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Well with ZAP Commission

Thursday, June 27, 2002 by

Another task force to study proposed Code revisions

Members of the Zoning and Platting Commission don’t appear to be enthusiastic about making the proposed Downtown Austin Design Guidelines mandatory. This week the commission heard about the 13 proposed amendments to the City Code formulated to promote a more pedestrian-friendly downtown.

One of the proposed code-amendments would prohibit new drive-in services (see In Fact Daily, May 24, 2002 ), while another would prohibit service stations. That provision drew skeptical remarks from ZAP Chair Betty Baker. “If we’re going to encourage people living downtown, where are they going to get their gasoline? To me, this is not a reasonable prohibition,” Baker said. “Until it’s against the law to have a car and drive a car, I think we have to acknowledge they do exist.” Another proposal would require new buildings downtown to be designed with space for secondary uses at street level. The theory, according to city planner Katie Larsen, is that changing trends in land use downtown will eventually create a need for more street-level retail. Instead of retrofitting existing buildings to meet the needs of retail tenants, developers could plan for that use during the construction and design phase. Commissioner Keith Jackson was openly skeptical. “I’m having a hard time with this one,” he said. Baker joined him. “I’m thinking it’s going to be more expensive to survive downtown, more expensive to develop downtown,” she said. “I’m sort of overwhelmed, or perhaps a better word is underwhelmed.”

Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance told commissioners the group has supported most of the guidelines, but opposed making them mandatory. “Many of the suggested guidelines are very sound principles that we would like to see followed,” Betts said. “The problem that we have is codifying the guidelines. Obviously, some of these guidelines do not have the merit that some of the others do. We think that by codifying all of the guidelines, this would be a significant disincentive to develop in downtown Austin.” Betts has made virtually the same pitch to the Downtown Commission and the Design Commission. Both of those groups seemed to agree with a lot of Betts’ arguments. (See In Fact Daily, June 4, 2002 ; June 20, 2002. ) “I feel we have design guidelines becoming design regulations,” Baker remarked, “and that isn’t Austin.” Commissioners did not vote to endorse or reject the guidelines, but instead referred them to a task force led by Commissioner Jean Mather for further study.

energy industry to Austin

Pair seeking EPA grant to set up catalyst for non-profit

The City Council is expected to approve a resolution today in support of clean energy as a cluster industry Austin will foster and promote.

Council Member Will Wynn, who sits on a Council subcommittee assessing the city’s economic development, says Austin should be “the Detroit of the clean energy industry.” That clean energy includes everything from solar and wind power to geothermal and fuel cells.

The resolution could help a local business coalition get an Environmental Protection Agency grant from the Department of Commerce. Businessmen Steve Guengerich and Chip Wolfe, who presented the proposal for the non-profit Austin Clean Energy Initiative (ACEI), said the renewable energy market could be a $180 billion market over the next 20 years.

It will take a national advocacy center—something like MCC—to galvanize the effort to create a catalyst for the growth of the industry, Wolfe said. A number of factors may push ACEI forward: The University of Texas has just added a clean energy incubator and has also hired new personnel to push for better commercialization of research.

Austin already has a reputation for its Green Building and Green Choice programs, Wynn said. And two national renewable energy conventions are scheduled for Austin next year. “In the national arena, we already have a leg up. We have an association and an identification with clean energy,” Wynn said. “We need to take advantage of that economically.”

The next step will be a research report on the possibilities for the industry. IC SQUARED is working on the report. Vinson and Elkins have provided underwriting, and Angelou Economics has offered a major contribution. Wolfe asked the city to sign on as an underwriter as a show of “good faith” support for the initiative.

Mayor Gus Garcia called ACEI “a very exciting project.” Council Member Daryl Slusher added that clean energy would bring high-paying and environmentally sound jobs into Austin, “jobs that are creating a cleaner environment around the world.”

Environmental Board rejects Variance for church parking lot

Board members say necessity for variance unproven

Wednesday night, the Environmental Board voted against recommending a variance that would allow St. Alban’s Episcopal Church to construct a new building and parking structure on hilly sections of its lot.

Located in Travis County, in the city’s two-mile extra-terrestrial jurisdiction, the church sits on approximately 23 acres at 11819 S. IH-35, just south of Onion Creek. According to city documents, the existing and proposed structures are at the top of a 100-foot hill.

The Board concurred with staff recommendations by voting 5-0 to recommend one variance, which would allow construction of a driveway on a slope of greater than 15 percent, and against recommending another variance allowing construction of a building and parking structure on a slope of more than 25 percent. The second vote was 4-1, with Board Member Phil Moncada dissenting. Board Members Ramon Alvarez and Connie Seibert were absent, along with Vice Chair Tim Jones and Secretary Karin Ascot.

Chair Lee Leffingwell said the site is exceptionally pretty, with a large number of old Live Oak trees. The church’s proposal calls for the removal of 55 trees, four of which would be of “protected size,” or greater than 19 caliper inches. No tree replacement is proposed.

“I have a lot of difficulty with the fact than you’re removing that many trees, especially that many protected trees,” he said, noting that most of the big ones are Live Oaks and some are very old. He expressed concern about the possibility of erosion on the steep slopes if that many trees are removed.

Ron Thrower, with Thrower Design, represented the church before the Board. “In essence, we’re dealing with a 25-acre site,” he said, and the church’s existing, one-room parish hall is not adequate for the organization because the church is expanding at eight percent a year. With 30 to 40 scheduled events a year, the church plans to upgrade by replacing an older building with a new facility and adding a parking structure.

“They definitely need additional parking . . . they’re busting at the seams right now,” he said. Building a parking structure would be better for the environment than constructing a sprawling parking lot, he noted.

Board Member Matt Watson said he was inclined to be more lenient with a church or a civic organization requesting a variance but emphasized that his job as a board member was “to maintain the integrity of the code.”

“Why can’t we look at other designs so you don’t need a variance?” he asked Thrower.

Thrower said it was important to have the structures close together for the sake of the church campus and convenience. In addition, putting the parking structure smack dab at the top of the hill would not be aesthetically pleasing. “I don’t think people want to see that for miles around.”

Leffingwell said he agreed with Watson. “This is a civic use, and that should get some consideration . . . but we’re here to consider environmental issues.” He said the findings of fact were not met. “I think the staff’s findings of fact are correct . . . and there is environmental degradation here.”

With that he turned the chair over to Moncada and made a motion against recommendation.

It’s Stratus day at City Council . . . After months of negotiations, task force and stakeholder meetings and commission hearings, the proposal to zone and define development standards for 1,253 acres over the Edwards Aquifer has arrived at the City Council. Council members got an update on the situation with the proposed Stratus Properties settlement at Wednesday’s work session. Today’s briefing is scheduled for 5:45pm, followed by a public hearing on the zoning cases, which will be considered on first reading only. If approved, they’ll be scheduled for second reading on July 11th and third reading on July 18th. Because of an error in the notification process, tracts 107 and 113 must go back to the Zoning and Platting Commission on July 9. Assuming all goes as planned (never a safe assumption), those cases will return to the Council for consideration on July 18th. Stratus claims the company can do massive development under HB 1704/Chapter 245. The Save Our Springs Alliance has filed suit, claiming, among other things, that the SOS ordinance preempts the grandfathering law. The group has also made a mighty effort to turn out opponents at today’s hearing. That effort included automated phone calls from Executive Director Bill Bunch, flyers and emails. Of course, In Fact Daily also heard that SOSA made a pretty herculean effort to get Bee Cave folks out for the Galleria Mall hearing. Thursday’s email included the following: “ASSUME A DEAD BARTON SPRINGS AQUIFER and the proposed Stratus deal is a good deal. That is, if you ignored the $16 million initial price tag on the deal.” SOSA is hoping to come close to the turnout generated in 1990 for the all-night Freeport-McMoran hearing. Neighborhood activists from Circle C and surrounding areas are also expected to attend tonight’s meeting to show their support or opposition . . . Also at Council today . . . The Council will be considering a request by the Electric Utility Commission that Austin Energy provide $360,000 for a variety of recreational and educational opportunities for children in the Holly Street Neighborhood. AE will also seek approval for a design and construction contract with Journeyman Construction to build a control and administration building at the Sand Hill power plant . . . Law matters . . . The City Council also will be considering amending a contract with Rogers & Wright, bringing that contract to $82,000 for legal services related to the troublesome condemnation of property for the new parking garage at the Convention Center. In addition, the Council is expected to increase the legal services contract with Scott Douglas & McConnico, which is representing the city in a suit brought by Police Officer Michael King and others. The total for that contract will then be $92,000 . . . Road opening today . . . Travis County Commissioner Ron Davis will cut the ribbon on the Imperial Drive extension this morning at 10:30am. The road project extends Imperial Drive to Hog Eye Road, giving residents in the Imperial Valley subdivision a second exit during high rainfall events . . . Hangar designated historic . . . The Historic Landmark Commission gave quick approval to historic designation for the one remaining Municipal Airport Hangar at Mueller on Monday night. The hangar also is in line for a listing in the National Register, pending final approval of a nomination from the National Park Service.

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

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