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HLC not happy about plan

Tuesday, June 26, 2001 by

To move Schneider Vaults

Structural soundness not yet determined

Although the lease on the ALMI Residential apartment project on West Second Street has been approved by the City Council, it hasn’t come without raising the ire of the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC).

One of the amendments of the lease agreement—negotiated by Council Member Will Wynn on June 14th—was an attempt to disassemble the historic Schneider Vaults at 400 West Second Street and move them to the Schneider Store across the street. Historic Landmark Commission Chair Lauretta Dowd met that with strong disapproval at the Council meeting and at the Landmark commission last night, where she voiced her disapproval again for disassembling what she called a one-of-a-kind piece of Austin history.

After a presentation from Jan Hilton of the Redevelopment Services Department on the deal, Dowd said she considered the city’s position on the vaults to be a weak one. It was the city that condemned the property at 400 West Second Street and failed to use it. It was the city that had allowed the property to deteriorate. And now it was the city that was asking that historic zoning be given up on the property.

“It’s not a very strong position of support for me,” Dowd said in polite but obviously unhappy tones. “We allowed this building to deteriorate and now we’re going to walk away.”

Earlier this month, the City Council approved a 70-year lease with an option for an additional 29 years. Lease terms on the mixed-use residential project obligate AMLI to pay the city 6 percent of the net operating income with a minimal rent of $60,000 per year. For its part, AMLI promises to build 150 or more residential apartment units and offer first-floor retail space.

The only sticking point was the Schneider Vaults, which AMLI had agreed to attempt to incorporate into its project. That attempt failed, and the developer notified the city it would be building up and around the vaults, giving the city—but not the public—access to the vaults. As Hilton explained to commissioners, it was Wynn’s hope that the compromise could provide public access to a piece of Austin history.

That explanation did not mollify those on the Historic Landmark Commission. Just over a year ago, the commissioners were forced to sign off on the demolition of the Tips Warehouse for an AMLI project. The concession of the Schneider vaults did not sit any better with the group. Commissioner Teresa O’Connell clarified that the vaults would go into the basement of the renovated Schneider store—soon to be downtown retail space—but that the physical parameters of the basement meant that what remained of the vault after it was disassembled would have to be reconfigured to fit a different size space.

The whole concept of moving the vault—even to the family business across the street—didn’t sit well with Commissioner Daniel Leary. He called the vaults a rare find that ought to hold some value to AMLI rather than serve as a deterrent to a larger parking garage for an apartment project. Sure, the Schneider vaults might be incorporated into the Schneider family business, but that move wouldn’t retain historical accuracy. “Someone built the vault in this place for a particular use and it’s still there,” Leary said.

The Schneider Vaults are two arched limestone vaults of approximately 440 square feet. German immigrant and brewer Jeanne Schneider, who was killed in the Civil War, built them in 1860. The vaults are believed to be part of the first brewery in Austin, and are in the process of receiving a historic landmark designation. Members of the city staff are scheduled to meet with the Texas Historical Commission on Thursday to discuss the new plans for the historic structure.

“I just find it to be a bizarre idea that we’re compromising two structures and not one,” Leary said. “I have an engineering background . . . picking up a vault and moving it? It’s virtually impossible to do.”

In AMLI’s defense, Hilton did say that the developer had responded to Wynn’s offer rather than the other way around. AMLI had always been willing to meet the letter of the lease agreement with the city as it pertained to the Schneider vaults, Hilton said. A number of conditions were included in the lease: AMLI would hire a structural engineer to look at the condition and soundness of the vault. AMLI was obligated to explore ways to incorporate the vault into its project, but was not obligated to use the vault in its design. If that design did not include public access to the vault, the developer was obligated to build over and around it and allow the city easy access upon request to view and inspect the vault.

In the final amendment between the city and AMLI, said Hilton, the city agreed to reimburse AMLI $250,000 to provide materials and consultants to preserve the vault. That $250,000 would be a rent credit on the lease agreement, Hilton said. The amount is termed a historic mitigation fee. In order to underwrite moving the vaults, AMLI has agreed to provide the Schneider family with an additional $200,000 to take charge of placing them in the basement of the former two-story Schneider family store. Dowd said she found it hard to believe that disassembling the vault would provide the city with anything more than “a pile of rocks.”

Dowd stressed that she wanted language in the lease agreement that insisted—as Council Member Beverly Griffith had—that the vault would stay put if structural engineers deemed the move too difficult.

Hilton said the reports that the renovation of the Schneider store was over budget are untrue. Through an agreement with the city, the Schneider family is renovating the family store, which was condemned and claimed by the city more than 20 years ago. The Schneider family, Hilton said, has committed $1 million to both interior and exterior renovation of the building to prepare it for retail use. The unexpected cost of lead paint removal on three sides of the building added unexpected expense to the city’s budget on the project but had been covered by an additional grant, he said.

That, combined with AMLI’s offer and the Schneider’s support, has brought the renovation of the building “back in line” with projected budget figures.

The vaults are still being considered for a state landmark designation. Dowd asked for regular updates on the vaults, starting next month. Hilton said she did not expect to see a structural report in time for the July meeting. The archeological study of the underground vault has been completed but a report has yet to be issued on the site, said Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Stocklin.

Seaholm Master Plan

Gets more scrutiny

Connection to pedestrian/bike bridge withdrawn

The Seaholm District Master Plan is making the rounds of various city boards and commissions in preparation for City Council consideration, perhaps as early as August. Last week, Greg Kiloh, with the Transportation, Planning and Sustainability Department, presented the plan to the Environmental Board. His briefing launched an hour-long public hearing, resulting in the Board creating a subcommittee to review the plan.

Board Member Ramon Alvarez, who will chair the subcommittee, told In Fact Daily that Austan Librach, director of TPS, had just sent out a memo to all city boards and commissions saying that the department was withdrawing consideration of the Lamar pedestrian/bicycle bridge extension from the master plan. The memo states that TPS will consider it after the Seaholm District Master Plan is adopted. Alvarez said he would prefer to take a holistic approach and study the bridge extension and the Lance Armstrong Cross Town Bikeway concurrently with the Seaholm Master Plan. “We’re going to take a strong look at splitting the bridge plan,” he said, noting it might be better to consider all of it together.

Board Members Connie Seibert and Karin Ascot will also be on the subcommittee. Board Members Joyce Conner, Phil Moncada and Matt Watson were absent from last week’s meeting.

Chris Riley, president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association and member of the Downtown Commission, addressed the Board on the master plan. “I’m very excited about having a plan for Seaholm,” he said, “I love the idea of having a plan for this area.” But there are some outstanding problems, particularly in trying to incorporate the Lance Armstrong Bikeway and in designing a fluid, functional extension to the newly opened James D. Pfluger Bridge to accommodate commuters.

Riley, a bicycle commuter who told the Board he lives just three blocks north of the Seaholm District, said the Armstrong Bikeway interface is critical. But he added, “I don’t think we’re there yet . . . The Lance Armstrong Bikeway is still up in the air—we don’t know where it’s going to go yet.”

He also said the spiral ramp connecting the bridge to the hike and bike trail is not suitable for people commuting to downtown. “The helix at the north end of that bridge is not designed for commuter traffic,” he told the Board. The helix is designed only for access to the trail below and an extension must be built for commuters to reach downtown, he said. “It was not designed with the idea of using the helix to get downtown.”

Federal funding made construction of the bridge possible, he noted, and that funding was procured under the condition that the bridge would serve commuter traffic and get people downtown. “It’s just not doing that yet,” he added. “We ran out of money.”

Kiloh said the master plan was commissioned last year, a move that came out of City Council action in 1996 to decommission the Seaholm Power Plant and study the possibility of reusing it. The city-owned plant, built of cast concrete in two phases in 1950 and 1955, was designed in a simplified Art Deco Moderne Style. Last year the city contracted with the ROMA Design Group of San Francisco to create a master plan for the plant and surrounding area.

Kiloh said the city’s legal dispute with Lumbermen’s Investment Corp (LIC) over the boundary of parkland for the Sand Beach Reserve was resolved during the early stages of the master planning process. The plan is now in the final draft stage, he said.

“We’re hoping we can go to the City Council in August or September,” Kiloh told the Board, offering a time frame for the recommendation he is seeking.

The plan calls for a northern realignment of Cesar Chavez Boulevard at the historic Lamar Boulevard Bridge, and for moving Sandra Muraida Way, which connects Lamar and Cesar Chavez, as a way to calm traffic and create more open green space and parkland. The Pfluger Bridge extension would be in the exact same area, and the Armstrong Bikeway would also run through there.

Board Member Tim Jones was curious about the need to preserve the fifties-era power plant. “What’s the rationale for keeping the smokestacks,” he asked Kiloh, referring to the plants five towering smokestacks.

“The stacks contribute to the historical image,” Kiloh replied. “It’s recommended to maintain the stacks and part of the boiler.” He noted the structure had been designated historic, so the features were “being kept as part of its historic character.” Kiloh said the historic nature of the facility was the purpose for preservation. “It’s seen as a very important historical feature on the lake,” he said, commenting specifically on the water intake structure below the main plant building.

Jones admitted that even though he has lived in Austin for decades, he was not very familiar with the old power plant. Because of this, he suggested a subcommittee field trip to tour the facility.

Mary Arnold, former chair of the Environmental Board and longtime environmental advocate, told the Board she opposes the Seaholm District Master Plan. “I first came to Austin in 1952, so Seaholm precedes my time in Austin,” she said. “They still have a long way to go in this process before getting this plan approved,” she noted, pointing out problems yet unsolved in her mind. “I feel there is too much new pavement on parkland.” Arnold has consistently opposed the city’s settlement with LIC because she believes the agreement violates the grant of parkland to the city.

The Town Lake Comprehensive Plan of 1968 described the vision of the Town Lake corridor as “a place of quiet beauty, dignity and pleasure,” she said, but that’s not the way it was evolving. Compared to Central Park in New York City, Town Lake is not a quiet place, she said.

And regarding certain areas of the Seaholm District, the city has already blown it, Arnold said. “Well it’s a little bit late because the Mayor gave away the pole yard for private development,” she said, referring to a small tract behind the power plant formerly owned by Austin Energy and now part of a Post Properties development.

“It’s a matter of conflicting priorities for the city,” Arnold said. “It’s anticipated that the land underneath Seaholm and Green (Water Treatment Plant) would also become parkland,” she said. She said she is against extending the grid pattern of city streets into the district, as called for in the plan.

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

Stepping down . . . Planning Commissioner Robin Cravey will be retiring from the commission later this summer. He told In Fact Daily, “I need to spend more time on my law practice.” Of the commission work, he said, “ I enjoyed it—at least a lot of it.” However, Cravey said he felt that his recent report on regulations for approving variances and waivers was falling on deaf ears, with most commission members doing as they feel, rather than as the law directs. The effective date of splitting duties between the Planning Commission and the new Zoning and Platting Commission—with the new commission taking the lion’s share—is August 31, according to Jerry Rusthoven, executive assistant to Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman . . . Who will switch to ZAP? . . . The City Clerk’s Office has not yet received any applications for the ZAP, but a number of commissioners whose terms expire in July may be expected to choose the new commission. They are Chair Betty Baker and Commissioners Jim Robertson, Ray Vrudhula and Jean Mather. Rusthoven said Goodman is planning to appoint Baker to the new commission and Mather said she would consult with Council Member Beverly Griffith, who appointed her, but she is leaning toward the ZAP. Commissioner Ben Heimsath has made it known that he wants to be chair of the streamlined Planning Commission. The terms of Commissioners Lydia Ortiz, Silver Garza and Sterling Lands will not expire until next July . . . Surprise applicants . . . In Fact Daily has heard that former Council Member Bill Spelman and his wife, Niyanta, are interested in applying for positions on different commissions. Former Planning Commissioner Dave Sullivan may also be ready to return to a commission post. Others who have recently applied for Planning Commission positions include Angular Adams, Michael Casias and Billy Briscoe, according to the clerk’s office. Rusthoven said Goodman hopes the appointment process can be completed in early August so the new commissioners can have a preliminary meeting before their official duties start . . . SOSA v. Mopac . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance has issued a report opposing the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans to connect Mopac to I-35 and expand Mopac to a full freeway. “If completed, this would convert Mopac from a local commuter highway to a regional bypass to I-35,” the writer notes. SOSA examined traffic and development projections along South Mopac, and predicts that if all the new developments are built and Mopac were connected to I-35 in Hays County, the result would be an additional 175,000 car trips per day onto Mopac. Instead of spending $688 million for roads which SOSA believes will have a devastating impact on both Barton Springs and the neighborhoods surrounding Mopac, the organization urges development of a mix of transportation solutions, expansion of funds for purchasing preserve lands and comprehensive neighborhood, transportation and environmental planning. The City Council has already voted to remove the South Mopac link from its transportation plan. For more information, see the full report at http://www.sosalliance.org

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