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Downtown planners say action

Friday, September 21, 2001 by

Needed to avoid more congestion

best case scenario

After studying traffic patterns in downtown Austin, city planners and engineers working on the Downtown Access and Mobility Plan have come up with three scenarios for adjusting traffic flow, bus routes and traffic signals to reduce congestion. But the best-case scenario still includes no reduction in the delays faced by downtown drivers during peak traffic hours, and only a 25 percent decrease in delays for buses. The other two scenarios studied would lead to increased delays during the evening commute. However, leaving traffic patterns downtown unchanged would lead to increased delays of about 30 percent.

The three scenarios were presented at a public meeting with opportunities for questions and comments from the audience, which included city staffers, downtown residents and business representatives. At this point, city staff has not reached a decision on which of the scenarios to recommend. Under the city’s contract with transportation consultants Wilbur Smith Associates, another scenario will be tested using computer-modeling software and revealed at another public meeting. Transportation, Planning and Sustainability Department Director Austan Librach stressed that the scenario that will eventually be recommended will go through the regular review by boards and commissions before it is presented to the City Council next spring. “I would think that we would want to visit the whole panoply of boards and commissions,” Librach told Rosemary Castleberry, chair of the Parks and Recreation Board. “There’s no one that we want to miss.”

All three scenarios presented include new traffic signals at key intersections, adjusted routes for Capital Metro buses and a limit on left-turns from Congress Avenue. “We included some peak-hour left-turn prohibitions off Congress Avenue onto side streets,” said city engineer Alan Hughes.“We’re trying to get Congress Avenue as a three-lane roadway in each direction, to not have the inside lane blocked by turning vehicles and not have the outside lane blocked by buses so that we can move the traffic up and down Congress Avenue a little more efficiently.”

Some downtown business owners voiced concerns about the impact the city’s efforts to reduce congestion would have on their stores. “If we want to encourage the development of retail downtown, whatever we do that enhances the pedestrian experience in the downtown is what we should be doing,” business owner Richard Alexander said. “We want the sort of situation that welcomes pedestrians . . . and that is more in the realm of slower traffic, lower traffic volumes and probably two-way traffic.”

The possibility of making the east-west streets from 7th through 10th two-way was included in two of the three options presented in the preliminary report, but both of those options would result in more delays for drivers. Business owner Roxanne Wheelis said she would likely be against two-way traffic if it took space away from parking. “I’m just really concerned about the two-way traffic scenarios that you’re talking about, and the parking spaces and the fact that they may or may not be eliminated,” she said. Traffic consultant Butch Babineaux told her that in some cases the proposed conversion would result in the elimination of a “travel lane,” and would include parking on both sides of the affected street.

One possible traffic change that was not included in any of the three models presented at the meeting was the closure of Riverside Drive between South First and Lamar. That possibility had been studied but not listed as a separate option. “If we close that section of Riverside, that traffic would have to be diverted to parallel facilities like Barton Springs or Cesar Chavez as well as some of the other bridge crossings: Congress Avenue, First, and Lamar,” Babineaux said. The computer modeling of that option showed total travel time increasing anywhere between 17 and 53 percent at the different bridges. Still, some at the meeting urged staffers to review the possibility further. “We already know what a road going through a park is like when we look at Zilker Park,” said Kaye Trybus, who indicated she would like to see that portion of Riverside closed because it would benefit visitors to Town Lake Park.

Urban Transportation Commission member Tommy Eden had some of the evening’s most pointed criticism of the proposed options. “I am very disappointed with the scenarios that are presented here, but I’m not surprised. Bikeways are hardly even considered in here,” he said. City staffers stressed that the plan was a short-term document designed to track traffic patterns through the year 2005, and that they were unable to include much of the proposed Lance Armstrong Bikeway in their computer modeling because it would not be built by then. All three scenarios include bike lanes on San Jacinto, part of Fourth Street and Third Street.

The limited scope of the plan troubled Will Bozeman with the Austin Neighborhoods Council. “We’re missing the bigger picture,” he said. “The lack of solid promotion and definite planning for transit concerns me deeply. Essentially we’re doing the same old thing here, just trying to optimize signals and traffic flow.”

City staffers will take the input received at the public meeting into account when configuring their final computerized traffic simulation. There will also be another public meeting, possibly in November, before a single scenario is selected for recommendation.

Environmental Board endorses

Variances for Walnut Creek PUD

City staff says water quality ponds outweight downside

The Environmental Board voted Wednesday night to recommend approval of a PUD in the northwest corner of Lamar Boulevard and Parmer Lane that would include a senior living center and some form of retail. Concerned neighbors appeared at two different public hearings held by the Environmental Board to express concerns about the swapping of woods and wetlands for buildings and parking lots.

After long presentations, public hearings and discussion at two different meetings, the Board voted 4-2, with Board Members Debra Williams and Phil Moncada dissenting, to recommend the development with specific conditions. Board Member Matt Watson absent.

Key to the Board’s decision was the fact that the proposed development will enable the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department (WPDR) to move forward in a timely fashion to take measures that will prevent further erosion along Walnut Creek. This would be achieved with the construction of a water detention pond, one of four deemed necessary by the WPDR. City staff has said that immediate action is critical, though funding is short, and that this project is a dynamic step toward achieving some of the department’s goals.

Joe Pantalion, assistant director of WPDR, put the project in perspective by placing it in the context of the 40-year, $800-million Watershed Protection Master Plan. “The silver bullet for the Walnut Creek watershed is the construction of these four ponds,” he said, noting how the creation of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve was the “silver bullet” for the Bull Creek watershed. Multiple solutions are required, he said, but the construction of these four ponds is critical.

In a related presentation to the Board on September 5, Pantalion illustrated the dire need to immediately take measures to prevent homeowners from losing more property than has already been lost due to creek erosion.

City Environmental Officer Pat Murphy stated that about $1 million is currently available, the amount needed to build the pond. “This one we can build fairly easily,” he said, since it would be built against the existing Parmer Lane Bridge. Pantalion said of the $20 million needed annually for the Watershed Protection Master Plan, only $5.7 had been earmarked in next year’s budget.

Jyothi Grama, also with WPDR, said the overall site of the Parmer/Walnut Creek PUD consists of approximately 22 acres. A three-story building with approximately 300 parking spaces is proposed for the senior living center. Because the site is optimal for a regional water quality and detention facility, staff recommends exceeding the allowable 30 percent impervious cover limit. Staff suggests an impervious cover limit of 45 percent on lot 1, the Scofield tract, and 60 percent on lots 3 and 4, the Perry tract. The developer of the senior housing center, on the Scofield tract, is requesting 53 percent impervious cover (4.87 acres). The retail developer, on the Perry tract, is requesting 58 percent (1.87 acres).

Board Member Ramon Alvarez asked Murphy about the impact of the development. “This project won’t have an effect on water quality and erosion—both of those?”

Murphy responded by saying his staff had worked hard on these issues and determined it would not, as long as “the ponds are functioning well.”

“We believe a significant amount of erosion will be reduced,” said Murphy. “We are confident that the benefits of this overall project . . . will outweigh impact downstream. We don’t believe there will be an impact downstream,” he added. “I feel like in the long run the benefits outweigh the impact.”

Attorney Richard Suttle, representing Marvin Myers, the developer of the senior living center, said, “The water quality is better under this plan than if you had no variances.” In this plan, “flood and erosion control is better than code,” he said, adding, “if you don’t do something about erosion you’re gonna lose more trees.”

Williams said, “This isn’t an ideal site, but it is the best site for this in the watershed.”

Even though Board members expressed reluctance over the high impervious cover, they voted to follow the staff recommendation, with conditions. Alvarez stipulated that construction on the development could not begin until the Wells Branch water quality and detention pond was completed. Murphy said it would likely take six months to a year to construct the pond.

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2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

More time for Empowerment Zone process . . . The US Department of Housing and Urban Development has extended the deadline for cities to apply for Empowerment Zone funding. Rosie Truelove, assistant to Assistant City Manager Roger Chan, said Thursday that HUD has put off the deadline to Oct. 22, which will give the city and other backers of the idea time to meet with East Austin residents and arrive at a consensus. The previous deadline was Sept. 28. Members of three Austin chambers of commerce and city officials met with resistance and anger when they introduced the idea to activists at last Monday’s meeting. Truelove said a meeting is currently being planned for Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the Rosewood-Zaragosa Center . . . Firefighters to hold vigil tonight . . . The memorial service in honor of those firefighters who died in New York will begin at 7:30pm on the south steps of the State Capitol. Attendees are being asked to carry flash lights, since candles are not allowed on the grounds of the Capitol . . . No new candidates . . . Not for Mayor of Austin anyway. Gus Garcia and Jennifer Gale are the only candidates who have filed for that office. The filing deadline is Oct. 5.

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