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A tour of Austin's new City Hall

Monday, September 13, 2004 by

New city home strong, gracious but small

A new chapter will soon be written in Austin’s City Hall lore with the opening of a brand-new facility. Although many strong personalities will occupy the new City Hall, the limestone and copper building overlooking Town Lake itself will be the genesis of stories. Like many of those who will come there, the building projects an image that is strong, graceful and idiosyncratic.

Last week, a group of City Council aides toured the four-story construction site, slated to become their workplace before the end of the year. In fact, festivities are planned beginning around November 12, with city employees to be invited for tours before anyone moves into their offices.

Walking into the dust and noise of the building’s first floor, adorned in a hardhat and safety goggles, it is hard to imagine that the new City Hall, at around 115,000 square feet, will be finished in time for its coming-out parties. But Project Manager Nick Naccarato promises the building will be ready.

Upon entering the building, the first thing City Hall visitors can see is the broad expanse of Texas limestone that serves as the building’s chief material, both inside and out. The stone, along with copper sheeting and roofing materials, was selected for durability as well as local flavor. Neither should ever need refurbishing. The copper covers a number of walls and provides accent materials for the City Council chambers. It is also the most visible material for the building’s standing seam roof.

When finished, the Council dais will overlook an auditorium equipped with only 160 seats. One reason for the building’s small size is the 100-foot height limit put on area buildings as part of the Town Lake Overlay. Beyond the seating are windows facing Town Lake and a public plaza. Visitors may enter either from the Town Lake side or from the 2nd Street entrance. The first floor also features a separate meeting room for boards and commissions and a news conference room, the first of its kind for Austin’s city government.

The Mayor’s office is located on the 2nd Floor, above Council chambers, and has its own balcony. A stairway leads from that balcony directly to the City Manager’s Office, which, being on the 3rd Floor, offers a better view and undoubtedly is the best office in the new City Hall. Both the Mayor’s Office and the City Manager’s Office are situated on the west side of a lobby that stretches from the 1st Floor to the top of the building. Walkways connect the east and west sides of the buildings, leading to the inevitable comment that the Mayor’s Office is the “West Wing.” Neither the current Mayor nor the current City Manager held their respective jobs when architect Antoine Predock designed the new City Hall.

The City Council offices, on the other hand, are located on the east side of the building. They are smaller and lack balconies, a fact that has already generated some behind-the-scenes griping. The City Auditor’s Office also has offices on the east side of the 2nd Floor.

The building is being finished from the top down, Naccarato said, so the Law Department’s offices on the 4th Floor are closest to completion. Below those offices, the city’s Budget Office will occupy the east side of the 3rd floor and City Manager Toby Futrell and her team will be on the west. The Public Information Office will also be on the 3rd floor.

According to the city’s web site, the current City Hall was built in 1906: “At the time, City Hall was the headquarters for all City departments, including police.” But expansion led to spreading city staff to many other locations. That will not change completely when the new City Hall opens its doors in November, but it will save the city money on downtown leases.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who as an Assistant City Manager helped craft the deal with Computer Science Corp. that started the new City Hall rolling, said last week, “We’ll have everybody out of rental space—the Law Department will be in the new City Hall.” The city would allow its lease at the Norwood Towers to expire, she said, and all the city employees in II Commodore will move into the old City Hall and/or into One Texas Center.

The Health and Human Services Department will move into the old School for the Deaf on East 7th Street. Dunkerley said the city purchased those buildings several years ago, and renovations of two of buildings are now complete. That means city employees are now starting to move out of their offices on St. Elmo Road.

“So, we still have maybe one or two offices (rented), but most of the offices will be out of rental space and into city-owned space,” she concluded.

New City Hall budget explained

According to Vickie Schubert of the Deputy Chief Financial Officer, the original “concept budget” for the new City Hall was $34 million, including a plaza, parking garage and site demolition costs. In an email, she wrote, “This budget was based on the cost to build a 100,000-square-foot Class A office building.” That was in July 1999.

After refining the scope of the project, Schubert says, the City Council approved the following revisions:

• Increased office/retail space by 15 percent for a total 115,300 square feet of potential retail space and sufficient space to accommodate a potential doubling of Council members;

• Increased parking garage to accommodate 10 percent more spaces, for a total of 750 spaces;

• Determined that the city would achieve national sustainability standards (Silver Leeds), including the addition of 10,000 square feet of photovoltaics

• Incorporated community input to create a landmark building with enhanced plaza features, such as larger and more mature trees and amphitheater seating;

• Incorporated costs associated with parking site and design conditions, (excavation conditions, de-watering requirements, and increased structural requirements as a result of unique building design);

• Included enhanced stairway entrance and water feature; and

• Increased security costs after 9/11.

That brings the current budget for the building, parking garage, and plaza to approximately $50 million, of which $33.9 million is allocated for the building and plaza construction contract. “The $50 million includes all hard and soft costs for the building, plaza, and parking garage, as well as site demolition,” Schubert says. That’s only a 3 percent increase in the total cost of the construction contract—from $32.9 million to $33.9 million, she added.

In addition, the city will spend approximately $6.4 million for furniture, technology and audio-visual equipment, and parking equipment.

Commissions to weigh in on ACTV music network plan

After a marathon hearing last week on the proposal to shift some Austin Music Network programming to ACTV, the Music Commission and the Telecommunications Commission will get together again tonight to make a recommendation on the proposal.

Public testimony at last Wednesday’s meeting began at approximately 6:45pm and lasted until 11:30pm, with a break in the middle for a presentation from the city staff. As they have done at previous meetings of various bodies, some ACTV volunteer producers showed up to decry the proposal to run AMN programming on ACTV as an unconstitutional move to limit their freedom of speech. About 150 producers and fans packed the meeting, many of them laying out a theory that placing AMN programming on one of the three public-access channels managed by ACTV was a prelude to a corporate takeover of all three channels with the ultimate goal of eliminating non-commercial cable TV altogether.

"Russia isn't as bad as this right now," shouted Alex Jones, a syndicated radio host who also has a show on ACTV. "This is out of control. We're going to fight it! What this is…is a corporate takeover" Jones served as a ringmaster for the meeting, telling speakers where to stand, where they should address their remarks, and frequently urging them to "speak up!" so their comments could be recorded by the six video cameras brought in by members of the audience. Jones reminded commissioners that he was one of the six producers seeking to depose ACTV Board Members and staff about the plan to group similar programs on separate public-access channels. This would lead to a channel for the arts and music, a religious channel, and a channel devoted to news and free speech shows. "I don't want to waste my money, the city's money or the ACTV board's money, but I guarantee you these legal actions will be devastating to what's going on here," he concluded to a round of applause.

ACTV producer Stefan Wray circulated a list of demands to the commission members. If those were met, he said the producers would drop their legal action. The list calls for the ACTV Board to drop their plans to segregate programs on different channels. Specifically, they want ACTV to abandon its efforts to launch " EATV", which is the proposed name for the arts and entertainment channel. The group also wants ACTV Board Member Jonathan Clark to resign. Clark also produces an educational children's show which has run on AMN and has been a target of much of the frustration voiced by the producers upset over the "EATV" proposal. ACTV Executive Director John Villarreal has also come under fire from the group, but Wray's list of demands says they would allow him to keep his position provided certain conditions are met.

The ACTV producers all expressed a concern that the non-commercial channels would eventually be commercialized, and saw the addition of AMN programming as the first step in that process.

AMN is actually a non-profit entity, which for the past year has been operated by the Kenneth Threadgill Music Project. City funding for AMN will expire at the end of this fiscal year and the City Council's Telecommunications Subcommittee has heard from the ACTV board and the Villarreal that they would be willing to run programs with the AMN "brand" on one of their channels after that date. In the meantime, the Council has approved a measure to transfer the final payment of funds for AMN to ACTV, since ACTV is administering the final few weeks of the network.

ACTV producer Pam Thompson outlined her theory of how Time Warner, the city's largest cable company, would use the introduction of AMN programming to eliminate public-access TV, while Stefan Wray drew a diagram illustrating the theory on the dry-erase board in the meeting room. "The timing for them to run out of money at AMN was perfect to force them under the roof of ACTV," she said. The privately funded Austin Music Partners, she predicted, would serve as an arm of Time Warner and give the cable company the ability to secure programming control of channels 10, 11, and 16. "I would like for you to be able to understand this," she said of her theory. "It took me months. I hope that this will help you."

Other ACTV producers and viewers used the meeting to complain about the ACTV board. Some viewers complained that they had not received any word of the channel re-organization proposal, while other felt the board had not properly addressed their concerns. "I feel like there's some sneakiness going on," said local musician Jeannie Ramirez, prompting cheers and laughter from the audience.

Tonight’s meeting will begin at 6pm in Room 304 of One Texas Center.

Budget passage begins today . . . Today’s budget meeting appears to be headed for smooth sailing. Although AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) wanted to force the city to raise the pay of all lowest-tier city workers to $10/hour at the beginning of the fiscal year, Oct. 1, the Council will likely vote 7-0 for a scaled-back version of that. Council Member Raul Alvarez will likely make a motion to give employees who make less than $10 an hour more relief in April. According to Council Members Daryl Slusher and Brewster McCracken, that plan would eliminate the problem called “compression,” which means everyone at the lowest levels would make the same hourly wage even if some had been on the job six months longer. Last week Council Member Betty Dunkerley indicated her support for a raise that would avoid such problems. It’s also likely that some discussion will take place regarding the new system for awarding cultural arts funds. No system is perfect, including the old one, the new one, and any theoretical one discussed so far, apparently. Look for a two-day process, with little acrimony . . . CAMPO meeting tonight . . . Council Members Brewster McCracken and Daryl Slusher wanted the board to reconsider the July 12 toll road vote tonight, but the agenda says the board will vote on whether to set a public hearing on the changes. Slusher, who was on the losing side of the vote, and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez wanted a vote on rescinding the plan altogether. Slusher will have a chance to argue for a public hearing instead. McCracken, who voted for the plan, wants to remove tolls from three roads that were financed with tax dollars. He also wanted a vote tonight on amending the plan, rather than setting another hearing. Last night, McCracken said, “ Senator (Gonzalo) Barrientos has taken the position that my amendment, and the one by Council Member Slusher and Representative Rodriguez, have to be posted for a public hearing — from his reading of the CAMPO rules. He’s the chair, so he has the prerogative to make those determinations.” Asked if he thought his proposal would win a majority of votes tonight, McCracken replied, “I don’t know. It’s very fluid at the moment. I think the vast majority of the CAMPO board opposes tolls on roads that have been paid for.” He said he would vote in favor of a hearing on the Slusher proposal, even though he opposes rescinding the entire plan . . . Also tonight. . . The Historic Preservation Task Force is meeting at 5:30pm in Room 240 of One Texas Center, and the Historic Landmark Commission will meet in Room 500 of the same building at 7pm. The Design Commission will start its meeting at 5:45pm in the Eleventh Floor Conference Room of One Texas Center.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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