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City trying to stop South Austin festival

Friday, September 3, 2004 by

Festival promoters seek injunction to prevent city from revoking permit

Last night was a perfect night to boogie on South Congress, with balmy temperatures, rock music, and the aroma of grilling shrimp in the garden at Güero’s Taco Bar. But Güero’s owner Rob Lippincott was too worried and unhappy to enjoy the delightful smells and upbeat music. On Thursday morning, he and his partner Tom Seeley, learned that the City of Austin—which issued a street closure permit for their South Austin Labor Day Festival, scheduled to begin Saturday—might withdraw the permit, preempting all festival plans.

In response to the City’s actions, Lippincott and Seeley’s partnership, South Austin Production Company, filed suit in district court yesterday, seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from taking back its permits to close streets during the three-day festival. Visiting Judge Pete Lowry, who retired after serving many years on the district court bench, is hearing the case, which will continue this morning in the 98th District Court. Lippincott said he and Seeley have spent $20,000 to $25,000 on advertising and recruiting music groups and vendors. A full-page color ad in this week’s Austin Chronicle promises major local names Del Castillo, Vallejo, Grupo Fantasma, Sis Deville and the Cornell Hurd Band, among others. Fifty percent of event profits are earmarked for the Save South Congress Association, he said.

Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman told In Fact Daily that a city ordinance requires street closures to be approved by 80 percent of surrounding property owners, including neighborhood groups. SRCC had voted to oppose the festival, but a city employee calculating approval did not know that their vote had to be counted, Huffman explained. According to a memo Huffman sent to the City Council yesterday, the city granted a street closure permit to festival promoters on August 25, 2004. “It has come to our attention that this permit was issued in error and that the 80 percent agreement of affected parties has not been attained,” her memo said “Specifically, the South River City Citizens ( SRCC) Neighborhood Association opposed the closure and was not calculated properly when the permit was issued.”

Last night Huffman said, “We just got our code interpretation on Wednesday. Sage White, a retired assistant city attorney, represented the neighborhood association, not as a lawyer but as a member. The SRCC’s complaint caused the city to take a second look at the ordinance, Huffman said; White provided her own interpretation of the ordinance.

Huffman’s memo goes on to say that the city would schedule a meeting between the neighborhood association and festival organizers. “If we cannot reach agreement—the street closure permit will be withdrawn.”

Speaking on behalf of the SRCC, Jean Mather told In Fact Daily : “The problem is that when you’re closing Congress Avenue—(festival promoters) said people will go down South First and I-35. But if you only have two blocks to get around, you’re going to go down Nickerson or Eva,” both of which are narrow residential side streets. “The noise is another problem,” she added. “First they told us it might be 5,000 to 10,000, but the numbers keep going up.”

According to Lippincott, Transportation, Planning and Sustainability Department Director Austan Librach called him and other festival promoters to a meeting with the SRCC on [Thursday] – just 48 hours before the festival was scheduled to begin. A neighborhood representative told Lippincott that the SRCC wanted the festival moved from 1400 block of South Congress, in front of Guero’s Taco Bar, to the Congress Avenue Bridge and the area just south of the bridge. However, Lippincott said that idea was impractical at such a late date. Festival promoters have already planned their event based on the location advertised. Furthermore, the SRCC’s proposed alternative features no shaded areas.

Since festival promoters and the neighborhood association did not reach an agreement, representatives of the city announced they would rescind the festival permit. That’s when Lippincott, Seeley, and the South Austin Production Company contacted attorney Joe Longley, who filed for the temporary restraining order. Meanwhile, Huffman said last night, “We’re going to work up until the last minute to try to find a solution for both groups.”

Council approves Walgreen's/ Maria's plan

After more than three hours of testimony and discussion, the City Council voted to rezone property close to the intersection of South Lamar and Bluebonnet Lane this morning. That change would allow Walgreen’s to relocate a nearby store to that location. It would also provide a permanent home for Maria’s Taco Xpress next door, a motivating factor for many of the restaurant’s supporters to speak up for the zoning change. The Council voted 6-1, with Council Member Brewster McCracken voting no, on first reading only at approximately 1:20am.

The debate over a new Walgreen’s has run for more than a year and divided South Austin residents. The owner of 2409 S. Lamar is wants a zoning change from CS (commercial) and SF-3 (single-family) to LR (retail) and LO (office) to allow the construction of the new Walgreen's. As part of the plan, the company will assist Maria Corbolan by building a new home for the popular restaurant next door. And while almost all of the more than 180 people who signed up to speak on the item before the Council last night supported the restaurant, the crowd was split over whether allowing a Walgreen's was the best way to save it.

Corbolan begged the Council to approve the zoning change for the Walgreen's, saying it would provide her own business with a level of certainty that was vital for a small business owner. "If these guys (Walgreen's) leave, I don't have any guarantee like the neighborhood thinks," she said. "Pay attention to me. Don't leave me alone on this one." The complicated zoning issues, she said, have taken time away from running the restaurant. "I haven't been able to concentrate on my business. I probably should have listened to my mother and married a rich man," she joked.

Dozens of neighborhood residents praised the developer and his attorney, Steve Drenner, for their meetings with neighborhood groups. "I urge you to use common sense and approve this tonight," said Carl Newsome, a 33-year resident of Barton Hills.

More support for the zoning change came from nearby property owners who did not live in the area. Linda Wong Luther came from Salt Lake City to testify in favor of the Walgreen’s. "My sister and I own the 2.6 acres just behind Walgreen’s…that is a very large buffer that could be very nicely developed. We are the buffer between Lamar, the Walgreen’s and the neighborhood. My father bought this 30 years ago. We want to develop it. I am a developer. I have a master-planned development in Utah …the trend is a work-living space and that is what my sister and I would like to do. I have never had a buyer who would do so much to improve the neighborhood and work with us," she said. "Believe me, they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars," to work with the neighborhood, including the excess detention pond. "If we had a choice of the neighbor we want, we would choose Walgreen’s."

But some neighborhood residents decried the zoning change as an attempt to ram a cookie-cutter big-box store down the neighborhood's throat, using a beloved neighborhood landmark as a decoy. Jeff Jack of the Zilker Neighborhood Association noted that most of the speakers were there to save Maria’s—which he called a "Trojan Horse." He reminded the Council that the association, which is on the west side of Lamar across the street from the proposed Walgreen’s had voted to oppose the development. He warned that the drugstore would be a magnet for other chain stores, which would not bring the kind of mixed-use urban development he and his neighbors would like to have, on Lamar. Several other residents called for a mixed-use development on the site and criticized Walgreen's for refusing to consider the MU zoning designation as an option. Bluebonnet resident Sally Merritt told the Council they should reject the zoning change proposed by Walgreen’s so that the use for the property could be decided during the neighborhood planning process, which is scheduled to start in a few months.

The biggest complaint from residents concerned the impact that customers of the store would have on traffic on Bluebonnet Lane. That street, they said, is already overloaded and cannot not handle the additional cars that would certainly come with a new, 24-hour store. Attorney Steve Drenner countered that the company was willing to make improvements to Bluebonnet Lane as part of the development, and would install traffic control measures to limit customers turning onto Bluebonnet Lane when leaving the store. He added that the store is no “big box” at 14,000 square feet, and that it is 180 feet from Lamar, exactly where residents told Walgreen’s they wanted it.

Shortly after 1am, Council Member Betty Dunkerley moved to approve the requested zoning change on all three readings, but after comments from her fellow Council members amended her motion for first reading only. Council Member Raul Alvarez seconded the motion.

The Council requested additional information about traffic control measures for Bluebonnet Lane before the item comes back on September 30. The vote to approve on first reading was 6-1, with Council Member Brewster McCracken opposed. The company's design for the store, he said, did not fit the area. "If we hold Walgreen's feet to the fire, they will come back with a good design," he said. "These pad sites, they ruin the pedestrian scene in a neighborhood. It's the City Council's job to look at the bigger picture and not just view all these things on a store-by-store basis. If we're not the ones who are going to protect our core urban streets, who's going to do it? We've got to look out for the bigger picture in terms of our built environment."

UNO wins final Council blessing

Density, affordable housing stressed

The University Neighborhood Overlay won unanimous City Council approval Thursday night after months of debate among neighbors and some last minute changes to spur the development of more affordable housing near the University of Texas campus. The zoning overlay centered on the West Campus area allows for increased building heights, which is expected to lead to the construction or renovation of private dormitories.

"We want to get to a situation where students don't have to bring cars; they can walk to campus," said Mike McHone of the University Area Partners. "What happened here was the culmination of two and a half years of intense work with neighborhood groups."

At the core of the overlay district, along San Antonio Street, the maximum height for buildings would be 175 feet. The zoning ordinance is designed to gradually reduce building heights in the outlying parts of the district. Under a change approved on third and final reading Thursday night, property owners close to the outer boundaries of the district would be able to gain an additional 15 feet in height if they meet several conditions.

The first is to increase the number of units of available housing. The overlay plan only allows the maximum height for new multi-family developments if they set aside at least 10 percent of their units for residents who make less than 65 percent of the Median Family Income ( MFI) for the region. Another 10 percent of the units must be rented to residents who make less than 50 percent of the MFI. In the outlying parts of the overlay, property owners can gain extra height by offering an additional 10 percent of their units to residents who make 50 percent of the MFI. That provision could help the owners of the House of Tutors on West 24th Street, one of the most controversial tracts within the overlay area, develop the property according to their wishes.

Another change approved involves the amount of money developers can pay instead of providing affordable units within their projects. The fee in lieu of affordable development was increased to $ 0.50 per square foot of rentable area. That money would go into a trust fund administered by the Austin Housing Finance Corporation to help finance affordable housing projects in the West Campus Area.

"As a planning principle, what we're doing is consistent with the long-term goals of the city to have high density in certain areas," said Council Member Daryl Slusher. "If you can't do it in West Campus, where can you?" But Slusher also had questions about whether the policy would actually lead to the development of affordable housing as the density in the area increased.

"I firmly believe that this plan will allow us to have more affordable units," said Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Officer Paul Hilgers. "It is an enhancement to our existing Smart Housing Program. It reduces barriers to redevelopment, and property that exists in this neighborhood will now be able to be redeveloped with some of these entitlements. I don't believe that everyone will redevelop to maximum height or density, but I do believe that some folks will redevelop that have been waiting."

The overlay also includes exceptions to the usual parking requirements for multi-family structures and some commercial uses. Additional exceptions to the minimum parking requirements can be granted if a residential complex institutes a car-sharing program for its tenants.

The Council also went through several of the contested zoning cases related to the neighborhood plans for the West University and Hancock Neighborhoods. There are still a few remaining cases outstanding in both areas, which the Council will consider on September 30.

Firefighters watching . . . The City Council has not asked a lot of questions during budget presentations, so it is hard to project where they may want to add and cut. Firefighters are certainly wondering whether they will get the two percent public safety premium placed in the budget for them. Police officers will get the premium, but they have a contract with the city. The firefighters union won a collective bargaining vote, but they and city management have had a disagreement over whether and when that may occur. No Council meeting is scheduled for next week. The Council has scheduled meetings on September 13, 14 and 15 to vote on the budget. After that, they will take a break and return for a regular meeting on September 30 . . . Sematech spin-off approved for rebate . . . The Council yesterday authorized City Manager Toby Futrell to negotiate an economic development agreement with the proposed for-profit subsidiary Advanced Technology Development Facility. Frequent speaker Robert Singleton objected, and PODER Executive Director Susana Almanza said the Council should make sure that the facility, which will be in the Montopolis neighborhood, hires employees from the surrounding area. The city estimated incentives over a 10-year period would be about $7.3 million . . . Southwest Marketplace approved . . . The Council approved changes to the Forum PUD property on second and third reading, with only Council Member Brewster McCracken voting no . . . Appointments . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher reappointed Chad Williams to the Telecommunications Commission. By consensus, the Council appointed Juan Alcala to the Austin Community Education Consortium and reappointed Jeffrey Beckage to the Resource Management Commission. Matthew Harris was also reappointed by consensus to the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission . . . Postponed indefinitely . . . When an agenda item appears one week and is postponed to the next, there may be only a small problem. When an item is “postponed indefinitely,” it is dead. That is the case with the $50,000 contract proposed for Industrial/Organizational Solutions, Inc. “for police civil service assessment centers.” The contract had been recommended by the Austin Police Association, which made it unusual.

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