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Great Streets incentive program gearing up

Tuesday, November 4, 2003 by

Parking meter fund to defray cost of street improvements

The Transportation, Planning & Sustainability Department is finalizing the details on the first incentive program in the post-Smart Growth era of Austin development.

Great Streets, the much anticipated and long-discussed upgrade of downtown streetscapes, will be the focus of the program. Streetscape improvements were first mentioned in the 1992 R/UDAT design recommendations. Four years later, the Downtown Austin Alliance initiated a Great Streets program and established a parking meter fund to pay for those improvements. Slowly, the plans have made their way through city channels.

In the meantime, the parking meter fund has generated about $400,000 per year. If all goes well, the City Council will look at both a program and a potential initial project for funding by the beginning of next year.

Urban designer Susan Daniels presented an overview of the Great Streets plan to the Design Commission last night. Commissioners generally approved, but expressed concerns about specifics such as monitoring minority business participation and fiscal accountability.

Projects as large as the new Computer Science Corp. buildings and as small as Colonial Bank have expressed interest in participating in a future Great Streets program, Daniels said. Other projects that have come on board with the concept of upgraded streetscapes, wider sidewalks and increased pedestrian amenities include AMLI Residential, Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, Plaza Lofts, Brazos Lofts and the new Frost Bank Tower.

Now the city’s Urban Design Team is developing a plan for awarding incentives for participating downtown businesses. One aspect that makes this program different from other prior incentive programs is a desire to award money through administrative channels, rather than by City Council approval, Daniels said. The proposal will also use state law to bypass the city’s competitive bidding practices, in an attempt to streamline procedures.

Under state law, the city can reimburse public improvements without competitive bidding up to 30 percent of their total cost. The city can also fully reimburse items that “oversize” what is already standard practice for the city, such as providing additional streetlights for an area. The process would be to execute a Community Facilities Contact with the developer and reimburse a portion of the cost.

What is still being hashed out is just how much of the cost will be reimbursed and to whom. Under the current plan, proposed Great Streets projects would be ranked by criteria such as:

• Location within an area of high pedestrian activity

• In a historic district or along an Capital Metro bus route

• The ability to leverage the city’s underground utility improvements

• A role in an established planned corridor, district or master plan.

Projects would be assigned a priority of high, medium or low, and would be funded accordingly. Current plans are to generally reimburse at $5, $10 or $15 per square foot of improvement, depending on the level of the priority. In that way, the city can establish a cap for the award and giving options to both small and large projects, Daniels said.

For instance, one of three projects up for consideration for the program’s first award is the Littlefield Mall, at Sixth Street and Brazos Street. The project, which will also convert the apartment/retail property into condominiums, is considered a high priority for the city. The project is located in a high traffic pedestrian-oriented area within a historic district. It also resolves some Americans with Disabilities Act needs in the area.

Other projects up for award funding are the proposed downtown Marriott on Fourth Street and Colonial Bank. Daniels said the first award would depend on the completion of paperwork.

Participation from the city could range from $50,000 to $100,000 on smaller projects, up to $300,000 on projects that encompass a full city block, such as the convention center hotel.

As Urban Design Officer Jana McCann explained in her letter to the Design Commission, 15 downtown projects already have been completed under Great Streets guidelines. Those awards, however, were made under the SMART Growth matrix.

The Design Commission was interested in seeing the actual matrix to be used in prioritizing projects. Commissioner Phil Reed expressed concern that the budgets be reviewed and all expenses verified as legitimate in an objective way. And Vice Chair John Patterson wanted to make sure the minority-owned business participation was monitored and enforced.

Commissioners agreed to appoint a committee of Eleanor McKinney, Holly Kincannon and Patterson to reviewers of additional documentation. If the plan goes to Council as early as December, the Design Commission will call a special meeting to approve a letter of support and recommendations it intends to send on to Council.

The city received a letter of support from the Downtown Austin Alliance yesterday. In the letter, Chair Wade Cooper wrote that criteria set by the city would be “an important tool in ensuring that money for this program is fairly divided between projects.” A formalized program also guarantees the program will have the greatest impact on the most people, includes private participation and makes the best use of city resources, Cooper wrote..

Police Monitor ready to deal with new job

Building trust a critical first step

Austin’s new Police Monitor met with staff in the monitor’s office and laid out his priorities on Monday. Local attorney Ashton Cumberbatch, a member of the Police Monitor’s Citizen Review Panel, has been named by City Manager Toby Futrell to take over the post previously held by Iris Jones.

Cumberbatch was one of 13 applicants for the position. Futrell said she took a different approach to finding someone to fill the high-profile position than the nationwide search that led to the hiring of Jones, the city’s first-ever Police Monitor. “This time, we stayed local,” Futrell said. “At the end of the interview process it was clear to me that we really had one candidate. It was very clear to me that community trust is right at the foundation of the success of the Police Monitor’s Office. To do that, you have to be known in the community,” she said. “Ashton comes with that. He comes with community trust.”

Cumberbatch has worked as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney. He currently heads his own firm, Cumberbatch and Associates. He is also active with a faith-based organization, the Austin Bridge Builders Alliance. After meeting with staff in the Monitor’s office, Cumberbatch said he’s looking forward to the job. “I felt that my experiences, my background and my gifts made me qualified to fill the role as Police Monitor,” he said. “I have a passion for the position. I have a passion for community justice. I have an interest in seeing a mutually trustful and respectful relationship between the community and the police department.”

Cumberbatch plans to continue a series of neighborhood meetings initiated by Jones. He also plans to look for ways to improve training for both APD cadets and veteran officers. And he hinted that the department could improve relations in East Austin by either recruiting more African-American officers, or deploying the existing African-American officers more frequently on the east side. “Systemically, there is a race issue,” he said. “Predominately, the police department is made up of people who are not people of color policing central East Austin, where you have predominantly people of color. There wasn’t a sharing of the power. There was systemically a belief that folks who live east of I-35 did not bring much to the table. So there was an antagonism and suspicion of folks who live east of I-35. It takes a while to break down those barriers. And the community as a whole has not been vigilant enough and persistent enough in breaking down those walls.”

Cumberbatch will officially take office in about two weeks. He said that while building bridges between the APD and minority groups will be a priority, it won’t be his only function. “I think there’s a perception when we talk about police-community relationships—and whether or not there’s mutual trust—we just look at communities of color and say ‘that’s their problem’. One of the things we want to address . . . if there’s an issue with communities of color, there’s an issue with all of Austin,” he said. “The entire community needs to be aware of and concerned about if any part of the community has issues with the department.”

Zoning decisions made at last week's Council meeting

Last week the City Council approved on second reading a zoning ordinance that permits development of a new Wal-Mart Supercenter at I-35 and Slaughter. The change received initial approval 6-0 on first reading Oct. 23.

Though the Supercenter planned for I-35 and Slaughter is considerably less controversial than the store planned earlier this year in the Barton Springs Recharge Zone, the Wal-Mart name alone spurs concerns about wages and labor rights. Council Member Daryl Slusher requested that a preliminary report be done in order to prepare for an economic study to determine the effects of the new store on nearby local businesses and workers’ salaries. Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department Director Alice Glasco said the report didn’t have to be tied to the rezoning, but that Council could direct City Manager Toby Futrell to initiate the study and she could proceed. Mayor Will Wynn expressed some concerns about the cost of such a study, which Slusher acknowledged.

Despite his previous opposition to the now-killed Wal-Mart over the Edwards Aquifer, Slusher supports the site for the new Wal-Mart, which will reside close to the city limits. That location, he suggested, might draw shoppers from outside the city, thereby increasing Austin’s sales tax revenues. “If you’re going to have a big box, that’s as good as any a place to have it,” he said.

Wal-Mart counsel Richard Suttle, promised that the new store would include environmental enhancements such as extra trees and a light-colored roof to lessen the amount of heat produced by the store and its parking lot. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman requested those features.

The next zoning case on Council’s platter involved a request for final approval of a rezoning request made by the Paragon Prep School, which asked to change the existing SF-3 designation on one of its lots to LO-MU in order to expand its Koenig Lane facilities. Paragon’s expansion plans have garnered a valid petition by residents in the area who believe that the rezoning will turn the school into a regional attraction; they requested NO (neighborhood office) zoning with a conditional overlay excluding private primary and secondary school uses. On first reading, held March 20, Council Members Slusher and Alvarez voted against the rezoning for the school; meanwhile, staff recommends the rezoning as the “most consistent and compatible” use, given that property to the east is zoned LO and accommodates a school and other commercial and office functions.

Three people signed up to speak, including Paragon agent Brad Greenblum and two neighbors opposed to the rezoning request. Greenblum stated that the school has tried to work with neighbors in achieving a compromise, but to no avail. “They have been interesting to work with,” he commented. Opposing neighbor Richard Brock, who lives behind the property slated for rezoning, countered that LO zoning would draw students from around the region while, in more arcane terms, enable the school to circumvent an existing restrictive covenant and conditional use permit.

Council temporarily sided with the school. After Council Member Danny Thomas amended the motion to approve the rezoning on second reading only, members passed it 4-2-1, Slusher and Alvarez dissenting and Goodman off the dais. But because of the valid petition, the change will need the approval of six Council members on final passage. The case represents just the latest skirmish in a series of battles between residential property owners along Koenig and surrounding streets who want to protect the existing character of the neighborhood and a second group of property owners who seek to change single-family zoning to a classification allowing businesses to operate or expand in the area.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

City Council special called meeting . . . The Council will have a special called meeting at 6:30pm Thursday for “discussion and possible action on the impact of congressional redistricting on the City of Austin‘s representation as a community of interest.” Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Members Daryl Slusher and Raul Alvarez are the sponsors . . . Former Mayor Gus Garcia, Commissioners Ron Davis and Margaret Gomez and former State Rep. Wilhelmina Delco are likely to intervene in the suit as individuals . . . Commissioners to air redistricting worries . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court will hold a hearing at 11am today on the redistricting of Travis County. Democratic activists are urging those concerned with the slicing of the county into four districts attached to more populous areas to attend this morning’s hearing but to concentrate on the harm redistricting does to the county as a whole. After the hearing, commissioners will consider whether to intervene in pending lawsuits on the matter. Friday is the deadline for intervention . . . Council meeting . . . On Thursday, the Council will have an opportunity to consider whether to settle a lawsuit with Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse. Lowe’s has been trying for several months to reach an agreement with the city allowing it to have city water and wastewater service in exchange for various concessions on a site over the Edwards Aquifer near Sunset Valley. Council Member Brewster McCracken and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman have put the item on this week’s agenda. The Council has scheduled only three more meetings this year . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . Both the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission have meetings planned for 6pm tonight, but only the former will be televised. The ZAP will meet in Room 325, while the Planning Commission will meet in Room 240 of One Texas Center. ZAP faces an assortment of zoning, site plan and subdivision cases, while members of the Planning Commission are scheduled to consider the proposed subdivision rules for Austin’s ETJ in Travis County. HB 1204 and HB 1445 require an agreement between the county and city on a single set of regulations for the ETJ by Jan. 1, 2004. Also, city Environmental Officer Pat Murphy is scheduled to brief the commission on the proposed anti-big-box development ordinance . . . More work on the Wal-Mart question . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher said Monday that he has requested the City Manager to be an addendum on this week’s Council agenda regarding development of “a study of the effects of big-box retail centers on the local economy, small businesses and wages.” Council Member Raul Alvarez is co-sponsoring the item . . . Harley riders for needy kids . . . On Sunday, Harley-Davidson riders will participate in the Fourth Annual Travis County Toy Run to benefit the Children’s Advocacy Center. Austin-area Harley-Davidson riders will start at Central Texas Harley-Davidson at noon and ride to Carlos ‘n Charlie’s restaurant on Lake Travis. The ride was organized to solicit donations of toys and other gifts for the Children’s Advocacy Center to distribute to children served by the Child Protection Team. For more information about the event, call Custom Truck Outfitters at 512-918-2345 . . . More delays . . . Discussion of the Design Commission’ s role in neighborhood planning has been delayed for another month. The commission is still slated to discuss its possible role in setting design guidelines on future neighborhood plans. A discussion of the Mexican-American Cultural Center was also delayed.

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