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County mulls economic incentives

Wednesday, August 13, 2003 by

Constituent gathers signatures against tax breaks for The Domain

If county officials want support on a new economic development policy, they’re unlikely to find much cheer among the small business owners along South Congress and South Lamar.

Brian Rodgers, one of those small business owners, spoke at yesterday’s Commissioners Court meeting. Rodgers, who both owns property and with his girlfriend runs the dress shop Jezebel on South Lamar, considers the current economic development policy to be nothing more than favoritism, an attempt to provide “government-subsidized” retail.

Rodgers has circulated a petition among the merchants along South Congress and South Lamar, opposing the incentive the county is offering The Domain in North Austin, a $110 million mixed-use development. So far, 43 merchants have signed the petition. Rodgers told commissioners he opposed tax incentives for The Domain on a number of grounds, not the least of which was that he expected retail development to continue regardless of the county’s urge to offer incentives.

“The county has ample opportunity to use incentives where they will have a much greater impact, and where they are really needed,” Rodgers said. “I’m not necessarily looking at South Lamar. I’m looking at the downtown central core, where a new movie theater or new retail could bring some support to the high-rise condos they’re building downtown.”

The Domain is nothing more than a glorified shopping center on the side of a freeway, Rodgers told commissioners, one that will spur very little surrounding development. In fact, The Domain will probably do no more than shift retail jobs around the city, from the inner city to the outskirts, paying little more than minimum wage, he said.

“It’s not an economic growth engine,” Rodgers said. “I know the county wants to believe it’s going to create 1,100 new jobs that we can all be proud of, but that’s only because they’re willing to overlook the fact that most of the jobs created will pay below the poverty line.”

No one will need to be paid to go to The Domain, Rodgers told commissioners. Eventually, growth will make it an obvious destination for those living in the surrounding area. In the meantime, the county could be spending its money to do something significant, like pull the land along Waller Creek out of the flood plain.

County officials delayed a vote on a new economic development policy because of concerns expressed by Rodgers and Commissioner Ron Davis. Davis wants more emphasis to be placed on incentives for smaller businesses in East Austin. That delay also stalled a vote on a tax abatement contract with Endeavor Real Estate Group to provide tax abatements for The Domain. The city has already approved a tax abatement contract on the project with Endeavor.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner called the proposed county policy “a very modest effort” compared to comparable cities and counties. Sonleitner stressed that the policy was performance based. No abatements would come before or after the fact, and the city would not lose a dime if a project failed to perform as promised.

Hoping to hash out the remaining contract issues before next Tuesday’s court meeting, County Judge Sam Biscoe scheduled a meeting with Endeavor on Friday afternoon. Biscoe said the goal was to present some kind of final agreement to the court by next week.

ZAP falls one vote shy of rescinding Rainey Apts. waiver

The Zoning and Platting Commission failed to rescind a waiver it granted last month to the developers of the Rainey Street Apartments for their parking garage—but just barely. The original decision allowed the developer an exemption from the rule requiring pedestrian-oriented uses on the street frontage of a parking garage, a rule downtown design purists insist should be enforced. Commissioner John-Michael Cortez, who had originally voted in favor of the waiver, said new information had caused him to change his mind about the need and feasibility of designing the structure to accommodate first-floor retail. (See In Fact Daily, July 17, 2003 .)

“In deliberating upon it during our meeting and making the remarks that I did, I stated . . . that I believed having the ground-floor pedestrian uses is optimal and it’s a good thing for the area,” Cortez said. “But at the time, I was under the impression that it would be fairly easy if economic conditions changed for those ground-level garage spaces to be retrofitted into pedestrian uses. Since then, other information has come to my attention that causes me to think that was an error in judgment.”

Downtown residents, including representatives of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, told the commission that ensuring that the first floor of the parking garage was pedestrian-friendly was essential to the overall development of the area. “The Rainey Street district stands poised for all kinds of great things in the future,” said Chris Riley, chair of the Downtown Commission. “There’s a lot of interest in working towards a future for that area that represents everything we want to see in a downtown area. That includes storefronts, homes and all kinds of vitality. If we grant this waiver in this case, we are setting off in a direction that is diametrically opposed to that kind of street life.” Members of the Design Commission also told commissioners that a pedestrian-friendly streetscape was a necessity.

Agents for the developer responded that providing first-floor retail was neither economically viable nor necessary from a design standpoint. “Good retail has fled Congress Avenue,” said Sarah Crocker, who represents the developer. “They can’t even keep good retail on Congress, much less on Rainey.” Crocker also pointed out that the designer had taken steps to make the building less obtrusive without the first-floor retail. “This garage does not look like a parking garage,” she said. “The whole building is ‘skinned.’ Most of our parking is underground.” Crocker added that changing the design of the parking spaces and reconfiguring them to allow for retail shops would be costly.

A majority of the Commissioners sided with downtown residents. Cortez moved to rescind the waiver that had previously been granted. “New information has arisen, at least in my mind,” said Cortez. “In giving this a little bit more thought . . . (and) looking at this in hindsight, I don’t think that there were compelling reasons to grant a waiver.” Commissioners Clarke Hammond, Jay Gohill, John Philip Donisi and Joseph Martinez agreed. That left Commissioners Keith Jackson, Janis Pinnelli, Melissa Whaley and Commission Chair Betty Baker opposed. Although that gave a 5-4 majority to those in favor of rescinding the waiver, Commission rules require a vote of at least 6 for any previous action to be rescinded, and thus the motion failed.

Alamo Drafthouse gets variance for sign

The new location of the Alamo Drafthouse at 13728 Research Blvd. will get to install its own sign to advertise the movies playing at the theater/restaurant. The Sign Review Board granted the business a variance to construct a free-standing sign in addition to the two existing signs at the Lake Creek Shopping Center.

“There’s not adequate space for Alamo to advertise on the existing Lake Creek signs,” said Terrell Braly, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. “The space allotted to Alamo is blocked by existing landscaping. “The building is not visible from the road . . . current mall signage is not adequate for movie theatre use.” The site currently occupied by the Alamo had previously been home to a theatre, Braly said, which attempted to operate without its own sign. “The lack of visibility from the street and no signage along 183 may have contributed to the failure of the previous tenant,” he said. “This theatre has the potential to revitalize this mall as well as surrounding businesses in this area . . . However, it will be difficult to attract patrons without a visible sign presence along 183.”

Board members found that the variance was warranted because strict enforcement of the code would prevent adequate signage on the site because of its unique features, including on-going road construction along US 183. The sign will be a standard movie-theater sign, with individual panels listing each movie showing at the theatre. It will be located at the corner of U.S. 183 and High Meadow Drive. The vote to approve the variance was 7-0.

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

Austin in her rear-view mirror . . . The Austin Chronicle’s city beat reporter, Lauri Apple, has resigned from her job to move to Amarillo, where she will work with attorney Jeff Blackburn. Blackburn is the lawyer who broke the story that eventually won freedom for numerous Tulia residents unjustly imprisoned on manufactured evidence of drug dealing. Apple says there will be a going-away party, but the date has not been set . . . Headed for Mexico . . . Emlea Chanslor, who has been Capital Metro’s representative at the Legislature and handled the agency’s media relations, will be leaving the Capital Metro on August 22 to pursue a dream. Chanslor is taking off for Oaxaca, Mexico, where she will study Spanish while living with a Mexican family. She says she plans return to Austin eventually. Libba Letton is Cap Metro’s new spokesperson . . . Notes from the Board of Adjustment . . . The Sign Review Board granted several variances for replacement signs at several AISD facilities, but the request for variances for the new sign at the Austin Convention center was postponed because of some confusion about the date of the board’s August meeting. Representatives of the company that installed the sign, Sign Builders of America, were unable to attend Monday’s meeting and requested the postponement . . . Many of the more controversial Board of Adjustment cases were also postponed until September 8 after Board Chair Herman Thun departed the meeting early because of illness. That left the board with only four members: Barbara Aybar, Laurie Virkstis, Leane Heldenfels and Betty Edgemond. Edgemond surprised Richard Mathias, the agent for St. John’s Episcopal Church at 11201 Parkfield Drive, who was requesting a variance from the height requirements of SF-2 zoning. The church is expanding, and while the main portion of the building will be within the 35-foot height limit, the cupola and cross will not. “Richard’s going to have a heart attack,” she quipped. “I move approval. It’s a reasonable use and important to the church’s mission.” The motion passed on a vote of 4-0 . . . Leadership class available . . . The Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will accept applications until Friday for the Hispanic Austin Leadership program’s 2003-2004 class. Hispanic Austin Leadership is a seven-month long, nationally recognized program that identifies, trains and encourages adults of diverse backgrounds to pursue community leadership roles. Applications may be obtained by visiting the Hispanic Chamber’s Web site at www.hispanicaustin.com and selecting Upcoming Events, or by calling the Hispanic Chamber at 476-7502 . . . RECA expects full house for lunch today . . . The Real Estate Council of Austin is hosting its third annual mid-year economic forecast today and Executive Director Janice Cartwright says the meeting has been sold out for nearly a month. Attendees will hear from Mark Zandi, chief economist and co-founder of Pennsylvania-based Economy.com and Jon Hockenyos, managing director and founder of Texas Perspectives, an Austin-based economic analysis and public policy consulting firm. Cartwright said RECA will post the presentations on its Web site on Thursday for those who cannot attend. In addition, she said the group would post information on commercial, retail, apartment and industrial vacancies, and absorption rates recaonline.com . . . Meetings tonight . . . The Planning Commission will consider recommending that the Council amend Land Development Code sections dealing with notice requirements and who has standing to appeal administrative decisions. The panel will also consider amendments to ordinances governing telecommunications towers and antennae . . . Born Monday . . . Gretchen Vaden, an assistant to Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, and her husband Paul Nagy are the proud parents of 6-pound 3-ounce daughter, Natalie Maria Nagy. All are well and Vaden was seen watching the Commissioner’s Court meeting on television from her hospital bed on Tuesday.

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