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Tuesday, April 3, 2001 by

District, says Watson

Minorities lag behind in health care

A new report from the Community Action Network (CAN) shows Travis County minority population lagging behind in health care. The study, titled “Prescription for Wellness,” calls for increased funding for community-based health clinics, boosting disease-prevention efforts, improving access to health care and reducing substance abuse. CAN did not put a total price tag on all of the suggestions included in the more than 300-page report, but Mayor Kirk Watson says it may be time to study the option of a special health district. Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, and San Antonio all have health districts—also called hospital districts—which are funded by property tax revenue.

The creation of a hospital district, like the creation of a community college district or municipal utility district, would require an act of the Legislature. While it’s too late for that to happen during this session, Watson believes regional leaders should begin discussing the possibility well before the next session. “Austin / Travis County is serving a 22-county region with regard to health care,” said Watson. “What that means in the area of indigent services is that folks who are showing up at Brackenridge Hospital aren’t just coming from Austin, they’re coming from the entire region.”

Adding to this burden, says Watson, is the trend by the federal and state governments to shift more and more of the load of providing health-care to the city and county level. “We don’t have sufficient funding, particularly at a time when you see state funding decreasing or remaining stagnant. The district may not be the way to go, but it is certainly time for us to begin that discussion.”

Watson also hopes that health-care issues, including prevention efforts and mental health treatment, will receive a higher priority when budget time rolls around. “We don’t talk about health care in this community enough,” Watson said. “We spend more time at a City Council meeting talking about whether a single piece of property ought to be multi-family or single-family than we do about the health care of the entire community. It’s time to wake up.”

According to information provided by the city’s Finance and Administrative Services Department last September (, about 9.8% of the money spent from the city’s General Fund during the current budget cycle is being devoted to Public Health—compared to 10.7 percent going to Public Recreation and Culture. (A detailed breakdown of the city’s Health and Human Services budget is available at

Downtown residents want

Views preserved

Commercial and neighborhood needs clash

For the second time in as many weeks, the Austin Design Commission was faced with downtown residents who were not happy about the height of a proposed commercial project.

Two weeks ago, it was residents of The Railyard who complained about the 33-story building on Congress Avenue at Fourth Street. Last night, it was the residents of the Brazos Lofts at Fifth and Brazos who had their turn telling the Design Commission that the parking garage proposed for the redevelopment at Sixth and Congress would block a downtown corridor.

Cris Treat represented the 39 homeowners of the Brazos Lofts before the Design Commission. She said the lofts should have the same consideration as any established neighborhood in Austin. The Brazos Lofts opened in 1997.

“Any building that is not in scale with the existing structures would be intrusive to the historic nature of the area,” Treat told commissioners during citizens communication. “It would also create a visual barrier for visitors approaching from the south.”

Most of the buildings on the side of downtown closest to Interstate 35 are one or two stories, with a handful of four-story structures, Treat told commissioners. The 11-story parking garage for the proposed Sixth and Congress redevelopment, Treat told commissioners, would be out of scale for one of the city’s most popular historic areas and block an important view of The Driskill Hotel for visitors.

The Design Commission did appoint a three-member committee— Eleanor McKinney, Perry Lorenz and Girard Kinney—to review the issue, but commissioners held out little hope to loft residents. Treat said she would prefer to see a restaurant or residential community on the site, but Lorenz noted that the block was zoned CBD (Central Business District) and, as such, carried some of the most permissive zoning in the city.

“Any down-zoning would require a supermajority of Council—at least 6 votes—and that would be pretty extraordinary,” Lorenz told Treat. “If they were coming along and proposing a parking garage outside the CBD, you would be in control of the situation. This is different.”

Lorenz, while sympathetic to Treat, said the Design Commission could do little on the zoning issues. The Design Commission could only address design guidelines.

And while Treat asked the commission to consider the historic nature of the Sixth Street district, the lot for the garage does not technically fall into the historic area. The line for historic consideration stops in the middle of the alley, commissioners said.

Another resident, Kathy Dutton, asked if the builder could be forced to consider underground parking as an alternative, but Kinney pointed out Hines Development had to pick up an existing ground lease on the property. While Kinney said his preference was always to use underground parking, he told Dutton that it would be unlikely that Hines would use an underground facility, given the cost of the ground lease, plus redevelopment costs.

The cost of above-ground parking is $9,000 to $12,000 per space. The cost of underground parking is $20,000 to $24,000, Chair Juan Cotera told Dutton. “So when a developer is faced with that cost he’s really hard to convince,” Cotera said.

The three-member committee will bring a recommendation on the parking issue to next month’s meeting. The entire Sixth and Congress project will also be on the agenda at that time for consideration of Smart Growth points.

Council approves zoning for

Affordable housing in Montopolis

Neighborhood plan changed on site

The developer of an affordable housing project cleared the final hurdle for building about 300 apartments in Montopolis when the City Council voted 6-0 Thursday to approve a zoning change. Council Member Beverly Griffith abstained.

Stuart Hersh, manager of Smart Housing for Office of Housing and Community Development, told the Council that his department was recommending the zoning change from LO (local office) to MF-CO. The conditional overlay limits the density of the project to 19.95 units per acre. Staff initially recommended the change, then withdrew that recommendation after the neighborhood plan showed the site proposed for commercial development. However, at a meeting on March 24, the neighborhood planning team changed its plan to reflect multi-family zoning for the site at 2201 Montopolis Dr.

Attorney John Robert Stratton argued that “If you keep going back and voting on anything, sooner or later you get a situation where you get votes . . . I submit to the Council that those who were there for 10 months do not support this land use at this area.” He argued that Montopolis already has its share of apartments. In his speech, Stratton highlighted the importance of affordable housing in Austin by comparing it to Social Security. Stratton, who said he had lived in the neighborhood for 48 years, was hoping that the property would be developed commercially. At the Planning Commission, the property’s owner laughed at the idea that anyone would purchase the site in question for commercial development.

Jerry Harris, attorney for Wellington Interests, told the Council, “To be successful in bringing a tax-credit bond project to the community is extremely difficult. You have to start early; you have to pick a site. At the time we picked this site, it was zoned for office. There had been no activity on the site for many, many years.”

Harris, of Brown McCarroll, stressed the need for action in order to ensure that the bonds would be issued on time. He noted that the Planning Commission had unanimously recommended the zoning change. The bonds are scheduled to be issued on May 8. Failure of the Council to act last week could have resulted in a loss of the bonds to a project in another part of the state.

Harris said that 100 per cent of the living units would be set aside for people earning 50 per cent or less of the median family income. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 23, 2001)

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Music for lunch . . . Mambo Red, a 12-piece salsa band will kick off this season’s Noontime Music concerts, beginning at noon today at the Frost Bank Plaza, 9th and Congress. The Downtown Austin Alliance sponsors the concerts . . . Hays County Bonds . . . The Hays County Commissioners Court today will consider scheduling a bond election for $50 million in road improvements and $3.5 million for park land acquisition. Commissioners Bill Burnett and Debbie Gonzales-Ingalsbe sat on a committee that will make recommendations to the court. The election is likely to be held in June . . . Does anybody want this job? . . . The City of Austin is now accepting applications for Police Monitor and for appointments to the Austin Police Review Panel. The monitor must have a law degree and have practiced for at least eight years. Panel members must be residents of Austin for no less than two years prior to their appointment . . . The joint City of Austin/LCRA Supply Impact Committee met for a get-acquainted session yesterday at the LCRA. The six-member committee—formed in the wake of the LCRA decision to build a water pipeline to Dripping Springs—is charged with the task of discussing “the impact on the environment of water supply decisions by the City and LCRA” for the region. The group, which voted to select no leaders, stressed its commitment to getting as much information as possible on water issues and decisions to the public. The group’s next meeting is April 25, when it will discussion material available from each agency and how to launch that information via the Internet . . . Austin Fine Arts Festival gets underway . . . Preparation for the festival at Republic Square Park will begin 6 a.m. Thursday, although the event will not begin until 11 a.m. Saturday. Numerous downtown streets in the area of 4th and Guadalupe will be closed during the festival, which ends Monday.

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