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Rainey Street project revived, changed by Fairfield Residential

Wednesday, February 12, 2003 by

A new owner has new plans for 54 Rainey Street. The site in the near-downtown neighborhood was originally slated for a condominium project, but has been reconceived as an apartment complex by a new team after the previous developer ran into financial troubles. This week the project received height and setback variances from the Board of Adjustment to account for design changes worked out between the developers and neighbors, including the Mexican-American Cultural Center.

Consultant Sarah Crocker told board members that the designers wanted to shift the building slightly in relation to the property line and increase its height by ten feet. “We’ve been working with everybody for the past several months to try to come up with a design that will compatible,” she said. The Board of Adjustment had previously granted a variance to allow the downtown mixed-use structure to be 120 feet tall, and Crocker requested an additional ten feet, for a total height of 130 feet. “The former building was basically a 120-foot block . . . it went out to the property line all the way around,” she said. “The Mexican-American Cultural Center—which is starting construction this year—wanted us to establish a lawn setting between (where) their building is going to be and our building is going to be.” Development on the tract is also constrained by a nearby single-family home and the presence of the Town Lake Waterfront Overlay, she argued, creating the necessity for variances on overall height and the minimum front-yard setback.

As with the original condominium project, neighbors complained about the height of the building and the potential traffic impact of the new residents. Frank Curcio of the Town Lake Condominium Association told board members they should not grant additional variances on top of the variances given the original project in 2000. “You’ve already covered this ground before,” he said. “That developer went bankrupt, now we have a new developer . . . where does this variance process end?” Neighbor Rose Marie Sauer also told board members she feared construction on the project would impact the Town Lake Hike and Bike trail. “If they build close to the trail, which they will, there is no place for the people to go,” she said.

Crocker assured board members that the developers, Fairfield Residential, had an arrangement with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department that would prevent them from cutting off access to the trail. In addition, they would also coordinate their construction schedule with the Mexican-American Cultural Center. Board Member Frank Fuentes made the motion for approval, allowing Chairman Herman Thun to make the findings of fact for the case. Thun pointed out the need to help revitalize the area and made a painstaking list of technical reasons to grant the variances. The motion to approve passed by a vote of 4-1, with Board Member Betty Edgemond opposed.

The new project will be an apartment complex with 250 units, with an average unit size of just over 1,000 square feet. Developers believe they will be more attractive than the dozens of high-end condos originally planned for the site. “It’s the one thing we don’t have downtown . . . we don’t have in this particular area apartments that can be rented at a market rate,” Crocker said. “They very strongly believe that this will be a good, viable project.”

A team of Travis County officials and consultants should have a much better handle on the county’s flood-prone areas in the next two months with the completion of a Hazards Mitigation Plan requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Last night, consultants led the first of two public meetings on the planning process at Wild Basin. While FEMA has requested a mitigation plan that also includes the risk of winter storms and tornado winds, the real focus of the meeting was flooding. As consultant Rebecca Quinn explained to the handful of residents in attendance, the 20-year-old FEMA floodplain maps help, but they don’t go far enough in describing the risk that 6,800 buildings face in Travis County’s hundred-year floodplain.

That is about nine percent of the county’s structures. Anecdotal evidence would suggest most of those are residential. Yet only 12 percent of the homes in the Travis County floodplain carry flood insurance, Quinn said.

“The best mitigation is to do it right the first time. If you can stay out of the flood plain, you should,” said Quinn. “If you can’t stay out of the flood plain, then you need to build it so it resists future damage.”

Travis County has faced five disaster declarations since 1990, all of them related to flooding: the Christmas flood of 1991, the Lake Travis flood of June 1997, the Hurricane Georges flood of October 1998, the flooding of November 2001 and the flooding of Onion and Barton Creeks in July 2002.

The goal of the Hazards Mitigation Plan is to both recognize disaster-prone areas and address those areas with mitigation measures before disasters happen, Quinn said. The data gathered by the plan will also be used to provide more accurate information to justify a swifter response to disaster grant applications, according to consultant Jeff Ward. It will also help the county make a decision on whether to pursue more grant money for a buyout of homes on flood-prone Onion Creek.

Two major grants are offered by the state, Ward said. The Flood Mitigation Assistance Program, offered by the Texas Water Development Board, offers pre-disaster assistance to mitigate flooding problems. The Hazardous Mitigation Grant, offered by the state’s Division of Emergency Management, gives post-disaster assistance.

The Hazards Mitigation Plan could provide more complete floodplain information, to tell a homeowner whether the risk from a flood would be six inches or six feet. It could also expand flood-warning systems or provide more public education on the location of the county’s floodplain, so buyers can make educated decisions. The plan may suggest the need for engineering studies, but it will not suggest specific structural remedies for flooding problems, Ward said.

Homeowners Chris Corniere and Trent Chastain were both concerned about the Lower Colorado River Authority’ s actions on Lake Travis, where their homes are located. Both indicated that the LCRA had failed to move swiftly enough in anticipating storms and mitigating the possible damage to homes on the lake.

Stacey Schefel, the county’s flood plain manager, said the LCRA must consider the entire watershed—not just Lake Travis—when it makes decisions to open and close dam gates. Quinn said decisions on lake levels were complicated by the many factors that need to be considered, including the needs of water users downstream.

Schefel said she was hopeful the county’s data on its portion of the Onion Creek Watershed could be utilized for regional planning. Onion Creek, a 356-square-mile watershed, crosses county lines and city boundaries. She said Travis County must do a better job of coordinating with the other counties on the watershed, especially with Hays County where impervious cover could have a direct impact on the watershed.

The last time FEMA’s flood plain maps were updated was 1982, although case-by-case adjustments are made to the map, Quinn said. The federal fiscal year 2003 budget includes $100 million toward the $900 million needed to update the maps.

A second meeting on the county’s Hazards Mitigation Plan will be held at 6:30pm tonight at the Travis County Satellite One Town Hall, 9301 Johnny Morris Road. Interested residents may also download a survey on flooding issues at Quinn estimated that a final plan for county commissioners’ review should be completed within the next two months.


, Thursday,


© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Commissioners interview for public safety position. . . Travis County commissioners interviewed five finalists yesterday for the position of Executive Manager of Justice and Public Safety. Those finalists included Julie McLean, director of administration for the Community Policing Consortium of Washington D.C.; Thomas Gould, administrator and chief deputy for the Hamilton, Ohio Clerk of Courts; Melinda Carlton, a current consultant and former county administrator in Oregon, Kansas and Michigan; and Mary Choate, the former sheriff of Bowie County. Shyra Darr, chief of staff for Rep. Terry Keel and former director of the Travis County Transportation Department, was also interviewed at the request of Commissioners Margaret Gomez and Karen Sonleitner. A final decision could be made as early as next week . . . Talks about county landfill problem continue . . . The leachate seepage at the county’s long-closed landfill was discussed during executive session at yesterday’s Commissioners Court meeting, but commissioners took no action and said no action was needed when the court reconvened . . . Council work session today . . . The Austin City Council will hear reports today from Envision Central Texas and from the Water & Wastewater Utility. The utility representative will discuss finances and operations . . . Politics and race still complicated at UT . . . At a time when the University of Texas is investigating two fraternities for allowing party guests to wear costumes considered offensive to black Americans, a conservative group has advertised that some state grant programs are not available to white men. Yesterday, a group calling itself the American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI) published an ad in The Daily Texan stating that white males are excluded from the Texas Department of Transportation Conditional Grant Program. Ward Connerly, chairman of ACRI, said, “The TxDOT program is a blatant violation of the law and we encourage anyone affected by this law to contact us” . . . Doctors recommend public smoking ban . . . At a press conference yesterday, several prominent local physicians encouraged Austin elected officials to eliminate smoking in public places. “Secondhand smoke is a public health issue that merits regulation. If it even saves one worker from contracting cancer, this policy is worth it,” said Dr. Rob Fuller a surgical oncologist and board member of the American Cancer Society. “We urge Council members to place the health of the community above special interests when considering this issue,” said Ken Pfluger, chair of the Tobacco-Free Austin Coalition. “The medical evidence regarding the harmful effects of secondhand smoke is overwhelming. It is time that Austin joins other (cities) in going completely smoke-free.” More information is available online at . . . Cap Metro meeting today . . . The board of directors of Capital Metro will hold a joint committee meeting at 2:00pm today, with numerous discussion items on the agenda. The board is scheduled to talk about Cap Metro’s Interlocal Agreement for the City of Austin, innovative funding strategies and communications policy . . . ZAP report . . . Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker had a rare absence from last night’s meeting due to illness. She requested postponement of two zoning cases involving Agape Christian Ministries so she could discuss them at the commission’s February 25th meeting. More than 75 members of the church were at the meeting, filling the room on the third floor of One Texas Center and spilling out into the waiting area. While applicants or neighborhood groups frequently protest postponement of their cases, church members politely filed out of the room after hearing an explanation from Commissioner Joseph Martinez, and then held a meeting out in the hallway to discuss the importance of returning in two weeks. There was only one contested case on last night’s agenda: AISD is selling the campus of Dill Elementary at 2007 McCall Road to a private school teaching French, the Lycée Français D’Austin. The school currently operates on North Street. While a few neighbors had questions, others spoke out in support of the deal that will allow the site to remain a school campus instead of being converted to some other use. “This could be very good for the neighborhood,” said Mary Ward. The ZAP approved the school’s site plan 6-0, with Commissioners Melissa Whaley and John Philip Donisi abstaining.

© 2003

In Fact News, Inc. All rights

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