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Robertson Hill lumbers along

Friday, May 25, 2001 by

With one more vote to go

Bennett tract zoning takes one step forward

After months of conversations and negotiations, development of Robertson Hill (formerly the Bennett tract) moved forward once more Thursday, but did not receive the final third-reading approvals needed for development to actually begin. The City Council approved a plan modified through the efforts of Council Member Raul Alvarez that gives Riata Development one building of 160 feet in height at the corner of I-35 and E. 11th Street, but prevents the developer from building one continuous wall along the frontage road.

In addition, Riata agreed to provide pedestrian access along E. 9th Street and San Marcos to a pedestrian plaza. During the first vote on May 3, the developer agreed to another pedestrian plaza on E. 10th Street. An earlier plan proposed a 30-foot tall parking garage, which would have been another wall between the residential part of the neighborhood and the commercial sections. That will not happen under the plan approved yesterday.

Council Member Daryl Slusher, who opposed the new Neighborhood Conservation Combining District on the first vote three weeks ago, and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who voted in favor of it, voted against the proposal. Goodman said all of her questions had not been answered. Council Member Beverly Griffith, who strongly opposes the proposal and the public money proposed for it, was in Temple at the side of her mother, who is seriously ill.

Alvarez and Council Member Danny Thomas have served as negotiators through the last couple of months, having arrived at the negotiations after the Planning Commission made its recommendations. “I’m trying to be responsive to all sides,” Alvarez noted. “I don’t mean it to disparage anyone, necessarily, but I’ve seen emails saying I’m not being a strong enough advocate.” He said he understood that the criticism “comes with the territory,” but obviously he is not happy about it.

Mayor Kirk Watson wanted to know, before the vote, whether any of the valid petitions against zoning changes were still in effect. If there were no valid petitions, only 4 votes would be needed to finally approve the changes. Representatives of three landowners, including Rev. Marvin Griffin of the Ebenezer Baptist Church who supports economic development, said they had letters requesting to withdraw valid petitions. However, two other landowners, one individual and the Guadalupe Development Corp., were still opposed to the NCCD. Their properties were excluded from the initial vote.

Then, the Council took a vote on zoning those properties SF-3 (single-family) and leaving them out of the NCCD. This was seen as a way for the city to help two property owners who had opposed the zoning changes. After the Council had voted 6-0 to approve that change, one member of the staff raised a question, which rippled up to the dais, trying the Mayor’s patience.

The word from Alice Glasco, director of the Neighborhood Zoning and Planning Department was that taking the properties out of the NCCD and zoning them single-family would make the proposed development impossible. Single-family residential triggers compatibility standards, meaning rules concerning height and setback would prevent the planned commercially-zoned properties from proceeding. There are no compatibility standards within NCCDs.

Watson said, “I don’t think anybody of the staff was surprised about all these motions. So I’m a little curious about why it is now when you’ve just had the Council vote unanimously. . .we’re now hearing this is a problem for the first time.” Glasco said staff knew of the request, but did not anticipate the vote. So the vote was rescinded and the Council went into executive session.

Following the executive session, the Council voted to keep the three properties within the NCCD, but to zone them SF-3 and limit uses to residential. Failing to take that action would have made the residential uses non-compatible, Glasco said. Tract 8 was then zoned CS-MU, except for residences owned by the Guadalupe Development Corp., as recommended by the Planning Commission. That vote was 6-0.

Thomas made a motion to zone Tract 9, owned by the Franzetti family, GR-MU-CO (general retail, mixed use, conditional overlay) with a restaurant being the only GR use allowed. Otherwise, only LR (local retail) uses will be allowed. The restaurant was limited to 1800 square feet on an amendment by Goodman. The Planning Commission had recommended slightly less intense uses, NO (neighborhood office). Alvarez and Slusher voted against that change.

The multitude of agreements concerning economic development grants, incentives and waived fees will be considered on June 7, when the zoning items come back for third reading. The moratorium on development was extended to June 8 and the Council voted to terminate a restrictive covenant enacted on May 24, 1991. That covenant has been causing some title problems for landowners and has no effective purpose now, a staff member said.

When the voting on those items concluded, Watson said, “Mercifully, we have completed that.”

Developer Matt Mathias agreed that he could see the light at the end of the tunnel Thursday, “and this time it’s not a train.” But Mark Rogers of the Guadalupe Development Corp. was still critical. His position from the outset has been to oppose commercial development. After Thursday’s vote, he said he would continue to fight.

Council asks for better

Monitoring of waste site

Also approves ordinance against sidewalk slackers

In an effort to quell safety concerns over soil contamination from industrial waste at the Austin Community Landfill, the City Council voted unanimously Thursday to approve a resolution directing the City Manager to take a more rigorous approach to monitoring the site. Council Member Beverly Griffith was absent.

At the urging of citizens and fellow Council members, Mayor Kirk Watson amended the resolution to include a provision to get the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) involved in sampling and monitoring contamination at the northeast Austin industrial landfill. “It gets to the heart, which is to get the TNRCC involved again,” he said.

The resolution calls for contract renewals with Waste Management Inc. relating to the site to be presented to the City Council before approval. The resolution also states that closer monitoring is sought because a public health risk could result from the 21,000 barrels of reportedly hazardous materials at the site, where only voluntary monitoring is underway and no TNRCC oversight is required. The City Manager is to report back the City Council within 45 days.

“The purpose of this resolution, as far as I’m concerned,” said Council Member Danny Thomas, “is to make sure that we have proper monitoring going on.” He said he was concerned about three creek tributaries flowing through the site and the possibility of contaminated drinking water. “I concur with the Mayor on contacting the TNRCC,” he said. “When the citizens are still crying out for more testing . . . we want to make sure that we keep it monitored.”

Some citizens told the Council that the TNRCC could not be trusted. One resident of a neighborhood near the landfill said she and her neighbors could not count on the TNRCC. “The TNRCC continues to bend to Waste Management’s arguments rather than provide regulatory oversight as mandated by the Texas Legislature,” said Kristina Kubeck.

“Despite the fact that we have pointed out numerous deficiencies in Waste Management’s Investigation Work Plan and the Human Health Risk Evaluation Report date, the TNRCC has never had a comment or reply,” Kubeck said.

Watson said the city has a good working relationship with the TNRCC and progress is possible. “I sympathize with those who feel the TNRCC doesn’t go far enough,” he said.

Amy Kersten, another resident of the area, urged the Council to “not be misled—this is a serious situation.” She presented evidence of carcinogenic chemicals found in the soil outside of the disposal area—areas that were thought to be uncontaminated. This proves underground migration of the toxins, she said

No sitting on the sidewalk

The City Council also voted 4-2 to approve an ordinance that prohibits sitting or lying down on public sidewalks in the Central Business District, and a companion resolution, which passed 6-0, authorizing a contract between the city, Travis County and the Capital Area Homeless Alliance to operate an overnight emergency shelter for homeless men.

Homeless advocate Richard Troxell, along with colleagues, presented the Council with a demonstration to make a point about the proposed ordinance. “We’re speaking against the no sitting/lying down ordinance,” he said, before directing his assistants into position. His helpers first sat on the floor around the podium, then laid on the floor to demonstrate the first two stages of the “act of sleeping.” He then asked his assistants, “Please proceed to the third stage of sleeping,” which was snoring.

“They have achieved the act of sleeping,” he pronounced, noting that the proposed ordinance would be violating people’s due process to the right to sleep. He said it was a simple demonstration, an illustration of what most people do every night. “People do not sleep standing up. Horses and cows do that,” he said, urging the Council to make this a community effort and take responsibility for everyone in the community. “We don’t want your shelters, we want to make our own way,” he said.

Council Member Danny Thomas, who voted against the ordinance, said this issue would be a continuing problem and he wanted to make sure the City found a way to get homeless people into shelters. “We need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to support the homeless,” the former police officer said.

Watson said he believes the situation has improved since the City adopted a related program three and a half years ago, but in some areas downtown pedestrians still don’t feel comfortable with the numbers of panhandlers and people loitering. He made it clear that the new ordinance doesn’t make it illegal just to sit or lay on the sidewalk. It only becomes an infraction if a police officer asks the offender to get up and the person does not comply.

The ordinance states the “City has compelling interest in: encouraging and preserving a vital, pedestrian-friendly urban core; promoting tourism and business in the central business district; preserving the quality of urban life and in protecting its citizens from intimidating behavior; and encouraging businesses and neighborhoods in the central city where walking is a realistic alternative to vehicles that use fossil fuels.”

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

Day off Monday . . . In Fact Daily will take Memorial Day off, as will the city and most other government agencies. We will have a new issue on Tuesday. Have a good weekend . . . No wonder he switched . . . Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the unfriendly arms of the Republican Party yesterday. It should come as no surprise to Republicans when they print statements like this one from GOPUSA.com: “Now, I, like many of you, cannot stand RINOs (Republicans In Name Only),” the newsletter begins. The message then asks readers to call Jeffords, urging him to stay in the fold . . . No chopper yet . . . The Austin Police Department has big plans for a new helicopter, and even has a model picked out—but funding for the chopper was postponed by City Council on Thursday . . . Making the Mayor happy . . . Mayor Kirk Watson was all smiles as he introduced Gary P. Nunn for the live music performance at Thursday's council meeting. Nunn performed two songs that are favorites of Watson, “Things I Like About Texas” and “London Homesick Blues” . . . New deal . . . The Council approved a new settlement in the Cedar Avenue case on Thursday. According to City Attorney Andy Martin, “It's a new beginning.” The deal was reached after several months of mediation and sets out new guidelines for the First Step Corporation. First Step was formed to distribute scholarships in the wake of a legal battle following a 1995 police clash with teenagers at a Valentine’s Day party on Cedar Avenue. The agreement includes new eligibility guidelines for scholarships and job training programs.

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