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UTC says street projects lack coordination

Tuesday, April 20, 2004 by

More incentives for quick work suggested

Mayor Will Wynn’s experiment to turn San Antonio Street from one- to two-way street downtown may have earned the praise from some commuters Monday morning, but it hasn’t won the universal support of the Urban Transportation Commission.

Commissioner Carl Tepper, a downtown property manager, said he had received fast and furious emails and voice mails on the San Antonio change from area property owners. Even beyond that one street change, Tepper and other UTC members are complaining that downtown road and utility projects need more coordination among city departments.

Public Works Director Sondra Creighton and traffic engineer Gary Silagi were on hand at last night’s Urban Transportation Commission meeting. Both discussed the traffic issues surrounding the construction on Fifth Street and Lamar Boulevard.

The delays surrounding the expansion of Barton Springs Road taught the city a few lessons, Creighton told the commission. To that end, the Public Works Department put specific requirements on the Lamar Boulevard project. The city will spend $8 million and 15 months to replace water lines and reconstruct Lamar Boulevard between 24th Street and Town Lake with bonds approved by voters back in 1998.

The city required a number of stipulations on the Lamar Boulevard project to accelerate construction: a 7-day-a-week work schedule, a 12-hour work day from 7am to 7pm, a minimum of 5 crews on the project and a bonus for early completion. The conditions cut construction from 3 years to 15 months, with breaks for Christmas.

The stipulations were not without their cost, Creighton said. Only two contractors showed an interest in the project and only one of the two was considered responsive. The conditions also made the project slightly more expensive.

Commissioner Michael Dahmus raised issues about construction delays on Enfield, as well as around the intersections of Lamar at Fifth Street and Guadalupe at 45th Street. Silagi explained the details surrounding the intersections.

For example, while no construction appeared to be going on around the Lamar intersection, construction was going on under ground, Silagi said. Construction crews are hand-digging a tunnel under Fifth Street to take Austin Energy’ s chilled water lines to the Whole Foods project at Fifth and Lamar. Working with local merchants to coordinate the timing of the construction cut an extra week off the project, Silagi said.

And while sections of the Enfield project work had to be rearranged, completion of the road is still on schedule for August, Creighton said.

Tepper said the construction delays were the worst the city has seen since the laying of fiber optic lines. He said it appeared that there was no communication among the public works and planning departments. Creighton said Deputy City Manager Joe Canales had appointed a traffic coordination task force with representation from various city departments, as well as Austin Energy and the Water and Wastewater Utility.

Creighton admitted that the one thing the Public Works Department could use was software that could produce an interactive map of the various construction projects.

Dahmus asked why the city hadn’t provided suggestions on alternate routes for Lamar Boulevard. Silagi said merchants on Lamar had asked the city not to provide alternate routes because it could discourage shopping. West Avenue is already being used as a detour route for Enfield.

The initial resolution failed to pass the Urban Transportation Commission. Recommendations included a moratorium on private construction projects using streets, forecasting traffic patterns around construction projects and writing incentives into contracts so that contractors are encouraged to complete construction quicker.

A second resolution, proposed by Dahmus, passed the Urban Transportation Commission unanimously. The commission asked the City Council to explore incentives to speed up construction as well as increasing fees for private projects using right-of-way.

The city still has three downtown construction projects on the horizon, Creighton said. Those projects include the reconstruction of Brazos and Colorado Streets between First and 11th Streets, as well as the improvements to the Second Street retail corridor.

LCRA water line extension debated

Neighbors on both sides to bring concerns to board on Wednesday

Staff at the Lower Colorado River Authority are preparing for a packed house at Wednesday’s board meeting in Austin. Board members have set aside two hours for public comment on a request from three landowners in Southwest Travis County for the LCRA to extend a water line along Hamilton Pool Road. The line would provide water service for 1,400 acres, which could eventually be home for 1,300 families.

Right now, most of the acreage in question is vacant, although there are portions that are already subdivided and platted. The land is within the contributing zone of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer, but does not fall within any city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction. In exchange for running the water line along Hamilton Pool Road, the LCRA is asking the landowners to agree that any development would adhere top guidelines set forth by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deigned to protect water quality and endangered species. “My neighbors and I got together and realized that in the last few years, we’ve had a lot of growth . . . we’re only 20 minutes from West Austin,” said Rusty Signer, one of the three landowners who have formed a group called the Hamilton Pool Road Alliance. “We’ve gotten together to instigate using some minimum requirements . . . We’ve got this window of opportunity to limit growth. Growth is going to happen; we know it.”

It would also prevent hundreds of future homeowners from drilling their own backyard wells to take water from the Trinity Aquifer. “The state has told us that the Trinity Aquifer will continue to drop over the next few years as more and more people tap the aquifer and pull that level down,” said LCRA spokesman Robert Cullick. “We’re very concerned about that.”

The agency is viewing the request by the Hamilton Pool Road Alliance as an opportunity to bring regulation and stability to an area currently governed only by the relatively weak land-use rules of Travis County. “What we would agree to is that LCRA will provide the surface water, but the landowner will bring their development plans under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service development measures,” said Cullick. “These landowners will voluntarily comply with these development measures, and that’s a good thing.”

Along with the hundreds of undeveloped acres, there are 661 existing homes in the area. Some of those residents have organized to form the HPR Alliance, which is opposed to the new pipeline. They’re concerned about the lack of information made available to the public over the past year on the proposal, and the impact it could have on other infrastructure in the area. According to Linda Lowenthal, the roads and school systems would be ill-equipped to handle the sudden surge in population that reliable drinking water would bring. She expects dozens of her neighbors to attend Wednesday’s meeting at the LCRA boardroom at the agency’s headquarters on Lake Austin Boulevard.

The board has reserved the 1-3pm timeslot for public comment. The agency will also have another public comment session prior to the next board meeting in May. The board is scheduled to vote on the proposal at that meeting, which will take place at Canyon of the Eagles Lodge at Lake Buchanan.

Planning Commission rejects condo addition

Last week’s compatibility waiver on a unit at the Encinal Condominiums was proof that beauty often is in the eyes of the beholder.

Melton West lives in a third floor condominium owned by his parents, Jesse and Barbara West. The younger West had the approval of the Encinal Condominiums Homeowners Association for the expansion of his condo at 1106 West Sixth St. But when those plans were finally put in motion, his immediate neighbors were less than pleased, saying the structure was so large that it literally blocked the sun over adjacent units.

What brought West to the Planning Commission was a sticking point on the height of his expanded unit. Modifications to the structure involved rebuilding the fourth and adding a fifth, floor to the unit. That exceeded city code by more than 4 feet. West’s one “out” was that he claimed an intervening structure was taller than his own. The code allows waivers on that claim, given that the intervening structure would make the height issue moot.

The discussion of just what constituted height from what surface and the definition of what was allowable for an expansion turned into almost two hours of argument, rebuttal and questions from Planning Commission members. Much of the discussion centered on when West realized his addition was out of compliance with City Code and whether he should be excused for what he claimed to be an honest mistake.

“I believe at this point that coming here (to the Planning Commission) is the answer,” West said. “We are doing this backwards, and I apologize for that. I will be going through the appropriate process for all the building permits. I am sincere in trying to rectify the problem in the only way we can.”

Some of West’s adjacent neighbors were skeptical of his claims. Robert Floyd, an engineer and former chair of the city’s Electric Utility Commission, said he had warned West that he was breaking City Code, yet West had continued construction. Floyd has even filed a lawsuit to stop West’s construction. In turn, West described his relationship with Floyd as “contentious.”

And the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association has had the Encinal Condos in its sights. Linda MacNeilage said OWANA had met with West and his lawyer multiple times over the last 16 months. Wayne Orchard testified that he had witnessed, via binoculars, West continuing his construction even after the project was red-tagged.

The Wests’ Unit 301 is located on the top two floors of a four-story building in the Encinal Condominiums. The addition, which initially was intended to replace rotten staircases, stretched the dimensions of the unit both vertically and horizontally. The expansion added another 1,000-square-feet of space to the Wests’ unit.

West pleaded ignorance and just plain bad advice from his contractor. For some commissioners, that just wasn’t enough, even if West could meet the height waiver. Building Inspector Janet Gallagher worked out a compromise with West that would have allowed the construction if West sought a variance for the height, removed the fifth floor’s concrete floor, installed a residential sprinkler system on all four floors and obtained a new building permit that covered all current construction.

Commissioner Matt Moore was willing to set aside the other infractions and consider the height waiver on its own. Commissioner Maggie Armstrong agreed with him. Moore found West’s architecture to be compatible with the Sixth Street community. New Commissioner John Michael Cortez disagreed with Moore’s logic, saying it was akin to a police officer stopping a driver for a speeding violation but ignoring a dead body in the backseat.

Others, like Commissioner Dave Sullivan, were more swayed by the testimony of frustrated neighbors. Sullivan said he could not reward someone who had knowingly violated the law. Commissioner Niyanta Spelman appeared most concerned about West pulling a permit, possibly knowing that the construction was illegal.

A motion to pass the waiver, made by Moore and seconded by Armstrong, failed. Commissioners Sullivan, Cortez, Medlin, Newton and Spelman voted to deny the waiver. Moore and Armstrong voted against that motion. Chair Chris Riley abstained, saying there was no reliable basis for judging the heights of the construction and the intervening structure. He was concerned by the neighborhood's view but did not see the architecture as being incompatible with the community.

Smoking ordinance enforcement postponed . . . The City of Austin’s new smoking ordinance, which is scheduled to take effect on May 1, has hit a bureaucratic barrier and will likely be postponed to June 1. Restaurants are required to show proof that their smoking areas are separately ventilated and walled off from non-smoking areas, which require a building permit. Business owners who installed ventilation systems to meet the previous ordinance should have an easier job in meeting the new ordinance. However, the city did not keep a list of those businesses that had submitted plans and received city permission to operate with their separate HVAC systems. The Health Department, which must issue the new permits, wants proof the requirements have been met, but few businesses kept their mechanical plans after submitting them to the city. Redrawing the plans can cost up to $30,000, according to Sarah Crocker, who represents a number of business owners. She says one solution is to pull all the old plans out of archives, but that may take a while. City staff members are also trying to figure out how to make the system more workable for those who have already moved to comply . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The RMMA Plan Implementation Committee will meet from 6-8pm at Waller Creek Center, Room 105. They will discuss, among other things, regional retail plans for the site. Activist Robert Singleton has sent out emails announcing that Wal-Mart could be part of the future for Mueller. That seems unlikely. The Council is also scheduled to discuss terms of the disposition for the former airport site to Catellus in executive session. An item on the agenda would also allow approval of a resolution authorizing the sale or lease of the property. However, that seems unlikely to happen this week either . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission is also scheduled to meet tonight. They begin at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The Resource Management Commission will meet at 6:30pm in Room 304 of City Hall. Their agenda includes discussion of solar rebates and water conservation.

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