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Convention Center parking garage still facing roadblocks

Monday, September 22, 2003 by

Caught between city rules and public preferences

The City of Austin encountered some resistance at the Board of Adjustment last week when requesting a variance for the Convention Center’s planned parking garage. The design of the facility also calls for a new chiller plant for Austin Energy. At the request of the Transportation, Planning and Sustainability Department, the Austin Convention Center and Austin Energy are seeking a variance to allow for an on-street loading zone instead of an off-street loading dock stipulated by city code.

The loading zone is designed to promote pedestrian-oriented uses on the 4th Street side of the garage along with ground-level retail. Both of those were stressed as priorities during the public input phase of the project, and TPSD made an official request to the design team after reviewing the initial plans for the garage. In addition, the Downtown Commission has been especially critical of the original plan for the garage, which offered little or no retail on the ground floor. “What we came up with, after taking those suggestions to heart, is a scheme that we feel really improves the project and provides a much more pedestrian-friendly building on the site,” said Christine Rumi, representing the two city departments. “With the elimination of the loading dock, we were able to achieve 28 percent more retail space.” The loading zone requested by the variance would be located at 5th Street and Red River.

Board members sympathized with the desire to comply with the wishes of TPSD and downtown groups, but could not find a reason to grant the variance. “What is occurring is a drive by those concerned with downtown planning to get the perimeter of these buildings to have more retail, more ability for walking folks to integrate with things inside,” said Chair Herman Thun. “What they are doing in their variance is to use the platting requirements to increase the retail space to make it more pedestrian friendly. To them, that’s similar to hardships we would have . . . topography, a large tree, a sewer easement . . . these are issues that have been given to them as program requirements that they’re trying to meet.”

But Thun and other Board members were skeptical that those requirements constituted a hardship under the definition followed by the board. “This is a new issue for us,” he said. And he warned against giving favorable treatment to city departments, since it could set a precedent for development sought by private agencies. “When we get away from natural conditions . . . we have real trouble as a board. I don’t think we should treat the City of Austin any differently than anybody else,” he concluded.

After hearing the skepticism from Chairman Thun, Board Member Frank Fuentes and others, Rumi requested a postponement for the case. It will be back before the board at its November 10 meeting.

Last month, the Convention Center squeaked by on a 4-3 vote from the Sign Review Board (SRB), winning a variance for a sign already erected.

Sarah Andre of Scenic Austin spoke against the variance, insisting that the City of Austin should follow its own rules. She said she hoped that the city had been paying fines over the two months between the placement of the sign and the variance hearing.

Bob Strobeck of Sign Builders of America told the SRB—whose membership partially overlaps that of the Board of Adjustment—that his company had “an internal problem” that caused the sign to be erected before the variances were granted. He explained that the company “did go to City Council to vacate the easements, but the timing was premature.”

Finally, Fuentes came to Strobeck’s rescue by suggesting that the sign in question was for the large convention center space, one large area, and that the same space could have been filled with 40-50 other businesses, each having its own sign.

Thun amended the motion to eliminate the possibility that the Convention Center could come back for a variance on any future sign erected. The message was clear that the Convention Center should work within the rules in the future. Thun, Fuentes and SRB Members Bruce Shelton and Laurie Virkstis voted in favor. Members Betty Edgemond, Barbara Aybar and Cathy French voted against the variance.

Downtown Commission again pondering Rainey Street's future

The Downtown Commission has decided to take another month before it makes a recommendation on the future of the Rainey Street neighborhood.

Commissioners spent two hours at last week’s meeting hashing out the specifics of a preliminary report and two versions of code amendments presented by Chair Chris Riley. Some commissioners, like Beatrice Fisher, were ready to vote and bring some closure to Rainey Street. Others, like Stan Haas, needed more time to digest the information and come up with a more complete recommendation. Haas chairs the Rainey Street subcommittee.

In the end, caution won out, and the commissioners voted unanimously to delay a final decision. According to the preliminary report, the Downtown Commission considers that “a relatively dense, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use urban environment” will work best in the Rainey Street area. While the initial discussion of a subcommittee focused on design principles, subsequent discussion has focused more on zoning issues, including the use of the Waterfront Overlay.

The preliminary report offered a number of general recommendations. The entire Rainey Street area should be rezoned to Central Business District, as long as that zoning can provide some protection for the historic homes. The commission also wants to make use of the Waterfront Overlay District ordinance. That Rainey Street is a part of the overlay district has been a long-neglected factor and one that can work in favor of controlling development.

The commission also wants to encourage development incentives. The preliminary report does not go to the point of creating a Tax-Increment Finance (TIF) District, which had been the topic of previous discussion. The Rainey Street subcommittee of the Downtown Commission did not appear opposed to a TIF for Rainey Street, but Riley admitted that they feared it might be difficult to create one in light of plans to create a TIF district nearby to pay for the long-awaited Waller Creek Tunnel project. Some, like Commissioner Linda Johnston, thought it was presumptuous to hand over code recommendations, given that the members of the Downtown Commission are not urban planners. But Riley pointed out that the preliminary report alone would probably not give sufficient direction.

Commissioners reviewed two versions of the Waterfront Overlay ordinance, with changes recommended by Riley that covered what would be called the Rainey Street sub-district. Sub-district guidelines outlined setbacks, the encouragement of mixed-use projects and incentives for those who chose to rehabilitate and maintain historic buildings on Rainey Street.

Rudy Zapata, whose family’s home has been on Rainey Street for four generations, told the Downtown Commission that the biggest problem for Rainey Street residents has been the city’s failure to support the neighborhood. Residents are in limbo, uncertain what regulations apply to their historic houses and waiting to see if large-scale redevelopment is coming.

“What I see is commercial coming in, and we’re losing our identity,” said Zapata. “We only have a handful of people living there who are the original property owners.” Riley asked Zapata whether his son, the current occupant of the family house, would stay if the street were to be redeveloped with restaurants and shops, as well as historic houses. Zapata said no, his son had a young family and was likely to move if Rainey Street was turned into a mixed-use community.

Unable to come to a consensus on Rainey Street, the Downtown Commission decided to turn the subject back over to the Rainey Street subcommittee. The subcommittee will combine the two versions of the changes to the Waterfront Overlay Ordinance. Those changes will be distributed to commissioners in advance and voted on next month.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Starting the week with a bang . . . The City Council has a long agenda with a number of possibly contentious items this Thursday. Since City Hall was all but dead last week, there should be a lot of activity in the Council offices and hallways this week . . . Today’s meetings. . . Capital Metro’s Board of Directors is scheduled to meet at 4pm today. One important matter they will consider is adoption of the annual operating budget for the coming year. The board is also likely to approve a resolution authorizing the President/CEO to finalize service changes planned to take effect in January 2004. Capital Metro says the changes will not increase annual service hours over current levels . . . Zoning and Platting Commission task force . . . The ZAP task force trying to work out a solution that will soothe neighbors of a planned Wal-Mart at Slaughter and I-35 will meet at 6pm tonight in Room 500 of One Texas Center. The full commission is scheduled to meet Tuesday night and the task force is scheduled to make a report at that time. The matter is also posted for “possible action” . . . HLC meets at 7pm . . . The Historic Landmark Commission will be considering a number of requests for historic zoning as well as some demolition permits for possibly historic structures. The Library Commission will meet at the Old Quarry Branch Library at 7051 Village Center Drive at 6:30pm. The budget and plans for the future are on the agenda . . . Grande Communications wins Hispanic Chamber award . . . Grande and Bill Marrow, members of the San Marcos Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, have been named as winner of the corporate Hispanic Business Advocate of the Year for the region that includes Texas. Awards will be presented at the USHCC national convention and business exposition in Phoenix next month . . . Governor Perry fundraiser. . . The Texas GOP congressional delegation will be hosting a fundraiser for Governor Rick Perry in Washington D.C. on Wednesday. For more information, contact Texans for Rick Perry at http://www.rickperry.org.

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