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Vignette hits home run, scoring

Friday, December 15, 2000 by

$25 million in fees, city grants

Support from across community

With 30 speakers from diverse backgrounds signed up to speak in favor of Vignette—and no opposition—it was almost a foregone conclusion that the City Council would say yes to the growing software company’s request for $25 million in fee waivers and future economic development grants yesterday.

The grants include $7.9 million for Waller Creek improvements. Vignette will construct hike and bike trails, build pedestrian bridges, add trees and lighting, and design improvements, such as bank stabilization, along the creek. In order to deal with traffic problems on Cesar Chavez, the company will dedicate right of way, construct turn lanes, add traffic signals and relocate utilities, if needed. That part of the package is estimated to cost about $1 million. The most ambitious undertaking, however, is the $11.4 million partnership between Vignette and the city to study the pollution reduction potential of telecommuting, compressed work weeks and similar programs.

Attorney David Armbrust, who represents Vignette, said, “The City Council today has an opportunity to make a reality of what other cities can only dream of.” Because Vignette has chosen to locate its world headquarters on East Cesar Chavez, the company can become “a major employer at the front door of East Austin,” he said.

Robin Rather, who has worked with Vignette since the company first announced its plan to build downtown, said the project represents 1.5 million square feet of commercial office space off of the aquifer. Reverend Joseph Parker of David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church said, “Austin is becoming a world class city. Vignette is a gift to Austin.” He said he was particularly impressed with the willingness of Greg Peters, Vignette’s CEO, to come out into the community.

Developer Robert Barnstone, a former Council Member, said, “I’m envious of the opportunity you have to set the tone for our community. It is the vision this City Council has had that brought the first crane to downtown in 15 years. The stars are aligned. Let’s not lose the moment.”

Outside the hearing, former City Council Member Brigid Shea pointed out that her former employer, the Save Our Springs Alliance, was the only environmental organization in the community not supporting Vignette. Bill Bunch and Mark Tschurr have been critical of Vignette’s request for tax abatements and fee waivers. However, neither appeared at yesterday’s hearing. Council Member Daryl Slusher said, “Philosophically I would prefer not to do this kind of package, but I want to protect the Edwards Aquifer and we have to acknowledge it costs much more to build downtown. This is a worthwhile investment on the city’s part.”

Council Member Danny Thomas commended city staff for their hard work in bringing the Vignette package forward. He also praised Vignette managers for their efforts to be a good neighbor on both sides of I-35. “I will support you one hundred percent,” he said.

Council Member Beverly Griffith, the only member to express serious reservations about the funding strategy, said, “I’m delighted that Vignette is coming downtown.” She said she was worried about the carrying capacity of the downtown infrastructure, adding that the city needs to study that capacity before it becomes overloaded.

All seven members of the Council praised Vignette’s plan and six of them voted for the financial package. Griffith abstained. All seven voted for the zoning changes and street vacation the company needs to begin construction.

Following the vote, City Manager Jesus Garza said he was especially pleased that Vignette has chosen to locate in the southeast quadrant of downtown, which had received less attention than other areas. He said he believes that Vignette is the first, but other similar companies will follow, making downtown home not to just financial and business interests, but also to the digital sector of the economy. “What makes it all the nicer is that Vignette is a home-grown company,” Garza concluded.

Charles Sansbury, senior vice president of Vignette, explained how the financing will work. “We’re taxed on the value of our land. Every year as we build, the tax assessment goes up. Say the valuation is $100 million in 2002. We pay the tax and then we get that back the next year. Then we pay the next year’s tax on the new value and then get that back, until either we have received $20.4 million or 20 years has elapsed. We may or may not get it all back. He said Vignette had originally planned three buildings but now plans two, with the first phase being larger than originally conceived.

Vignette facts and figures

Where: East Cesar Chavez Street along Waller Creek Proposed project size: 1.5 million square feet Cost of project: $350 million When: first phase scheduled for completion by the end of 2003 Employees: 2,300 at full build out City participation: $20.4 million in economic development grants and $4.5 million in fee waivers Estimated revenues for city: $31 million in property and sales taxes over a 20-year period

Waived city fees are as follows: $464,653 for Development Review and Inspection fees; $681,961 of Construction Inspection fees $2,979,857 for temporary use of right-of-way fees, street cut permits and street vacation fees, etc., $230,732 in water quality and landscape inspection fees $170,517 of capital recovery, meter and inspection fees from the Water and Wastewater Utility Department. The total in waived fees is $4,527,720.

Council approves new zoning for

East Cesar Chavez neighborhood

Alvarez firm on need for rezoning

By Doug McLeod

After many months of heated arguments, allegations of mishandled ballots and postponements, in fact a year-and-a-half after the initial plan was adopted, the City Council finally approved the sweeping zoning changes called for in the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood plan. Zoning on all but one tract out of 90 included in the plan—which was “carved out” for deferment—will change in an effort to maintain the character of the old neighborhood. The plan covers an area bounded by IH-35 on the west, Town Lake to the south, Chicon Street on the east and the alley between East 6th and East 7th Streets to the north.

Council Member Raul Alvarez said the intention is to change commercial and industrial zoning to mixed use. “This plan has been maligned by some folks out there,” he said, noting that people on both sides had very strong opinions. But “what we want to do is preserve the existing character of the neighborhood.” In late October, Alvarez angered some East Austin residents by postponing action on the plan so he could do some personal research in the area. After walking the neighborhood and talking to residents, he reported, “What you hear constantly is, ‘we want to maintain the character of the neighborhood.’”

Alvarez said the plan successfully articulates the concerns of the people in the neighborhood. He said it was important “to consider these things in a responsible manner and really look at what’s going on.” He said he heard people say, “If they start building condos in our neighborhood, that’s really going to change things.”

Everyone agrees, Alvarez said, to keep land north of the railroad tracks between 4th and 5th Streets commercial, and down zone the residential area south of the tracks to CSU. He said this would establish a 40-foot height limit to restrict development of townhouses and condos. “If we limit the intensity, then that’s going to limit the adverse impact,” he said.

The area covered by the plan is a single-family neighborhood for the most part, with commercial uses along East Cesar Chavez Street and East 4th and 6th Streets. One of the main themes in the plan is that present and future zoning remain compatible with the residential character of the neighborhood. The plan began as part of the city’s pilot program for neighborhood planning. The city held neighborhood meetings, canvassed residents door-to-door and had a community open house. Once a definite plan was developed, the city distributed ballots to residents and property owners in the area. The neighborhood adopted the plan in February 1999.

Since that time, residents and business owners have squabbled over the methods and procedures used to interpret the intent of the ballots and valid petitions from landowners. Allegations of mishandling and misinterpreting ballots and petitions have fueled acrimony in the discussion of the plan. Austan Librach, director of the city Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department, said the process of balloting was merely a tool, “simply a mechanism to get more public input. It was not meant to be a vote, he said. “We’re not electing a president here.”

Valid petitions signed by landowners in the area against the zoning changes factored into the fray. Council Member Jackie Goodman said she stands by the use of valid petitions as the only legal tool available in certain situations, but “when that tool is used to hold a neighborhood hostage,” as in this case, she had to object. “It strangles the neighborhood,” she said, noting that she was as mad about this as she was at the Supreme Court for its recent ruling on the presidential election.

Some of the opposition had been “amazing and contradictory,” she said. “The goal has been to right some of the wrongs,” and to bring people into the process and respect the voice of long-term residents and families who have a long-term history in the neighborhood. “I think this neighborhood has gone above and beyond what any other neighborhood has,” she said.

Goodman said there was no way she would let this neighborhood be held hostage. “If you can’t vote for this, then I think it’s time to put the whole thing on hold,” she said, “we should scrap the whole thing.” The risk is that the plan can get changed by non-residents to the point that it becomes unrecognizable, she said, and then the city will have “allowed other people to take our neighborhood plan and squash it into the dirt.”

Carol Barrett, neighborhood planning manager, noted that a majority names on the signed petitions were from non-resident owners.

It’s been 20 years since the idea first came to light, and now the Mexican American Cultural Arts Center (MACC) is finally taking form. Chief architect Teodoro Gonzalaz de Leon of Mexico City showed the City Council a detailed scale model and numerous renderings of the proposed $10.9 million facility on the banks of Town Lake at Waller Creek.

“We want to create a very strong image,” he said, pointing out various components of the design and how they integrate structures with the environment. The design incorporates a “crescent and tilted cubes that frame the best part of the land,” he said, forming a plaza or “zocalo” where people can gather. “This way we can really assure it will be a meeting place,” he said. “All the people meet there.” In this climate, “you need shade in summer,” he said, “that’s why we put umbrellas partially covering the plaza.”

Jaime Beaman, with CasaBella Architects of Austin, one of the architects working on the project, told In Fact Daily his firm is in a joint venture with Del Campo & Maru of San Francisco, in association with Gonzalaz de Leon. The open plaza, a design feature Gonzalaz de Leon is known for, will be on the back side, open to Town Lake, “creating a community focal point,” he said.

The center, at 600 River St., will be built in three phases and total approximately 126,000 square feet, Beaman said. “The two-story, crescent-shaped building that creates the plaza will contain exhibition space, classrooms, offices, some commercial space, like a coffee shop or a book shop, and support spaces, like storage and bathrooms,” he said.

Phase one of the facility, budgeted at $7.5 million, is scheduled for completion in late spring or early summer 2003, hopefully by Cinco de Mayo, Beaman said.

The Council approved the $6.8 million settlement agreement with Stratus Properties (formerly FM Properties) over MUD reimbursables on without Council dissent Thursday, but not without discussion. Community activist Mary Arnold signed up to speak on the matter to express her objection to the settlement. She said when the issue was brought before city boards and commissions, the city stated it owed nothing. “Why is the city legally bound to pay this claim?” she asked. “Take it to court.”

City Attorney Andy Martin said by settling this lawsuit the city is “minimizing the risk” of a more expensive judgment from a court of law. State law mandates a penalty of 1 percent a month, he said, so if the city lost in court and appealed, and then lost again, it would be too costly. There’s too much risk, he said. The amount Stratus claims the city owes is “up to $14 million-plus, and counting,” he said. “This settlement makes a great deal of sense for the city—it minimizes exposure,” Martin said.

“What I object to is the city caving in,” Arnold said, reiterating that she thinks a court of law should decide.

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

Rainey Street blues . . . It looks like developer Gordon Dunaway may walk away from Rainey Street after months of work. Brigid Shea, a member of the neighborhood’s negotiation team says she doubts that the required number of her neighbors will have signed on the dotted line by the end of the day. Today was supposed to be the day that Dunaway wrote earnest money checks . . . Airport advisors get another month . . . Those cantankerous members of the Airport Advisory Board thought their posts were being abolished Thursday, but the matter was postponed for at least one more month . . . Holiday time . . . Thursday’s Council meeting was the final one for 2000. The Council will not meet again until January 18 . . . The LCRA opened a new wastewater treatment plant in Elgin yesterday. The old plant had been out of compliance with national standards for several years, so everyone in that area is probably pleased.

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

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