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Commissioners to weigh bonds for extra week

Wednesday, October 29, 2003 by

School board, ACC urge county to say no

County commissioners will give American Housing Foundation one more week of consideration before they decide whether to back $96 million in tax-exempt bonds the Amarillo non-profit corporation has requested to purchase five Austin-area apartment properties.

American Housing Foundation comes to Travis County with a mixed record. While Amarillo partners highly recommended the group, residents of an apartment complex AHF purchased almost two years ago had mixed opinions about the responsiveness of their landlord. In addition, the deal will mean taking $55 million in property value off the county tax rolls, a move the Austin Independent School District and Austin Community College have firmly opposed.

Local lawmaker Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) told commissioners that he co-sponsored legislation this session to specifically close a loophole in the law that allows non-profits to take advantage of tax-exempt bonds without significantly cutting rent. Revisions to the law would allow non-profits to only take affordable housing units off the tax rolls, rather than the entire property. The law, however, will not go into effect until Jan. 1.

“The intent of our legislation was to get this done so it would have an immediate effect. We had a lot of bipartisan support, but we didn’t have enough support for the immediate effect,” said Rodriguez, who faulted the policy for eroding the state’s tax base. “We wanted to close that window immediately to avoid that one last deal. I believe that one last deal is what we’re seeing here today.”

Under the deal, AHF would use tax-exempt bonds issued by the Travis County Housing Finance Corporation to close a deal on five apartment properties: Harper’s Creek, The Arbors of Austin, Ashbury Park, Pinto Creek and The Trestles of Austin. The properties would be purchased from Walden Properties, with Walden continuing to manage the five properties. AHF representatives said the deal could be done without the tax-exempt bonds, but the terms would be far less favorable.

But AHF’s track record in Austin is mixed. AHF purchased Fairway Village, off Montopolis Drive, almost two years ago. Residents of Fairway Village spoke both for and against AHF during yesterday’s public hearing. Some said the non-profit had failed to address maintenance problems, including sewage, rodents and mold. Others said American Housing had begun to make slow, but steady, changes on the property.

James Davis, vice president of compliance at AHF, said the company had hired an engineering firm and an architectural firm to review conditions on site. Davis said he had walked the Fairway Village property on a number of occasions and never observed sewage problems, nor had he ever had a resident express concerns to him about such problems.

“I would be hard pressed to determine if that was a valid complaint,” Davis said.

Harvey Davis, who runs the Travis County Finance Corp., gave a rather neutral review of AHF properties in Dallas. While Davis wrote in a memo to commissioners that the properties were fairly well maintained, he also noted that the extra programs on the properties appeared to be no more than any other “market-rate” properties. He noted that AHF had hired off-duty Dallas police officers to patrol the property, which AHF claims has reduced crime.

Others were lining up to oppose the property. Local homeowners complained that the area had more than its share of low-income families and had no need to add any more. Austin school board President Doyle Valdez told the board that he would fight to keep every dollar the school district, which has maxed out its tax rate and cut $29 million from its budget last year. The Austin school district would lose a net $550,000 should the five complexes are taken off the tax roll.

What swayed County Judge Sam Biscoe was a last-ditch offer by AHF to restructure its deal to provide more services to apartment residents. Under the AHF offer presented by James Davis at the end of the hearing. AHF will put $1 million in escrow for resident services as an up-front contribution. AHF will also put up $1.4 million in tax relief and contribute another $400,000 for resident services. They also pledged to reduce rents by another $328,000

Biscoe said he needed time to consider the offer, although Commissioner Margaret Gomez was clear the Fairway Village situation left her with no inclination to approve the deal.

“Promises were made to the City of Austin, and those promises were not fulfilled,” Gomez said, adding that she didn’t want to be swayed by a last-minute deal put on the table to appease commissioners. Changing the deal in the middle of the situation was not ethical, Gomez said.

Biscoe and County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said they needed more time to consider the deal. Commissioners agreed to meet again next Monday afternoon to make a decision. Tuesday would be the “drop dead” date for a decision on the tax-exempt bonds.

Parks board wants action on Town Lake

Park on hold to save operation and maintenance costs

The Parks and Recreation Board passed a resolution last night asking the City Council to move forward with plans on the much-anticipated Town Lake Park.

Board members were alarmed by a recent Downtown Austin Alliance proposal to convert some of the Town Lake parkland for commercial development. Proceeds would be used to underwrite the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Last night, the Parks Board joined the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Zilker Neighborhood Association and Town Lake stakeholders in urging the City Council to move forward with the implementation of the master plan.

The Parks and Recreation Board also supported expedited permitting on Town Lake Park. A permit ordinance could speed the development review process, subcommittee chair Jeb Boyt told the full Parks Board during his presentation last night.

Boyt said commercial development was unlikely on Town Lake land-—and would require the approval of voters—but Boyt wanted the Parks Board to join others in sending a clear message on Town Lake. The board voted unanimously to urge the city to move forward with the project and to approve an expedited approval process.

City Manager Toby Futrell has wanted to slow down construction on various city projects as a way to defray anticipated operation and maintenance expenses—a major drain on the General Fund, which comes from tax revenue. The Parks Board wanted to point out that construction on Town Lake Park, with a need to re-bid landscape architecture contract on the project, has already been slowed down enough. It could be two years before the city could see significant development of the park, Parks and Recreation Department Director Jesus Olivares told board members. He said the contract would include changes, such as reducing Riverside Drive from four lanes to two lanes.

The Austin Neighborhoods Council resolution notes that the 54-acre Town Lake Park is intended to serve as the “Great Central Park, serving as a centerpiece for the Austin Park System.” The resolution also noted that voters had supported the redevelopment of the former Palmer Auditorium and the development of the surrounding parkland.

The development of parkland is the second phase of the Town Lake Park development and is expected to cost $6 million. The first phase was the new Palmer Center. The Junior League of Austin has committed at least $480,000 for the development of a cultural park in conjunction with the development.

ZAP hears little of controversy

The Zoning and Platting Commission made quick work of its agenda Tuesday night. Almost all items passed on consent, with one postponement. A few subdivision requests drew comments, but the Commission approved them, as required by law, since they met all of the city’s requirements.

The Rev. Walter Jasper of the Antioch Baptist Church asked Commissioners to decline the re-subdivision of a lot next to the church at 3105 Jack Cook Road, citing the possible negative impact on the surrounding neighborhood from the development of an apartment on the lot. “It is a low-income area,” he said. “It is an area that is infested with drugs and crime. We are concerned about trying to expand so we can utilize this piece of land to turn things around in that neighborhood.” The commission approved the re-subdivision by a vote of 8-0.

A request for PUD zoning for land owned by Robert Theriot near his restaurant, The Oasis, was also approved on consent. The proposal had already cleared the Environmental Board, which attached several conditions. Most of the 468-acre tract lies within the city’s ETJ. It will contain a mixture of single-family homes, condominiums, office space, retail space and a restaurant. As part of the planned development, Theriot will dedicate more than 300 acres to Austin or Travis County for Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Alamo survivor’s house to be unveiled . . . This morning at 11:30am, FaulknerUSA will transfer ownership of the historic Susanna Dickinson House to the City of Austin. FaulknerUSA, the developer of the new Hilton Austi n, has sponsored the preservation and relocation of the house to its permanent home at the northeast corner of Brush Square. For those not familiar with historic square, it’s the grounds of the O. Henry Museum, 409 E. Fifth Street, right across the street from the new Hilton. The home—which belonged to the only Anglo survivor of the Battle of the Alamo—was discovered when contractors came to tear down the bar-be-cue restaurant that made way for the new hotel and adjoining luxury residences. Mayor Will Wynn will receive the house on behalf of the city from FaulknerUSA CEO Greg Eden. Preservation rchitect Norman Alston of Dallas will talk about preservation efforts and restoration plans for the house . . . Oops! . . . Union leader Michael Murphy wrote to point out our error in yesterday’s issue asserting that “collective bargaining is illegal in Texas” in the story about StarTran and Capital Metro. We meant to say that collective bargaining is illegal for public employees in Texas. However, those employed by private companies in Texas have the same collective bargaining rights as other Americans . . . Historic preservation task force meets tonight . . . The group will meet at 6pm in One Texas Center in an effort to come up with new rules for historic zoning designations. A second committee—composed of members of the Historic Landmark Commission will meet at noon today with Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky. They will also discuss proposed changes to the historic zoning ordinance. If approved, the changes would require those asking for demolition or relocation permits to present pictures of the building they want to demolish or relocate with their applications. They are also recommending the addition of recording fees for property owners who request historic zoning. These rules changes will be posted as part of the rule changing process. The public is invited to comment either during today’s meeting in Room 240 of One Texas Center or in writing . . . Georgetown salamander workshop . . . Biologists, consultants and interested landowners will meet today with representatives of various governmental agencies today to talk about what needs to be done to create a Habitat Conservation Plan for the for the Georgetown Salamander in Williamson County. The salamander is on the candidate list to be named an Endangered Species. This workshop is the first step in presenting information related to the species and to educate the public about opportunities for its conservation. Speakers will include: Williamson Commissioner David Hays, Andy Price of Texas Parks & Wildlife, geologist/hydrologist Charles Woodruff, engineer Hank Smith (formerly of the TCEQ), Lucy Buck and Richard Kelly from CAPCO, Melinda Taylor of Environmental Defense, and Robert Pine of the Austin division of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. The meeting will be from 8am- 1pm at the Austin Marriott North at Round Rock, located in La Frontera. (I-35 at SH 45). .

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