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Lawyer says Stratus Properties

Thursday, December 7, 2000 by

Willing to wait for Mueller deal

Stratus would consider lease, Suttle tells commission

Lawyer Richard Suttle’s words to the Water and Wastewater Commission last night were more than a hint that Stratus Properties has scaled back its expectations about a proposed agreement between the developer and the city.

The City Council is set to consider a resolution directing the city attorney to discuss a swap of Robert Mueller Airport with Stratus Properties—and a substitute motion by Council Member Beverly Griffith—at 4:30 p.m. Suttle told commissioners that he knows the term sheet will never become an agreement. Stratus proposed a development agreement for approximately 4,000 acres of land in Southwest Travis County on tracts known as Lantana, Barton Creek and Circle C.

“I’m to the point now where it’s obvious the term sheet doesn’t quite go far enough for environmental protection,” said Suttle, who represents Stratus. “A swap of city assets has never formally been on the table. I’d like to see a majority of Council say, ‘Let’s at least talk about it,’ then come back in 45 days and see if it’s a possibility.”

In other words, Stratus Properties is open to swapping land with the city, even land other than Robert Mueller Airport. And if they do consider a swap at Mueller, they don't plan to step into the deal until a master developer has been selected, Suttle told commissioners. In fact, Stratus would even be open to a long-term lease on the Mueller property, rather than an outright land swap, Suttle said. The company isn't spoiling for a fight on its next Austin land deal. They want to know the score.

“They want to know what it is,” Suttle said of the Mueller property development. “They don't want to catch the heat for trying to have an income source.”

Stratus, formerly FM Properties, is facing plenty of opposition on a number of fronts. Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) presented a memo to both the Environmental Board and the Water and Wastewater Commission urging the city to start new negotiations with Stratus that would be open to the public. Robert Singleton of Earth First! told the Water and Wastewater Commission the term sheet was too vague.

“If this is the plan as it's currently outlined, then I want to know what the last 10 years of struggle have been about,” said Singleton, who accused Stratus of using vague terms to avoid real criticism of the deal. “This is in no way any better for Barton Creek than anything else we've seen. Even if we assumed this was better land use than what they can do under ( House Bill) 1704, is that good enough?"

Griffith’s proposal involves use of “a professionally facilitated and expedited, open, public process including environmental, business, developer and neighborhood interests.” The group would be asked to develop a “scientific study with specific recommendations for preserving the Barton Springs Zone.”

Suttle, a partner with the firm of Armbrust Brown & Davis, told In Fact Daily he was not sure that he understood Griffith’s proposal. However, he said, “We’re not really interested in dealing with folks who are not going to be making the decision” about the agreement. He said his client is not opposed to some kind of public process.

The Water and Wastewater Commission took no position on the Stratus Properties deal. Vice Chair Lanetta Cooper, however, was insistent in discussions with both Bunch and Suttle. Bunch denied the city would be worse off if it allowed Stratus Properties to develop under 1704, citing stricter impervious cover requirements recently enacted by the U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service. He added that the city might also roll back development by legal claims of public health threats, as the City of Sunset Valley had.

Cooper pushed for conditions on development over Barton Springs that would require Stratus to return treated water that would be of a higher quality than the water currently in the watershed. Bunch said that was a goal consistent with SOSA’s aspirations. Cooper also noted that neighboring subdivisions had opposed the extension of the city's sewer line out to the potential development, for fear it would increase the density of development in the area.

In his discussion with the commission, Suttle said the quality of the water being returned to Barton Creek was a negotiable point. On the other hand, Suttle said the need to include local neighborhoods in negotiations before a final settlement was reached was “important, but not imperative.” Stratus wants to be fair to local neighborhoods, but the developer does have entitlements on the land, Suttle said. “Neighborhoods can’t pull the drawbridge up” and hope Stratus will just go away.

The bottom line is simple, Suttle told commissioners. Stratus wants to concentrate its efforts on finally developing property in Austin. The company is willing to work with the city, but it's not a non-profit agency, Suttle reminded commissioners. The company is accountable to its stockholders and interested in an agreement that makes sense to both the city and the company.

Impervious cover assumptions

Match single-family home sites

New assumptions miss on some small lots

The assumptions regarding impervious cover for single-family homes adopted by the City of Austin in February accurately reflect the amount of concrete actually in place, according to Pat Murphy of the Watershed Protection Department. Murphy reported to the Water and Wastewater Commission last night that the assumptions slightly underestimate the amount of impervious cover being constructed on two categories of small lots, ranging from 5,750 to 15,000 square feet. However, the assumptions were on target for the smallest lots and somewhat too high for lots of 15,000 square feet to one acre and lots larger than three acres, he said.

Last spring the City Council asked for a report on how well the new assumptions were working. Impervious cover has a direct correlation with water pollution, especially in sensitive watersheds. During settlement negotiations with developer Gary Bradley, the Council requested the city manager to prepare a system for accurately determining and regulating new impervious cover regulations.

Murphy’s report shows city staff researched impervious cover on 572 single-family lots built using 1986 impervious cover assumptions and an equal number of lots using the 2000 assumptions. More than 72 percent of the lots built under the older assumptions had more impervious cover than was assumed by the city. In contrast, 39.5 percent of the lots built under the new assumptions had a greater amount of impervious cover than assumed. Murphy said there were three possible options for addressing the disparity

• Adopt mitigation strategies for lots of 5,750 to 10,000 square feet, such as an increase in water quality and drainage facilities. • Amend the code to increase impervious cover assumptions for the 5,750 to 10,000 square feet lots from the current 2,500 square feet to 3,000 square feet per lot. • No change in current assumptions.

Murphy said the impact of underestimating impervious cover on smaller lots is minimal, given the overall levels of impervious cover in the different watersheds. There may be some localized impact in the quality and quantity of storm water run-off, he said. “My biggest concern is that the water is cleaned up before it leaves the site—and that no one’s going to get flooded. I don’t think the impervious cover over the assumptions is going to be an environmental problem,” Murphy commented. Murphy told In Fact Daily that changing the impervious cover assumptions for smaller, more affordable homes would mean that every sixth house in a subdivision would be lost. That factor distressed members of the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Texas Capitol Area Builders Association, who reviewed the information, he said.

Commission declines to recommend waste contract

The commission declined to make a recommendation to the City Council on a service agreement with Waste Management of Texas. Neighbors of the northeast landfill complained that the company had not provided sufficient buffering between its facility and the neighborhood. Commissioners expressed concern over the contract but decided not to oppose the deal after Chris Lippe, director of Water and Wastewater, told them that the contract had been bid three times. He said the department checked with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission and found no record of enforcement violations by Waste Management of Texas.

At today’s meeting, the City Council is scheduled to consider approval of a 12-month service agreement to provide disposal service for waste from wastewater treatment plants for $110,694. The contract includes two 12-month extension options at the same amount, for a total of $332,082.

R/UDAT Planners praise

Austin's 'Renaissance'

Architects lend outside perspective

“It’s not just astounding what’s happening in Austin, it’s a Renaissance,” said architect Chuck Davis a member of the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) on its third visit to Austin. In 1991, when he first came to Austin to survey the situation and make recommendations, he said downtown was dead. “It might have been dead on arrival,” but in the ensuing nine years, “a lot of risks have been taken and they’ve paid off,” he said. “A lot has been done right,” he said. “But the job is not done. There’s a hell of a lot of work left to be done.”

Davis spoke at a luncheon Wednesday as part of “Reflections on R/UDAT,” a daylong symposium at the Austin Convention Center. The R/UDAT program, a brainchild of the American Institute of Architects, is designed to respond to problems presented by local AIA chapters in communities around the country. The AIA has been sending R/UDAT teams to cities since 1967. R/UDAT first came to Austin in 1991, to recommend a plan of action, and again in 1997 to present the city with construction documents. The purpose of the current visit is to review the progress to date, get bearings on where the city is going and examine what challenges lie ahead. “R/UDAT Review 2000” was sponsored by the City of Austin, the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), the American Institute of Architects and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s important to get an outside perspective,” said Mayor Kirk Watson during the opening session. R/UDAT’s first visit in 1991 lead to a vision for downtown, and one of the results was creation of the DAA, he said. When the city brought R/UDAT back in 1997, five key projects were outlined:

• Mixed-use residential development on the city’s waterfront, including a “bona fide” City Hall • Convention Center expansion • Transit links, including light rail and a Great Streets program • Creek belt projects—upgrading Waller and Shoal Creeks to include residential and public sites • Performing arts complex at Palmer Auditorium (with the condition of private funding)

None of these projects had yet begun at the time of R/UDAT’s last visit, Watson said, pointing out substantial progress in just three years. “Three years is an awfully short period of time.” The city’s waterfront area is “no longer the most forlorn patch of downtown,” he said, noting how the city has owned part of the land since the early seventies, but has spent decades fighting over what to do with it. Now, the new City Hall is under construction on that land as part of a mixed-use facility being built by Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC). Citing CSC and Intel as part of Austin’s new, digital downtown, the mayor said, “we’re attracting major employers downtown where we want…(so) we’re not cutting up those beautiful hills in West Austin.” He noted various new residential projects downtown and mentioned the Convention Center expansion underway.

Light rail was voted down as part of the transit solution, he said, but great effort was made to put that piece of the plan into place. A national magazine recently voted Austin as number two on a list of best places to live, Watson said. “Portland (OR) was number one, and they have light rail,” he said, eliciting laughter.

The Performing Arts Complex project underway is a “shining example…an ideal public/private partnership,” he said. “We’ll be taking up acres of asphalt that for years we’ve been calling a park and make it into a real park.”

Davis enumerated a number of recommendations for downtown. “Let’s turn those one-way streets into two-way and realize downtown vitality depends a lot on that,” he said, suggesting one-way thoroughfares are like a freeway running through downtown. “One way streets have got to go…we said it in ‘91 and ‘97.”

Austin’s “main street” is two-way, but “I still say Congress Avenue is not the great street it could be,” he said, “…it’s not the great street it needs to be.”

Traffic is going to get worse no matter what, he said, so “I think light rail is going to have to be an integral part of downtown Austin.” This city needs a “viable, first-rate, reliable transportation system—that is light rail…To me light rail is a no brainer. I think we ought to do it, get on with it and move on,” he said.

Concerning heavy rail and problems related to it, he said, “I think it’s time for Union Pacific to get out of town.” About freeways, he said, “I think I-35 needs to go underground.” As an example he noted the Bay Area. “San Francisco had the Embarcadero Freeway—it took an earthquake to get rid of it,” he said, but now that area is open to the water and much improved. Davis is with Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis in San Francisco.

Davis said the old Seaholm Power Plant is a great building, “a fabulous place. I think everyone has agreed to save it. That’s good.” It’s not good for an aquarium, which is a specialty of his, but it might be good for a high-tech museum or children’s museum. He wants to “see what we can do to make that place come alive.” He said Austin needs a new library and a science and technology center downtown.

Tom Gougeon of Continuum Partners in Denver said Austin has come a long way but much is yet missing. He suggested “really focusing on the street environment downtown.” Don’t end up with a collection of 20 great buildings and 20 great destinations and no quality pedestrian experience in between, he said, urging city planners “to become obsessed with the quality of the pedestrian experience downtown.”

It’s important to get people out of their cars and on foot downtown, Gougeon said. “There is no plausible future in downtown without a solution like light rail,” he said, adding that voter rejection of such a proposal was just a normal part of the ups and downs of long-range urban development.

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

New lobbyist . . . Donna Warndof will be leaving Travis County next week to join legislative lobby firm Adams & Zottarelli. Warndof has worked for Precinct 5 Constable Bruce Elfant and for the criminal district courts. . . Capital Metro Money . . . The Cap Metro board plans to discuss whether to give all or part of a ¼-cent tax back to the cities for transportation projects at a meeting on Friday. Board members will also decide whether they should complete preliminary engineering and environmental impact studies for light rail. Failing to complete the studies could cost considerably more than finishing them because of contract commitments Cap Metro has to the federal government . . . Book lovers . . . Advanced Micro Devices has given the Austin Public Library Foundation $50,000 for purchase of books on computers, engineering and similar subjects for young people. The Technology Collection of Books for Youth will be available at the Central Library, as well as at all the branches. The grant represents the largest corporate donation ever received by the foundation . . . Need parking? . . . The Urban Transportation Commission may be suggesting radical changes in parking requirements. Several commission members have said they want to meet with counterparts on the Planning Commission to discuss changes to ordinances governing parking. The requirements for most zoning categories have not changed in the past 25 years . . . Music to fly by . . . If you don’t have time to attend a Christmas musical program, you might get your ‘White Christmas’ at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport next week and the following week. More than 20 different groups will be performing weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Dec. 22.

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

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