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Design, Downtown commissions

Thursday, January 11, 2001 by

Talk about plans for new City Hall

Architect Predock shows concepts more than specifics

Architect Antoine Predock painted a colorful picture of the concepts behind the design of the new City Hall, but his sweeping talk last night did not win over all members of the two city commissions in attendance.

Another presentation on the proposed four-story $37.3 million City Hall and plaza—scheduled for Austin City Council consideration on Jan. 18—drew a crowd of 100 on Tuesday night. The Design Commission and Downtown Commission joint meeting last night was a much more intimate group for Predock. If the design wins Council approval soon, construction could start in June 2002.

Predock's talk about the concepts behind the design—which he emphasized were still more conceptual than schematic in nature—was peppered with references to “geological underpinnings” and “cultural overlays.” He described how the terraces of the hall and plaza would be oriented toward Town Lake to echo the Balcones rock formations, and how the building’s relaxed geometry was designed to be both playful and inviting. He said the artful tower at the entrance was intended to suggest the city's historic moon towers.

To Stan Haas of the Design Commission, however, Predock's talk was too much concept and not enough nuts and bolts about how the design meets the needs set out by the city. Haas, also an architect, told Predock he was more interested in hearing about the specifics of the project.

“You might say I heard the script, I read the book, but I don't like the movie very much,” said Haas, adding, “the design of the project may be only as successful as the design of the commentary.”

The list of comments from the commissioners—e.g., the lack of awnings for shade, the strong unfriendly angles from certain vantage points and the need to replace concrete with grass in the plaza—were all comments that Predock had already heard . Instead of generating a strong sense of what the hall and plaza would accomplish, Predock was only getting “a bunch of individual commentary,” Haas said.

Haas, who admitted he had walked into the evening's meeting with some skepticism about the project, wanted the program goals to be clearly mapped out and related to the project design.

“This is obviously a very important process,” Haas said. “If I were Nathan (Schneider, the city’s project manager), I would have framed these discussions in a much more prescribed fashion using some project goals.”

Predock said those goals were incorporated into his design, even if they had not stood out in his presentation. Predock admitted that the drawings in the earliest stages were broad and evolving.

Vice Chair Chris Riley of the Downtown Commission said he had come to the meeting with his own concerns, among them whether the building would be pedestrian-friendly. Riley said he found Predock to be open to many of the ideas that commissioners were suggesting.

“I was impressed by the presentation. Like a number of other people there, I went in pretty skeptical and came out feeling more positive about it,” Riley said. “The pictures you see on paper and on the web are not that flattering. When you step back and get an understanding of why the building has the shape that it has and the ideas that Predock has for it… It puts the building in a much more favorable light.”

Juan Cotera, whose firm shares design duties with Predock on the building, outlined some of the specifics about the floor plan of the 115,000-square-foot building. According to the design, each floor of the building is a terrace making liberal use of windows and light. Cotera is also chair of the Design Commission.

The ground floor will house the Council chambers and city clerk's office. The second floor will be home to the Mayor's office and council space. The third floor will house the city manager’s offices, and the fourth floor will hold the city’s legal department.

About 4,000-square-feet of retail space—primarily to serve city hall—could be approved for the ground floor facing Second Street. And three levels of underground parking would be built, with one level dedicated to Computer Sciences Corp. employees during the day.

While all the commissioners were polite about the design—and some quite pleased by Predock's presentation—the shape of new building was not aesthetically pleasing to all. One member of the small audience sniped that he had seen more character in a 7-11 convenience store.

Waste advisory group wants

More data from WMI, neighbors

SWAC hears neighborhood complaints about monitoring plan

Last night, the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission heard more than two hours of explanation from Waste Management Inc., and complaints from WMI’s neighbors, who say the company’s industrial waste monitoring plan is inadequate to determine whether there is groundwater contamination from the industrial waste unit at the company’s northeast Travis County landfill.

Mike Caldwell, the company’s geologist, said WMI has selected two wells on the perimeter of the property to monitor semi-annually for two years and then annually for three years. “Then we would evaluate continuing the program with TNRCC (Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission).”

Caldwell explained that WMI’s participation in the monitoring program is voluntary. The company has asked for comments from TNRCC, which has authority over plans for dealing with “critical levels” of dangerous substances migrating from landfills. The City Council directed WMI to work with area neighbors on the monitoring plan when WMI was awarded a city contract six months ago.

Neighbors say the company has met with them, but failed to incorporate their suggestions and requests into its plan. Janet Klotz told the commission, “WMI’s plan is flawed and should not be accepted or endorsed . . . There is no indication it was prepared by a qualified groundwater scientist…Also, as the plan is not being submitted as part of the legally required program, it is not a legally binding plan. The City Council asked that the neighborhoods groups be included. We did go to meetings, but (neighborhood) requests were not taken too seriously and they never received a copy of the final plan.”

Neighbor Trek English lives in the Walnut Place neighborhood. “I believe if you had 21,000 barrels of hazardous waste not a mile from your house you would want it monitored,” she said. She read from a report showing “industrial chemicals exceeding critical PCLs (Protective Concentration Levels), which of course is to be expected.”

English said she is concerned that the whole area—which includes landfills owned by BFI and Travis County—could become contaminated. If that happened, she said, “You would then get the EPA coming in and declaring this a Superfund Site and lowering the value of your house.”

English and other speakers were especially suspicious of WMI’s failure to agree to monitor a particular well that was installed several years ago.

Company officials said the well is not sited properly for monitoring.

Commissioners asked both the neighbors and WMI to give them statements in writing to study before the next commission meeting on Feb. 14, when the item will be on the agenda for action. Commissioner J.D. Porter said, “Given the volume of data, we need a response from WMI. This (request for monitoring) was initiated because of liability concerns by the city. So, our responsibility is to see how we are protecting the city through our recommendations.”

School Land Board approves

Sand Beach Reserve agreement

Lumbermen's to go through site plan process

The Texas School Land Board has approved an agreement between the City of Austin and Lumbermen’s Investment Corp. (LIC) settling the boundary dispute over the Sand Beach Reserve. Jay Hailey of Locke Liddell & Sapp, attorney for LIC, said Wednesday that his client has agreed to pay $10,000 to the Permanent School Fund( PSF) in exchange for the State’s waiver of “any theoretical interest” it might have in the small lakeshore property. The PSF receives royalties from oil and natural gas taken from state property, but there is no indication that the Sand Beach Reserve sits atop any minerals.

The City of Austin agreed in November to settle the lawsuit, swapping a portion of city land for LIC property near the Seaholm Power Plant on West Cesar Chavez. Casey Dobson of Scott Douglass & McConnico, who represented the city in the litigation, said he was doing a final review of the judgment Wednesday and was prepared to sign it. He said a representative of the Attorney General’s Office had indicated that the State would sign the judgment also. The Attorney General was involved in the case because of legal questions surrounding transfer of dedicated parkland.

Open space activist Mary Arnold, who has argued against the settlement, said, “I’m not happy with losing Sand Beach Reserve.” She said she still believes that the city cannot allow easement across park property without a public hearing.

“One of the things I’m concerned about is that the city waived any objection to the location of a new access for the LIC project across the parkland. That seems to me to fly in the face of a state law requirement that there should be notice in the newspaper to judge whether there’s a reasonable or feasible alternative to taking parkland,” Arnold said. However, Hailey said that his client was not asking to be exempted from any such hearing requirements. He said he was uncertain as to whether a hearing was required by law, but “if that law applies, we’ll comply with it.”

Dobson said LIC already had access because the previous landowner fought and won a battle in court on that point nearly 10 years ago. “The agreement says we’re going to re-orient those access points given the land we have and the (planned) Seaholm parking,” he said.

In order to complete the deal the way the city and LIC have envisioned it, the city needs to purchase property owned by the Union Pacific Railway. Dobson said he was only hired to handle the litigation aspects of the agreement and had just signed a letter to City Attorney Andy Martin and Assistant City Manager Marcia Conner saying his involvement in the case is now concluded.

Lumbermen’s still has to go through “all the usual site plan processes” any property owner faces when building a new structure in the city, Dobson said. “We’ve given them a head start by approving a few things,” including the height of the buildings and permission to build in the flood plain if safety regulations are met. LIC is planning two buildings, Hailey said. One of those buildings can be 180 feet, or 60 feet above the height generally allowed in the area. However, the second building must be reduced by the same amount, so the average height of the two will be 120 feet, he said. LIC will also provide engineering reports to show that the buildings planned will meet safety codes for structures within the 25-year flood plain, he said.

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

Hats off! . . . The Austin Public Library’s youth program, Star Card, has won the first Giant Steps Award, including $10,000, for a partnership between the library and the Austin Independent School District. The program was initiated by former City Council Member Gus Garcia, Elva Garza, of the city’s Terrazas Branch Library, and Sanchez Elementary School Principal Ed Leo. The program is part of a citywide effort to encourage young people to become lifelong users of the library . . . No City Council today . . .You’ll have to wait until next week.

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

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