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Council to hear University area plan today

Thursday, May 6, 2004 by

Newly formed group wants delay; others ask to move forward

The University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO), which the City Council will consider today, will increase “economic activity, create jobs and improve the tax base of Austin,” according to a study prepared for University Area Partners (UAP) and the North University Neighborhood Association (NUNA). That is only one of the rosy findings projected by the Stewart Research Group, a local economic and statistical research firm headed by former UT Economics Professor Dwight Stewart.

UAP and NUNA are just two of the seven neighborhood groups that have worked together over the past two years, along with staff from the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, to develop the overlay and the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan. The three areas are known as West University, North University and Hancock.

Developer Mike McHone serves as vice president of UAP, an umbrella organization formed from neighborhood associations, Save University Neighborhoods, the Guadalupe Street Merchants Association, area churches and the University of Texas, among others. McHone says anyone who owns property, lives or works in the UT area can join the group. It was members of UAP that raised in excess of $50,000 to fund the economic development study, hired Cotera + Reed Architects to come up with design guidelines and consulted with attorney Jim Nias on zoning code language.

According to the Stewart study, the combined plan is designed to do the following:

• Promote high quality redevelopment in the area.

• Provide a mechanism for creation of dense, pedestrian-friendly environment “encircling the University of Texas on the West and North.”

• Protect the character of some of Austin’s oldest, predominately single-family neighborhoods.

In addition to the economic growth the study predicts, the UNO overlay should “help the university achieve its long-term goals by providing more housing options for UT students,” the study says. The university has doubled in size since the early 1960s, but the quantity of student housing has not kept pace. The study reports that only about 18 percent of students live on campus, with another 34 percent in the West campus area and 7 percent in the North campus area. More than 18 percent live in Far West Austin and 22 percent in the Riverside area.

McHone explained that one of the consequences of the dispersal of the student population is that many students drive to the campus and others take shuttles. But “as a commuter campus, UT was failing in its mission because they couldn’t get students to class on time,” he said. More shuttle buses were added, but that did not solve the problem. As a result, he said, graduation is declining and fewer students are participating in extra curricular activities.” None of that bodes well for the university. Besides UT, many of those who belong to UAP would benefit from having denser development in the area.

The study reports that many students would like to live closer to campus but they face waiting lists to get into campus-area housing and it is less affordable than choices farther from UT. “We believe that under the University Neighborhood Overlay proposal, additional housing opportunities could be created for between 7,700 and 9,500 people,” according to the study.

Another benefit predicted by the study is increased housing opportunities for lower income Austin residents. The overlay allows an increase in density and other carrots for developers willing to set aside 10 percent of their projects for those whose incomes meet federal poverty guidelines.

McHone said brand new apartments in other parts of the city rent for less than older, less attractive housing in the UT area. The current zoning, put in place in 1984, makes it difficult for new projects, like the Villas on Guadalupe and the Villas on Nueces, to get off the ground, he said. Each new project that does not comply with current regulations for FAR (floor-to-area ratio), impervious cover and setbacks results in a battle between one or more neighborhoods and the developer. It was the fight over the Villas on Guadalupe that prompted the City Council to tell staff to move as quickly as possible on planning the area.

It wasn’t easy getting the warring groups together, McHone acknowledges, but once they did sit down together, they found they had more in common than they had suspected. “This is a historic opportunity where seven neighborhood groups that have been at each others throats for years,” will come forward to ask the Council for approval of the plan, he said.

In addition to the overlay, there are a multitude of rezonings that accompany the plan. In an email to City Council members yesterday, Mary Gay Maxwell, co-president of NUNA, urged the Council to hear the overlay proposal today. “We are aware that, due to a posting error, the zoning portion for two of the planning areas, North University and West University, will have to be heard at another time. We also understand that the Hancock planning area zoning portion will not be heard until the other two have gone back to the Planning Commission and have been approved a second time,” she wrote. Nevertheless, Maxwell said, the overlay hearing should not be delayed. The West Campus Neighborhood Association, which was formed after the planning was underway, has requested a postponement of one month.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said that would not be necessary. She said the Council should do the first reading “and make it clear that this is how we do it. That’s exactly why we do it this way—to allow all the parties to have additional discussions,” before the plan is finally adopted.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley did not favor delay either. “I’m very supportive of this neighborhood plan. I think this group of neighborhoods has done exactly what we asked them to do—which was to get together, come up with a plan that ensured greater density around the university and the ability to bring more students back to the campus and bring it back to us. And I’ve done that and all the neighborhoods have signed off on it. There may be some individual differences, but I think overall it’s a great plan.”

Stick to push for CenTex med school

State Rep. touts jobs that would come to Austin area

State Rep. Jack Stick pledged on Wednesday to push for state financial help for a new “world class” medical school in Central Texas during next year’s regular session of the Texas Legislature. Stick outlined the economic benefits of a new medical school and associated hospitals and medical facilities during the RECA “Power Luncheon” at the Four Seasons Hotel.

“Texas has some of the best medical schools in the country. We don’t need another medical school. But what we do need is a world-class medical school,” said Stick. A medical school, combined with a new teaching hospital for medical students, could generate between 2400 and 2500 new jobs. “The greatest thing about medical-related jobs is they are jobs that are permanent,” he said. “Austin is a perfect environment for this kind of education and economic development.”

Having a top-notch medical school and leading national hospital on par with the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Stick said, would naturally attract more businesses to the region. “Pharmacy companies are now looking to partner with medical schools . . . and every time one of those partnerships come up, Austin loses until we have a medical program here,” he said. “When the pharmaceutical companies partner with medical schools or teaching hospitals they bring with them their own plants. They bring with them a thousand jobs, two thousand jobs.”

Stick’s goal includes making Austin a leading medical center by applying breakthroughs in nanotechnology and telemedicine, two rapidly growing fields. And instead of creating a brand new medical school, which he said would be extremely costly and impractical, he said the region could grow its own facility by building upon partnerships with other schools that already provide interns to local hospitals. “What we’re probably going to do is look to bring new residency programs into Austin, working in conjunction with the already existing medical programs that Brackenridge has going,” he said. “What I’d like to see is that we sustain a world-class residency program in a particular residency or two, and then develop a third and fourth residency program and expand it that way so that in four years we can say, ‘Congratulations . . . here’s the new buildings, here’s the hospital. We’re open for business.’”

As for a possible location for the new medical complex, Stick predicted North Austin would be the most likely spot. That could include land on the Robinson Ranch, whose owners are currently in discussions with the city about annexing the property. Sample site plan drawings featuring a medical complex with several hospitals were on display during the RECA event, but they did not specify an exact location.

Although lawmakers are busy now dealing with school funding issues, Stick said there should be noticeable activity during the 2005 regular session towards securing the necessary state funding to get the project started. “We’re talking about an investment in Central Texas from start to finish of somewhere around $2 to $3 billion. That’s not $2 to $3 billion over the next 40 years,” he said. “That’s $2 to $3 billion in the short term. None of this is far away. Not the hospitals, not the medical schools, not the medical programs,” he concluded. ‘If we want it bad enough, we can make this happen. If we don’t want it bad enough, we’re going to get something in about 25 years and it’s not going to be what we want.”

Lots of zoning . . . In addition to the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan, the Council is scheduled to consider 12 other zoning cases. They will conduct a public hearing on designation of Escarpment Blvd as a major arterial divided roadway as well as a hearing on the annexation of Robinson Ranch . . . The Council is scheduled to hear a quarterly economic briefing at 2pm and may or may not consider disposition of land at Robert Mueller . . . Voting picks up . . . The mobile voting booths had their heaviest usage so far yesterday, with 280 voters casting ballots at the LBJ Building, the Travis Building and the Winters Building. Wednesday’s total turnout was 1,390, bringing to 6,819 the number of voters who have cast ballots so far. That’s 1.17 percent of registered voters. Early voting continues through next Tuesday . . . Meanwhile, in Washington . . . Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir testified before the United States Election Assistance Commission, where she made recommendations for preventing election security breaches. DeBeauvoir described the proposal commonly known as a Voter Verifiable Paper Ballot, or “paper trail,” as a means to detect fraud after the fact, and she suggested that further risk assessments specific to each voting system be developed . . . EB election . . . Mary Ruth Holder will take over as Secretary of the Environmental Board. The board voted unanimously last night to appoint Holder to that position after postponing a decision at two previous meetings.

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