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Developers of the proposed Villas on Guadalupe scored a significant victory last week when the City Council voted 5-2 to grant MF-6 zoning for the tract along Guadalupe near 27th St. The vote passed on first reading only, with some Council members expressing hope for further changes to the proposal before final passage and opponents vowing to step up their efforts to gather signatures on a petition against the change.

Monday, January 14, 2002 by

Developers of the project say they need a combination of MF-6 zoning and CS-MU-NO (commercial services, mixed-use, office) zoning on the site to build approximately 150 apartment units and a parking garage. City staff had recommended MF-6, while the Zoning and Platting Commission had recommended the lighter density zoning of MF-4. That would allow construction of about 80 apartment units on the site. Developers say the tract, located on the northern edge of the University of Texas campus, would be an ideal site for student housing and would require the MF-6 classification to be economically viable.

Nearby residents and parents of children attending the Kirby Hall School on W. 29th Street came out in force to oppose the project. They’re concerned about the impact that 500 new residents would have on the neighborhood’s existing parking and traffic problems. (See In Fact Daily, July 11, 2001. ) Kirby Hall parents brought dozens of young students to the meeting in an attempt to convince Council members to vote against the zoning change. “With the proposed project . . . the existing street configuration and design will send cars directly towards the school at the same time and place parents are unloading young children,” parent Roy Mullen told the Council. “Would you trust your children’s safety to the patience of a 19-year-old who sits and waits while children unload from their cars?” Other opponents of the project called on the Council to protect the distinctive character of the area. Architect Bob Taylor, who frequently works with the North University Neighborhood Association (NUNA), said the Council should give preference to existing homeowners over new development. “A neighborhood is an essential part of the city,” Taylor said. “It is amazing to me that you would say we are going to take the heart of this city and we are going to give it over to profit-minded development and that is going to be our future.”

After hearing from both sides on the issue, Council Member Will Wynn made a motion in favor of the MF-6 zoning change requested by the applicant. While concerns about traffic and the resulting air pollution were legitimate, Wynn said, he believed the project was necessary to improve the availability of affordable housing. “We have thousands of UT students living on east Riverside and thousands of students living elsewhere, and it’s a gigantic burden on our affordability issue,” Wynn said. While only a small percentage of the units in the Villas on Guadalupe would be priced in the “affordable” range, they would allow some students to live closer to campus. “For every student housing unit that we deliver in and near UT, we begin to free up otherwise affordable units that in any other city would be reserved and used by the working poor,” Wynn said. “As much as we all gripe about traffic, the most sinful dynamic in this city right now is the lack of affordability. In my opinion we’re going to have to look long-term and start to recognize the advantage . . . of having an appropriate densification of the immediate UT area.”

Council Member Beverly Griffith attempted to block Wynn’s motion by offering a substitute in favor of MF-4, the less-dense zoning that had been requested by NUNA. “There are already rental units in the area that are available and empty and going begging,” Griffith said. Allowing MF-6 zoning, Griffith said, would damage the neighborhood. “We’re talking about the level of intensity and taking the risk of changing what has been traditionally capped MF-4 and moving it up to what I think would be a dangerous level.” Council Member Raul Alvarez agreed, while Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman abstained from voting on the substitute motion. However, the remaining Council members were opposed and the motion failed.

Wynn’s motion in favor of MF-6 then passed 5-2, with Griffith and Alvarez opposed. Goodman voted in favor of the change to MF-6, but also expressed interest in suggestions by Griffith regarding setback requirements that could affect the design of the parking garage.

Opponents of the project were disappointed, but held out hope they could change the outcome before the Council’s vote on third reading. In the days leading up to the Council meeting, they believed they had a valid petition of surrounding property owners against the project. That would have triggered the requirement of a 6-1 majority vote for approval of the zoning change. But the number of signatures on the petition dropped below the required amount when the boundaries of the project were changed.

Attorney Rachel Rawlins, who has represented NUNA in the fight over the zoning change, told Council members she believed the boundaries of one of the tracts had been modified with the specific goal of eliminating some people who had signed the petition from the required notification area. “The neighborhood has not had an opportunity to respond to the adjustments in the boundaries,” she said, adding that gathering new signature would be a high priority. “I think the neighborhood will be successful in resolving that issue.”

Council approves multiple options

Last week’s City Council discussion on billboards began with Council Member Will Wynn telling Mayor Gus Garcia, “I’m sad you missed our first 10 meetings on this, Mayor.” The combatants remain the same— Sarah Crocker, representing small Acme Signs, Norman Furley representing his own small sign company, and members of Minter Joseph and Thornhill, along with Billy Reagan, representing Reagan National Advertising. Frank Fuentes, a member of the Sign Review Board, did not speak publicly but was seen conferring with various industry officials and Council members.

Last month, the Council adopted the relatively straightforward version of the revised regulations that had been recommended by the Planning Commission . That version would allow replacement at full size of one sign if it were coupled with removal of a monopole sign or a sign on a scenic roadway. Alternatively, the party removing a sign could opt to reduce the size by 25 percent. (See In Fact Daily Oct. 29, 2001, Dec. 7, 2001 .)

But in response to a Council request, staff returned with additional options for billboard owners. Those options would allow replacement at full size of one sign if another sign was removed from a “historic sign district” or from within 500 feet of same. (Evidently this refers to historic districts, such as Congress Avenue and East 6th Street.) Additionally, a sign could be replaced at full size if two other signs were removed.

Winifred Kelsey of Scenic Austin said her group would like to see city regulations revamped so any request for a building permit would automatically result in the removal of billboards on the property. Recognizing that her preference was not an option under consideration, she argued that “the two-for-one or three-for-one option is the best option we have.” Billboards will come down under the multiple replacement option, Kelsey said, because sign companies would buy signs from other companies. She said the 25 percent reduction in size was not effective in removing signs.

Crocker told the Council the staff’s earlier proposal “is probably the best solution you could come up with.” The proposal to allow two-for-one replacement, she noted, was based on a San Antonio ordinance. “But if you take one down (in San Antonio), you can put up a new sign in a location that doesn’t have a sign on it currently.” The Austin ordinance has an outright ban on new signs at any location. She also discussed the quandary of landowners who would be unable to sign leases with new sign companies under the proposal allowing only two-for-one replacement. She said the reduction in size option “keeps the business competitive.” If a property owner cannot change lessees, the sign company with the initial lease has no incentive to pass more, even if another company is willing to step in with a better offer.

Wynn made a motion to eliminate the 25 percent reduction option, but keep the rest of the revisions. Council Member Daryl Slusher asked Mike Heitz, director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, to explain why his staff had recommended the reduction alternative.

Heitz said there are certain signs that will never go away. Over a several year period, he said, the signs can be maintained, so that there is never a real need to replace the whole sign. In those cases, he said, it is better to allow the landowner to negotiate with another company so that the size can be reduced. “We’ve reduced 4,518 square feet of sign face in just the seven months that this was in place,” he said.

Garcia and Council Member Raul Alvarez voted with Wynn. Council Member Danny Thomas abstained. Slusher made a motion for the staff recommendation—all the alternatives—and was joined by Council Member Beverly Griffith and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. Garcia initially voted no and Thomas abstained again. However, on the roll-call vote to clarify the situation, Garcia voted with Slusher, Griffith and Goodman. Slusher begged for a fifth vote, so that the matter would not have to come back before the Council, but couldn’t find it.

Even though Planning Commissioner Lydia Ortiz made it clear she did not support the 25 percent reduction, Ben Heimsath, Planning Commission chair, told In Fact Daily Sunday he thought the original submission from the commission was “quite a magnificent” compromise. He said choosing between the two-for-one or the 25 percent reduction would clearly favor one side of the business battle over the other. “It’s the kind of government policy-making that’s always treacherous,” he concluded.

The City Council this week will be asked to approve a contract worth nearly $3 million to inspect the Govalle Tunnel to determine the source of odors emanating from the wastewater line. The eight-mile long, eight-foot diameter tunnel carries wastewater from the downtown area to the South Austin Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant east of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. It is the largest such tunnel in Austin’s wastewater system.

The tunnel was built in 1988 and the Council first took action to remedy the odor problem in October 1995, eventually awarding a contract for odor control measures in December 1998. In 2000 the city completed installation of odor control facilities at various locations along the tunnel, but complaints about the odors have continued.

The Water and Wastewater Commission voted unanimously last week to recommend approval of the $2.9 million contract to J.F. White Construction Co. from Framingham, MA, the only bidder on the project. Minority and women-owned business sub-contractors for the project are Canales, Martinez & Nash of Austin, H & H Foradory Construction of Del Valle and Dougherty Sprague Environmental of Dallas. Other sub-contractors Severn Trent Pipeline Services of Hazlewood, MO and Sonex of Kennewick WA are providing sonic and other specialized inspection services.

Randy Pohren, a facility engineer with the Water and Wastewater Utility, told In Fact Daily the inspection project will probably begin in April and last about a year.

The utility suspects the odor is a result of damage in the concrete pipe from corrosive gasses generated by wastewater.

The contract up for approval provides for inspection of the tunnel and connecting lines using a variety of methods, including remote closed-circuit television and sonar inspection of the entire tunnel. Workers will enter the tunnel to visually inspect about six miles of the line and connecting, lateral pipes. Core samples of the concrete will also be collected from this tunnel that runs at a depth of 80 to 120 feet.

Continued operation of the tunnel is necessary to avoid an interruption in wastewater service, so all of the work will be done while the tunnel is in service.

After bidding on the project was opened last December, only one bid was returned. When the project is complete, the utility will determine how to repair any existing damage and what measures can be taken to prevent future damage.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Capital Metro special meeting called . . . Capital Metro’s Board of Directors has scheduled an executive session this morning to discuss General Manager Karen’s Rae’s performance over the past year. The executive session is the only matter on today’s agenda, but it seems odd to call a special meeting just to praise the manager and give her a raise. So, it looks like that might not be the case . . . Hays County rep to address Save Barton Creek . . . Rob Baxter, president of the Friendship Alliance, will update SBCA tonight on development issues in Hays County. Baxter is also likely to ask the group to support FM 1826 neighbors opposing Stratus Properties’ Bear Creek PUD. SBCA has so far taken a carefully crafted position, not opposing the PUD, but urging continued talks. The meeting is at the Filling Station on Barton Springs Road . . . American Youth Works project sails through City Council . . . AYW won approval from the City Council for a zoning change on three lots at 6300 Thurgood Avenue in East Austin near US 183. Changing the zoning from LR (neighborhood commercial) to SF-3 will allow the group to build Smart Housing on the small lots. Some neighbors had earlier expressed concerns about the small homes, but none protested last week. (See In Fact Daily Nov. 29, 2001 ) American Youth Works (AYW) is a non-profit group involved with employment training. Part of that training includes construction experience, which participants gain while building single-family, affordable homes in East Austin. The Council approved the item on consent . . . Chamber wants to boost international business . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has named Glen Hodges of Winstead Sechrest & Minick to lead its new seven-member International Trade and Investment Committee . The Austin airport experienced a tremendous increase in international cargo until September 11—double what it had been the year before. However, that slowed, as did all traffic through the airport, and the committee is hoping to develop new trading opportunities. Other members include Earl Maxwell, Ray Brimble, Steve Nefson, Frank Flauto, Tom Stellman and Helena Calyandro . . . Real Estate Council wants to talk about single-member districts . . . Next week’s RECA luncheon will feature a discussion on whether Austinites should vote for single-member districts in May. RSVP by Friday (684-5793) for the Jan. 23 luncheon at the Four Seasons.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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