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ZAP grants waiver for parking

Thursday, July 17, 2003 by

Garage at Rainey Street complex

Variance opposed by chair of Downtown Commission

The Zoning and Platting Commission Tuesday night approved a waiver for the Rainey Street Apartments, an exception that flies in the face of the work of the Downtown Commission.

Fairfield Residential had good reason to ask for the waiver for the apartments at 54 Rainey Street. The Water Front Overlay District encourages underground parking, and it requires that parking structures be blended into the face of the structure. Fairfield Residential did that. But the developer was too far down the road to incorporate first floor pedestrian-oriented space—another expected requirement—in the waterfront overlay.

Sarah Crocker, who represented Fairfield Residential, said her client had met a number of stringent requirements under the waterfront overlay and DMU, or Downtown Mixed Use, zoning. The Rainey Street project was set 150 feet off the waterfront, with a well-defined height and density and 250 apartment units on a little more than an acre of property. One side tops out at 25 feet in order to meet compatibility standards with a neighboring home. In fact, the water table is so high in the area that the developer will have to install a sump pump to keep water out, Crocker said.

But the requirement of the pedestrian-friendly first-floor uses—such as a cafés, art galleries, retail space or restaurants—was more than Fairfield was willing or able to accommodate. Crocker said it was impractical to require pedestrian-oriented activity in an area that is not heavily traveled by people on foot.

It was difficult for members of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association (DANA) and the Downtown Commission to accept such an assessment. Even as Fairfield was planning its presentation to the Zoning and Platting Commission, a Downtown Commission subcommittee was discussing more mixed-use pedestrian-friendly development in the neighborhood. And Fairfield Residential only brought its plans to DANA’s general membership meeting last month.

Chris Riley, a member of DANA and Chair of the Downtown Commission, expressed his passionate commitment to a pedestrian-friendly downtown, one in which people could both live and work, traveling to and from locales on either foot or bicycle. Nowhere is the area more appropriate for pedestrian-oriented development than along the hike-and-bike trail on Town Lake. Rainey Street is the link between Town Lake, the Convention Center and Downtown Austin, Riley said.

“The Downtown Commission is embarking on a plan for Rainey Street, and whatever goes in there is going to be oriented toward an active street life,” Riley said. “The worst thing we can do in the middle of this is to put a building in that precludes that kind of activity in the future, that makes that area permanently dead to pedestrians. We’ve made that mistake before, and we need to prevent that mistake in the future.”

Craig Nasso, the vice president of DANA who lives on Rainey Street, spoke of the foot traffic that could and would move through the area, including the future Mexican-American Cultural Center. He spoke of a lack of neighborhood services in the area, such as a dry cleaner or video store. In a letter to Fairfield Residential, DANA described the design of the Rainey Street Apartments as “aloof.”

“We would like to see at least spaces that could be used for residential use or live/work uses until retail eventually becomes more viable,” Nasso asked. “We would like to see those pedestrian-oriented spaces there, to the west and the outskirts of the CBD.”

But Crocker made an argument that resonated with the ZAP. She argued that downtown is full of empty storefronts, even in those buildings that require first-floor retail. Congress Avenue, including those developments such as the Nokonah that provided first-floor retail under Smart Growth, are full of empty first-floor retail space. The market just doesn’t support it, even in the heart of downtown. If it didn’t work in the heart of downtown, it certainly wouldn’t work on Rainey Street, Crocker said.

That argument won over the commissioners, to the disappointment of downtown residents who see the waterfront project as a key to setting the tone for Rainey Street development. The developer did promise to convert garage space into retail space if the need arose, although it was unclear how it would be done. That was enough to sway the ZAP to the side of Crocker and Fairfield Residential.

However, neither side appeared ready to compromise, despite the urging of Commissioner Clarke Hammond. Attorney Nikelle Meade, who also represented Fairfield residential, explained that the developer deemed sacrificing parking for retail space to be ill advised. In that way, the project would be sacrificing the practical need for parking—a clear need for the project—and replacing it with retail.

Commissioner Jay Gohil made the motion for the waiver. Commissioner John-Michael Cortez made the second. The decision of the commission was split, 5-3, with Hammond, and Commissioners John Philip Donisi and Keith Jackson voting against the waiver. Chair Betty Baker, Gohil, Cortez, and Commissioners Melissa Whaley and Janis Pinnelli voted in favor. Vice chair Joseph Martinez was absent from the meeting.

Capital Metro board expresses

Confidence in Saltillo advisors

Roma Design likely to get contract on July 30

Objections from some members of the East Austin community are unlikely to derail Capital Metro’s award of the Plaza SaltilloRedevelopment Master Plan contract and the naming of an advisory board to assist in the planning process.

At a Capital Metro work session Wednesday, board members made it clear they were satisfied with the current community leadership. While Capital Metro and the City of Austin will continue to take applications for the nine-member board through Friday, board member John Treviño said he was happy with the agency’s current community representatives.

“I think it’s imperative to retain the neighborhood representatives that have been involved with this process since the inception,” Treviño told his colleagues. “These are people who have been actively involved in this community and this neighborhood. They give this process a credibility that would otherwise be lacking.”

As two representatives from the advisory team, Ray Ramirez and Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, sat in the audience, Treviño went on to say he understands the value of having the citizens from the community guiding Capital Metro through the process. He praised those involved as being “familiar with the neighborhood and its history.”

But not everyone has Treviño’s faith in the existing board. Lori Renteria of the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood, has been urging others to apply for the committee. Renteria has criticized La Prensa Publisher Vasquez-Revilla’s position on the committee because Vasquez-Revilla served on the Planning Commission when the East Austin Overlay was approved. In an e-mail, Renteria urged readers to appoint someone “more inclusive and less self-interested.”

“Our real concern is a local business rep who will have the trust and needed working relationships with the current commercial owners in our planning area so that we can come up with a Master Plan that both businesses and residents can support,” Renteria wrote. “I am pro-development and want to see our area prosper. I don’t believe the reps that the staff are proposing really represent pro-development stakeholders.”

At yesterday’s meeting, board members expressed every confidence in the current board members and their ability to represent the interests of East Austin. Commissioner Margaret Gomez, who was chairing the meeting, joked there would be “no opportunity for divorce” until the project’s completion.

Ramirez and Vasquez-Revilla, along with Joseph Martinez and Susana Almanza, were an integral part of the 15-member team that picked San Francisco-based Roma Design from eight proposals to complete the Saltillo District plan. The other members of the group included five representatives from Capital Metro and five representatives from the City of Austin.

At one time, El Concilio's Gavino Fernandez also served on the committee but has been in jail and unable attend several meetings during the process for the proposal selection. The original group was intended to represent the interests of Holly/El Concilio, East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team, PODER, Con Ganas and small business.

Capital Metro intends to complete contract negotiations with Roma over the next week. The transit agency has estimated the contract will cost between $100,000 and $250,000. The cost of the master plan will be shared equally between the city and transit agency, with the city’s portion being derived from Capital Metro’s sales tax rebate.

The focus of the planning project, long championed by former Mayor Gus Garcia, is 11 acres of land owned by Capital Metro that is bounded by I-35 on the west, East 5th Street on the north, East 4th Street on the south and Comal Street on the east.

The Capital Metro Board of Directors is expected to approve the Roma contract at the board meeting on July 30. At that same meeting, the Capital Metro board is expected to approve a nine-member Community Advisory Group. Sam Archer, who made the presentation to the board, said he had received 15 applications for the 9 spots and expected to see more than 20 applicants by the filing deadline.

Since Capital Metro and the City of Austin will share in the cost of the Plaza Saltillo master plan, the city will appoint four members and Capital Metro will appoint five members. Archer, who made the presentation to the Capital Metro board, said the transit agency would appoint two at-large positions, two neighborhood or community members and a local business representative. The City of Austin will appoint one neighborhood representative, one developer, one person from the financial/real estate community and one urban designer.

The Plaza Saltillo project is broken out into three phases. An initial nine months to a year will be a contract period for master planning. The second phase, another nine months to a year, will be used to solicit and select a master developer. And the final, or third, phase would be used to implement an approved redevelopment master plan.

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

Permit found . . . Luci Gallahan, of the city’s Watershed Protection and Development Review Department, told In Fact Daily yesterday that the city had found the permit for the Convention Center’s original sign on Cesar Chavez. At Monday’s Board of Adjustment meeting, she noted, “We said we didn’t think there was a permit or a variance for the first sign . . . We couldn’t find it because it had wrong address.” The sign was permitted under 1st Street, she said, because that was the name of the street before it was changed to Cesar Chavez. However, the variance was granted under Cesar Chavez.” Then the department changed its filing system and the permit “went in under 1 Street (sic). They got the permit for the first one—so it’s OK,” Gallahan concluded. See In Fact Daily, July 15, 2002 . . . Reminder of Council time . . . The City Council will begin today’s meeting—which promises to be lengthy—at 10am.Citizens communication is scheduled for noon. One of those signed up to speak is Gavino Fernandez, who apparently has been released on bond. He is one of eight speakers who will be asking the Council to close the Holly Power Plant sooner rather than later . . . Race for commissioner’s court seat . . . Celia Israel, a member of the city’s Police Monitor Citizen’s Review Panel and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Businesswoman of the Year for 2003, has made an unofficial announcement that she will run against Commissioner Pct. 1 incumbent Ron Davis. Israel is a former chair of the Austin Women’s Political Caucus and worked for Governor Ann Richards when she was in office . . . Making a statement . . . The City Council of Sunset Valley passed a resolution Tuesday night urging “the City of Austin, Travis County Commissioners Court and the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer District to enforce the SOS standards on all ‘big box’ developments such as those proposed by Wal-Mart and Lowe’s.” The aquifer district has no authority to enforce ordinances and Travis County has not enacted impervious cover limits . . . GAHCC Luncheon with Cisneros . . . Former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros will address the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at its membership luncheon today. The event runs from 11:30am-1pm at the Doubletree Hotel, 6505 N. I-35. For more information, call 476-7502 . . . High hopes for Villas on 6th Street . . . Campbell Hogue, developer of 160-unit apartment complex in the 1900 block of East 6th Street, has high hopes that the complex will have funding assistance from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. Rental rates on 85 percent of those units will be restricted to low-income families. The board will vote on the project on July 30 . . . Turn it off . . . Every cent counts, and City Manager Toby Futrell has asked city employees to turn off printers, copiers and computers at the end of each work day. In the past, employees have been told not to turn off their computers. In addition, employees are encouraged to remove all personal electrical appliances from city buildings, including fans, space heaters and refrigerators. Plug-in equipment can account for up to 30 percent of a building’s energy use, according to city data.

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