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Lowe's ordered to halt construction

Monday, June 21, 2004 by

Save Barton Creek, SOS, Sunset Valley get TRO

Two environmental organizations and the City of Sunset Valley on Friday convinced a judge to halt construction of the new Lowe’s store on Brodie Lane over the Edwards Aquifer.

State District Judge Darlene Byrne granted a temporary restraining order requested by the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA), Save Our Springs Alliance and City of Sunset Valley. Byrne ordered the company to stop construction for at least for two weeks. SBCA claimed that a previous decision by Judge Lora Livingston meant the City Council's vote to allow the store was improper and that the store should be redesigned or scrapped altogether. (See In Fact Daily, June 17, 2004.)

Judge Byrne agreed to allow the environmental groups to make those arguments at a future hearing, scheduled for July 1. The plaintiffs will have to post a $20,000 bond, which should happen today. Lowe's was given time to secure the site before the construction moratorium takes effect. An attorney for the company told the judge that a two-week shut down and the subsequent delay in opening could cost the company more than $100,000.

In her order, the judge found that continued construction activities would cause “irreparable injury in the form of degradation of the waters in Williamson Creek, Barton Springs, the Edwards Aquifer, and the drinking water wells used by the City of Sunset Valley, because of creek bank erosion that will affect parklands owned by …Sunset Valley, as a result of the development.”

Expert: too many cars, not stop lights cause traffic woes

Recommends eliminating some parking, bigger street signs

An outside review of Austin's traffic-management system has given the city generally good marks, although the consultants did note there was room for improvement in several areas. The overall conclusion was that most traffic problems were not caused by mismanagement of the traffic signal system, but instead by the sheer number of cars on roads not designed to handle the current level of traffic.

The Peer Review Team assembled under the Federal Highway Administration's Peer-to-Peer program rated Austin's signal timing at individual intersections as good, the timing on arterial traffic corridors as excellent and the timing of downtown traffic signals as good. "I would say at the top the list of what you do well is that your central system is really state of the art," said Professional Traffic Operations Engineer Marshall Elizer of Nashville, who made the group's presentation to the City Council. "It's fairly current. The software, your control room . . . You know what's going on with your signal system."

Elizer and four other traffic engineers from around the country spent several days studying Austin's system, talking to staff members and driving different roadways under different traffic conditions as part of their review. The group also praised the city's data-collection efforts, management philosophies and policies and performance documentation efforts.

But the engineers also pointed to some areas where Austin could make improvements. Those included increasing the frequency of traffic counts taken in rapidly-growing neighborhoods, reducing the amount of on-street parking downtown, boosting preventive maintenance and making street signs more visible. "Larger, better street-naming signs in advance of intersections (encourage) all motorists to be more efficient, to make turns better and not vary their speeds trying to find out where they need to turn," said Elizer. And while he did acknowledge the importance of on-street parking, he noted that it created as many problems as it solved. "Pulling in and out of those spaces, any time you disrupt traffic and slow it down and speed it up and make people change lanes . . . you can't predict what the traffic is going to do." Many of the suggested areas for improvement would require additional resources from the city.

Elizer told the Council that traffic complaints were fairly consistent around the country, even when cities were doing all they could to reduce congestion. "As development occurs and traffic grows, signal timing can make it better up to a point. But then it's just too much traffic for the road, and often the signals get blamed because you're sitting there at a red light . . . and the real reason is you don't have enough roadway to get all that traffic through that intersection during peak periods," he concluded.

Who will respond to Seaholm challenge?

Time will tell whether the dormant Seaholm Power plant, plus possibly Block 21, will be attractive enough to lure a significant master developer to Downtown Austin.

The city is looking for a public venue concept. Ideas include an aquarium, a music museum, an Exploratorium and a children's museum. The current Request for Proposal, due to the city on August 20, is intended to provide a "development concept" for the Town Lake property, said Urban Design Officer Jana McCann.

Austin Energy decommissioned the Seaholm Plant in 1989. Those who spend time on Town Lake consider Seaholm, with its distinctive smokestacks, to be their own, McCann said. This is a property that is completely unique: built like a battleship with poured-in-place concrete, 110,000 square feet of mostly open space.

"It's going to take some ingenuity to make it work, but it has such an amazing 'cool factor,'" McCann said. "There are very few big spaces with this kind of space. With its 65-foot ceilings, it's very cathedral-like. It makes sense that this would be an intense public use."

The Seaholm Master Plan, a product of ROMA Design, was first presented in 2000. McCann was the one to make the rounds of city commissions, talking about the venue options, the road extensions and the possibility of rail and bike paths. At the time, the city wanted to send a clear message that it was committed to providing the on-site public infrastructure to make Seaholm a viable public attraction, McCann said.

Local enthusiasm was such that two non-profits were formed to explore the possibilities for the future of the Seaholm property, McCann said.

For almost four years, through the downtime in the Austin economy, the Seaholm plan has sat dormant. During that time the Lumbermen’s Investment Corporation's proposed mixed-use development on the Sand Beach Reserve sat on the table.

"It was as high quality a project as we could ever have expected," McCann said. "The developers made a special effort to make sure it was mixed-use and very complementary to the overall district. They worked very diligently to put together a good marriage between the development and the site of the power plant."

Lumbermen’s ambitious massing of office, retail and residential space—still considered by design experts to be one of the most progressive downtown development projects on record—would have sat west of the Seaholm project, but was rejected by the City Council.

Height was the final issue that killed the project, but McCann admitted that feelings at the time were still raw over then recently resolved land disputes between Lumbermen’s and the city. It was difficult for many to see the parkland as any kind of development. Both the parkland and Seaholm hold a special place in the hearts of many Town Lake users.

Now, with the economy rebounding and City Hall set to open in November, the city is ready to cast the net for another developer, either for Seaholm or a combination of Seaholm and Block 21. McCann would even welcome a combination that included Seaholm, Block 21 and the Lumbermen’s site.

The sale or lease of the Seaholm property is still up for discussion, McCann said. It would be McCann's assumption that the land would be under a long-term lease. The sale or lease option would probably be decided only after extensive pro formas on both sides.

The city has made some adjustments to the streets on the property to accommodate surrounding development. City staff is still considering the downsizing of the water treatment plant in order to maximize the development capacity of the land. According to the Request for Qualifications, preservation of the historic property is a top priority.

Developers are also being encouraged to incorporate a cultural venue into the conceptual proposal. Cultural groups on the lookout for a downtown location include the Texas Music Hall of Fame, Austin City Limits and Austin Children's Museum.

A master developer, when picked, would also have some say in surrounding development. That would include such items as the extension of the Pfluger Bridge over Cesar Chavez Boulevard, McCann said. .

Hydrilla study . . . Staff with the city's Watershed Protection and Development Review Department will partner with experts from the University of North Texas and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in an effort to prevent the spread of hydrilla in Lake Austin. The City Council approved funding for a project to introduce more native plants into the lake. The goal is to promote the spread of native vegetation into areas once occupied by hydrilla, thereby preventing the fast-growing weed from returning to areas from which it has already been removed . . . . Rivera wins . . . Veronica Rivera won the run-off election for the final spot on ACC's Board of Trustees over the weekend. Rivera received 62 percent of the vote, making her victorious over Marc Levin. Democrats were especially interested in seeing Rivera succeed since Levin is a Republican who has taken strong stands against affirmative action. A total of 5,748 people voted in the runoff . . . . Ribelin Ranch final vote completed . . . The City Council approved PUD zoning and annexation for Ribelin Ranch on second and third readings last week. The tract covers approximately 750 acres near RM 2222, but under the PUD zoning only 188 acres will be available for development . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . Directors of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District are scheduled to meet at 6pm tonight. After wading through a number of housekeeping items, the board will discuss and possibly take action on the district’s report on the sustainable yield evaluation of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. . . The Urban Transportation Commission is also scheduled to meet at 6pm. They are to meet in the 8th Floor conference room of One Texas Center . . . The Arts Commission will meet at 6:30pm at Waller Creek Center and the Electric Utility Commission will meet at Town Lake Center at 6pm.

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