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Staff sings new tune for Rainey Street

Wednesday, September 8, 2004 by

Central Business District zoning with overlay recommended

After receiving a lot of negative feedback on its proposal for the Rainey Street Neighborhood, city staff has come up with a different approach, which includes changes to the Waterfront Overlay for the Rainey Street subdistrict similar to incentives used in the University Neighborhood Overlay. Although the new proposal calls for CBD ( Central Business District) zoning for all properties in the old enclave, landowners would be required to comply with the Great Streets Program, offer 10 percent affordable housing and adhere to Green Building standards in order to achieve the unlimited height normally offered for downtown business buildings.

If the response from those landowners who spoke at last night’s Zoning and Platting Commission hearing can be taken as representative, the new plan will have considerably more support on Rainey Street than the one that made the rounds a few weeks ago. It should also get a favorable response from the Downtown Commission, which made a lengthy study of the area and then recommended CBD, with the same sorts of incentives city staff is now recommending. ( See In Fact Daily, August 18, 2004.)

Greg Guernsey of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department explained that staff had previously recommended CS zoning, with height and density limitations. That did not sit well with many property owners, or with the Downtown Commission. The new recommendations, on the other hand, would give property owners more flexibility, eliminating compatibility standards and allowing unlimited height and FAR — but only if property owners follow city-prescribed criteria.

Rainey Street property owner Robert Knight said he was generally pleased with the new proposal. Knight sits on the Downtown Commission, but due to his conflicts of interest has recused himself from participation in that panel’s recommendations.

Knight explained, “This item has been on the Downtown Commission agenda for the past two years as its Number 1 priority. The goal is to seize the opportunity that this particular parcel of land represents as the one area of land that meets the goals that we say that we want in the City of Austin. You could have a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use area where we could live, work, recreate, all in one area. This is about 30 acres and this is about the only opportunity that we have to do something that could be done by one major developer who could do it under a master plan. The trick, of course, is to attract that master developer.”

“But if we set the bar too high, we’ll have an experience like Block 21” – meaning that too few developers will vie for the chance to develop the area. “Let’s make it easy to get it started.” He urged the ZAP to follow the recommendations of the Downtown Commission—simply zone the property CBD and then provide a second layer of incentives to encourage the kind of design standards the city favors.

But ZAP Commissioner Clarke Hammond said he was concerned about the precedent of changing the rules for property along Town Lake. Planner George Adams explained that different subdistricts within the Waterfront Overlay fall under different rules. So, rules for development along that section of the shore would not mean a change in rules along other parts.

Frank Curcio, president of the Towers of Town Lake Condominium Association, said he generally favors staff’s recommendations, but expressed some reservations about the possibility of unlimited height. His group would like to see the area designated as “river park district” or a “river walk district,” he said, adding that he and other condo dwellers are worried about the neighborhood, which is falling further and further into disrepair.

Long-time Rainey Street residents Robert Velasquez and Gene Sanchez said they support the CBD zoning designation. Sanchez said it is time for families to move out, as they are already subjected to overflow traffic and petty crime because of their proximity to the Convention Center. Brigid Shea, a former Council member who lived in the neighborhood from 1995 to 2001, said her neighbors had overwhelmingly voted for CBD. Because Rainey Street property owners cannot currently make a profit by selling their homes, she said, the neighborhood continues its process of deterioration.

Baker asked how many of the 37 homes are owner-occupied. Velasquez said possibly 11.

Only Craig Nasso, who moved into a non-historic house in 1995, said he opposed the CBD zoning. “I don’t support destroying a historic district,” he said. Nasso said he did not intend to sell his property, or use it for anything that would be compatible with the business district designation.

The new proposal, like the one before it, suggests that one or more of the older homes on Rainey Street be relocated to lots on Rainey Street or on River Street near the Mexican-American Cultural Center. The neighborhood, which developed before the turn of the last century, was designated a National Register Historic District in 1985. However, the houses themselves have not been designated historic by the city. Many are in disrepair and would not withstand a move.

Planners said perhaps the city would buy land and move the homes. Commissioner Keith Jackson found that scenario particularly hard to imagine. He scoffed at the idea that a city struggling to make budget ends meet would take on such a task.

After taking a break, Commission Chair Betty Baker said she preferred to have the recommendations of all the other commissions being asked to screen the proposal before the ZAP makes any zoning recommendations to the City Council. In February, the Council directed staff to conduct a comprehensive study of the area and gather comments from each of the following: the Downtown Commission, the Design Commission, the Mexican American Cultural Center Advisory Board, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and the Historic Landmark Commission. All of their suggestions were supposed to be forwarded to the ZAP for a zoning recommendation to the Council. Staff plans to bring the plans to those commissions, as well as the Planning Commission, within the next two weeks.

The ZAP will hold a specially called meeting on the matter on Thursday, September 16.

Airport panel rejects parking fee hike

Last night the Airport Advisory Commission rejected a proposal from city staff to charge a 10 percent fee on the gross receipts of two existing off-site parking operations. Instead, the panel said, the parking lot operators should pay fees gradually increasing to four percent.

The parking fees are part of a $77 million Aviation Department budget. The fee increase for off-site parking operators would quadruple the fee currently paid, a move that one private parking facility owner blamed on the airport's inability to draw customers to its own on-site parking facilities.

Aviation Director Jim Smith made a budget presentation to the commission, saying the city was $2 million short on airport revenues. He called the fee hike a decision to be made at the city's discretion, accompanied by increases in other renegotiated fees from airport vendors.

"Ultimately, this is a policy decision, not a mechanical formula," Smith told the commissioners. "When it comes to what an off-site airport parking lot operator pays, some cities charge nothing. Others charge them 10 percent. It's up to the community to decide what balance of user fees they are going to put on each user."

Commissioner Mike Voticky, who articulated most of the commission’s arguments, disagreed with Smith's reasoning. He recommended, and the commissioners unanimously approved, a proposal that would ultimately double fees paid by private parking lots but still stay far below the 10 percent level.

One of the parking lot operators estimated that current fees–—at 15 cents per car, per space, per day—amount to about 2.75 percent of gross revenues. Voticky recommended a five-year contract, with the first year at 3 percent of gross receipts, followed by 3.5 percent the following two years, then 4 percent during the final two years of the contract.

Commissioners had plenty of questions about the city proposal — some of them suggested by attorney Michael Whellan, who represented FastPark at the hearing. Commissioners wanted to know how the private parking operator fees compared to other on-site vendors; whether lowering the city's own parking fees could increase revenue; and how much revenue would be generated if the increased fees were instituted. Smith said he had neither a cost analysis on the impact of changing the airport's own parking fees, nor an estimate of just how much the increased private parking fees would generate. The city had commissioned a $12,000 parking study by PB Aviation.

FastPark co-owner Michael Anderson, called the information in the parking study "bogus" and "fabricated." Anderson said he had to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a copy of the city's own traffic study. While he came to negotiate in good faith, the city came to the table without a willingness to negotiate, Anderson said.

Anderson said he already pays between 15 and 16 percent in total taxes on his Austin location. That's the second-highest among his seven lots, only behind a poorly performing facility in Memphis. Most of FastPark's parking lots pay between 10 and 15 percent in total taxes. Any fees would be on top of property taxes he already pays, Anderson continued. It made no sense to him that someone off-site with the cost of a facility would pay 10 percent, while shuttle services were only charged 7 percent of revenues.

In making his proposal, Commissioner Voticky labeled as weak the city's argument that off-site parking lot operators only existed because of the airport's existence. Two gas stations across the street – and even the local strip club – could be taxed under the same argument.

The real problem, Voticky added, is that the off-site parking is much more competitive than the city’s own lots, and offers better service. Raising fees on off-site operators would only hurt consumers, who would just as soon drive to other cities if airplane ticket prices become too high.

The city has raised other fees at the airport, including fees for landing, terminal aprons and terminal equipment to the airlines. The passenger facility fee has increased from $3 to $4.50 per ticket. And the city renegotiated contracts with vendors to raise percentages: up to 15 percent on food, 17.5 percent on alcohol and 15 percent on news, books, and magazines. In return, the city is guaranteeing current vendors a five-year contract extension.

Voticky recycled one of his earlier proposals to raise income: raise the cost of parking for on-site non-city employees. The airport has 2,000 parking spaces. At $20 per employee per month, the city could raise an extra $300,000 in revenue, he said.

Austin still congested . . . Texas A&M’s Texas Transportation Institute has once again ranked Austin as the mid-sized city with the longest traffic delays. The full report is available on-line at Mayor Will Wynn says the study shows a need to use several different techniques to reduce congestion, including both toll roads, commuter rail, and changing land-use patterns. "For 30 years, we didn't do a good job of addressing our growing traffic issues at the time," he said. "I understand those are difficult choices to make, and sometimes they're painful and not politically popular. But our inactivity in the past is why we're stuck in this traffic crisis today, and I'm determined

not to make that mistake ". . . Meanwhile, there are rumors, at least, that more than a few of the CAMPO board members who voted “yes” on the toll road plan in July would like to change their votes. Next Monday, the CAMPO board will meet again, with members on both sides planning to put forth amendments. Robert’s Rules of Order, which just sits on the bookshelf most of the time, is being consulted at length this week, we hear . . . Airport amusements still in negotiation . . . The Department of Aviation continues to negotiate with a go-cart business interested in land adjacent to the airport. Charles Gates told the Airport Advisory Commission last night the two sides were still negotiating over the insurance requirements . . . Meetings . . . The Historic Preservation Task Force is scheduled to meet at 5:30pm in Room 240 of One Texas Center. They will continue the thorny task of figuring out how the city can bring in more tax revenue without discouraging preservation of truly historic buildings . . . The Telecommunications Commission and the Music Commission will hold a joint meeting at 6:30pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The commissions are scheduled to make a recommendation to the Council Committee for Telecommunications Infrastructure on management and operation of Channel 15 as a regional, arts, music and entertainment channel.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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