Friday, August 17, 2001 by

Goodman questions growing

Hilton Hotel height, ownership

Landmark site plan 'correction' raises more questions

Last month, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman made what she thought was a simple request for the heights of a number of downtown buildings. Goodman wanted to compare the heights of the Monarch at the foot of Rainey Street, the Plaza Lofts, the Convention Center Hotel and Nokonah to a request from the developer of the Vintage condominium project, proposed for 90 feet on the south shore of Town Lake.

Goodman’s executive assistant, Jerry Rusthoven, started asking questions, but the responses were slow. Maria Leatherwood, assistant to Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon, finally replied on Aug. 8. Her email lists the Monarch at 8 stories (120 feet), Plaza Lofts at 14 stories (139 feet), Nokonah at 11 stories (120 feet) and the Hilton’s Convention Center Hotel at 26 stories or 298 feet.

By that time, Rusthoven had talked to personnel in the department where he previously worked, Development Review and Inspection. Of course, that department was combined with Watershed Protection and the names were combined too.

What he found there was that the approved height of the hotel is 320 feet, according to plans submitted to the city by the Landmark Organization. The city has an agreement with the developer under which the building will be built and managed. Under that agreement, Landmark would build the 800-room hotel with some apartment units on top. Rusthoven learned that Landmark had recently submitted a request to “correct” its previous site plan. The correction shows the building’s top five floors devoted to “residences,” making a total of 31 floors above ground. The number of underground parking spaces has grown from 700 to 863. Also, two restaurants appear to have been eliminated by the correction. The correction memo to the city was submitted on July 16 and re-submitted on August 1 by architect Roberto Garcia of Garcia Design.

Rusthoven said Bob Hodge, director of the Convention Center Department, told him the building would grow to 345 feet, not the 390 feet indicated on the site plan correction. Terri Dusek, communications director for Landmark, said there had been a great deal of confusion about the building’s height and the number of floors because the floor numbering system had been changed. She said a mezzanine, which had been planned for two stories, and a number of floors had earlier been designated by half-numbers. However, she concluded that, “the height has increased by approximately 35 feet.” Dusek said the elimination of the restaurant space was an error and that the amount of space for the two restaurants had actually increased. She admitted that the designation of restaurant space as “0” would lead a reader to conclude that the restaurants were no longer part of the plan.

There is disagreement and confusion among city staff about the proposed final height of building and whether the item should be approved by the City Council. When first asked about whether the height question would be brought to the Council, Assistant City Manager Roger Chan said that it would, although he was uncertain about the details of the project. However, on Thursday, Chan said that it was not necessary for the Council to approve the changes.

Hotel building not really all ours ?

Chan said, “The property is actually two properties in one, and it always has been. Our portion of it is the hotel part itself and that is unchanged, with minor changes internally. The revision of the project site involves the portion that is not ours, and that involves the condo apartments above the hotel. That the city does have a majority interest in—when the property reverts to us,” in 30 years. “Right now the city’s interest is, the more apartments they put in there, the more taxes are created for the city, so we’re happy with that.” A search of stories about the hotel among In Fact Daily and other publications did not indicate that the city would own less than 100 percent of the building at the end of the 30-year time period for repaying bondholders.

The 390-foot height indicated on the site plan correction, Chan said, is the maximum requested by Landmark, giving the architect “the maximum opportunity to design it the way they needed to,” but the actual height would be 345 feet. “But it doesn’t affect the city’s contract . . . it’s out of our interest and jurisdiction. That portion of the buildout is like any other portion of buildout in the private sector.”

“It’s gotten very cloudy about what height we approved,” Goodman said.

Chan remarked, “What happened is that somebody erroneously tried to tie that into our hotel deal and it doesn’t affect it at all. There should not be anything going to Council. It’s a normal site adjustment,” Chan concluded. A few minutes later, he conceded that the height change would need city approval, but that it would be a routine matter.

Rusthoven said changing the designation of the top of the hotel to “residential” means that Landmark would sell condominiums to the public, so that part of the building would not belong to the city. Relying on information from Hodge, Rusthoven said the city would not gain ownership of the condominiums at the end of the 30 years. There is also a question of ownership of common areas, such as parking spaces.

Goodman expressed anger about the lack of communication between the staff and the City Council on the subject. “Is there anybody in this town who thinks height is not an important and sensitive subject in Austin, no matter where it is? They’re going to put on five extra floors without telling us—and those aren’t going to belong to us.

“All of the issues are becoming unclear. Any changes, the reason for changes, the reason for not telling anybody about the changes are unclear. And when you do that, it automatically makes someone think you’re trying to put something over on them. We need to get straight answers so we know what the uses are, what the height is and who owns what in 30 years,” the mayor pro tem concluded.

Earlier delays have put the hotel’s construction behind the schedule the Convention Center was hoping for, since the hotel will not be completed until well after the Convention Center expansion is done. At the end of his memo to the city regarding changes in the hotel, Garcia wrote, “Our main goal is to not delay any upcoming building permit applications because the site plan does not match the floor plan(s).”

Goodman said, “I’m looking to find out what it is that we’re not going to delay.”

Environmental group wins

Case over TNRCC hearing

Prentiss Properties temporarily loses wastewater permit

The Save Barton Creek Association won a court victory this week in a dispute with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC). District Judge Scott Jenkins is sending the case back to the TNRCC with instructions providing SBCA some of what it wanted in a procedural dispute over a wastewater permit for land near the Barton Creek Greenbelt.

SBCA sued TNRCC after the agency issued a wastewater discharge permit for an office project proposed by Prentiss Properties at the southeast corner of South MoPac and Loop 360. The property, known as the Bradfield Tract, attracted the environmental group’s attention because it is the first project to be granted permission to irrigate treated effluent on the Barton Springs recharge zone, according to SBCA President Jon Beall.

SBCA is opposed to the permit, and claimed the TNRCC did not give it opportunity to make its case to the agency. “They (TNRCC) pre-judged the outcome of the hearing on the merits of the case,” attorney David Frederick argued to Judge Jenkins on behalf of SBCA. “They made a decision they knew, to put it politely, would be vulnerable.”

Assistant Attorney General Anthony Grigsby argued that the TNRCC was within its rights. “Administrative agencies are expected to be familiar with the technology presented in the application,” he said. Grigsby argued that the agency’s technical expertise based on previous experience should be allowed as a factor in its decision.

Judge Jenkins focused his questioning of the attorneys on issues related to a previous decision by the 3rd Court of Appeals in the case of Joe Grissom vs. United Copper Industries, Inc. Grissom, a member of the group Citizens for Healthy Growth, had been denied the opportunity to plead his case against an air pollution permit the TNRCC issued for a copper wire plant in north Texas. But the court ruled in May of 2000 that Grissom should have been allowed to present evidence. Judge Jenkins’ decision closely tracks the language from the decision in the Grissom case (Case No. 98-06046). “There’s got to be some opportunity to present evidence,” the judge said.

But Jenkins did not directly order the TNRCC to hold a hearing. Instead, his letter will direct the TNRCC to instruct SBCA on when and how it can provide evidence on the merits of the wastewater discharge permit. In the meantime, the TNRCC’s decision to issue the permit is set aside. SBCA originally voiced opposition to the permit because of concerns about the system’s ability to handle non-domestic wastewater and prevent it from reaching Barton Creek.

Frederick pointed out that in 1999, the Texas Legislature changed rules for public input, so that it is now easier for citizens to present their concerns to the agency. “However, in the meantime, possibly as many as a hundred requests for contested hearings by citizens and citizen groups were denied and citizens went away defeated,” said Beall.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Local angle . . . A quick scan of newspapers around the state covering Kirk Watson’ s decision to run for Texas Attorney General shows some of the mayor’s statewide connections. The Fort Worth Star Telegram mentioned that Watson grew up in the Tarrant County town of Saginaw, while the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal included information about Liz Watson’s days as a student at Texas Tech, as well as his legal work for the university in the early 1990’s. Coverage in the San Antonio Express News, meanwhile, devoted nearly as much space to the likely mayoral campaign of South Texas native Gus Garcia. . . City announces music loan program . . . The City of Austin is allocating $225,000 to guarantee loans made by banks to local music businesses. By working with local banks, the city expects to leverage its funds, creating a pool of at least $550,000 in new loans to the local music community. Liberty Bank CEO Eddie Safady said his bank is pleased to participate. “It is a good example of a public-private partnership that will work,” Safady said . . . Leaving Hanoi Hilton . . . Some city staff members, notably those who were previously in the department called PECSD (Planning, etc.), who are now in the department called WPDR(Watershed Protection and Development Review), will be moving from the less than luxurious offices at 1011 San Jacinto to One Texas Center. Some staff who were on the 5th floor at One Texas Center are moving to the 4th floor to accommodate those coming from downtown . . . Money for ABIA . . . Congressman Lloyd Doggett announced yesterday that Austin-Bergstrom International Airport will receive $2.5 million in federal funds to construct two new taxiways. Doggett, a frequent flyer through ABIA, said he was excited about increasing the capacity at his hometown airport. Jim Smith, executive director of the Aviation Department, said such improvements would help Austin avoid the kinds of delays that slow down air travel at other airports across the country . . . The old gang reunites . . . Paul Sandaña, who served as executive assistant to then-City Council Member Gus Garcia for almost six years, will serve as campaign manager for Garcia’s mayoral campaign. Saldaña said the campaign has already located an office, on I-35 South, just south of Luby’s Cafeteria . . . County bond hearing today . . . Travis County Commissioners are scheduled to consider how much of a $250 million proposal to put on the November 6 ballot, beginning at 9 a.m. this morning. Expect heated disagreement between members of the Real Estate Council of Austin and other pro-road groups and environmentalists over the need for the whole package, especially an expansion of Frate Barker.

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