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Council approves Mueller sale

Friday, May 14, 2004 by

Stephens says further delay could be detrimental to project

The Austin City Council decided on Thursday that the time has come to move from planning to action on the redevelopment of 700 acres at the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. The doubts expressed by a few citizens over the city’s financing proposal were not enough to keep the Council from taking a crucial step in that direction last night. In a unanimous vote, the Council authorized sale of the property as the best, most cost-effective way to make sure the model neighborhood can be built.

Council Member Danny Thomas, who has been perhaps the most attentive to the concerns of Keep the Land representatives Mary Lehmann and Robert Singleton, told the audience, “You have to trust your elected officials.” He reminded them that there had been extensive discussions about the project, although not all of them were conducted in public because of the need to protect certain information related to the real estate transaction. “Mueller is something that we want to see done; it is an area that people have worked hard on,” he said. “This is a golden opportunity to move on.”

Lehmann and Singleton used the public hearing on sale and lease option to take exception to the information presented by city staff on the relative merits of the two alternatives. “We will never know the actual figures that will make the public able to judge whether you people are making the right decision,” Lehmann said. She also presented information she had received from an out-of-state appraiser critical of the data the city had released on potential revenues from leasing. She and Singleton called for further study of the leasing option, using information provided by Keep the Land as the basis for a new set of revenue projections.

But in response to questions from Thomas, Acting Assistant City Manager John Stephens urged the Council to decide sooner, rather than later. “We are on a very tight timeframe to try to conclude the negotiation of the master development agreement,” he said. “It would be very difficult for us to proceed a lot farther without nailing this issue down.” He had support from Council Member Brewster McCracken, who noted that a short delay would likely stretch into a much longer one. “We are on a very tight schedule,” he said. “If we don’t finish all of the major portions of this work by June, we will not be able to get to it, because of the budget, until the end of October, a half-year delay.”

McCracken argued the project was too important to sidetrack. “This is a great project. But if we don’t sell and go with leasing, I believe it will kill the project,” he said. “Moreover, it is extremely dubious that people would buy a house that sits on leased land. It’s also unlikely they would even be able to obtain financing for the house.”

Other Council members agreed with his conclusions on the financial necessity of selling the property. “For me it’s pretty clear that the sale option is the preferred option. Proceeding with the sale option allows the project, in essence, to pay for itself,” said Council Member Raul Alvarez. “I think it’s an exciting project and a wonderful vision for the future. I think the main concern is staying true to the vision that was articulated through the very extensive public process. We’re going to have an opportunity to get a lot of input on the land use and transportation piece because that has to go through the zoning process.” Mayor Will Wynn also praised the extensive community involvement in the Mueller redevelopment effort. “The value of this project—of this land—is the master plan,” he said. “It’s a remarkable master plan that has had an incredible amount of community oversight and input. It is allowing for the sale of this land that allows it to come to fruition at all.”

McCracken moved approval of the sale option, and Council Member Daryl Slusher provided the second. The vote was 7-0 in favor. Afterward, RMMA Advisory Commission Chair Jim Walker praised the Council for moving ahead with the project. “It’s a milestone. The project is by no means done yet…but what Council did in authorizing a particular disposition of the land allows Catellus (Development, the master developer) and the city to proceed with the details about a lot of the other issues,” he said. “We’ve been working on this for eight years and we’re at a culmination point now. If we delay things, it backs up other culminating decisions, and that’s what we can’t risk. We can’t risk losing the master plan now because we feel like we need to re-visit something.”

Proponents, opponents predict victory at polls

Hospital district, firefighters

As campaigning comes down to the wire, both sides in the Travis County Hospital District election predict victory tomorrow in what is expected to be a low turnout race. Austin firefighters are also predicting a victory in their referendum on collective bargaining. Although the American-Statesman urged voters to reject the firefighters’ request, opponents organized too late to put any effort into bringing out voters who might vote against it.

Elliott McFadden, campaign manager of Citizens for a Healthy Travis County, has a slew of major endorsements going into Saturday’s vote, including the major newspapers in Austin and 65 different organizations. The pro-hospital coalition has presented to 200 groups.

“It looks like early voting is going well for us,” McFadden said. “The response we’ve been getting—going door-to-door and talking on the phone—makes us think we can win.” McFadden predicts a close election, but eventual victory on the hospital district issue. In the case of the pro-hospital coalition, the toughest task is educating voters, McFadden said. The first thing most voters want to know is what the district is and how it will work. And the tax issue is also on the minds of most voters.

“We explain the situation, which is that most Austin voters will see no change in their taxes, and people understand that,” McFadden said. “The hospital district is potentially a much more efficient way of using our tax dollars. For county voters, we stress they will have the same access to the same facilities but be asked to pay what everybody else is paying for health care in the county.”

Don Zimmerman of Save our Taxpayers says the Travis County Hospital District is definitely a tax issue for most Austin voters. Zimmerman paints the campaign in David versus Goliath terms, with David being the hospital district opponents and Goliath being the hospital system-backed $470,000 campaign being waged for the district.

Still, Save Our Taxpayers has managed to stretch its $10,000 war chest. The group mailed out 17,000 postcards to likely Republican voters on Wednesday and will be running an automated phone service to encourage people to get to the polls. Zimmerman’s prediction is that early voting has gone in the favor of hospital district supporters. The goal is to get a strong turnout against the district on Saturday.

“We had a protest demonstration at (Loop) 360 and Bee Caves Road on Monday at rush hour, and the majority of the feedback we got from the people driving by was positive,” Zimmerman said. “For a lot of people, the issue is the taxes. It’s the cost of this thing that’s really the dominating theme in this campaign.”

Other groups fall along other parts of the spectrum of opinion. The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) will announce today that they are opposed to the hospital district. BOMA represents 250 building owners paying $62.6 million in taxes.

Carl Tepper, a member of BOMA’s Local Regulatory Issues Advisory Committee, also calls Saturday’s vote “a tax issue,” but admits that he would be willing to vote for a hospital district—just not the one created under this “terrible” legislation.

“Taxes have been such a greater burden lately—on those services, the community and on the property owners—we have to be more diligent in ensuring there is a thoughtful, really progressive process in formulating these new taxing districts,” Tepper said. “This taxing district is structured like Capital Metro. I would have thought we would have learned by now to include the necessary safeguards when we formulated these things.”

Some of the objections that BOMA will raise include inadequate property tax relief; an appointed, rather than elected, hospital district board; insufficient participation from surrounding counties; limits on health care services provided; non-inclusion of some county health services, like health care in the county jail; and a lack of a sunset review process for the district.

“We can probably compromise on any two of those issues, but having them all missing is a serious problem. It just shows the district is poorly formulated,” Tepper said. “Frankly, I’m surprised that our business colleagues endorsed this proposal. It needs more safeguards and more accounting measures.”

The Austin firefighters with the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters (AAPF)—which prides itself on the fact that it is “the largest provider of pre-hospital emergency care in Central Texas,”—has supported the hospital district. AAPF President Mike Martinez told In Fact Daily last night “I feel like we’ve done everything we could possibly do. I think the voters will more than likely respond to the message we put out there.” He said he thought the opposition—which came from the Statesman, Council Member Daryl Slusher and Terrell Blodgett—helped their cause rather than hurt it. Blodgett is a Professor Emeritus at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Martinez said he expects the hospital district to win approval also, although he said he thought the vote on that matter would be closer than on the firefighters referendum.

Polls will be open from 7am to 7pm on Saturday. Information on the hospital district, pros and cons, can be found at http://www.healthytraviscounty.com and http://www.saveourtaxpayers.com.

BOA rejects appeal on Casa de Luz parking

Neighborhood likely to sue, says attorney

The long-running dispute over parking for the Casa de Luz Restaurant and Parkside School in South Austin will likely wind up in Travis County District Court. That’s the next recourse for neighbors upset over a decision by the Board of Adjustment (BOA) to grant the school and restaurant a variance from the city’s parking requirements. The board on Monday rejected a request from the neighborhood to reconsider the case, leaving it the option of either accepting the board’s original decision or appealing to a district judge.

The neighborhood, including landowners Susan Toomey Frost and Kenneth Wallace, had filed a request for reconsideration through their agent, Sarah Crocker. But in the days leading up to Monday’s board meeting, the group also added attorney Nikelle Meade of Brown McCarroll to its list of representatives. Meade submitted a letter requesting a delay of any reconsideration until the May 20 board meeting. Meade said her clients would prefer not to wind up in court if there were another option. “We may be able to actually get everybody comfortable with what’s going on,” she said in requesting the delay. “We’d just like a little bit of time to gather some documents that were not in the city’s files . . . also, to clarify an issue with respect to actual uses on the property.” Meade’s letter to the board requesting the postponement also promised the firm would commission a professional study of the impact the parking variance would have on the surrounding neighborhood.

Board Chair Herman Thun initially appeared to favor the request for a delay to May 20 or beyond, since neither Board Member Frank Fuentes nor the agent for Casa de Luz would be able to attend that meeting. “I think we all knew that it wasn’t going to go away,” he said. “It would seem to me that it would be wise of us to take the next step and allow that postponement to be accepted, at least. On the 20th, if we wish, we may hear the reconsideration . . . If we don’t have three votes, we won’t hear the reconsideration.”

But Fuentes told fellow board members he had heard enough of the debate. “We have been through quite a bit approving this case, and it was articulated well on both sides,” he said. “Finally, last time, we voted on it. I’m saying let’s vote today on the reconsideration and let the dice fall where they may. I’m not ready to hear this case again.”

Fuentes moved to deny the reconsideration request. The vote on that motion was 4-1, with Board Member Betty Edgemond opposed. “This is the neighbors . . .We gave the original applicant a lot of leeway. It’s only fair that we should do so much for these neighbors,” she said. She argued in favor of postponing a decision on whether to reconsider until the board’s first meeting in June. “I just thought it would be the fair thing to do,” she concluded.

Unlike most other board or commission decisions, which have to go to the City Council for final approval, under state law decisions by the Board of Adjustment can only be appealed to the courts. In anticipation of a possible trial, neighborhood representatives hired a court reporter to attend the meeting and make a transcript, which could be submitted as evidence.

Meade said she plans to file suit next week against the BOA in connection with the decision to allow variance.

Firefighters to hold news conference . . . The Austin Association of Professional Firefighters will hold a news conference at 2:30pm today at Plaza Saltillo to remind voters of Saturday’s election. Following the press conference, union President Mike Martinez will climb into a 1952 fire truck and drive from the plaza to downtown Austin to remind citizens of progress within the Austin Fire Service over the last 50 years . . . Not happening . . . City staff pulled from yesterday’s Council agenda an item to amend the Land Development Code in a way that would allow for administrative approval of wastewater lines in certain watersheds east of I-35. The Watershed Protection and Development Review Department took the amendments for a part of the city known as the Weston Study area to the Environmental Board, the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission for comment and recommendations. All three commissions rejected the amendments. Environmental Officer Pat Murphy said last night that staff decided as a result of those recommendations to withdraw the request. He said the department would instead follow an expedited review process, one that includes asking the commissions for approval of variances . . . Appointments . . . The City Council named three consensus appointments yesterday: Rick Cofer to the Austin Community Education Consortium; Howard Lenett to the Building and Standards Commission; and Mary Jo Rodriguez to the Commission on Immigrant Affairs. Council Member Daryl Slusher appointed Ricardo Zavala to the Community Development Commission and Council Member Raul Alvarez used his appointment to place Dana Lockler on the Urban Transportation Commission . . . Patriot Act talk. . . Ed Dorn, Dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs will give a free public lecture on the Patriot Act next Thursday at 7pm. The lecture, sponsored by the Austin-area League of Women Voters as part of its Inez Jeffery Lecture Series, will be held the school’s Bass Lecture Hall. Dorn has served as dean at LBJ since 1997. Before that, he worked at the defense department in the Clinton administration as under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness . . . Neighborhood Plan pain . . . Some of those interested in the Brentwood-Highland Neighborhood Plan had to wait until the end of last night’s Council meeting to learn the fate of the specific properties. The Council received a 22-page document showing their actions on the plan and associated zoning cases. Although discussion of the item began shortly after 5pm, the break for proclamations led into discussions and public hearings on the fate of land at Mueller, affordable housing and other matters. The Council adopted the final zoning change for the Brentwood-Highland plan at 11:30pm just before adjourning the meeting.

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