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Divided Council approves

Friday, June 8, 2001 by

Robertson Hill changes

Guadalupe neighbors still not happy with plan

The Bennett tract, aka Robertson Hill, came back to the City Council for a third and final vote Thursday. The plan had been changed slightly from the scenario approved on second reading two weeks ago, with one tract changed from commercial to residential, a guarantee of 10 percent affordable housing, and allowance for a 200-foot structure at the corner of 11th and I-35. But buildings on the tract just south of that cannot exceed 160 feet, according to Council Member Raul Alvarez, who made the motion for the new zoning and explained the changes. Alvarez said the Guadalupe neighborhood had asked for a 60-foot pedestrian break between buildings in the development. Developer Matt Mathias of Riata Development agreed to a 30-foot break.

Joining Alvarez in voting for the zoning and land use conditions were Mayor Kirk Watson and Council Members Will Wynn and Danny Thomas. Voting against it were Council Members Beverly Griffith, Jackie Goodman and Daryl Slusher. Goodman joined the majority in voting for the package of incentives and grants for the project.

Alvarez has struggled to assist the Guadalupe neighborhood in its fight to keep the residential area intact, while working with developers who have promised jobs and development that may bring more money into the Eastside. On Thursday, he offered that neighborhood—as well as other critics—his explanation of what happened in the long, drawn-out negotiations over the past few months.

Alvarez reported, “We’ve made some progress between the second and third reading” of the zoning ordinance. He added, “I’m not sure that (the neighborhood) would agree necessarily.” He then alluded to media coverage of the proposal, noting in particular a letter in Thursday’s Austin Chronicle from activist Jim Harrington, who accused Alvarez of being a “border watchdog,” or a member of a group normally opposed to the establishment who has been co-opted. (Harrington evidently was suffering from a time warp though, since he referred to the developer as ‘Max Bennett,’ who was involved in a quite different project at the same location 10 years ago. Harrington also thinks the development is a shopping mall, another leftover idea from the 1991 plan.)

Alvarez shared his response to Harrington’s letter with the Council audience, saying, “I think this situation could be deconstructed any number of ways. I can’t come up with any specific models to quote. I can say that I tried to be clear throughout the process with both sides . . . It was represented from the Guadalupe side that it was possible to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution, and I took their presence at the meetings to mean that it was still possible. So when I explained what I was hearing, and what I was proposing to do and would not get a response, but said that this would not lead to the magic solution we were all hoping for, I continued down that process. Should I have assumed silence to mean approval? Obviously not. Should I have assumed that it would end up this way? Probably so. It certainly did not appear that such a vast chasm existed. It really did appear that if we could get a few concessions—which we did—we might get there. But clearly it would have taken some very large concessions for us to get there. But we are where we are . . . (and) I’m still working to see what else can be done to address some of the neighborhood’s concerns.”

Slusher said, “I regret to see (Alvarez) getting slammed in the media. It’s not fair, but it’s happened to most of us up here,” But Slusher said he could not vote for the project, because, “The price is too high for the neighborhood, for the economic development that would occur if this actually happens.”

Griffith said the price of land is too high and regretted the amount of city money being put into the project. “This is a compounding of a mistake that was made 10 years ago. I would hope that we would turn this down and start over . . . We are being asked to put this fragile neighborhood at extreme risk,” she said, noting that the $23 million incentive package “would run the library system for a year.”

Goodman said she understood that the city is facing a tax shortfall—as compared to other nearby communities that do not restrict development to the same extent as Austin. But she said the buffers between the commercial development and the residential neighborhood would be insufficient to allow her to vote for the land use changes. She noted that $6 million of the package is for a “chiller,” from Austin Energy. The project and its tenants will repay that amount, Goodman said.

Following the vote, developer Mathias said, “The architect for City Hall is right—Austin suffers from terminal democracy. But in this case, the project coming out of this 18-month process is much better than what was approved before. This is essentially a downzoning of the property. The heights have been reduced, the density has been reduced and residential character has been introduced on all faces that touch neighborhoods, as well as adding a full city block of residential. So I think it is a very positive thing for East Austin.”

Mathias said the next step would be to try to reassure the people in the Guadalupe neighborhood that he would continue to work with them. He said Riata would begin contacting prospective commercial tenants for the site. “Everybody’s excited about the site who looks at it. It’s four blocks from the Capitol and it sits on I-35. There’s a lot to be excited about.”

Council takes action

On metro roadway plan

Many changes could come next year

The Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan (AMATP) won approval from the City Council Thursday night. Although the Council did not change some of the plan’s assumptions regarding the future of South Lamar Boulevard, South Congress Avenue, and South First Street. Council Members stressed that those thoroughfares would be a focus of discussion over the next several months and that the city would work with the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) to change that organization’s assumptions contained in the CAMPO 2025 Transportation Plan.

The plan approved by the Council contains more than a dozen deviations from the CAMPO plan, which that organization had asked its member jurisdictions to adopt. The final vote was 5-0-2, with Council Members Beverly Griffith and Danny Thomas abstaining.

Much of the public comment on the plan in recent weeks had focused on changes in the designations for Manor Road and South Lamar Blvd (see In Fact Daily, May 18, 2001). Under the 25-year CAMPO plan, those roads could be expanded. And although the Council did not specifically move to block changing those CAMPO designations, members offered assurances that there would be no move to widen those roads.

“I personally don’t believe Lamar should be a highway from the suburbs to downtown,” Council Member Daryl Slusher said. “Nothing is going to happen to those streets as a result of the vote. We went ahead and approved the plan so that we can remain eligible for funds from the state for sidewalks and other enhancements.” Slusher pointed out that listing the roads in the transportation plan is a requirement for many state or federal funding programs.

Griffith argued for changing the designations of three South Austin streets—S. 1st, S. Lamar and S. Congress—saying, “I do not have confidence in what’s being recommended.” Under the CAMPO plan those are all listed for possible expansion, but Griffith wanted the city’s plan to keep them as they currently are. Griffith found support from Thomas and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. But the other four Council members voted against the proposal, and it failed.

Slusher pointed out that the CAMPO plan would be revised next year, and urged the Council to put pressure on that group to change its assumptions to match those of the city. Council Member Raul Alvarez agreed and offered a motion to that effect. “We need to create a process for how we evaluate these streets before the December 2002 changes,” said Alvarez. The Council passed his measure to study the roadways in question between now and December of this year, then make recommendations to CAMPO before December of 2002.

The Council also approved an amendment to the plan to comply with a recommendation from the Environmental Board, concerning roadways in the Drinking Water Protection Zone (see In Fact Daily, Jan 22, 2001). The language indicates that those projects in the DWPZ should not be constructed until such time as studies show that the presently recommended upgrades would result in negligible or improved environmental impact, especially with respect to water quality. According to Slusher, that would have an impact on the proposed toll road ( SH 45) from FM 1626 to I-35. “I don’t think (the toll road) would be a prudent step. It could turn MoPac into a bypass for I-35, and I don’t think anybody living along MoPac wants that,” said Slusher. “This particular segment was not over the aquifer, but it would have helped spur growth over the aquifer.”

Council approves funds

For police helicopter

Austin is largest US city without police chopper

The City Council approved purchase of the police helicopter yesterday without discussion or dissent. The pricetag on the chopper is estimated at $1,657,584, and initially includes training for three pilots, according to Sgt. Bill Horn, who is already a pilot. Horn said he has been working on getting a helicopter for Austin since he first started with APD fifteen years ago.

Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield and Horn both said they were excited about the prospect of getting the helicopter. Sheffield explained that the chopper would make police work safer and easier, for both officers and the public. For example, Sheffield said pursuits are much safer when done by helicopter than by car. A suspect is more likely to have a collision during a car chase, but may not even be aware that he is being pursued by air.

Sheffield related how a police officer was seriously injured several years ago while checking the roof of a building for a burglary suspect. Checking by helicopter is safer and easier in such cases. Citizens who call for help may also receive help more quickly through the airborne police response, he noted. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, helicopters are used to manage traffic flow and look for dangerous drivers, the officers said.

Horn said of the 50 largest cities in the United States, only Austin and New Orleans lack a helicopter. Thus, Austin is the largest city in the US without one. Since helicopters are custom-built, it will be about six months before Austin police can start training, Horn explained

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

Karen Akins reception. . . As Karen Akins prepares to leave her West Austin neighborhood, the Austin Neighborhoods Council is preparing to recognize her service to the community at a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday at Opal Divine’s Freehouse, 700 W. 6th St. at Rio Grande. Akins, who holds a Master’s degree in International Relationsfrom the London School of Economics, says she’s going back for more. The school is offering a new Master of Science in City Design and Social Science, and Akins is eager to learn some theory and design expertise to go along with her neighborhood experiences. Akins rose to a leadership position in the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association after volunteering to edit the association’s newsletter. She was also a member of the OWANA Neighborhood Planning Team. Will Bozeman and Clare Barry, who are hosting the reception, hope they can convince Akins that she’ll be homesick for Austin. But Akins says she and her husband Dan, also a graduate of the London school, plan to move to Vermont when she finishes her studies. However, Akins said she would like to come back to Austin—perhaps as a consultant. For more information on the reception, call Barry at 451-2356 or Bozeman at 422-7395. . . Oops! . . That South Austin Culture Club luncheon is Wednesday, not Tuesday, as stated in yesterday’s early editions of In Fact Daily. The phone number to reserve a seat is 773-7350 or email the club at . . . Suit settled. . . The City Council agreed yesterday to pay $500,000 to settle with plaintiffs who sued over a sewage spill into Brushy Creek almost three years ago. The city is paying $477,000 to 319 persons who may have been injured, in return for release of liability. The remainder goes to a court-appointed representative for children, who will review the settlement on their behalf . . . ZAP created in a flash . . . The Council approved Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman’s plan to split the Planning Commission into two entities without discussion or dissent Thursday. The Zoning and Planning Commission will be composed of nine members who will make decisions on zoning outside of neighborhood plans, as well as subdivision plats. Under the ordinance, the ZAP commission will be abolished in five years, unless extended by the City Council.

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