "This is a rush per City Manager!!!!!"

Options on the Vignette campus project become more difficult as the number of Vignette employees continues to grow, consultants told the Downtown Commission. Vignette currently employs 850 people in Austin; projections show the company could employ up to 3,000 employees in three or four years. That's not only a million feet of office space, but also 4,000 parking places, Oles told the Downtown Commission.

That commitment—and keeping the height of the two proposed towers to 25 stories—has meant a plan for nine stories of parking in the towers as well as a three-story underground garage. Oles joked that the project would have “the most expensive parking garage in North America” and still be 1,500 spaces short of what Vignette needs for its thousands of employees. Consultants hope that downtown housing or transit options will absorb some of that need for additional parking.

Consultants who showed the early plans for the Vignette campus to the Downtown Commission and the Design Commission stressed the campus will maintain public access to Waller Creek and extend the hike-and-bike trails through the area.

Austin Housing Finance Corp.

Responds to double crisis

Working families need help to stay in city

Austin City Council members changed hats for an hour Thursday to serve as the board of directors of the Austin Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC).

Paul Hilgers, chief of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office, said Austin needs affordable housing and the city has demonstrated it is serious about making it a reality. He said the current City Council has made the largest commitment ever of city resources to housing.

Matt Powell, who has served as executive director of the AHFC since March, said, “It’s an exciting time for our corporation. For the first time in recent years, all of our resources and programs are coming together to develop the AHFC as a housing developer for the city of Austin.”

“I’ve been impressed time and time again with Austin City Council’s commitment to affordable housing,” Powell said. “When I first came to Austin, Paul Hilgers did not take me on the Chamber of Commerce tour of the city. In fact, he had me taken to some of the more poverty-stricken neighborhoods in town. This was to emphasize the focus we will always have on serving the people who are most in need of housing in our community…those with very low incomes.”

He said the most severe crisis is lack of housing for low-income residents. “Equally as serious, though, is the second crisis: the housing availability problems facing the moderate-income working families caused by the fast growth and rapid prosperity of the community.” He said he was convinced the city would not be able to solve either problem without solving them both. Powell said the factor that links both issues is the lack of available affordable housing. “Our current housing shortage comes with a wide range of social and economic price tags. For example, housing stock that would normally be available to serve lower income families is being acquired and developed by moderate-income families, pushing lower income families out of their traditional neighborhoods.

“The impact is felt in the sprawl that we are seeing, as people move to outlying communities to find affordable housing. Traffic congestion and air pollution are increased as well when these same people commute back into the city to work. And the tax base of our city is impacted as well, as more and more people leave Austin for the surrounding communities. In short, the lack of affordable housing threatens what we love the most about Austin, our quality of life.”

The city’s five-year Consolidated Plan projects “that roughly 500 apartments renting below $625 a month and almost 340 single-family homes selling for less than $90,000 are needed each year for the next five years. The market, however, is expected to provide less than 100 apartments and less than 10 homes per year at those prices. You have recognized that we have a crisis and you have taken action to address the problem,” Hilgers said.

By adopting the SMART Housing Initiative and approving a resolution by Council Member Raul Alvarez that calls for “sustained and continuing investment in our housing strategy,” the Council has taken concrete action, he said. The resolution, approved in September, calls for an additional $3 million annually to be budgeted from the (city’s) general fund to the AHFC for the next four years.

According to Powell, AHFC anticipates reaching its goal to build, rehabilitate or repair 5,000 affordable units a year by 2005, with 2,280 of those in the SMART housing program. He said he expects AHFC to increase housing development by more than 1,900 units this year. That puts AHFC well on its way to reaching the 5,000 per year goal by 2004. The goal for the coming year is 2,850 units, he said. The current budget is $17 million, with money coming from federal and city funds and grants.

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

Highway honchos to meet . . . The board of directors of the Texas Turnpike Authority will consider whether to move forward with Gary Bradley’s proposal to build SH 45 South at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Texas Department of Transportation, 125 E. 11th St. The board may decide to publish a notice to accept competing proposals. Those who sign up in advance will be allowed to comment . . . New MACC board members. . . Last week the City Council appointed the following to the board of the Mexican American Cultural Center: Tina Fernandez, Gloria Andrus, Maria Martin and Donato Rodriguez . . . Other appointments . . . Steven Morales was appointed to the Airport Advisory Commission. The City Council decided to postpone consideration of an ordinance that would have removed all current members of that commission in January. Teresa Rabago was reappointed to the Historic Landmark Commission and the Downtown Commission. Rich Bailey was re-appointed to the Human Rights Commission. Jeffrey Benford was re-appointed to the MBE/WBE Commission and Lanetta Cooper was reappointed to the Water & Wastewater Commission . . . Heavy agenda for Planning Commission. . . After two weeks off, the Planning Commission will be asked to make a recommendation on a number of thorny issues, including the proposal to settle a lawsuit between the city and Stratus Properties . . . Bill Howell, who represents Sunburst Subdivision, 6106 Westgate Blvd., is requesting that the Commission rescind or amend it’s previous action denying a request for a waiver from the requirement that streets in new subdivisions be in line with existing streets in an adjoining subdivision . . . The Commission may have too many items to consider adoption of the 2025 Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan. The item is also scheduled for November 28.

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

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