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Developers agree on need for design guidelines

Tuesday, April 27, 2004 by

Need cited for alternate methods of reaching aesthetically pleasing buildings

Bank of America recently built a dozen new branches in the greater Austin area. Unfortunately, the City of Austin lacked design standards. The result, said Jill Allison, who represents Bank of America and Trammell Crow, was that banks built in nearby communities met architectural and design requirements of those cities, but Austin got “the prototype.” Allison was one of more than a dozen development representatives meeting with Council Member Brewster McCracken Monday to brainstorm about how Austin can improve the aesthetics of retail buildings.

Allison explained that for many national chains the store design is considered a part of the business’s logo. “Without standards, we were told to fight the fight for the prototype,” she said. Others agreed.

Developer Tom Terkel had a similar story. He said he would not have been able to convince HEB’s corporate office to make concessions he wanted for the store at Braker and US183 if the grocer had not known that another grocer wanted the same spot. He had no such leverage with the management of Target in Austin, he said. When asked to approve something better than the standard design, “Target wanted to know, ‘Why do we have to do this?’” he said. They built what they set out to build.

Terkel compared the situation to that of Randall’s in Rollingwood. He said he advised the company that they should comply with the city’s guidelines and not try to insist on their standard cinderblock building. “I said, ‘It’s only going to get worse—a year later and four redesigns” of the building, he said, after which Randall’s finally complied. “It was the imposition of community standards. It all comes back to leverage. Without it, you end up with a pretty ordinary building,” he concluded.

In addition to meeting with developers, McCracken and his staff held meetings with representatives of the design and architectural community and neighborhoods. He said, “Everybody was in a very focused, problem solving mindset. In every group, everyone was focused on the buildings and how to improve the built environment.” The single biggest design concern, he said, was, “How do you insure that the buildings have human scale?”

Some of those attending the development group meeting expressed concern that making rules proscriptive rather than incentive-based would delay the project’s completion. Attorney Brad Greenblum suggested reducing city fees. He said giving developers sample prototypes to follow could result in saving time, which would in itself reduce the costs of development.

Kevin Burns of Urban Space Realtors said, “Saving time off the process is a huge incentive and it doesn’t cost the city any money.”

Developer Jerry McCuistion said he had done projects in 15 cities across the nation. He put forth a two-pronged idea that everyone seemed to like. One path would involve following a set of definite guidelines to reach a more aesthetically pleasing design. The second would involve devising a unique building plan, also more beautiful than the cookie-cutter box.

Mary Guererro McDonald added the phrase “alternate method of compliance.” She said she liked the idea but expressed concerns that the staff might have “their own interpretation” of guidelines that could be in conflict with an architect’s plan.

McCracken said there would be another stakeholders meeting next week. In addition, he said he would be discussing design guidelines with the Austin Neighborhoods Council next Monday night.

Staff details Barton mitigation policy for public

Details of the proposed mitigation policy for development over the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer are shaping up as members of the city staff hold a series of public meetings to discuss the idea. The first two of three scheduled meetings have been sparsely attended by a core of representatives of business and environmental groups, but citizens will have another opportunity to review the proposal and comment before it goes to the City Council for consideration.

After Council members debated the proposal by Lowe’s Home Improvement to build a store in the city’s ETJ, the Council directed staff to come up with guidelines for development requests over the Barton Springs Zone that don’t strictly comply with the SOS Ordinance. (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 12, 2003.) The company wound up paying the city $1 million for the purchase of undeveloped land elsewhere in the Barton Springs Zone in order to mitigate the impact of their development. The guidelines being crafted now would help guide the Council when considering similar requests in the future.

So far, planners in the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department (WPDR) have come up with several guidelines designed to reduce the overall impervious cover in the Barton Springs Zone, preserve open space and prevent pollution. That could be done through clustering of development on less-sensitive sites within the zone while protecting more sensitive land elsewhere within the zone. “The objective is to ensure the same if not much better protection of the Barton Springs Zone and Barton Springs Pool than what we have right now,” said Joe Pantalion, director of WPDR. “Secondly, it’s to have it be economically viable . . . a tool that can be used. Third, something that’s simple to administer and understand.”

The guidelines being circulated in rough draft include several provisions outlining how much developers would have to pay for the privilege of clustering. “It boils down to the fact that developers will pay mitigation costs commensurate with the economic benefit of the development,” said Pantalion. The policy would allow an increase in impervious cover on one site, provided the developer pays a sufficient fee to prevent impervious cover on another site. The maximum increase in impervious cover would be 10 percent for any one project. For sites within the recharge zone, that would translate into an increase from the 15-percent impervious cover allowed under SOS to 25-percent impervious cover.

Sites outside the recharge zone but within the Barton Creek contributing zone could have 30-percent rather than 20-percent impervious cover, and sites in other parts of the contributing zone could go from 25- to 35-percent impervious cover. The developer would have to pay a maintenance fee for that land. The city could also use the money paid by developers to retrofit existing sites or build up a conservation endowment fund.

“The assessment would equal the value of the additional development that occurs on the developing tract in terms of the square footage they’re allowed to add to their site. We’ve run some examples, and in some cases the value added to the development tract isn’t enough to cover the mandated land acquisition and operations and maintenance, in which case we would still require those additional funds to get up to that level,” said Pantalion. “In situations like that, I think the owner is just going to have to make a decision on whether they want to move forward with something that. On the surface, they’re really having to pay a premium on that impervious cover.”

The staff has also put together a map of parcels currently proposed for development that would be eligible for the mitigation policy. “The reason for that is not to promote growth out in the outer parts of the Barton Springs Zone, (but) so that we can reduce sprawl and maximize use of the utility infrastructure so that we don’t create incentives to expand roadways, water or water and wastewater utilities,” said Pantalion. “And there are economic benefits to the city in terms of promoting growth inside the city limits.”

Some environmental activists at the last meeting were critical of the logic behind the policy as well as the specifics being drafted by staff. “As someone who voted for the SOS ordinance, it was predicated on a lot of science that said that the maximum amount of impervious cover that should be allowed in this area was 15 percent,” said Robert Singleton. “Isn’t this throwing out the basic rationale for the impervious cover limits? You can argue the mitigation land somehow averages it out . . . but 15 percent was meant to be the maximum for a particular area. The science may be better now, but to me this is just a way to buy your way out of impervious cover limits.” Singleton’s criticism was echoed by Pam Thompson, who said she was skeptical of engineered controls for water pollution or any measure that would deviate from the provisions of the SOS ordinance. “I think when you decide to change the only thing that we know that works . . . you can try to mitigate, but the best thing to do is to not build, because the way that you plan to mitigate might not work. Some of us just don’t have any faith in mitigation somewhere else,” she said.

But not all environmental community members are critical of the proposal. Jon Beall with the Save Barton Creek Association said there could be some benefits from the mitigation policy. “I’m seeing some good things here,” he said. Beall also argued that the policy could help improve on the provisions of the SOS ordinance. “There was not a whole lot of science involved in setting that 15 percent,” he said, recalling his experiences on a task force working on a non-degradation proposal in the early 1990s. “It was kind of a political compromise. I’ve never held the ‘holy grail’ of the SOS ordinance to be impervious cover,” he added. “It’s not that we have to defend the ordinance . . . We have to defend water quality.”

WPDR Director Pantalion assured the handful of participants that the guidelines up for discussion were still in the draft stages. They will be presented to the Environmental Board in May before going to the City Council in June. Anyone interested in reviewing the specifics can attend the next public meeting on the proposal on Monday, May 3, at 4pm in Waller Creek Center. The guidelines have also been posted on the city’s Web Site at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/watershed/barton_springs_zone.htm.

UT shuttle drivers reiterate anger at ATC Vancom

Cap Metro drivers will not drive shuttles in case of strike, says Wyatt

University of Texas shuttle bus drivers packed the board meeting of Capital Metro Monday evening to reiterate their complaints about ATC Vancom. Union leaders and their student supporters are ratcheting up their rhetoric against the private company contracted by Capital Metro to provide shuttle bus service on the UT campus, and are continuing their call for Capital Metro put pressure on ATC Vancom to improve its contract offer to the drivers’ union. But officials at the public transit agency are maintaining their position that they cannot interfere in the contract talks between the private company and its employees.

On a related issue, the Capital Metro board approved a one-year extension of the agency’s contract with UT to provide shuttle bus service. That decision received a mixed review from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1549 Union President Norm Couture. “We are disappointed that UT and Capital Metro did not come to a long-term agreement. A one-year extension is better than no agreement, but how will this affect the UT Shuttle system’s Request for Proposal which is scheduled to be released soon?” Couture said he was pleased, however that board members had discussed the issue of higher pay for UT shuttle drivers during a recent work session, even though no decisions were made. “There are always alternatives when there is a just cause involved,” said Couture, “and paying people well is a just cause.”

Most of the other speakers who took the podium during the Public Communications period of the meeting had much harsher words for the agency. “It seems to me that Capital Metro is trying to wash its hands of its responsibility to these shuttle drivers by saying ‘You don’t work for us’,” said Louis Malfaro, president of the Austin Central Labor Council. He criticized ATC Vancom for dismissing two shuttle bus drivers in recent weeks. Union leaders and student activists have accused the company of firing the workers in retaliation for participating in union-related activities, a charge which the company denies.

“This community will not accept workers being fired when they are in contract negotiations by employers. It’s a standard that this city will not tolerate,” said Malfaro, who urged Capital Metro to exert pressure on ATC Vancom. “Capital Metro’s getting a black eye at a time when many of us, including people like me who are advocates of public transportation, don’t want to see that happen. This is over something you do have some control over,” he concluded.

UT student activist Christopher Hamilton also warned Capital Metro board members about the impact the labor dispute might have on the agency’s image. “ATC is becoming Capital Metro’s suicide bomb,” he said. “They have created an impending crisis which will do infinitely more harm to your reputation and your light rail plans than they could ever do to themselves.”

Couture told the board that the union had rejected ATC’s last two contract proposals, and that there were still significant differences over health insurance and back pay. The final speaker of the evening was ATU 1091 President Jay Wyatt, whose union represents drivers who work for Capital Metro. “I just want to keep supporting our brothers and sisters with 1549. If their contract is not resolved, and they do wind up going out on strike, I just want you to know that we will support them and we will not work their routes,” said Wyatt, as the room erupted in applause.

Throughout the remarks from the drivers and students, Capital Metro Board Members remained quiet, as has been their policy during the public comment portions of the meeting. “Capital Metro understands that union members’ concerns are important. We also understand it is important for this board to follow the law and honor the existing contract negotiation process,” said Capital Metro President and CEO Fred Gilliam in a prepared statement. “Capital Metro is prohibited by law from engaging in collective bargaining, so we cannot become involved in these negotiations.”

Cabela’s discussion tonight . . . When the Buda City Council meets tonight, the only item on their agenda is to hear a presentation by representatives of First Southwest about the project costs of the proposed Cabela’s store in Buda. The City of Buda and Hays County commissioners have released a “definitive agreement,” which would permit the giant sporting goods retailer to build a 175,000 square foot retail store off of southbound IH-35 in Buda. The agreement is available on the City of Buda’s web site ( www.ci.buda.tx.us ). The council and commissioners emphasize that the “definitive agreement” is a “living document” because it is still subject to negotiation. The Cabela’s deal allows the retailer of hunting and fishing equipment to operate a private well on the property, for the state to make several changes on the stretch of I-35 in and around Buda and for the construction of a new, million-gallon water tower—possibly adorned with Cabela’s logo. “Traditionally operating through its 90 million yearly catalogues, the company’s somewhat recent developments of nine retail locations across the United States has made each store the top tourist attraction within its respective area,” according to information from the city . . . In Austin . . . The City Council Audit and Finance Committee is scheduled to meet at 10:30am in Room 304 of City Hall. Matters on the agenda include a briefing and possible approval of an upgrade to the City’s existing accounting system, an overview of work with Austin Energy’s internal auditors and presentation and approval of the Office of the City Auditor’s projects. The Planning Commission will meet at 6pm this evening in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The Parks and Recreation Board is scheduled to meet at 6:30pm in the boardroom of the Parks Department Building, 200 S. Lamar . . . Volunteers to be recognized . . . The Austin Asset Building Coalition, with support from County Judge Sam Biscoe, will recognize the 200 volunteers who supported the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites in 2004. These volunteers completed over 3,000 tax returns, which resulted in over $1 million in Earned Income Tax Credit and $700,000 in child tax credit being brought back into the community.. The event will take place at 6pm tonight in room 201 of the ACC Highland Business Center, 5930 Middle Fiskville Road.

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