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Convention Center Hotel gets positive response Developers are encouraged by initial room night bookings for the Austin Convention Center hotel, which is set to open in 90 days.

Thursday, September 11, 2003 by

Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau President Bob Lander and Hilton Austin General Manager Andy Slater presented facts and figures on the hotel at this week’s Austin Rotary Club meeting. According to Slater, the Hilton Austin will open with 206,000 room nights already booked over the next three years, a sign Slater calls “encouraging” during the current economic downturn.

A study by Angelou Economics predicts the convention hotel will pump $558 million into the Austin economy during its first year, of which almost $400 million will come from initial construction costs. Over the following 10 years, the hotel is predicted to have a $1.8 billion impact on the city. The convention hotel will employ an estimated 600 people.

Discussion of the hotel generated a lot of buzz among the Rotarians at the meeting. Slater outlined some of the amenities for the site, including the biggest hotel ballroom in Austin, two top-flight restaurants and wireless Internet access. The hotel will feature 800 rooms and 25 suites, as well as 113 condominium units.

Lobby restaurants will include Finn and Porter Steakhouse, which will have a two-story glass-enclosed wine rack. Liberty Tavern and Java Coast Fine Coffees will serve dayside traffic. The lobby is decorated in what is called “Urban Hill Country,” with native stone and waterfalls, Slater told the assembled meeting.

The junior ballroom alone, at 18,000 square feet, is 4,000 feet larger than the city’s largest ballroom. The grand ballroom is 28,000 square feet—about three times the size of the ballroom at the Hyatt Hotel—and comes close to covering an entire city block, Slater said.

The 206,000 room nights already booked, combined with drop-in traffic, is estimated to mean 561,000 room nights booked at the hotel in its first three years. The first question from the audience was about room rates: Slater said they would be competitive, ranging from $99 to $189 per night, depending on how busy the hotel is.

Lander stressed that the convention hotel will strengthen the city’s package to convention planners. The Convention Center expansion, timed to open with the hotel, will bring the city’s convention center space to more than 1 million square feet. That magic number serves about 65 percent of the trade associations scouting for convention sites.

Austin’s tourism industry, which Lander called a “long-lost stepchild,” generates about $3.3 billion for the city each year. And while hotel occupancy has been weak—dipping below 60 percent last year—Lander is convinced the city has hit bottom and is on the way up again.

Lander said the city may never rebound to the all-time high-occupancy levels of 2000, thanks to the oversaturation of limited-service hotels, but the numbers are climbing. Lander’s market strategy includes boosting leisure travel to cover the gap left by less-frequent business travel.

The Austin Hilton will bring the number of hotel rooms downtown to 4,750 and 24,000 across the city, Lander noted. A good convention hotel can easily add between 150,000 to 200,000 room nights occupancy to downtown Austin.

Lander stated in his pitch that Austin lags behind other cities in convention and visitors bureau budgets. San Antonio, Houston and Dallas all budget close to $15 million per year to attract convention business. Austin, by comparison, makes due with less than $6 million. That revenue comes from a cut of the city’s hotel-motel taxes.

Board grants parking variance for storage on Kinney The third time was the charm to win a parking variance for a South Austin self-storage facility.

The Board of Adjustment agreed to reconsider the parking variance for City View Storage at 2201 Kinney Avenue this week. The Board of Adjustment had denied the variance twice before, once two years ago and once again this past April. Consultant Sarah Crocker asked the board to reconsider the case, based on new information about pavement width and parking requirements for self-storage facilities.

Neighbors had expressed concerns that the self-storage facility’s driveway would empty onto Kinney, a primarily residential street. Crocker stated that use of the property as a self-storage facility would generate fewer trips per day than most other allowed commercial uses. She estimated that the self-storage facility would require no more than 100 trips per day, compared to the 917 trips per day allowed for a commercial property of 2,995 square feet.

Crocker argued that the irregularly shaped property at 2201 Kinney had a limited number of uses. The requested variance decreased the number of off-street parking spaces from 57 to 23. Crocker reminded the board that it had granted more than a dozen prior variances on similar projects.

In a letter to the Board of Adjustment, however, Crocker made some concessions. No flea markets would be held on the property. The city had judged the pavement to be wide enough for an 18-wheel truck, a requirement under code. And she provided a review by the Self-Storage Association, which noted that a property of City View Storage’s size would require 100 vehicle trips per day, with the average stay of each vehicle being no more than 17.4 minutes.

She also presented the board with the city’s own recommended revisions to city code. Under the revisions, parking would be reduced from one space per 1,000 square feet to one space per 4,000 square feet. That would be in line with many of the variances granted in recent months.

Carol Gibbs of the South Lamar Neighborhood Association argued that nothing in the information that Crocker presented justified reconsideration of the case. Gibbs said the neighborhood was not opposed to the development of the property, within certain parameters.

“We are in support of anything that goes onto this property that is within code,” Gibbs told the board. “This is not within code.” Attorney Tom Davis, who represented property owner Sylvia Smith, said there were an infinite number of reasonable uses for the property without turning it into a storage facility. The only hardship—all variances require a hardship—was self-imposed by the property owner, Davis said.

Davis maintained that the only problem with City View Storage’s plans was that the owner had tried to fit an acre-and-a-half of storage on what ought to be an acre of storage space. Davis said the storage facility had also failed the “doing no harm to the local neighborhood” test. The structure would be the tallest building on a two-mile stretch of South Lamar, in addition to being a tall windowless structure across the street from a residential driveway and next to what are residential bungalows. The board had no reason to approve the variance, Davis told the board.

Board members saw it otherwise. Commissioner Frank Fuentes, who frequently calls into question whether variances meet the hardship requirement, said he could find no reason to deny the request, given the BOA’s record on granting parking variances for other properties.

Crocker admitted the owner had attempted and failed to reach a compromise with neighbors, even trying to cut the variance in half. Davis argued that plans for the project had not been approved by the city, but Crocker countered that the project would be going to the Planning Commission this week, with a tentative hearing date before the City Council on Nov. 6.

At the final vote, only Commissioner Betty Edgemond voted against the parking variance, giving Crocker her variance on a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Laurie Virkstis asked if the board could put a “no off-street parking” condition on the property and was told by Assistant City Attorney Martha Terry that if parking were limited for this use, it would have to be limited for all commercial uses.

Nature Conservancy honors George Cofer Austin business and environmental leaders gathered at the Hyatt Regency on Wednesday to pay tribute to George Cofer, who received the 2003 Conservation Leadership Award from the Nature Conservancy of Texas ( www.tnc.org/texas). Cofer currently serves as the executive director of the Hill Country Conservancy (www.hillcountryconservancy.org), but also has a long history of environmental activism in central Texas.

“We’re really pleased to be honoring one of Austin’s finest,” said Nature Conservancy State Director Jim Sulentich. “George has just been at the forefront of conservation and environmental issues in Austin. My personal affiliation with George goes back to the early 90’s when we were working on the Balcones Canyonlands project.” Guests at the luncheon were treated to a video montage of Austinites paying tribute to Cofer, along with a speech and performance from musician Marcia Ball. One of Cofer’s best attributes, said Sulentich, is the ability to build bridges between different interest groups. “George has a way of bringing all sorts of people together in consensus on important issues, and the Hill Country Conservancy is one of the finest and fastest-growing organizations in Austin,” he said. “The Nature Conservancy couldn’t be more pleased to be a partner with the Hill Country Conservancy.”

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Savio sits in for Stick . . . Members of the CAMPO board generally designate a proxy to sit in their places when they are unable to attend a meeting. For example, Senator Gonzalo Barrientos has designated his assistant, Graham Keever, as his proxy. Rep. Terry Keel’s legislative assistant, Shyra Darr, would take his place if he were absent and Gerado Castillo would sit in for Rep. Eddie Rodriguez if he were unable to attend. In fact, all of the members of the Travis County delegation have designated a person who works for them as their proxy—except for Rep. Jack Stick. Stick’s official proxy is Harry Savio, longtime lobbyist for the Homebuilders Association of Greater Austin . . . That’s why we finished the budget on Tuesday . . . Mayor Will Wynn seemed relaxed as he and members of the City Hall staff enjoyed birthday cake in his office yesterday. Wynn, who turned 42 on Wednesday, noted that he had spent his previous three birthdays at Council meetings. The Mayor confided that the real reason the budget won final passage on Tuesday was so he could celebrate without having to attend a meeting. One staff member admonished In Fact Daily to mention that the cake was not at taxpayers’ expense . . . Call us, says Round Rock . . . Round Rock citizens are encouraged to call in budget questions after a broadcast of the city’s budget presentation on the municipal channel this evening at 7pm. The overall proposed budget for Round Rock this year will be $92 million. Funding that budget will require a tax rate of 35.7 cents per hundred dollar valuation, up from last year’s tax rate of 34.2 cents. The phone number to call with questions is 218-5400 . . . No Council today . . . The Council will not meet again until September 25. The City’s budget officer, Rudy Garza, was at work on Wednesday but said he plans to take vacation during the last week of the month. His real vacation, however, won’t be until Thanksgiving, when he plans to take his family on a cruise . . . Alvarez joins protest . . . Council Member Raul Alvarez joined members of the Texas Fair Trade Commission outside City Hall yesterday as the group launched a four-day tour of the state to draw attention to a meeting of the World Trade Organization taking place in Cancun, Mexico. The group says multi-national corporations might use international trade rules to circumvent local controls on development, should those controls be ruled as anti-competitive. “With all these free trade agreements, we see an erosion of our democracy,” said Alvarez. “Some of the most troubling things about this is that foreign investors are beginning to have more rights here in this country that even our elected officials. Those rules we have in place to protect the health and safety of our citizens . . . could be seen very easily under the broad definition of the agreements as unreasonable barriers to trade.” . . . BSEACD meeting tonight. . . The aquifer district board is scheduled to meet at 6pm and will discuss a proposed asphalt plant close to the Ruby Ranch subdivision . . . Good news for Travis County District judges . . . Attorney General Greg Abbott released an opinion yesterday that allows the Commissioners Court to grant judges a raise without a related drop in state funding. At issue was a state formula. Commissioners feared that a bump in local funding would trigger an equal drop in state funding. Not so, wrote Abbott in an opinion he sent to County Auditor Susan Spataro. .

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