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Landmark commission votes to study

Tuesday, September 4, 2001 by

Historic zoning for Mexic-Arte building

Museum officials say they have no plan to demolish

at this time

Members of the Historic Landmark Commission last week decided to begin the historic zoning process for the building that houses the Mexic-Arte Museum at 419 Congress Avenue—despite requests from museum officials to delay any action on the case.

The museum has operated at that location since 1986. Earlier this year, museum representatives reached a deal with the City of Austin to acquire the three-story building and began looking at ways to raise up to $10 million from private donors to renovate it. The structure is believed to be more than 150 years old, and houses three galleries devoted to Latin American art and culture. The request to initiate the historic zoning proceedings was made a few months ago by Historic Landmark Commissioner Laurie Limbacher after the commission reviewed another development in the 400 block of Congress. That project, a 33-story tower, is being developed by Cousins Stone. (See In Fact Daily March 20, 2001.) The action taken last week directs city staff to do additional research on the building and its historic significance, and report back to the HLC at a future meeting.

The city’s Historic Preservation Officer, Barbara Stocklin, told commissioners the building has been home to a variety of tenants. “In 1869, it was actually an Army headquarters for the U.S. government,” she said. At other times, the building has been a hotel, a saddlery, a carriage store, an automobile shop, a tire store and a furniture store. “The existing building is just half of what it once was,” Stocklin said. “There have been a lot of changes and perhaps most of the original walls of the building are not surviving.”

Museum officials told HLC members they wanted to delay the historic zoning process by two or three months. “We were not aware that this was going to be started,” said Mexic-Arte Executive Director Sylvia Orozco.“We are still looking at different options for our building and looking at the different opportunities for us as a museum.” Mexic-Arte Board President Nilda Ana de la Llata echoed her request. “We’re just trying to look at the different options we have . . . this discussion just kind of came up,” she said.

The commission discussed a postponement, but decided against any delay. “You have a mechanism to ask for postponements to work with us,” Commissioner Limbacher told museum representatives. “But what I’d like to do is begin the research as soon as possible, so that we all know whether there’s even a question that we have to consider. It’s not entirely clear whether the building is appropriate for historic designation.”

Commissioners also questioned the museum representatives about their plans for the building, and the possibility that it could be demolished. Museum officials indicated that, “at this point,” they were not considering demolition. City staff will have until the October HLC meeting to finish research on the building, and the item will likely be posted on the HLC agenda for October 22nd. Under HLC rules, representatives of Mexic-Arte would be allowed to ask for a postponement to finish their own research and consult with the museum’s board members.

A tale of two subdivisions: one

Learns to cooperate, one does not

Commissioners not happy with Northridge Acres

County officials and staff were privately fuming over comments by Northridge Acres residents at last week’s meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court. Resident after resident told commissioners that the county had been neglecting neighborhood pleas for water and wastewater services long enough.

The group of about 20 also presented a poorly produced 17-minute video of citizens complaining about bad water service and high water bills. Residents flashed water bills in the hundreds of dollars and talked about water so bad they wouldn’t let their pets drink it. Whatever good the video might have done appeared to evaporate when a campaign slogan to elect MikeHanson to the post of commissioner of Precinct 4 flashed. Northridge Acres is not located in Precinct 4. Commissioners did not appear to be amused. Hanson is one of a handful of speakers who regularly address commissioners, complaining about government regulation, among other things.

After repeated haranguing by the speakers, organized by Hanson, commissioners appeared to lose patience with the group. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner told the group the commissioners court would continue to work with Northridge Acres residents on the problems in their neighborhood.

The irony of the Northridge Acres’ protest was the contrast it made with Kennedy Ridge. Both Kennedy Ridge and Northridge Acres had been eligible for federal grants to receive water and wastewater service. Kennedy Ridge was back at commissioners court last week for its second grant. Northridge Acres, on the other hand, had failed to execute its grant, and the money had to be returned.

“Kennedy Ridge, as Judge (Sam) Biscoe has said, was the same as you in terms of needing water and wastewater,” Sonleitner said. “They have done everything they needed to do, and we’re celebrating the extreme progress they have made. The same program was offered to Northridge Acres.”

The $350,000 grant, through the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, is known as a STEP grant, which stands for Small Towns Environment Program grant. The STEP grant is a self-help program, which provides materials and money for project design, but requires individual communities to provide the labor for the construction of water and wastewater system improvements. Kennedy Ridge is in the process of securing a second grant to complete the work on its water system improvements.

Northridge Acres, which sits on the Travis-Williamson county border, had so much in-fighting, says county staff, that they could never organize themselves to provide the volunteer labor. The state has offered 26 STEP grants and only Northridge Acres was returned. Even worse, Williamson County may have to return $90,000 to the state that it had already spent on the water system design. County staff says the failure of the project was a frustrating embarrassment to both counties.

Even beyond the STEP grant, Biscoe had offered to split the cost of a line connection out into the county. He was going to offer to pay half the $20,000 it would take to extend a sewer line closer to the community, using one of the county’s non-profit corporations. The only catch was that Williamson County and the private water operator who now handles Northridge Acres’ water service would have to split the remaining cost. The private water operator—who is handling the water service now that the water supply corporation is in court-appointed receivership—could not afford to participate in the plan.

One man who stepped to the microphone said the government “couldn’t do nothing” about the project. What would the county do, he asked, if he took his John Deere tractor out there and starting digging on the project without permits? “If drastic measures have to be taken, what will you do?” he asked the court. “Would you issue an arrest warrant for me.”

The court was silent. Finally, Biscoe said, “I won’t do anything.”

The first STEP grant in Kennedy Ridge has allowed the community to complete 75 percent of the wastewater service work necessary. The second grant will allow the community to upgrade water service. The volunteer labor defrayed almost a half million dollars in costs on the project. No fewer than three-dozen residents participated in digging ditches and laying linear lining over nine work weekends. When the work is completed, service to 72 homes will be upgraded and another 25 new water connections will be added to the community, Commissioner Ron Davis said.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

LCRA water line mediation . . . Representatives of the Lower Colorado River Authority, the US Corps of Engineers and the Fish & Wildlife Service agreed to continue mediation next week with the organizations that sued them over the water line to Dripping Springs. Those organizations include the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Hays County Water Planning Partnership . . . Hill Country Foundation revived . . . Mary Gay Maxwell and Erin Foster, two women with some experience in the conservation field, have begun the process of revitalizing the foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to education and preservation of the Hill Country. Foster is a co-founder of the Hays County Water Planning Partnership and Maxwell took over as executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance for an interim period upon the departure of Brigid Shea. Each has relinquished the reigns of those organizations and turned her attention to the new project. The Save Barton Creek Association voted in August to give the conservancy $5,000 to help further current projects, including well-monitoring, which is being done jointly with the City of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department . . . City Council Judicial subcommittee meeting today. . . The subcommittee will meet at 4 p.m. today at City Hall to discuss the evaluation process and timeline for appointing the Presiding Judge and other Municipal Court Judges. Presiding Judge Evelyn McKee said she is hoping for some more relief judges, since most of the current roster of seven have other jobs that preclude them from working daytime hours. Municipal Court judges go through the reappointment process and new judges are named every two years. The current terms of office end on Dec. 31 . . . You snooze, you lose . . . The owners of property at 9600 N. I-35 Service Road requested a change in their zoning from CS-CO to CS-1-CO, which would allow a nightclub with liquor sales, failed to present themselves at last week’s meeting of the City Council. The Council did receive a postponement request from Eddie Hurst of TCM Design Group, which was faxed to the Mayor on Thursday morning. However, it was the second request for postponement, and neither the applicant, nor Hurst bothered to come to the meeting. A neighborhood representative, who said he had also attended the Aug. 23 meeting, did appear to contest the change. He represented the neighborhood, which had a valid petition with 80 percent of those affected opposing the nightclub. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman joked that she did not want to make the motion “because Will’s (Wynn) here,” but did so anyway. Mayor Kirk Watson asked, “Is there a second?” Wynn and Council Member Beverly Griffith both responded. Wynn, Goodman and Griffith had had a rather heated discussion earlier concerning valid petitions and the proposed new subdivision ordinance. (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 31, 2001). . . In case you missed these appointments . . .The City Council also appointed all nine members of a new Charter Revision Commission last week. They are: Clare Barry, Ricky Bird, Bobbie Barker, Robert Chapa, Marta Cotera, Charles Miles, Eddie Rodriguez, Clint Smith and Stephen A. Yelenosky. All were appointed by consensus.

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