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Council says yes to eminent domain,

Friday, August 10, 2001 by

No to MLK parking garage/condos

City wants block for garage and cooling plant

The first two items the City Council voted on yesterday concerned parking garages. In the first, the Council voted 6-1 to proceed with a lawsuit to claim by eminent domain a city block downtown to build a 400-space parking garage for the expanding Austin Convention Center. Council Member Will Wynn voted against that decision.

In the second, the Council voted 6-1, with Council Member Danny Thomas dissenting, to deny a zoning change required to build a multi-level parking garage at the southeast corner of West Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and West Avenue. This vote, on third reading, reversed two previous Council votes in favor of the zoning change.

For the last year-and-a-half, the City of Austin has been trying to acquire the lot downtown, cattycorner from the expanding Convention Center and nearby 800-room hotel—due to open in May 2002. The owners of the lot have refused to accept any of the city’s offers, and have already successfully fought off one condemnation attempt by the city. The city even had to pay the owners, lawyer Harry Whittington and family members, more than $150,000 for expenses when it lost the last eminent domain proceeding due to a technicality.

The lot is bounded by Red River Street on the west and Sabine Street on the east, between East Fourth and Fifth Streets. The city wants to use the site for a district cooling plant as well as a parking garage, a proposal that has drawn fire from downtown community organizations.

Though he did not make an appearance before the Council Thursday, Downtown Neighborhood Association President Chris Riley signed up to speak against the measure, stating that the garage and cooling tower were “inappropriate use” of the site. Riley, also vice-chair of the Downtown Commission, drafted a memo from the Commission to the City Council last May citing numerous problems with a chilling station on the site. (See In Fact Daily May 14, 2001).

In a meeting last May, Downtown Commission Chair Robert Knight noted “The concern is, this is a freight train going down the track and nobody’s been able to stop it,” At that same meeting, Sue Edwards,director of Redevelopment Services, told the Commission, “We’re not going to condemn for the site.” She said the city lost a lawsuit on that issue and condemnation was not an option.

Bennett Donovan, a steering committee member of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, asked the Council Thursday to put the parking garage underground and the chilling station on top of the structure, as has been done in other locations downtown. “I urge you to show more creativity and leadership,” he said.

The proposed parking garage on West MLK at West Avenue became the subject of organized neighborhood protests and a demand from a neighbor for $250,000 in exchange for withholding opposition to the project (See In Fact Daily, August 9, 2001).

The Council unanimously approved the required zoning change for the three-story garage on first reading last March, so yesterday’s reversal vote on third reading sent a strong message of support to the many neighboring residents who attended the meeting.

Council Members Will Wynn and Daryl Slusher cast the two votes against the measure on second reading in April. Wynn made a motion for denial Thursday and Slusher provided the second.

“I have a lot of respect for the development team and the applicant . . . I have the utmost respect for them,” Wynn said, noting how they have gone into “detailed expense” in their renovation work. “I’m very supportive and I want to see the Goodall-Wooten project be successful . . . but I don’t want to see it at the expense of the neighborhood.”

Slusher concurred. “It’s a tough choice,” he said. “I want to congratulate the neighbors for trying to find a solution,” he added. He noted that he didn’t approve of the $250,000 demand from the next-door neighbor and that he didn’t associate that deal with the other neighbors’ concerns. (See below)

Council Member Beverly Griffith said earlier in the week she had driven around the Judge’s Hill neighborhood to survey the situation and was struck by how many parking garages have been built in the area in recent years. For this reason, she said she wants to find a solution other than another parking garage.

“The Goodall-Wooten Mansion is one of the great architectural treasures of the city,” she said, referring to the historic structure at MLK and Rio Grande, which is being converted from a halfway house to offices, thus the need for increased parking.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said she has advised the applicant, Bill Gurasich, who represented Austin Recovery, Inc., and the owner of the historic mansion, to withdraw the zoning change request.

Agreement reportedly reached without payment

Attorney Christopher Bell, representing Jill Bickford, a next-door neighbor to the proposed parking garage on West MLK, sent a letter to an attorney for developer Bill Gurasich Thursday, asking for an apology from the developer. Thursday’s letter notes that Bickford and Gurasich, as well as Austin Recovery Inc., signed an agreement on Thursday before the City Council meeting, which did not include any payment to Bickford, who had agreed to support Gurasich’s parking garage.

Part of that letter, which was sent to A. Rick Hightower, as well as to local media, states: “Following the August 7th letter, we finally received a response . . . During the course of these good faith negotiations between our respective clients, your client, without our knowledge or consent, chose to provide a copy of the (earlier letters from Bell to the developers) to the City Council’s offices yesterday (see enclosed In Fact Daily) in an obvious attempt to portray Ms. Bickford in a negative light prior to the Council’s vote by focusing on the compensation she had requested, without explanation of its basis. This was completely uncalled for, a low-ball attempt to mischaracterize Ms. Bickford’s motivations and disparage her reputation in the community.”

Council puts off decision on

Brodie Springs zoning request

Council wants to hear final Fish & Wildlife biological opinion

In reaction to a recent draft biological opinion from the US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), the City Council yesterday postponed hearing a request from developer Larry Nieman to rezone his property. Nieman had requested that zoning on portions his property at 10400 Brodie Lane be changed from IRR (interim rural residential) to SF-2, standard lot single-family zoning.

The draft opinion, which is the subject of negotiations between the FWS and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says that further degradation in water quality at Barton Springs “jeopardizes the continued existence” of the endangered Barton Springs salamander (See In Fact Daily, July 25, 2001). The only way to prevent further degradation and continue development in the area would be to apply a non-degradation standard to all new development. Nieman has been discussing the property, which contains a number of sensitive sinkholes, with the FWS. He acknowledged that his plan—while greatly improved over the 1995 plan—does not provide for zero degradation in water quality.

Only Mayor Kirk Watson voted against the postponement, saying he wanted to hear the case on Aug. 23 or Aug. 30, after a briefing from the city attorney on the city’s legal options.

But Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who made the motion to postpone, and Council Member Daryl Slusher, who provided her second, said they wanted to wait for a final decision from the FWS and the EPA on the future of the construction general permit. The Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) has notified the city, as well as developer Gary Bradley, of its intention to file suit under the federal Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts as a result of development at Circle C West and the Hielscher tract (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 6, 2001).

“If we’re being taken to task for not protecting the aquifer, I would like to know what it is we’re being given authority to do to protect (the aquifer),” said Goodman.

Slusher agreed, saying, “What I don’t want to do is act before we have what could be a landmark decision by the Fish & Wildlife Service.”

Aqua Water in Bastrop requires everyone who lives in critical habitat for the endangered Houston toad to get a letter from the FWS before they can hook up to the water system. It has been suggested that the city could adopt the same procedure for property in the recharge zone of the aquifer.

The FWS has sent its opinion to the EPA, which is expected to respond by Aug. 21. The deadline for conclusion of the consultation is the week of Sept. 3. The consultation is being done under court order as a result of a settlement agreement on a suit by SOSA against both agencies.

Council puts off change in

SH-45 North funding account

Money to be used for right-of-way purchase

Austin Mayor Kirk Watson found himself in the unusual position of being in the minority Thursday during a Council vote on allocating money for right-of-way acquisition along the proposed route of SH 45 North. Watson and Council Members Daryl Slusher and Will Wynn wanted to put $6 million received from Capital Metro for regional transportation projects into a separate account. But other Council members, led by Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, voted in favor of postponing that move until the next Council meeting on August 23rd.

Goodman asked for the postponement to allow more information about the right-of-way funding to reach the public, and for a “field trip” to Williamson County to study the area. She expressed concern that there was a public misperception that the money was available for other projects. “There are still folks who are still confused about this Capital Metro money coming back to us, and what exactly we’re supposed to do with it,” Goodman said. “Is it possible to ask for a postponement of action from us?”

Watson tried to convince other Council members that it was essential to approve the item quickly. “We’ve proven you can postpone almost anything,” Watson quipped. “This has been delayed for some time. Every day it’s costing more because of the cost of right-of-way, and the sooner we get out there the better.”

He found support from fellow CAMPO board member Daryl Slusher. “I’m not sure postponing will offer the opportunity to clear it up,” Slusher said. “I’ve explained this to folks that are pushing to use the money solely inside the city, but it continues to be put out otherwise that we could spend this money on other projects.”

But the Mayor’s arguments didn’t sway enough of his fellow Council members to pass the measure. Council Members Raul Alvarez, Beverly Griffith and Danny Thomas supported Goodman’s request for a postponement, while Wynn and Slusher sided with Watson.

No members of the Council voiced opposition to actually setting up a separate fund for the money. That will likely be done at the next Council meeting on August 23.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

What will Griffith do? . . Lots of folks at City Hall are wondering whether Council Member Beverly Griffith will choose to run against former Council Member Gus Garcia if Mayor Kirk Watson steps aside to run for Attorney General. Garcia, of course, is waiting for Watson to make a move. With no Council meeting next week, Griffith is taking off for her vacation home in Colorado. But we expect her to keep some long distance company happy as she dials friends and supporters to ask for their opinions . . . Mueller-still-closed celebration tonight. . . The Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition is celebrating next Friday from 6-8 p.m. at the Austin Film Studios, 1901 E. 51st St. Neighbors will be toasting Rep. Dawna Dukes and Mayor Kirk Watson for their successful efforts at keeping the airport closed this Legislative session . . . It’s official . . . The controversial airport overlay zoning designed to limit encroachment of residential development around Austin-Bergstrom International Airport won approval from the City Council last night. Aviation Department Executive Director Jim Smith made a presentation to the Council, followed by a public hearing that gave neighbors and developers a chance to repeat their objections to the zoning restriction (See In Fact Daily, August 2, 2001). The vote in favor of the overlay was unanimous. “Here, we have an opportunity to plan in a way that makes some sense,” observed Mayor Watson . . . ZAPped . . . the City Council Thursday appointed three members to the new Zoning and Platting Commission. Mayor Kirk Watson appointed attorney Mike Casias, Council Member Beverly Griffith appointed Jean Mather and Council Member Will Wynn appointed Keith Jackson. Wynn told In Fact Daily that he knew Jackson when both lived in Dallas and the latter was organizing a historic neighborhood. An engineer, Jackson now lives in Hyde Park, Wynn said. Griffith appointed former Planning Commissioner Maggie Armstrong to the new Planning Commission. The new commissions are scheduled to take up their duties on September 1 . . . Austin is tops . . . The city says that Austin is the place most likely to be chosen to locate technology-related businesses, according to a survey of Fortune 1000 executives. The survey was conducted by AT Kearney, a global management consulting firm. Access the survey at www.atkearney.com. Add it to your list, but don’t bust your buttons.

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