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Lowe's outlines plan for site development

Tuesday, August 5, 2003 by

Commissioners to vote on plan this afternoon

Travis County Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the preliminary plan for the controversial Lowe’s Home Center in southwest Travis County at today’s meeting. The item has been set for 1:45pm. At that time, Lowe’s representatives will reveal their plan to mitigate the impact of the store, which would sit atop the Barton Springs zone of the Edwards Aquifer.

County Judge Sam Biscoe sent an email Monday stating, “I have been advised by representatives for the City of Austin and Lowe’s that a compromise has been reached. The Austin City Council will not take the matter up until Thursday, August 7. However, I am advised that Austin does not object to our considering the matter and taking action.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher, who has kept up with behind-the-scenes settlement talks, said, “Negotiations are still taking place and the staff has not recommended an agreement.” He also pointed out that the item is not set on this week’s Council agenda, either for action or for executive session discussion. He added, “There are differing views of what we’ve seen so far,” among Council members.

Former Mayor Bruce Todd, who represents Lowe’s in negotiations with the city, said yesterday that the two sides were “close to an agreement,” but had not settled every detail. Todd provided a list of points that he called “design standards,” which Lowe’s has agreed to in negotiating with the city:

• Early Annexation. Lowe’s will petition the City of Austin for annexation upon store opening. This will result in annexation three years earlier than without the petition. Lowe’s estimates the sales tax revenues would be approximately $600,000 annually, for a total of $1.8 million over the three-year period of early annexation.

• Water Quality Standards. The Lowe’s site will be developed “substantially in accordance with the water quality standards set forth in the City of Austin SOS ordinance.”

• Mitigation Fees. Lowe’s will offer to the City of Austin mitigation fees to acquire land sufficient to bring the overall impervious cover for the combined subject and acquired tracts to 15 percent.

• Impervious Cover. The Lowe’s proposal will not exceed 40 percent impervious cover on this site as defined by the City of Austin Land Development Code.

• No Coal Tar Based Pavement Sealers. The site parking and sidewalks will be paved using only concrete in order to avoid the coal-tar based pavement sealers found in asphalt. The city believes that such sealers are responsible for some high PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) readings in soil upstream from Barton Springs Pool.

• Greenbuilding Program. Lowe’s will participate in the city’s Greenbuilding program which encompasses energy saving and environment friendly construction practices. Specific items include a reflective roof system, high efficiency HVAC units, high efficiency interior florescent lighting and a downspout recovery system.

• Grow Green Program. Lowe’s will landscape the site and sell products from the Garden Center that adhere to Austin’s Grow Green standards. These plant materials are Texas native and adapted species, which are naturally drought tolerant and resistant to pests and disease.

• Traffic Signal. Lowe's will install a traffic signal with associated left turn lanes and deceleration lanes at the intersection of Brodie, Oakdale and the realigned Ben Garza Lane.

• Employment. Lowe’s will employ between 150-200 employees, 70-80 percent of whom would work full time, with full benefits.

Environmental Board recommendations for big box stores

Last week, the city’s Environmental Board voiced its concern about new development projects, particularly those for “big box” retail and major employers over the aquifer. The board adopted a resolution outlining how projects such as Lowe’s may score points with the board and possibly the Council, even if they are claiming a legal exemption from the SOS ordinance.

Chair Lee Leffingwell sponsored the resolution, which the board adopted unanimously. Leffingwell said he had worked with the board’s other executive committee members, Tim Jones and Karin Bongiorni, to arrive at suitable language for the resolution.

Without naming either Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse or the Wal-Mart Superstores, each of which plan to locate stores over the aquifer and each of which have met strong opposition from environmentalists, the board’s resolution urges the City Council and land use commissions to adopt some minimum development standards for such situations. These include:

• SOS water quality controls to meet the standard of non-degradation.

“Any permitted development that does not meet these standards will by definition pollute the aquifer and degrade both drinking water for area residents and habitat for endangered species,” according to the resolution.

• Impervious cover limits. If such limits are not possible, the board recommends purchase of land in the immediate vicinity or within the same watershed as mitigation.

• Setbacks from karst features identified as critical environmental features.

• No new gasoline stations.

• Integrated Pest Management plans for all new projects throughout the Drinking Water Protection Zone.

The board resolution concludes, “Recent development agreements over the aquifer voluntarily comply with these standards and more: Green building, rainwater harvesting, native landscaping, architectural compatibility and other mitigation efforts. These measures are also to be strongly encouraged and tailored to individual projects. Likewise, recent development agreements have prohibited traffic and sprawl-inducing big box retail and major employment centers. The standards recommended above are deemed reasonable by precedent, and are deemed absolutely necessary for minimum protection of the aquifer.”

After reading the board’s resolution, Todd said, “We understand the environmental sensitivity expressed in the resolution. Reasonable people will be pleasantly surprised by the offer made by Lowe’s to the city.” He added that some of the commitments Lowe’s has made already exceed the board’s suggestions. “Being a big box allows us to do things that otherwise wouldn’t be done.”

Delay of MACC could affect other projects Design Commission wants more input into center's design

The proposed two-year delay of the Mexican-American Cultural Center—a possible victim of impending city budget cuts—likely will have an impact on related projects downtown, including the Rainey Street Apartments.

The Design Commission has pressed for a review of the MACC. But City Manager Toby Futrell’s announcement last week that she would like to delay construction of the center for two years made that review moot. Paul Medrano was on hand at the Design Commission last night, though, to provide an update to commissioners.

If the Council approves Futrell’s recommendations, the bids on the MACC would not go out until the fall of 2005. That means construction on the first phase of the project would be completed in early summer 2007. In the meantime, Medrano said the city would continue to pursue right-of-way for the construction of the $43 million project, as well as the relocation of electrical transmission lines.

What the city won’t pursue until actual construction is a 16-inch water line, one that would have served both the MACC and the proposed Rainey Street Apartments, Medrano said. Plans to vacate the wastewater line, which serves a restroom on the Town Lake hike-and-bike trail, would also likely be delayed until construction begins. Sarah Crocker, who represents the developer, Fairfield Residential, said her client would supply whatever utilities the complex needs.

The city is still negotiating with Dallas-based Fairfield, which would like to use the MACC property as a staging area as it begins construction of the Rainey Street Apartments, Medrano said. If the vacation of River Street is delayed by the postponement of the MACC’s construction, that staging will probably be limited to the north side of the property, Medrano said. The city would prefer to allow public access to parking on the south side of River Street as long as possible.

The staging agreement is useful to the city because it could both provide some additional funding and “dress up” the city until the city pursues its plans, Medrano said.

Members of the Design Commission were hopeful that the delay might mean they could have further input into the design of the proposed community center. Prominent Mexican architect Teodoro Gonzalez de Leon designed the MACC in 2000, but it was not until recent months that city commissions saw the plans.

Asked by Commissioner Juan Cotera whether bonds for the project had been sold, Medrano said the city’s issue was not over the bonds, but with the operating costs of the center. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department will suffer some of the deepest cuts in the upcoming budget, and it would be unreasonable to expect the department to provide sufficient staff to maintain a first-class facility, Medrano said.

Austin voters approved $8 million in bonds for the MACC in 1998 to cover the cost of its first phase. At full build out, the Mexican-American Cultural Center would be a facility on the scale of City Hall, with two theaters, a plaza and classrooms. The design, with strong Mexican influences, includes a crescent-shaped set of rooms for office space, as well as two theaters whose roofs rise like pyramids. The entire design is about 200,000 square feet of public-use space.

The MACC is a three-phase project, Medrano said, and its overall success is dependent upon the success of each phase. The city will never be able to pursue a second phase if the first phase is not successful, much less a third phase for the project, he said.

The city had made, and broken, a contract with a non-profit group that failed to raise additional funding for the center. A new board, appointed by the Council, met for the first time in May. The delay would give the group more time to organize for fundraising efforts, Medrano said.

Cotera’s concern was whether bonds had actually been issued for the project. The issuance of bonds, but failure to use them, could bring arbitrage issues. Medrano agreed that the city would have real issues to face if the bonds are not issued. Such a decision could impact the city’s bond rating.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Redistricting press conference . . . The son of Senator Gonzalo Barrientos and other members of his family held a press conference yesterday with Congressman Lloyd Doggett to say they support Barrientos in his decision “to use all available and lawful means to prevent the dilution of Austin’s voice in Congress.” Joseph Barrientos added, “(T)his issue is about democracy itself and not merely about Democrats and Republicans . . . Each of these Senators has a spouse, family, friends, lives and professions from which they have been separated. We are personally aware of their great sacrifices.” He also announced a statewide rally for the senators and their families to be held at 11:30am Saturday on the south steps of the Capitol. Doggett said, “The goal of this rally is to give people the opportunity to join with the Barrientos family to express—family to family—their support for the Texas 11.” In response to an inquiry, Doggett said he thought the Democratic Party would raise money for the senators’ expenses. He added, “I spoke with (Barrientos) last night. I think he’s got a great spirit, great determination to carry this fight on until it is successful” . . . SBCA looking at options . . . The Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) voted last night to hire an attorney to look into legal options the organization might have to stop the construction of the Wal-Mart Superstore proposed at MoPac and Slaughter. An engineer will discuss the traffic impact of the site at a community meeting at 7pm tonight at Bethany Lutheran Church, 3701 Slaughter Lane . . . Recovering . . . Lonnie La Bonte of the Transportation Planning & Sustainability Department, who assists the Historic Landmark Commission, is recovering from a stroke. In Fact Daily wishes her a speedy recovery. She is currently at the HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, 1215 Red River . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The MBE/WBE Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet at 6pm at the Department of Small and Minority Business Resources, 4100 Ed Bluestein Blvd . . . National Night Out . . . The Urban Renewal Agency will hold a night out meeting at the New York Avenue Christian Center, East 12th and Chicon . . . ZAP . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission is not scheduled to meet tonight . . . Design Commission passes . . . The Design Commission agreed to take a non-position position on the Convention Center’ s new marquee last night. A letter to be sent to the Council will neither approve nor disprove the already-completed project, but it will note that the process could have been much more successful with commission input. The letter will outline some of the issues raised by the sign, such as its blockage to pedestrian traffic and that it ignores the city’s Great Streets program. Like the Downtown Commission, members of the Design Commission were disturbed by the precedent the city set by ignoring some of its own rules on the sign . . . Looking ahead at transportation meetings . . . The Austin San Antonio Corridor Council plans to hold its general membership meeting on September 24 at 4:30pm at the Austin Club. The meeting is being held in conjunction with Capital Area Transportation Coalition’s annual membership meeting. State Representative Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock) will be the keynote speaker.

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