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City Commission struggles with public image Commissioners have suggested changes to historic ordinance Stung by what they perceive to be unfairly negative publicity surrounding some controversial cases, members of the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) spent Saturday afternoon searching for ways to improve their relationship with the City Council and raise community support for historic preservation.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003 by

The HLC has found itself facing criticism from some Council members, as well as the editorial board of the Austin American-Statesman, after it recommended historic designation in two cases that were eventually denied by the Council. The commission’s recommendations on the Dewitt Greer House and on a group of bungalows near UT were both initiated after the owners applied for demolition permits. In both cases, the property owners opposed the designation.

At Saturday’s meeting, Commissioner Julia Bunton defended the group’s actions. “We’re not preserving a neighborhood; we’re preserving historic properties. We take each property as an individual,” she said. “My decision is based on if it stood by itself outside the neighborhood, would I still see that property as being historic?” Commissioner Laurie Limbacher agreed that their recommendations for historic designation were in line with the provisions of the current ordinance. “We were doing our job,” she said. “We were just doing what the ordinance requires us to do.” That ordinance instructs the commission to consider the historical significance of the structure according to 13 criteria. It does not differentiate between those cases initiated by the owner of the property and those initiated after staff review of a demolition permit. A property need only meet one of the 13 criteria to be recommended for historic designation, although the commission has generally made the recommendation only if a property meets at least five of the criteria.

The commission had previously compiled a list of proposed changes to the ordinance that could address some of the current concerns, but those changes were never codified or approved by the City Council. “It’s both ironic and frustrating that we’re going through this again,” said Limbacher.

Commission members concluded they needed to improve communication with the City Council and provide additional information to both the Council and the public about their role in the historic zoning process. Unlike other commissions, members of the HLC are appointed by consensus, and almost half of the group is picked to represent other agencies such as the University of Texas School of Architecture and the Travis County Bar Association. That means while some members of the commission have long-standing relationships with members of the City Council, others may not be familiar with any of the Council members. To change that, commissioners may be making themselves more available to the Council, especially on controversial cases.

Commissioners plan to tread lightly in that area. Several were clearly uncomfortable with any activity that might be interpreted as lobbying or advocacy. Chair Lisa Laky noted that commission members already devote significant amounts of their personal time and energy to the process. “I care enough about what I’m doing to keep doing it,” she said. While some commissioners felt their vote on any case should speak for itself, others felt that reaching out to Council members was necessary. “Right now, we’re putting the burden on the Council to contact us,” Commissioner Julie Morgan-Hooper said. “That’s not what other people are doing. Given all the press there’s been lately—some of which with incorrect information—it would not be bad if each Council member got a visit from someone on this commission.” Other commissioners agreed that they could request visits with different Council members to introduce themselves and explain their interest in historic preservation. They also discussed making goodwill visits to Council meetings, even when there were no historic zoning cases being considered. They felt such actions would increase their own understanding of the process the Council goes through, as well as raise the visibility of commission members. Individual commissioners may also present their rationale for votes on high-profile cases in email to Council members, or simply notify the Council and its staff that they are at their disposal if there are any questions about a case. Commissioners also plan to make information available about proposed revisions to the historic zoning ordinance to any task force studying historic zoning, as well as information on the dollar amount of property tax exemptions that structures receive and the percentage of those buildings used as residences.

While earning the trust and support of the City Council is the HLC’s short-term task, Commissioner Julia Bunton is also interested in a larger, long-term effort to raise awareness of the importance of historic preservation. “How do we instill pride in Austin’s history and get people to want to save it?” she asked. That could be the focus of outreach efforts to the Heritage Society of Austin or the Austin History Center Association.

Firefighters vote shows strong opposition to chief Biggest complaints are over staffing proposals that would mean fewer firefighters The president of the Austin Association of Professional Fire Fighters called for the removal of Fire Chief Gary Warren on Monday as he announced the results of the union’s “no confidence” vote regarding his position. More than two-thirds of the union’s members cast their ballots last month, said Scott Toupin, and of those 88 percent said they were dissatisfied with the chief’s performance.

“It’s time for a new chief in our city,” said Toupin. “We ask the City Manager to conduct a nationwide search.” Toupin said that new blood was needed to put the department on the right track.

The reaction from City Manager Toby Futrell was swift. She issued a written statement that “the no confidence vote against Fire Chief Gary Warren will in no way sway my management decision to support Chief Warren.” She stressed that the union vote is not a tool used by management in making hiring decisions. She wrote, “I am confident that we can move forward and focus on maintaining the outstanding service delivery provided by the Department.” For their part, firefighters say their no confidence vote was exactly as anticipated. “It’s not something that he hasn’t been told,” said Toupin. “This shouldn’t be a surprise for anybody out there. The big surprise is the actual percentage: an 88-percent vote (of) no confidence in our fire chief.” The union primary grievances against the chief include a lack of communication, a failure to include officers in the decision-making process and his overall management style. A full list of their concerns is outlined on their web site at http://www.aapff.org/NoConfidence1.htm.

The balloting was done during City Council budget deliberations over implementing the "quint and squad proposal. The plan to use new types of fire trucks that require fewer firefighters was eventually rejected, but Toupin believes the results of the no confidence vote would be the same if it were taken again today. He listed the quint-and-squad proposal as one of the primary areas in which the chief had not responded to firefighters’ concerns. He also said the chief had not been responsive to firefighters last year regarding plans to staff a proposed heavy rescue unit. In each case, the chief’s plans would have avoided the hiring of additional firefighters. The quint-and-squad proposal would have allowed the department to save money by not replacing some firefighters as they leave the department next year. The planned team for the heavy rescue unit would have included what Toupin described as “two non-civil service firefighters." Toupin said the firefighters want someone in the top spot with better communication skills. “We’re looking for someone who wants to listen to his workforce . . . who’s willing to garner input on critical decisions that are being made in the department to improve the firefighters and the department as a whole,” he said. While Futrell is sticking by Chief Warren, she did meet on Monday with small groups of firefighters. “I look forward to continuing constructive dialogue with our firefighters as well as the Fire Department’s management team,” she said.

Mueller group looking at film industry plans Area has come a long way in a short time The development community’s acceptance of the redevelopment of the Mueller Airport site may be the biggest victory in the fight to turn the former airport into a mixed-use development.

Six years ago, no one thought redevelopment could happen on the East Side, and certainly not on the site of the former airport, consultant Jim Adams told the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Advisory Group last week. Adams is with ROMA Design Group, which helped the city develop the master plan for the site.

Developers originally said Mueller would be nothing more than light industrial. Today, the viewpoint is very different. Development is happening in East Austin and at Mueller Airport.

“From the private development side, everything we’re showing you here tonight is doable,” Adams told the advisory group. “I think what we’re still working on is the level of infrastructure development—the park system and such—but we feel pretty good about it.” The commitment of Seton and the Austin Film Society gives the Mueller advisory committee real problems to tackle in the design process, such as how the Austin Film Society’s light industrial uses and nighttime film schedule would work next to a residential neighborhood. The advisory board discussed that topic at length last week.

Studio Director Suzanne Quinn admitted that the master plan for the Austin Film Society’s site would probably be completed within the next year. Plans for the site have already changed along the rapidly evolving film industry, and Quinn said the group wanted to accommodate that growth.

Chair Jim Walker and others on the advisory group would like the Austin Film Society site to interface with the community, perhaps providing a visitor center and some access to residents. At the same time, Quinn must deal with the needs of film production, including potential sound and noise issues. Members of the advisory group—some of them architects—talked about ways the site could be buffered from the neighborhood.

Walker spoke of the difficulties of the master plan, in practice: trying to balance desires to keep design principles, while accommodating a tenant that is considered attractive, like the Austin Film Society. Fences and walls are not part of the master plan, but a fence or a wall may be necessary to keep such a desirable tenant, said Walker, calling the process “making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Shaping the Mueller master plan to meet market demands has always been one of the steps for the redevelopment of the 700-acre site in East Austin. Asked whether the concept shaped by the community—a mixed-use transit-friendly neighborhoods with business and neighborhoods existing side-by-side—could still work, Adams said he was optimistic that many of the principles of the project would be preserved.

The balance of business—retail and residential—has remained fairly constant in the Mueller master plan. Other aspects of the plan are different: The lake is smaller. In the original plans, commercial buildings clustered around the Town Center on the lake. Now, that space has been shifted to retail uses. And multi-family is scattered across the project. The site for the Austin Film Society, on the north end of the property, has been enlarged.

“What we’ve been trying to do over the last six to eight months has been to take out those things that are not workable and keep those things that do work,” Adams told the group. “We still have more work to be done.” Commissioners also spoke of a desire to make sure the Mueller site is not a carbon copy of suburbia, like the redevelopment plans of Stapleton Airport in Denver. Project Manager Greg Weaver and Adams assured the group that the master plan for Mueller is not suburban utopia, but a mixed-use development that will enhance the fabric of the community.

“This is not an Avery Ranch or a Circle C,” Adams said. “This is different. We really are trying to create a community that really connects with the existing neighborhoods.”

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Hot time in Buda . . . The weather may have turned cool, but Buda’s city council will be on the hot seat tonight when they consider whether to grant preliminary approval to the Garlic Creek West subdivision. The development is expected to bring nearly 2000 new homes to Buda—more than doubling the population in an area just outside the city limits. Area residents supporting a moratorium on development in the area are concerned that the development will win approval before a determination is made about a new map for the recharge region of the Barton Springs section of the Edwards Aquifer. Last week, the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board voted to send an employee to the City Council meeting to advise them, among other things, “that the District’s policy is not to over-permit the sustainable yield of the aquifer, and that there is no assurance that they will be given a permit amendment of the size needed to serve the property of the proposed Garlic Creek West Subdivision.” There will be an anti-development rally at 6pm at the Buda City Hall before the 7pm meeting . . . Watson back in action . . . Last week former Mayor Kirk Watson was making phone calls asking voters to defeat Proposition 12. His message was heard in Travis County, where more than 60 percent of voters rejected the plan to allow the Legislature to set caps on certain damage awards in medical malpractice cases. That battle is over and Watson is hosting a fundraiser in his home for presidential contender and Senator John Edwards (D-North Carolina). For those with at least $250 to spend on breakfast at the Watsons, the function is September 29. For information, email Kdoty@johnedwards2004.com or call 214-523-6276 . . . Ozone Action today . . . Capital Metro buses will be free today to passengers on all routes in conjunction with the city’s sixteenth Ozone Action Day of the year. 2003 marks the 10th year that the agency has been providing free rides to customers on Ozone Action Days and is one component of the agency’s overall efforts to reduce emissions and improve the air in Central Texas . . . Fifth Circuit Justice to speak . . . The Hispanic Bar Association of Austin will hear newly-appointed Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Justice Edward C. Prado at its 7th Annual Heritage Luncheon today. The crowd will also hear from Oscar Casares, author of “Brownsville,” on Hispanic culture. The luncheon is being held at the Austin Capitol Marriott.

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