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Mueller neighbors want rules to allow growth

Tuesday, May 18, 2004 by

McCracken seeks input for citywide standards

The design guidelines suggested for the Mueller redevelopment project in East Austin are not much different than those suggested in other areas of the city.

Last night Council Member Brewster McCracken hosted a town hall meeting with city staff to outline some of the possible future design guidelines for Austin. Suggestions from the crowd mirrored many of the guidelines already suggested at other meetings in other parts of the city. Many of those suggestions will be incorporated into a draft proposal for design guidelines at a meeting on June 1.

Participants at the Mueller meeting, like downtown residents, want the 700-acre master-planned Mueller to be both pedestrian- and transit-friendly. Small group input encouraged non-branded development, mixed-use development, hidden parking, monument signs, controlled light and the use of shade trees. And while limits were being suggested, participants also wanted the design guidelines to encourage development at Mueller to reflect “the personality of Austin.”

Jim Walker, who chairs the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Advisory Commission, tried to head off discussion of big-box retail at the outset, saying that regional retail outlets needed to be handled with the “innovation and creativity” that were applied to the master plan. In other words, what retail should look like was an issue that needed to be weighed in Mueller’s retail plan as much as who would be in Mueller.

“Let’s not use the ‘W’ word,” said Walker, referring to Wal-Mart. “Don’t tell me what you don’t want. Tell me what you do want, what would make it a win.”

And a “win” is important to the RMMA advisory commission. Commission members are keenly aware that the success of Mueller is really a balance between what the community wants and what the developer can deliver at a profit. Somewhere in there, too, is a desire to see the project be successful for the city, both from a planning and profit standpoint.

Given that point, another overarching theme emerges when Mueller is discussed. Participants at last night’s meeting were concerned about the long-term viability of the Mueller site. Participants were concerned that buildings be both functional and “convertible,” in the event that a retailer moves out of the Mueller development.

Architect Girard Kinney, a long-time Mueller plan participant, said design guidelines at Mueller should accommodate growth. The site should absorb growth. A parking lot should eventually become a parking garage. A parking garage should be structured so that it can interface with a possible future train station.

Walker said he could see a plan that considers not only the initial design or plan for the site but also the long-term plans for the property. Walker said that the body that eventually reviews design guidelines ought to “err toward the long-term viability of the site rather than the particulars of the use you’re trying to get.”

Big-box retail has a limited life span, Kinney said. Retail big boxes, designed as they are, however, can provide a very flexible space. Most have open spans and large space that can often be used for other types of business or retail purposes.

McCracken calls Austin the “bottom feeder” of the region when it comes to design guidelines. He tells the story of the Target at Capital Plaza. When the developer requested that Target raise the bar on the design of the store, Target refused, saying that Austin required no higher design standards for its buildings. Other cities—such as Pflugerville, Round Rock, Rollingwood, Georgetown and Cedar Park—all have higher standards.

McCracken’s point is that design standards do not dictate “cookie-cutter” development. On the contrary, design standards will minimize “branded” architecture and provide greater latitude in development without being unnecessarily prescriptive.

UTC taking time to ponder toll road recommendation

Motion against commuter rail plan dies for lack of second

The city’s Urban Transportation Commission could issue a recommendation next month on the toll road plan being circulated by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) . The commission discussed the item briefly at its Monday night meeting, but decided to delay any official recommendation until next month in order to allow members to review each of the proposed toll roads individually.

Commissioner Patrick Goetz was skeptical of the need for the extensive network of toll roads in outlying areas that the CTRMA is considering. “I think the next ten years is going to see a pretty dramatic shift in our land use patterns,” he said. He projected a trend toward increasing in-fill development in central Austin, eliminating the projected customer base for the new toll lanes. “They want to basically borrow billions of dollars to build these roads with the expectations that they’re going to pay for themselves in tolls. What happens if they borrow all this money and they build these roads and all the new population growth is in Austin’s urban core? There’s a finite probability that something like that could happen,” he said, “and we end up stuck with billions of dollars of debt for these pieces of asphalt that a lot of us never asked for in the first place.”

While a few members of the Commission agreed with Goetz’s contention that the toll road proposal should be rejected in its entirety, a majority wanted more time to study the proposal. Next month’s vote could become a number of separate resolutions recommending or rejecting each individual roadway project. Commissioner Tommy Eden was especially concerned about plans to add capacity on the Loop 360 bridge over Lake Austin. Adding toll lanes there, he said, would eliminate the area currently used by bicyclists and pedestrians.

Even some members of the Commission who were not adamantly opposed to toll roads considered them only part of the solution to the regional traffic problems. Commissioners briefly discussed a proposal likely to be brought forward in the next regular session of the Texas Legislature by the Texas Urban Transportation Alliance, which is an association of the state’s five largest counties. Their proposal calls for changing state law to allow cities to hold elections to impose a local gasoline tax. Unlike the federal or state gasoline taxes currently collected, the additional gas tax would remain in the local area for use on local transportation projects.

Commissioners also briefly discussed Capital Metro’ s proposed commuter rail plan, which is likely to go before voters this fall. Commissioner Michael Dahmus offered his summation of the transit agency’s “All Systems Go!” plan, which includes converting an existing freight rail line which runs from the Leander area to downtown Austin. Dahmus asked the commission to go on the record against the commuter rail proposal. He argued that the commuter rail line would primarily benefit commuters outside the Capital Metro service area. “My opinion on the route is, it stinks! It provides most of the benefit to the people that live in Cedar Park and Leander. Some people live in Leander and pay Capital Metro taxes,” he said. “And I’m happy for them that they’re going to be getting improved service. The problem is that many, many people who chose not to be part of Capital Metro are also going to get vast improvements in service. They’re going to have a much easier time using this commuter rail line than residents of the urban core of Austin will.” Dahmus offered a resolution critical of Capital Metro’s proposal, but it died for lack of a second.

Today’s meetings . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Daryl Slusher are scheduled to meet this morning with Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty to begin working out differences the two jurisdictions have over subdivision rules in Austin’s ETJ. Under HB 1445 and HB 1204 the city and the county must reach agreement on unified subdivision regulations. The deadline for reaching such agreement was Dec. 31, 2003 . . . Zoning and Platting Commission . . . The commission, still one member shy of a full contingent, is scheduled to meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . The RMMA plan advisory commission is meeting once again tonight. They are scheduled to convene at 6pm in Room 105 of the Waller Creek Center on E. 10th Street . . . The Resource Management Commission is scheduled to make recommendations on a number of energy saving programs recommended by Austin Energy when they meet at 6:30pm tonight. The meeting is in Room 304 of City Hall. . . The Comprehensive Plan Committee of the Planning Commission has scheduled a meeting at 8am today in the 3rd floor large conference room at 1011 San Jacinto . . . Watson throws a party . . . Former Mayor Kirk Watson is hosting a fundraiser for Greg Hamilton, the Democratic nominee for Sheriff. Hamilton, former chief of enforcement for Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, will face Republican Duane McNeill, an APD commander, in the November General Election. The party will be at the office of Watson Bishop London Brophy, Littlefield Building, 106 E Sixth St, 7th floor, from 5-7pm Wednesday.

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