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Council warfare erupts over

Friday, December 8, 2000 by

Stratus & Mueller negotiations

Wynn and Slusher v. Griffith

Last night, Council Member Beverly Griffith generated plenty of public support—though only one council member voted with her— in her attempt to remove Robert Mueller Airport from negotiations with Stratus Properties.

Council Members Will Wynn and Daryl Slusher had crafted a resolution directing the city manager “to evaluate and discuss the feasibility of a transfer or exchange of property and/or development rights” between the city and Stratus as a way of shifting development away from the Barton Springs Zone. Their original motion directed the manager to negotiate with Stratus, which Griffith and her constituents assumed meant closed-door meetings.

In response, Griffith offered a substitute motion, which she and the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) distributed via email. Thursday’s message from Bill Bunch, executive director of SOSA, said, “While the new resolution says the city manager should talk to everyone, it still allows secret negotiations with Stratus.” Thursday’s Austin Chronicle also included a full-page ad from SOSA, which said, “Tell the City Council to STOP the Back-Room Dealing with Developers and Open the Process to the Public!” The ad particularly angered Slusher and Mayor Pro-Tem Jackie Goodman.

Wynn said “the unfortunate result” of Griffith’s emails and substitute motion “has been to manufacture conflict and controversy where there is none.” He said Griffith did not send the emails to him and Slusher and accused her of “an attempt to cast other members of the City Council in an unfair and unfavorable light. That said, I don’t oppose the intent of the substitute motion, if the intent is to help us gather more information for a sound decision.”

Slusher said the reason the previous City Council was so successful was because “we worked together and we worked together very civilly. We assumed that everyone on the Council had the best interest of the city at heart. When we had a disagreement, we tried to figure out how to end that disagreement. And sometimes that disagreement ended up in having a better policy, because you had smart, committed people working toward the same goals . . .What we didn’t do was send out mass communications accusing other council members . . .What we’re trying to do here is protect the environment and we’re trying to get the best possible redevelopment of Mueller. It’s possible we can meet two city goals with one action. All we’re trying to do here is discuss the possible swapping of Mueller with Stratus. It’s sort of amazing to me that this got contorted into” secret back-room deals, he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said, “It is not a secret that Daryl Slusher has a very visible and longtime commitment to trying to protect in our sensitive watersheds. It is also not a secret that Daryl Slusher has always been averse to having anything behind closed doors that didn’t need to be. In fact, the Council has moved toward a whole new tradition of what has been historically considered in executive sessions and bringing it out into the public. When I look at an ad like the one that caught my eye today, it’s not ‘Tell the city council to STOP. . . ’ it’s the Council that told others we didn’t want to keep it as a back-room deal, but bring it out to the public.”

When Griffith got a chance to speak, she said, “I’m Beverly Griffith. I didn’t recognize who was just described—or any of the behavior that was just indicated. Certainly, I have maligned no one and had no intent to do that.”

Mayor Kirk Watson assisted Slusher and Wynn with their motion by adding the public component to the process. He requested that the Planning Commission, the Environmental Board, the Water and Wastewater Commission and the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Advisory Commission each appoint three of their members to serve on a committee to analyze any proposed swap. But the board and commission component did not satisfy Griffith, who has argued that the boards and commissions did not fulfill the public involvement she was seeking.

After the amendments, Council Member Raul Alvarez, Watson and Goodman joined Wynn and Slusher in directing City Manager Jesus Garza to develop a proposal for exchange of development rights between the Desired Development Zone (DDZ) and land in the Barton Springs Zone (BSZ). In addition, the Council asked for an analysis of scientific data—including what may be lacking—for a “comprehensive scientific study” of the BSZ. The motion also asks for an evaluation of Mueller’s property value. Council Member Danny Thomas joined Griffith in opposing the motion.

Griffith said to do things right, at Mueller, and in Southwest Travis County, “It’s just going to be an investment. But it also could be our greatest legacy—right up there with the airport (ABIA)…I know it’s going to cost money, there’s no doubt about it,” she said. “You don’t create a legacy without spending some bucks.”

Jim Walker, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and the RMMA, said, “It’s too early to consider doing this.” “We have an acute fear” that discussing a swap could jeopardize the development of Mueller. He said it’s important to know what the zoning will be at Mueller and what the appraisal will be before they consider a swap. It’s important to know the value of something if you’re negotiating on it.

Environmental Board member Tim Jones, who sits on the board’s subcommittee to scrutinize Stratus, showed photos(click here) he took on November 25 and last Saturday along Barton Creek, of a massive algae bloom covering the width of Barton Creek. “Craig Smith (president of the BSEACD) said it was another effect of urbanization. I said it was the death of the stream.” If Section N is developed as proposed, Jones said, and the golf course goes in, the creek will be damaged. “I don’t want to see that. I don’t think Richard Suttle (Stratus'attorney) wants to see it either.” Jones has supported consideration of a swap. The Environmental Board considered a motion early Thursday morning to support looking at an exchange of city land for land over the aquifer.

No easy answers emerge for

Funding Waller Creek tunnel

City needs twice what voters approved

The City Council and staff tossed around possible solutions to resolve the funding shortfall for the Waller Creek tunnel Thursday, but the question of where to come up with as much as $28 million to begin the project remains unanswered. In 1998, voters approved $25 million in bonds to fund the project, which is designed to safeguard the southeast sections of downtown along Waller Creek against flood damage. In the event of a 100-year flood, 40 existing buildings and 12 bridges could be submerged. Depending on the tunnel’s carrying capacity, project estimates run as high as $53 million, according the Watershed Protection Department.

George Oswald, a watershed engineering manager in the department, said the largest of the proposed tunnels would be approximately one mile in length, stretching from Waterloo Park on 15th Street to Town Lake, and would make more than 1.24 million square feet of land available for development. The diameter of the tunnel would be 22 feet. Its projected cost is $53 million, he said.

For $46 million the city could build a 15.5-foot diameter tunnel that would only divert 55 percent of the water flow during a 100-year flood. Such a tunnel would make about 1.2 million square feet of land available for development and would run along Red River Street, Oswald said.

A tunnel project fitting the already allocated $25 million would be a very basic, 11-foot diameter tunnel which would recover only 20 percent of the flood plain land area, he said. “If we were to build the smaller tunnel, there would be no opportunity to enlarge it in the future,” Oswald said, noting expansion would be cost prohibitive. He said it would really cost at least $33 million to have a basic system.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2003 and take four years to complete. But before the project can move forward a decision on funding must be made. New bonds would have to be approved by voters and they could be difficult to sell, said John Stephens, city director of financial and administrative services. Creating a Public Improvement District (PID) is a possibility, he said, but very expensive. He thinks the best option would be to issue Certificates of Obligation. He recommends COs because they don’t require voter approval and would only raise property taxes 61-cents per month for the average homeowner, he said. COs require approval from the Attorney General and the money can come from taxes, drainage revenues or a combination of both. If funded entirely from drainage revenues, drainage fees would increase 9 percent.

Mayor Kirk Watson said he is hesitant to increase property taxes and drainage fees. If drainage fees or property taxes are increased, he would like to see that money go to higher priorities, he said. In addition, he believes it’s important to keep voters involved in the funding decision on the tunnel issue since voters approved the original funding.

Council Member Beverly Griffith agreed. She said she envisions a solution that combines public and private funding.

Architect shows contemplative

Environment planned for AMOA

Museum fund-raising going well

The Austin City Council got a brief update Thursday on the status of the new Austin Museum of Art (AMOA) building, scheduled to open in 2003. Executive Director Elizabeth Ferrer told the council the 145,000-square foot facility would serve a quarter of a million people a year, once completed. “This is a museum Austin really deserves,” she said.

A highly successful capital campaign, including a $16 million donation from Dell Computer Corp. executives, has made this project possible, Ferrer said. The Museum has already raised over $40 million toward the construction of the $61 million, state-of-the-art facility.

New York architect Richard Gluckman, of Gluckman Mayner Architects, lead the council through a slide presentation of the project, noting that the intention of his design is to create an environment that is “calm, contemplative and also celebratory.” He said, “we want this building to have a strong sense of materiality and a strong sense of light.”

The museum will be located at 4th and Guadalupe, with the main entrance facing Republic Square. “We’ve hoped the museum would be the focal point of activities going on in that area,” Gluckman said. “It looks like it will be,” he said, after surveying the site recently.

The “front porch” of the building will face Republic Square and the museum will include a sculpture court, a café, coffee bar, store, 299-seat movie theater, and a parking garage that may expand to four levels. A section of the museum will be devoted exclusively to art and technology. “I couldn’t think of a better place to have (this) than in Austin,” he said.

So visitors don’t become disoriented, as can happen from walking around large, convoluted buildings, Gluckman said his team has tried to create a circular feel to the overall design. He doesn’t want people to get “museumed out,” he said. “We’ve worked very hard to prevent that.”

Mayor Kirk Watson said, “we appreciate all of the work AMOA has been doing to bring this project forward… We’re going to have a spectacular building downtown.” He praised the project for coming together without the need for bond money and congratulated Gluckman, telling him the city will be proud of the new museum.

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

Chestnut approved . . . Members of the neighborhood planning staff were ecstatic Thursday after the City Council approved final zoning changes for the Chestnut neighborhood. Zoning rollbacks were approved, although one homeowner was allowed to keep her old zoning in order to reinstate a beauty shop once operated in the home. . . Cesar Chavez coming . . . Members of the El Concilio political group once again complained to the City Council that the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood plan does not suit them or the people in the neighborhood. This time, however, members of the neighborhood’s planning team stood at the back of the chambers with signs accusing the speakers of intimidation and saying they do not live in the neighborhood. The fight is scheduled for next week over that neighborhood’s zoning. We heard there’s a rumor of money really adding fuel to the fire . . . Fifth Street ramp not closing . . . The West Fifth Street ramp from MoPac will not be closed this weekend after all. Traffic planners have changed their minds and rescheduled maintenance work for January..

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

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