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Mueller zoning wins first round approval

Friday, June 25, 2004 by

Council rejects elimination of construction sales stores from 51st at I-35 site

The culmination of years—even decades– of work by

activists and neighborhood advocates is soon to become a reality, one that urban planners laud and almost everyone agrees is ripe. Yesterday many of those activists came to ask the City Council to approve zoning for the Mueller redevelopment area. Only Mary Lehmann and Robert Singleton of Keep the Land protested. The Council voted 7-0 to approve the Planning Commission’s recommendations—without the prohibition on construction sales and services—on first reading only. City staff agreed with all of those recommendations.

Roger Taylor spearheaded the JJ Seabrook Neighborhood Association in order to move the airport from its East Austin location. He told the Council he started working on relocating the airport in 1982. “ It seems like all my life I’ve been working on this issue.” Taylor’s house is across the street from the old main terminal of Mueller and he said the noise level had affected his health. He thanked the Council for saving the airport’s control tower and borrowed a phrase from a hero of the 9/11 tragedy. “Its time for us. ‘Lets roll.’”

Kerry Tate of TateAustin warned the Council that prohibiting construction sales and services, as recommended by the Planning Commission, could have unintended consequences for local businesses even though it was not aimed them. Tate serves as a consultant to Catellus Development, Mueller’s master developer, and is co-chair of the Ethics in Business Initiative. She said she does not represent any company that sells construction materials, but in her volunteer position she had come to know Brian McCoy of McCoy Building Centers, who won this year’s Ethics in Business Award. “The McCoy family is a model for corporate ethical behavior,” she said. McCoy’s has five stores in Austin and competes with national chains such as Home Depot and Lowe’s. Tate said that the local company would make an excellent tenant for the retail area planned for the northwest corner of the Mueller tract at 51st Street and I-35

Girard Kinney, an architect who serves on the design guidelines task force as well as the Design Commission, asked the Council not to limit the size of any store on the retail tract. He said he believes that virtually any size store can be appropriate with well thought-out design controls.

“I think it's a wonderful project,” said Council Member Danny Thomas. Thomas thanked all those involved, saying, “I've been in Austin all my life. I have seen areas where there have been pockets of development that have been very productive. This is an area where it would be a great boost for the great city of Austin, also East Austin—but not just to say East Austin…everybody can come together and have a very productive development that will boost a community that has been crying out since the 70's.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher commented that Mueller’s 700-acre Planned Unit Development marks a milestone not only in urban development but in cooperation between neighborhood advocates and city government “It’s really hard to think of a better use for the property,” he said “It’s very important to move forward tonight.” He supported a proposal from the Planning Commission that would prohibit any retailer using more than 75,000 square feet unless the company is complying with current water quality regulations on its other projects.

Several Council members said they would support Slusher’s proposal, and none indicated they would prefer to go with the Planning Commission’s suggested outright ban on construction sales and services companies. Mayor Will Wynn pointed out that yesterday’s action was only the first approval of three needed for the zoning. He assured those concerned about conditions and restrictions on future retail that the matter would be addressed before zoning was finally approved.

Now's the time to weigh in on Mueller design rules

The Mueller Advisory Commission has a crucial month to solicit input on the design guidelines that are being proposed for the 711-acre master-planned development. ROMA Design Group consultant Jim Adams has assured the advisory commission that nothing should be a surprise in the proposed design guidelines. Most of the guidelines set limits, setbacks and materials on houses, the Town Center and civic spaces.

"When we put it all together, you won't be shocked by what you see," Adams told commissioners. "Everything we've been talking about for many years will be in this plan."

The Northwest quadrant—the sector that includes the new Children's Hospital and regional retail—also has guidelines, but is less defined in terms of freeway frontage treatment. Adams, however, has provided guidance on the placement of buildings and materials.

After years of work on the master plan, Adams knows the Mueller development inside out. And when Adams refers to the larger mansion homes on the boulevard "between the Lake Park and the new elementary school," he says it in such an off-hand way it's hard to believe that much of the Mueller project is still in the conceptual stages.

Jim Walker, chair of the advisory group, wants the Mueller design guidelines to be carefully shopped to groups over the next month, and specifically to those small groups of stakeholders that might have relevant comments before the design guidelines make it to the Council. He also wants to make sure that the design guidelines mesh well with the efforts of Council Member Brewster McCracken's office to craft commercial design guidelines for the city.

Now is the time to comment, says Walker, before the guidelines are folded into the Master Developer Agreement between the city and Catellus. Once the guidelines are in place, Catellus will shop the specifics to potential developers, both large and small. At least two architects were in the audience last night, eager to view the plans.

Architectural guidelines lay bare the tension between what is flexible and what is prescriptive, Walker said. The Mueller Advisory Commission has balked at guidelines that are too strict, fearing Mueller would look a little too much like Celebration in Florida or Stapleton on the site of the former Stapleton Airport in Denver.

Once the guidelines are part of the Master Developer Agreement, it will become the job of the Architectural Review Committee, or ARC, to make sure that future development on the property maintains the integrity of that vision. Commissioner Donna Carter, also an architect, expressed a wish that at least some of the members on the future ARC have the expertise to guide future development in the right direction. The committee will replace the commission.

Adams said the goal is not to get every big builder to put his best "New Urbanist" design on the ground. Instead, Adams would prefer a mix of small and large builders. The intention would also be to give the ARC enough latitude to make relevant exceptions.

In his review of the design guidelines, Adams presented visuals of various design principles. He spoke of a hierarchy of zoning; covenant, codes and regulations; and design guidelines. Guidelines presented for various types of housing included strong street orientation, garages oriented to back alleys rather than front streets, compatibility of scale between buildings and a look of "Hill Country architecture."

Mueller is expected to emphasize Green Building whenever possible. Adams' guidelines would encourage energy-efficient metal roofs as well as stone in light or warm colors, Texas limestone, fiber cement siding and brick or stucco.

Adams used models like Fredricksburg for the Town Center. The intention would be to create a Main Street of mixed-use buildings, as well as shop houses, which are row houses with business on the first floor and residential on the second. Parking garages would be screened in a way that should almost make them appear to be retail from the façade.

One of the major challenges of the Town Center will be the integration of a major grocery store anchor. To make that work, Adams has suggested control of the floorplate size, site linkage to the streets, the screening of truck docks and shop houses along the backside.

The Mueller Advisory Commission will gather comments over the next month. They are likely to be on the City Council agenda in August.

TCEQ to indicate fate of area clean air plan today

The Austin/Round Rock area will know today whether they can expect a more positive response to their Clean Air Action Compact from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality when the commissioners meet in July.

Representatives from cities, counties and the Clean Air Force met with individual TCEQ commissioners last week. In those meetings, the region once more laid out its plan for clean air compliance as a near non-attainment area, in the hopes of a more positive reaction than they received at a work session on April 30.

Scheleen Walker, who handles clean air planning for the county, said the county now has a list of measures that TCEQ staff considers favorable. When back-up material for the July 14 agenda is posted on Friday, the region should have a better idea of whether the three commissioners have found consensus on the Austin region plan.

"We discussed our plan as it was proposed to make sure they understood it and to talk to each of them about the problems they had with it," Walker said. "As you can imagine, all three of them had different opinions on the plan. We should know on Friday, though, whether they reached consensus on the issue."

According to a list being circulated by the county, the following are the areas for which commissioners have expressed some support:

• A vehicle inspection and maintenance program, as the region proposed it;

• Heavy-duty diesel idling opt-in, contingent on an enforcement agreement. That option will apply statewide; Low volatile organic compounds gas cans, which will also apply statewide;

• Degreasing, as proposed, with no contingency or local enforcement;

• Stage I vapor recovery, as proposed, with no contingency or local enforcement;

• A cutback of asphalt restrictions, as proposed, without contingency or local enforcement;

• Voluntary power plant agreements with Austin Energy and the Lower Colorado River Authority, with a target date of Dec. 31, 2005, for compliance; and

• The region’s commitment to seek state grants to reduce emissions to two tons per day.

Counties lack the authority to pass ordinances, which leaves the region at the mercy of the state regarding clean air enforcement. Walker said some of the frustration that local leaders feel over rejection of parts of the clean air plan is that local jurisdictions worked so hard to reach consensus on reduction measures.

"The plan was crafted, first and foremost, under a policy of fair share," Walker said. "The goal was that everybody would do their fair share, and that every industry in the region also would do their fair share for clean air."

TCEQ commissioners, however, balked at the region’s proposed commuter program. The plan would have asked large employers—including state agencies—to reduce employee commuting by 10 percent over 3 years. Regional leaders considered the plan effective, but commissioners were not comfortable with mandating what state agencies should do. That, they said, should be left to the Legislature, not local government.

The county has also pressed the issue that the region should have authority over plants that are just outside the region's boundaries but contribute to local air pollution. For example, the Alcoa plant was shown to produce twice as much pollution as the region could reduce through its own measures.

While the Alcoa plant is being addressed, regional officials commented that they do not want to be put in a similar position with any future plants. But while the region's attorneys think the county has the right to regulate TCEQ commissioners do not.

The region also wants to apply for TERP funding, which is the Texas Emissions Reduction Program that provides grants for efforts to reduce emissions, such as replacing outdated plant equipment. Walker said the region is committed to seeking the funding, but it's uncertain how much would be available. Dallas and Houston already have commitments in their emission reduction plans for up to 54 tons of emission reductions per day. That may leave little for other regions in the state.

Samsung, Home Depot incentives win approval

Two items approved by the City Council could mean hundreds of new, high-paying jobs in the private sector in the next few years. The Council unanimously approved a package of tax rebates and incentives to lure Home Depot to locate a data center, which would employ 500 people, in a Northeast Austin industrial park. The Council also approved $4.3 million for Austin Energy to upgrade the electric grid for Samsung. The South Korean-based electronics firm is conducting a major expansion of its semiconductor facility in North Austin, which will result in about 250 new jobs.

"Samsung has been a remarkable corporate citizen and employer," said Mayor Will Wynn. Along with creating new jobs, the Mayor said the expansion would allow the city to remain a significant force in the evolving semiconductor industry. "We look forward to a longer, profitable relationship for everybody."

Samsung announced its expansion plans last year. The company plans to invest $500 million into the facility to enable the production of newer, larger memory chips used in high-end computer servers. The addition of 40,000 square feet of "clean room" manufacturing space for those computer chips will mean an increase in demand for electricity, which is where the technological upgrades from Austin Energy come into play. Although the city-owned utility will spend more than $4 million to satisfy Samsung's needs, company representatives predict their increased consumption will mean increased profits for the utility. "They will certainly recoup their investment in Samsung in about three months with our electric rates," predicted Bill Cryer, general counsel for public affairs at Samsung Austin.

The city will also receive increased property tax revenues from the increase in value at the plant. And with an average salary of more than $50,000 for the new jobs created at Samsung because of the expansion, the project could have a significant ripple effect throughout the local economy. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce last year conducted a study on that subject which pegged the overall impact at more than $750 million. The investment by Austin Energy, said Cryer, did play a role in the company's decision to expand its Austin facility instead of manufacturing the newer-model memory chips elsewhere. "They also looked at the community support that Samsung has had since they came here, and even before they came here," he said, praising the city's commitments to the company, which already employs about 950 people locally. "This sends a clear message back to headquarters in Seoul that Austin is a place to do business."

For Home Depot, the city is offering up a pair of incentives on an existing building in northeast Austin. The city's package includes an offer to property tax revenue from the increase in value on the site if the company chooses the location for a data processing center. The city's tax rebate would be in effect for ten years. "The benefit is they hire a lot of people here locally," Mayor Wynn said, adding that the city's offer would place conditions on Home Depot in order for the company to receive the tax breaks. "Job creation is the task at hand if we want to get out of the woes that we're in. I understand the heartburn that some people have about inducements, particularly for large corporations, but for this case it's a rifle shot with very strict parameters. We could create hundreds of jobs in very short order. With a couple of actions today, this City Council may very well have created a thousand jobs over the short term for Austin."

The Council also voted unanimously to nominate the site for consideration as an Enterprise Project in accordance with the Texas Enterprise Zone Act ( http://www.tded.state.tx.us/TexasEnterpriseZone ). That will allow the State of Texas to offer rebates on franchise and sales taxes if Home Depot hires 35 percent of its workforce from economically disadvantaged areas in Central Texas. The city's estimated value of the incentive package is $7.1 million, with another $3.7 million in tax breaks possibly coming from the State of Texas.

Council Member Brewster McCracken applauded the efforts to bring a new high-tech employer to the region. "Back in the 1970s, Austin was a sleepy college and government town," he sad. "But change has happened, and the reason is some visionary city leaders before us got together and formed an alliance. Because they got together, we went from a sleepy college and government town to an international technology hub. It has really brought a lot of great things to this city. We kind of got away from that for a while . . . we stopped working together. But right now everyone's working together again. That's a great deal for the City of Austin, and right now Austin's open for business."

Travis County Commissioners could also consider an incentive package for the company in the next few weeks. It will then be up to company officials to evaluate the different incentive packages from several cities around the country before making a decision on a site for the new data center.

Report: Big box stores don't always have negative impact

Economist John Hockenyos of Texas Perspectives yesterday presented the results of his firm's study of the effects of "big box" retail stores on the local economy. The Council ordered the study last year as part of the debate surrounding proposed big box stores from Lowe's and Wal Mart.

Hockenyos offered up a proposed definition of a "big box" store and outlined the positives and negatives traditionally associated with the large discount retailers. Their low prices and purchasing volume is favored by consumers and they offer convenience for some customers. Such retailers help contribute to national economic productivity figures. But Hockenyos also noted that big box retailers traditionally offered lower wages and fewer benefits than other retailers do and could contribute to the homogenization of a community through their standardized designs, complaints often listed by their critics.

As for the contention that big box retailers invariably cause harm to local retailers, Hockenyos said his research did not necessarily back up that claim. After attempting to do price comparisons on different products, Hockenyos concluded that larger discount stores carried a different mix of merchandise than locally owned stores. "

We had a devil of a time getting exact matches between small local retailers and big boxes," he said. "We could get broad categories…you could get blue jeans, but you would get a wide variety of what blue jeans were available. There is probably very little direct competition between a small local retailer and the big boxes. In the larger sense every retail dollar is in competition." Local retailers also employ a significantly different business model in order to attract consumers, since they are unable to offer the steep discounts of companies such as Wal-Mart, Target, or Costco. "We found most small retailers here in Austin did one of two things," he said. "Either they sold something different or a more extensive product line than the big boxes did, or they were able to add value through some combination of service, customization, or convenience."

Hockenyos found that while Austin had experienced an increase in the number of big box stores in recent years, they were not yet posing a danger to the overall marketplace. "The healthiest consumer market is the one that maximizes consumer choice," he said. The report cites the U.S. Justice Department as having antitrust concerns when one supplier dominates 33 percent of a market. Big box retail outlets only comprise about 21 percent of Austin's relevant retail market, according to Hockenyos' figures, which implies that the market is still competitive.

The city does have a role to play in regulation of big box stores, Hockenyos concluded, in the interest of preserving the local tax base and instituting design guidelines to maintain the community's physical characteristics. His report lists these goals for the city:

1) Austin should capture its fair share of local retail sales dollars in comparison to surrounding communities.

2) The city should monitor the market share of local retailers compared to big box stores.

3) The city should offer pro-active assistance to help local retailers because of the role they play in cultural vitality, and

4) Community goals and business needs should play a role in city regulations for enhanced design standards.

In Fact Daily will begin its annual summer vacation next week and will return on July 6. We wish you a happy and safe 4th of July . . . Not quite a vacation . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken, who spearheaded the current study on design guidelines for retail buildings, said he would be flying off to Chicago this morning to attend the Congress for New Urbanism conference. The conference web site promises, “CNU will define principles and methods for restoring, infilling, and creating places in ways that satisfy not just aesthetic ideals but environmental and social goals as well” . . . Funny Quote of the Day . . . Robert Singleton addressed the Council three times yesterday—on Mueller zoning and on incentives for Home Depot. He stayed a little longer to join those in the Harris Ranch Neighborhood, who were requesting a postponement of their zoning case, even though he does not live in the area. He told the Council that he, having lost on two items already would promise not to address the Council for a whole month if they voted to give the neighborhood its request. Mayor Will got a hearty chuckle from Council members and the audience when he, Wynn, responded, “So do we get to choose which month?” . . . Liveable City event successful . . . Organizers were a little surprised, but pleased by the huge turnout at Wednesday night’s Vision Awards ceremony, which honored leaders in Austin’s renewable energy movement. Those receiving awards included Chip Wolfe and Carrie Norton of Austin Clean Energy Initiative, Amanda Bybee of Solar Austin and Roger Duncan and Michael Osborne of Austin Energy. Bybee is moving to the Caribbean island of Anguilla, where she and her husband will manage a restaurant and took the occasion to bid her friends farewell. The relatively new Liveable City brought in an impressive group of sponsors, including: The Austin Chronicle, KUT-FM, Lower Colorado River Authority, Murray Music, Locke Liddell & Sapp, McCullough Heating & Air Conditioning, Stratus Properties, Downtown Austin Alliance, Drenner Stuart Wolff Metcalfe von Kreisler, Perry Lorenz, David Newberger/ MoPac Blvd Alliance, Norwood Tower, Lopez-Phelps, Scott Polikov/Gateway Planning and Watson Bishop London & Brophy. . Planning Commission appointments . . . The City Council yesterday appointed Matt Hollon and Jay Reddy to the Planning Commission. Both live in the north central area and have been active in their neighborhood associations. Council Member Betty Dunkerley appointed Reddy, who is taking the seat vacated by Niyanta Spelman, who has a small baby and is the current chair of the Austin Asian-American Chamber of Commerce. Spelman recommended Reddy, who has served as president of the Northfield Neighborhood Association. Hollon is an environmental planner with Glenrose Engineering. The Council reappointed Betty Baker, Melissa Hawthorne and Teresa Rabago to the Zoning and Platting Commission. Rodney Ahart, a recent candidate for the Austin Community College Board is Council Member Danny Thomas’s appointment to the Urban Transportation Commission. The Council reappointed Patrick Goetz by consensus; the Council also reappointed Mary Ruth Holder and Lee Leffingwell to the Environmental Board and Glen Coleman to the Water and Wastewater Commission. The Council appointed Mattie Mays to the Community Development Commission, John Green to the Telecommunications Commission and Ernestine Kubicek to the Downtown Commission. Reappointments included Snapper Carr to the Electric Utility Commission and Rosemary Castleberry to the Parks and Recreation Board. Mark Vane will also join that board as Council Member Brewster McCracken ‘s appointment. James Robertson was appointed by consensus to the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission. Paul Johnson was appointed by consensus to the Urban Forestry Board, and Mayor Will Wynn appointed Margaret Owens to the Urban Renewal Board . . . Rodriguez to get another chance . . . The 4th Court of Appeals ruled in favor of U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez in his battle to gain the nomination to represent the Democratic Party in the November election. The court sent the case back to district court for another hearing.

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