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Robinson Ranch annexation sails through smoothly

Friday, June 18, 2004 by

City projects great economic benefits

With little fanfare and only a few minor points of debate, the Austin City Council Thursday night approved what could turn out to be the largest annexation and zoning case in the city's history. The Council passed on second and third readings the annexation, development agreement, and PUD zoning for the 6,000 acre Robinson Ranch in Williamson County.

"The fact that this is going to be in the City of Austin's tax base is very important for the whole city," said Council Member Daryl Slusher. "It's really the final frontier for the city in terms of tax base and area that we're going to grow, because we're bumping up against other jurisdictions." According to Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman, the city's long-term projections show the site would eventually have a total assessed value of $3.7 billion. The land will also yield a flow to the city's general fund of $229 million and another $21 million to the utility fund. "In addition to having open space and probably one of the best transportation infrastructures anywhere in Austin, this represents our future in terms of tax base," Huffman concluded. "This is going to be profitable for the city."

The undeveloped land is being brought in under the city's limited-purpose jurisdiction. The Robinson family will not have to pay city property taxes until the land is brought in for full-purpose annexation, which will be done on a tract-by-tract basis as the site is subdivided and individual properties are developed.

Included in the development agreement are list of architectural principles, compatibility standards, and a commitment to the city's " Grow Green" program. Approximately one-third of the ranch will remain as open space, and the city will have a trail easement through those open areas.

Residents from surrounding neighborhoods along the southern edge of the ranch offered a few complaints about the massive case, expressing concern about the prospect of urban development in an area that currently has a rural setting. "I have been graced with the Robinson Ranch in my backyard," said Barbara Hilliard of the North Oaks Neighborhood. "We are concerned about the footprint of this development…our neighbors are still very concerned about the buffer between the neighborhood and the proposed development."

In response to those concerns, the Council ordered extra setbacks the area. The Council also approved a series of changes to the agreement with the consent of the Robinson family. Those amendments include requiring all dumpsters to be screened, providing additional buffers between surface parking areas and residential neighborhoods, prohibiting coal tar-based parking lot sealants if that item is adopted as part of the city code, and providing for extra drainage and water-quality measures. The agreement also includes language allowing for amendments in the future.

Slusher thanked the family for its willingness to consider the needs of surrounding residents. "I think we've seen the attitude of the Robinsons towards Austin and toward their neighbors in the concessions made tonight," he said. "I congratulate you on your patience in going through these negotiations."

The family's discussions with the city began in earnest last October. Attorney Richard Suttle, who has handled some of the most high profile and complicated zoning applications, told In Fact Daily that talks had gone fairly well during that time. "The length of time was actually shorter than many cases. However, this one was probably more complex than any I've ever done," he said. "Everybody had an interest in it succeeding, so it went well." Suttle said he was pleased with the unanimous votes in favor of the annexation and development agreement, although he noted that the Robinson family took the decision in stride. "The Robinsons aren't developers, so it's not like they're ecstatic," he said. "If you left it up to them, their ranch would stay a ranch forever. But that just doesn't happen when people start putting highways through."

In the zoning case, the Council followed the recommendation of the Zoning and Platting Commission in one area where it differed from the staff's recommendation. The highest-density development within the PUD will be called TOD, for Transit Oriented Development. It allows downtown-style development and impervious cover in a limited area surrounding transit hubs, such as a passenger rail terminal. Staff had recommended that TOD be mandatory for such locations, but the ZAP and the Robinson family requested that it be optional. That would leave developers free to build less-dense projects under the rules for MXD, which is a Mixed Development category within the PUD. "There are many different kinds of TODs, and they all function differently," said Suttle. "You can really blow it by mandating something that we found out later doesn't work." Suttle said his firm, Armbrust and Brown, had studied Transit Oriented Development districts around the country. "On this tract today, there are no mass transit facilities. You don't know whether development's going to come first or transit's going to come first," he said. "Leave it discretionary. Let us work with the transit authorities, with the city, and the market to determine how it will work so it does work."

The votes on the annexation and development agreement were 6-0, with Council Member Raul Alvarez temporarily off the dais. He returned for the vote on the PUD zoning, which passed 7-0.

Consultants offer revised figures for Waller Creek tunnel

New estimates have cut the anticipated revenues on the Waller Creek tunnel project almost in half, making the project more difficult, but not unfeasible.

Chief Financial Officer John Stephens and Watershed Protection and Development Engineering Manager George Oswald presented the revised figures to the Downtown Commission last week.

Getting land out of the Waller Creek flood plain and into the hands of developers has been a top priority for downtown leaders for almost 30 years. That priority is even more important now that the Convention Center and Hilton Convention Hotel are open.

"Waller Creek has been a top priority for the downtown community for generations," said downtown civic leader Chris Riley, who serves as the Planning Commission's representative to the Downtown Commission. "It's going to be a real challenge until you address the basic infrastructure problem. I don't know of any other way of accomplishing the goals we all have in mind for the area, which is a lively mixed-use destination."

Ultimately, the Waller Creek project could provide "good synergy" with the Convention Center and the Second Street Retail District, Stephens said.

The new figures are a revision two times removed from the original forecast. Kellogg, Brown & Root put together the first financial estimates on Waller Creek in 1999. Kent Dussair of CDS Market Research and Steve Spillette of Spillette Consulting put together revised figures in 2003. That was followed by another run on the KBR model, and a review of Dussair and Spillette’s numbers.

Revenue estimates on the Waller Creek tunnel project are 55 percent of what they were last summer. Those revenues would come from property taxes in a Tax Increment Finance Zone, which would include land in the Waller Creek/Vignette/Rainey Street area. The TIF would be financed with incremental property tax increases within the TIF. Stephens said the project would be paid for with certificates of obligation. He stressed that while the project was viable, it still required county participation.

KBR ran figures on three different scenarios, based on the county agreeing to kick in 50 percent of the incremental property tax increases over the next 20 years, and with the understanding that the tunnel would likely be under design and construction for the first eight years.

• Least-expensive option – This would be a 15.5-foot diameter tunnel, taking about 98 percent of the land out of the 100-year flood plain. In a flood event, the creek would rise to the top of the Waller Creek channel. The cost would be $44.1 million.

The original estimate put the 20-year county contribution at $45.9 million, which was cut to $23.2 million in the new figures. Incremental city property taxes on the property were first estimated at $90.5 million, cut to $45.9 million. To make the numbers work, the city would have to contribute city sales tax in the district of $46.7 million.

The final net revenue over 20 years would be $71.8 million, which would be 163 percent of the cost of the least-expensive option.

• Mid-range option – This would be a 22-foot diameter tunnel with no intervening capacity. Although larger ,it would not capture the floodwater that flows into the creek between the inlet feature in Waterloo Park and the outlet in Town Lake. It would remove 100 percent of property from the flood plain, but it would still allow the water to rise in the creek, according to the city's memo.

City and county property taxes are the same, but the cost of the project would be $54.4 million. Add in the anticipated sales tax revenue of $46.7 million and the net revenue would be $61.5 million. That net revenue would be 113 percent of cost.

• Most-expensive option – This would be a 22-foot diameter tunnel with intervening capacity. The intervening capacity would mean a constant, low flow for the creek.

The revised revenue figures are slightly higher than other options, with county property tax revenue at $25.2 million and city property tax revenue at $49.7 million. That would be subtracted from the estimated $70.3 million cost of the project. Factor in an additional anticipated $65 million in city sales tax and the project almost breaks even. The total net revenue as percentage of cost would be 99 percent.

The Council is not expected to review the figures until August, after they return from summer break. At that time, Stephens will gather stakeholders to discuss the impact and future of the project. The project, if approved, would take eight years to complete, from initial design tocompletion of construction.

Music network decision delayed

Citing a lack of information, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, chair of the Council Committee for Telecommunications Infrastructure, this week postponed a decision on the future of the Austin Music Network. City staff had been working toward getting the item on the agenda for the final Council meeting in June, but it now appears likely that the full Council will not be pressed into making a decision on AMN until it begins deliberations on the rest of the city budget in August.

Both the Austin Music Partners and the current management of AMN had previously asked for a resolution to their situation sooner, rather than later. Louis Meyers, General Manager of AMN, has said that the outside fundraising the network needs to keep running has been jeopardized by the possibility that AMN in its current format could cease to exist. He asked the Council for a clear signal early this summer if the Kenneth Threadgill Music Project would be allowed to continue operating AMN. Connie Wodlinger with Austin Music Partners has said that she would like to have as much advance notice as possible to build a new organization if the Council decides to allow her group to take over operations of the network.

But Goodman said there needed to be further discussion among the various parties involved, along with more information for Council members, before any decision. "We're not ready as a committee to take formal action and send a recommendation on to Council on this issue," she said. "Making a decision before you have all the facts in hand . . . would be irresponsible. And after all these years of trying to keep AMN alive, I am not prepared to make a recommendation to the full Council. We do still have the month of August to get our act together, all of us, in conjunction with frank discussions which I hope do not take a personal bent."

Goodman also said that any recommendation from the Council Committee for Telecommunications Infrastructure should come after a vote of all three members. Goodman and Council Member Betty Dunkerley were at the special called meeting on Wednesday, but Council Member Raul Alvarez was unable to attend. The next meeting for the committee will be on Wednesday, June 23.

Following Wednesday's official meeting, Goodman and Dunkerley led a wide-ranging, informal discussion among representatives of AMN, AMP, ACTV and Time Warner Cable about the various options for music programming. Goodman sought out more specifics from Wodlinger about Austin Music Partners’ plans for expanding the network into new territory and asked both AMN and AMP to more clearly define their visions for the network.

Lowe’s injunction hearing today . . . The Save Barton Creek Association has asked a state district court to stop Lowe’s construction work on its Brodie Lane property. The SBCA won a summary judgment motion on Tuesday, overturning the City Council’s settlement agreement with the home improvement warehouse. However, the question of which law actually applies to the site—the SOS Ordinance or House Bill 1204—has not been decided. Attorneys for SBCA can be expected to argue that the work causes irreparable injury to the land and the Barton Springs aquifer. Lowe’s will probably counter that they have a right to continue until there is a decision about which law controls . . . No new storage facility for West 5th St . . . The City Council unanimously rejected the appeal of a property owner at 1304 West 5th Street last night, as requested by the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association and the West End Austin Alliance, a group of area business owners. Council Member Brewster McCracken said he could not support another storage facility in an area that should be developed compatibly with surrounding stores, as he made the motion to reject the appeal. The Planning Commission had supported the storage facility, but reconsidered after learning that many neighbors did not receive notice of the first hearing. Upon hearing the matter a second time, the Planning Commission unanimously rejected the request. Attorney Richard Mathias represented the applicant. Sarah Crocker represented nearby business owners opposed to the conditional use permit . . . New director named for Long Center . . . The board for the Long Center for the Performing Arts has hired Dallas-area arts executive Cliff Redd to serve as director. Vice chair Pete Winstead says he is thrilled to have a leader of Redd’s experience, talents, management capabilities and enthusiasm for the project. Redd noted he was excited to take on the challenge of raising funds and overseeing construction and future operation. Redd will take the post on July 1, 2004 . . . New board members seated . . . Nora Comstock, Latifah Taormina and I rene Williams took their seats on the Long Center board this month. The Austin City Council appointed all three earlier this month . . . ACC Board of Trustees election is tomorrow . . . Voters will decide between Veronica Rivera and Marc Levin tomorrow in ACC board elections. Polls will be open from 7am-7pm. Polling locations and information about the election can be found on the ACC website, . . . Mandell reports on Congress . . . Lower Colorado River Authority in-house lobbyist Missy Mandell told the LCRA board this week that she had met extensively with US Rep. Joe Barton's office last week. Barton, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce was both very committed to and very pessimistic about passing an energy bill before the end of the year, she said. The closer it comes to election time, the more difficult it becomes to get an energy bill out of Congress . . . City Council appointments . . . Mayor Will Wynn appointed Lon Bozarth to the Music Commission and Council Member Raul Alvarez appointed T im Mahoney to the Urban Forestry Board. Council members reappointed Marilyn Bostick, Leonard Lyons and Hector Ortiz to the Parks and Recreation Board and Bob Woody to the Downtown Commission.

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