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Downtown still earning high marks, survey shows

Tuesday, October 7, 2003 by

Parking, lack of green space maintenance ranked as most obvious problems

A study commissioned by the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) reports that downtown stakeholders are more positive about downtown than they have been “at any time over the last decade.” The report, which was released at last week’s City Council meeting, reveals that a large majority of downtown stakeholders believe that downtown is better than it was three years ago in terms of cleanliness, visual appeal and availability of interesting places to go and things to do. Ninety percent agreed that downtown is as safe or safer than it was three years ago.

Researcher Bill Kelly of M. Crane & Associates, Inc., told the Council that “what is a resounding conclusion across categories of attributes of downtown—90 percent believe that these attributes are the same or better than they were three years ago. That, in and of itself, is remarkable.”

Despite all the glowing statistics and quotable comments about Austin’s theater, cultural and music offerings, there are still a few problems, chief among them the lack of parking. Kelly noted that failure to maintain parks and green space had emerged as the second most noted downtown problem, with traffic and transportation coming in third. However, he noted, since 2001 there has been a decline in responses referencing transients. “In past surveys, the ‘transient issue’ has been more salient on the part of respondents than it was this year. I would offer to you that this is not an indication necessarily of the resolution of the problem . . . There are a lot of other issues that are competing for their attention.”

However, DAA Executive Director Charlie Betts disagrees with those who perceive downtown parking as a big problem. He says the fact that people believe there is no parking is a problem, but that the parking is there for those who do not insist on parking directly in front of their destination. He cites a 2000 parking study showing there was plenty of parking, but that it was not necessarily on Congress, Brazos or Colorado. Farther from the center of downtown, he said, there are spaces. In addition, Betts pointed out that downtown currently has a 20-percent vacancy rate, with most office towers offering parking.

“Very few downtowns that are vibrant don’t have a parking problem,” he said, observing that there are few cars in the truly great cities of the world. Unlike Austin, of course, those cities have easily accessible public transportation.

Betts did agree with those who see failure to maintain the parks as a problem. The DAA has an agreement with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department regarding Republic Square. The DAA made a donation to the Austin Parks Foundation to pay for most of the planning and has funded half the salary of a foundation employee to work on downtown park programs. PARD is supposed to take care of the maintenance, he said, but “quit watering” due to a broken sprinkler system this summer. He said he believes the city will repair the sprinkler.

When asked whether the alliance could pick up more funding of the parks, Betts noted that, like the city, the DAA suffers when property assessments decline. The current operating budget for the organization is based on income of $1,573,000, he said. However, next year’s projected income is $1,348,000—a 14 percent decrease.

The DAA, which is approaching its 10th year in operation, also got high marks from the study. “Approximately 80 percent describe the DAA as good or excellent in terms of the job that they’re doing,” said Kelly. The Downtown Rangers represent the most visible activity of the DAA. While people know about other DAA programs, Kelly said, they may not necessarily recognize that the alliance is the sponsor.

Finally, respondents had some suggestions for the future. Those include building parking garages or establishing a parking authority, taking better care of parks and trying to resolve traffic problems. Kelly concluded, “Our recommendations for the DAA going forward: focus on beautification; facilitate the restoration of historic buildings—and especially the improvement of parks and green spaces; address the parking issue and address the traffic issue.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman commented, “We’re really going to have to address” parking and transportation issues, noting that certain city policies contradict others. “So I really think we need to get on it. We’ve let many years go by without addressing one of the core problems that you have to deal with when you’re making downtown a destination.”

Mayor Will Wynn credited other City Councils before this one for their work in pushing downtown housing, expanding the convention center and making other improvements that he said were significant milestones in the improvement of downtown. “For us now, two years after our economy has significantly weakened . . . it’s just remarkable that today people still say virtually to a person that downtown is cleaner, safer, more fun, more vibrant, a better place to live than even a couple of years ago.” He went on to praise city staff, the DAA and downtown property owners “that are there day in and day out trying to improve their lives. So it’s commendable and we greatly appreciate having this kind of objective data to really check our progress and see how we’re doing.”

Bringing retail back to downtown was on Council Member Daryl Slusher’ s mind. “That’s going to take a really big team effort. It’s just critical that we bring retail back to downtown as the key part of reversing the sales tax decline,” he said..

Design Commissioners still thinking about their role

The Design Commission’ s tasks may have changed, but commissioners are convinced the core mission of the city board has remained the same over the last decade.

The commission’s main role over the last three years has been to tally points on the Smart Growth matrix for downtown projects. The demise of Smart Growth, however, has left the commission in limbo. That premise was hammered home by a report from the city’s Task Force on Boards and Commissions, which pointed out that the Design Commission had strayed far from its enabling ordinance—originally written in 1986.

This is not the first time the Design Commission has changed course. The Design Commission, as originally proposed by then Council Member George Humphrey, was intended to hand out awards to outstanding architecture in the city. And that’s exactly how the commission’s enabling ordinance was written.

But as Commissioner Juan Cotera noted, plenty of people on the state and national level were giving out awards by the time the Design Commission was created. Several years ago after a number of fruitless meetings as the new chair, Cotera said he was ready to throw in the towel on the commission.

“I was really dissatisfied. We were spending a lot of time doing nothing,” Cotera told his fellow commissioners. “I proposed that we sunset it.”

But as the Design Commission was ready to vote itself out of existence, someone suggested the group start sponsoring urban design workshops in the community. And while that course was successful for a while, Cotera said, it didn’t last. Eventually, the group couldn’t maintain its momentum, and the commission faltered again.

That’s when Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman stepped in to suggest a new direction. At the time, there was a lot of unrest about impending development downtown, including the CSC/City Hall deal. Goodman proposed that the Design Commission take up the challenge to write downtown design guidelines, which evolved into the commission’s role in assessing whether downtown projects met those design standards.

“In a sense, it gave us life. It gave us purpose; and it was a good purpose,” Cotera said.

Today, the Design Commission evaluates the design guidelines of projects. The group also has policy task forces on civic art, urban open space, urban core housing and parking, as well as the city’s corridors and the City Hall Plaza.

Commissioner John Patterson, who was chairing the Design Commission meeting in Chair Perry Lorenz’s absence last night, said he looked at the changing role of the Design Commission in a different way. Regardless of the task—awards or project evaluations or Smart Growth points—the Design Commission has always looked to enhance architectural excellence in the community.

The Design Commission’s charge is in some ways a “big tent,” Patterson said. Within that tent are the assessment of issues such as land use planning, mixed-use development and economic viability of urban core projects, all under the general umbrella of “recognizing architectural excellence,” Patterson told the group.

Over the summer, the Design Commission considered and reconsidered its purpose, intending to draft a new enabling ordinance. Last night, Cotera, who is chairing a subcommittee on the issue, outlined once more what the subcommittee determined are the prime tasks of the current Design Commission:

• Raising awareness of urban design components, such as the interaction of streetscapes, transportation networks and buildings.

• Establishing and promoting design principles to improve the quality of the built environment.

• Helping to create policies that shape urban design on a policy level and a project level.

• Creating and maintaining a strategic outreach program to the community.

• Proving guidance to the City Council on matters concerning urban design excellence.

• Taking on projects from time to time in support of the Commission’s mission.

Members of the subcommittee will flesh out what those goals mean. From their conclusions, the commission intends to draft a proposed ordinance it intends to present to council.

Next month, the Design Commission will consider a proposal from city staff, asking the commission to take a role in neighborhood planning. Unlike most of the city’s commissions, members of the Design Commission are all professionals in the field they evaluate. Under the proposal, the commissioners would help neighborhood planning teams set design guidelines for neighborhood plans.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Request for information . . . Brian Cassidy, attorney for SR Ridge Development, the owner of the land at MoPac and Slaughter no longer slated to be the home of a Wal-Mart, has sent a very broad request for information to the City of Austin and the City Council. That request seeks production of “all documents, communications, correspondence, notes, email, memoranda, recordings and other information in the possession of the City or its consultants generated after January 1, 2000, and relating in any way” to Wal-Mart or Endeavor Real Estate. This appears to be a step toward litigation . . . City hospital honored . . . Brackenridge Hospital has been named one of the top 100 Hospitals in the nation. Solucient, a national leader in healthcare information, chose the hospital for the honor for a second consecutive year. The award is in recognition of Brackenridge’s excellence in the Teaching Hospitals category. It is the only facility in Austin and one of three hospitals in the state to receive this distinction. Parkland Health and Hospital Systems in Dallas and Houston’s Northwest Medical Center were also honored. “Brackenridge continues to raise the bar for quality healthcare in our region,” said Mayor Will Wynn. “I am thrilled that the country is now learning what we in Central Texas have known for many years—the city’s hospital is a national leader in delivering quality healthcare. Some of the most talented doctors, medical teams, administrators and support staff make Brackenridge their home.” The Seton Healthcare Network, which operates Brackenridge through a contract with the City of Austin, is a not-for-profit healthcare organization providing service at 20 locations in Central Texas. Former City Manager Jesus Garza is CEO of Brackenridge . . . McCracken to host town hall meeting . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken will hold an informal town hall question and answer meeting at 7:30pm tonight at the Balcones Country Club, 8600 Balcones Club Drive. McCracken plans to talk with Northwest Austin residents and address issues of concern to the community. The Spicewood Estates Homeowners Association will host the meeting. City staff representing police, fire, library and public works will also be in attendance. All city residents are welcome to attend . . . High rollers toast Killer D’s . . . Banker Eddie Safady is hosting a party for the Democrats who broke the House quorum in the spring. The party will be from 5:30-7:30pm tonight at his home, 807 Congress. Former Gov. Ann Richards is honorary chair and actor Alec Baldwin is a special guest. Ticket prices start at $250 . . . Envision Central Texas begins survey . . . Representatives of all five counties covered by Envision Central Texas met yesterday at the Palmer Events Center to launch the next phase of the group’s effort to develop a comprehensive regional vision for the area. Austin Mayor Will Wynn and other Envision Central Texas board members filled out the group’s public survey on different scenarios for growth. “This is where we ask the citizens of all five counties to give us feedback on how they’d like this region to grow and develop over the next 2- to 40 years,” said ECT Executive Director Beverly Silas. The survey is being published in inserts in area newspapers and is online at Silas says the questionnaire can be completed in less than 15 minutes. The effort has the support of the Real Estate Council of Austin, which is encouraging its members to take the survey. “The visioning process puts Central Texas in a better position to react to future needs resulting from the population growth expected during the next few decades,” said RECA President Tim Taylor . . . Vote on consultant delayed . . . The City Council vote on a consultant for the South Congress Avenue Streetscape Improvement Project has been delayed until Oct. 23. A community advisory group began meeting to discuss South Congress this month, according to planner Pollyanne Melton. She told the Design Commission last night that reverse angle parking and parking meters were the first topics of discussion. Local merchants, who are a bit leery of the use of reverse parking, are expected to talk to merchants in Salt Lake City, Tucson and Seattle, where such a parking configuration is now used.

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