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Task force making progress on abatements

Monday, March 22, 2004 by

Commission says less expensive homes should still earn full exemption

Although most other commissions took off for spring break, the Historic Preservation Task Force forged ahead with its work last week, tinkering with the formula for tax abatements as members prepare a final report for the City Council.

The task force changed the numbers on abatements again after analyzing a spreadsheet created by member Keith Jackson to compare exemption rates. After a review of the tax rates, the task force made some minor modifications.

Tax exemptions are currently applied to 50 percent of the land value and 100 percent of the building value. Although the task force considered recommending that exemptions be changed to 50 percent land value and 90 percent building value, they rejected that idea.

The task force recommends that for homes designated historic in the future, the total abatement equal no more than 50 percent of the total tax bill. As it stands now, the total tax bill is abated about 75 percent for the average home. The home must be owner-occupied or owned by a non-profit organization and to be qualified for an exemption in the future, the task force says the home should be at least 75 years old.

Members of the Historic Preservation Task Force were especially interested in protecting people who live in more affordable houses. First, the task force agreed to grandfather all buildings with existing exemptions. They also agreed to recommend protecting the full exemption for homes that have an existing tax bill at or below $2,000. That means any home valued at about $500,000 or less would be protected from tax abatement cuts.

Chair Betty Baker said the 50-percent rate and $2,000 cap would still leave Austin with the most generous tax abatement program in the country. Yet it could also address the concerns of the City Council in the midst of budget constraints.

After the meeting, member John Donisi said the theory is that those who own the upper-end houses would be able to absorb the cuts. “The financial bottom line is more important for someone at the low end than at the top end,” Donisi said.

Donisi and Joseph Martinez also brought forward a proposal to preserve mixed-income and affordable housing in historic districts. The recommendations were based on the recommendations of the Gentrification Task Force in 2002. The proposal would provide incentives for multi-family properties in a historic district that are owned by people who make less than the city’s median income.

That proposal split the commission, with Donisi, Martinez and Jerry Harris favoring it. Baker, Christianson and Jackson voted against it and Commissioner Tere O’Connell was absent. The proposal will go to the City Council without a recommendation.

The Historic Landmark Commission is set to consider abatements for 179 houses and other structures at tonight’s meeting. Those seeking exemptions are required to file requests by March 1 each year, and the commission must make a recommendation to the Travis County Appraisal District by April 1. Structures on the list include the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, the Governors James and Miriam Ferguson House at 1200 Enfield Road and the houses named after Pierre and John Bremond at 7th and Guadalupe Streets.

Mueller financial scenario not ready

Numbers will change with improvements, according to city staff

About 50 people gathered at the Promise Land Church on 51st Street last week for a community meeting on redeveloping Robert Mueller Airport. City Council Member Danny Thomas organized the meeting, in part to address concerns raised by members of Keep the Land over the financial benefits of selling the property versus leasing it. And while several residents did learn specifics about the types of housing that will be offered in the new neighborhood, members of Keep the Land left the meeting without some of the details they had sought regarding the overall economic impact of leasing all or part of the 700 acres instead of selling it.

Mary Lehmann called on city staff present at the meeting to provide an estimate on the total value of the 700 acres, saying that such a figure would play a key role in negotiations with Catellus over the future of the property. “I submit those figures are estimatable,” she said. “Catellus had to estimate them in order to know whether they wanted to bid. This is the prize. This is what the whole thing is about. What is the yield of this piece of ground in this city after build out? It is capable of being estimated.”

But the staff said the value of the land would depend on several factors, among them the infrastructure provided by the city and the uses of the property. “I think it’s a matter of timing,” said Assistant City Manager Lisa Gordon. “If we give a number now, that number will stick . . . and that number may be far off. Before a year ago, we didn’t know there was going to be a children’s hospital. So if we were to have given you a number before a $200 million asset was put on that property, we would have given you a number that didn’t include that value. As we have more details and work through some of those decision points, we’ll have a better estimate.”

Director of the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office Sue Edwards cautioned that comparing the vacant land at the airport site to other vacant land elsewhere in the city would not automatically yield accurate values. “The airport has no infrastructure on it,” she said. “One of the things that we have to do is to determine what the cost of infrastructure will be . . . and that plays a big part in what the cost of the land will ultimately be and its value.”

Staff should be ready to brief the City Council in executive session on April 22 on various sale or lease options. Jim Walker, chair of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission, predicted that the Council would avoid an all-or-nothing scenario. “I think a combination is probably more likely than one or the other,” he said. “Rather than be absolute . . . it’s a mix.”

Walker also attempted to reassure Keep the Land member Robert Singleton that the northwest corner of the former airport site would not be converted into “big box” retail. Singleton began questioning the future uses for the tract close to the intersection of I-35 and 51st Street after a presentation at a recent meeting of the committee in which representatives of Catellus and the ROMA Design Group proposed changing the designation of that tract from office to retail in the long-range master plan. Walker noted that the tract had been planned for either retail or office over the years as the market for office space in Austin fluctuated. Greg Weaver from Catellus also reminded audience members that no decision on that tract had been made and would not be made without significant community input.

The city and Catellus are holding a community meeting on April 6 called “Mueller 101” to provide background information on the airport redevelopment project for anyone who is interested and to receive more public feedback.

Welcome back . . . In Fact Daily, along with a number of you readers, took last off week for spring break . . . . Ortiz resigning . . . Planning Commission Chair Lydia Ortiz has notified fellow commissioners that this week’s meeting will be her last. She says, “Juggling work, home, new baby, commission, and other volunteer obligations has proven very difficult, and so I am stepping down from the Commission. I feel like the best way I can serve the public right now is by giving my son all the time and attention I can at this point in his life.” Ortiz has served for more than three years and is known for her calm and even-handed approach to the various hot issues that come before the commission . . . Cap Metro meets today . . . The board will be considering a number of contracts proposed for approval by staff. Six citizens have also signed up to offer their opinions on the dispute between shuttle bus drivers, who are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1549 and contractor ATC/Vancom, which operates the UT shuttle buses . . . BCP advisors to meet . . . The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Citizens Advisory Committee is scheduled to meet at 6:30pm at Waller Creek Center . . . The Historic Landmark Commission will meet at 7pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The Urban Renewal Commission will meet at 5:30pm in Room 500 of One Texas Center.

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