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Design group sees contradictions in Rainey plan

Wednesday, October 6, 2004 by

Staff given impossible instructions, says commission

After serious consideration, the Design Commission has concluded that the City Council gave city planners a contradictory set of instructions when they asked them to come up with new design guidelines and zoning for the Rainey Street area.

Looking at the complex guidelines and proposals for forcing developers to comply with those guidelines in order to get CBD (Central Business District) zoning, the commission tried to look at the scheme from a pragmatic viewpoint. So, their feedback was less about the viability of a historic neighborhood and more about the feasibility of the city's zoning strategy.

Such a discussion is not a simple one, especially for a panel of experienced design professionals. Most of the members of the commission have extensive experience as subcontractors on city projects. And Monday night's review of city staff recommendations came three hours into a meeting that also included the approval of the final version of the commission's proposed rewrite of its own ordinance.

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the new vision statement was followed by some actual insight into whether proposed design guidelines could work. One of the Design Commission's major concerns over the last couple of years has been the city's reticence to bring its own projects to the Design Commission for review.

So, in the kindest way possible, the members of the Design Commission said the city's proposed design guidelines would face some serious obstacles. City staff members have made no secret of the fact that the design guidelines proposed for Rainey Street were broad, sometimes requiring further work in particular areas. The Design Commission's recommendations point to some of the problem areas within the plan.

An initial cover letter for Design Commission's position actually was scrapped and put on the table for a rewrite at the meeting on Monday night. Commissioner Girard Kinney said he considered the Council's resolution to city staff to be flawed, based on goals that neither city staff nor members or the Design Commission could support. Preservation of trees and the historic character of the neighborhood are inherently in conflict with goals of the high-density development expected in the Rainey Street neighborhood, Kinney said.

"Staff is trying to respond to that difficult position," said Kinney, going on to say the subcommittee's recommendations were not what they should be. "We have compromised on a lot of things that we feel are important. They actually make it harder to achieve the development goals that we think should happen in this neighborhood."

The Design Commission spent the next two hours pulling apart the specifics of the zoning recommendations. For instance, the commission had an extended discussion on whether the proposed 10-foot street front setback to accommodate the Great Streets program was actually feasible. Some commissioners had strong doubts, saying that it would be impossible to incorporate both Great Streets and traditional parking.

Some commissioners wanted to go even further, to suggest only regional parking worked for some of the narrow thoroughfares in the Rainey Street neighborhood.

The commission also was inclined to offer unlimited floor-to-area ratios and uncap height requirements. Commissioner Phil Reed noted it was almost impossible to make the economics of the projects work without more intense density than that imagined by the city. With two levels of garage parking, the 60-foot height limitation becomes 30 feet. Suddenly the developer has three floors or less to create an economically viable project.

"This is a really complicated thing, and I've brought it up with (Planner) George (Adams) and others. It's hard to really grasp that there is a fatal contradiction here," Reed said. "If we say we're going to require all these things we want, like trees and setbacks and living units, then the results are that we need to create a certain number of square feet at a certain per- dollar cost for these things like parking spaces. You put together something that is so difficult that it becomes a beautiful model that will never get built."

Reed said the only exception he could imagine would be a developer who could afford to amass enough land to lend density to it. Realistically, small developers will put projects on the ground incrementally at Rainey Street, Reed said.

In areas where the commission had questions about the staff's assumptions – such as limits on stepbacks and setbacks – the commission took no position and recommended further study by staff.

In other areas, the Design Commission disagreed with staff recommendations. For instance, staff has recommended a 30-foot setback from the top of Waller Creek. After some parsing of words, the commission voted for development within the 30-foot setback on the bank.

Planner Pollyanne Melton, liaison for the commission, clarified other areas. For instance, city staff recommended cocktail bars as a conditional use because residential development was considered a top priority and not the creation of another entertainment district. Alleys are preserved to allow for service areas for delivery trucks to restaurants and businesses.

Commissioner Ellie McKinney was most concerned about the Waterfront Overlay District, saying she wanted to see a full study of the Central Business District zoning on the waterfront overlay. McKinney said the massing and stepbacks from Waller Creek and Town Lake were both serious issues with the higher density.

Ultimately the Design Commission supports projects in the Rainey Street neighborhood where every development would have more units than the number of houses currently on Rainey Street. Guidelines also encourage mid-block extensions along streets in order to "punch through" large buildings and create a passageway for pedestrians.

In a draft version of a letter dated yesterday, the commission also cited concerns with staff recommendations relating to the size of blocks, parking, building massing, open space and planting requirements.

City Council was scheduled to hear recommendations on Rainey Street this week. That's now been pushed back to the October. 21

Candidates agree: Robin Hood must go

Education debate: Stick v. Strama and White v. Baxter Hearing tonight

The topic was education, but at Tuesday night’s forum among local candidates for Texas House of Representatives, the conversation managed to spill over into the hot button areas of campaign finance, ethics, and redistricting.

District 50 candidates Mark Strama (D) and Jack Stick (R-incumbent), and District 48 candidates Kelly White (D) and Todd Baxter (R-incumbent) answered questions and traded barbs over education issues in a forum at the Austin Independent School District headquarters.

Candidates were given a set of questions ahead of time, and some questions from the audience were added into the mix. All four agreed in principle that the state’s Robin Hood finance system is a failure, but differed sharply on what to do about it.

White, a political newcomer, said that state cutbacks in funding for public education have been disastrous for students and school districts. “We are not even treading water, we’re going under,” she said, adding that the state’s cuts are forcing increases in local property taxes and hurting property owners. She added that the state needs to do more than just fund an adequate education, it must fund schools that strive for excellence.

In response, Baxter said he supported the recent court ruling forcing the state to correct school funding problems, and to continue to improve accountability in the way school funds are spent. “The only thing that many school districts can do under the current situation is cut programs, and that is wrong for the students and wrong for the future of Texas.” He called for the governor to convene a special session of the Legislature immediately after the November election to deal with school finance issues “as a precursor to the next session.”

Stick’s challenger, Strama, accused the Republican majority in the Texas House of playing partisan politics over redistricting while school finance reform was ignored. “At this same forum two years ago, we heard promises that they were going to close up tax loopholes, raise the state’s share of school funding and stop letting some people skate by without contributing their fair share.” he said. “But as we know, nothing happened.” He added that there must be steps taken to ease property taxes.

Incumbent Stick called for a “top-to-bottom performance review” of how overall education funding is spent before he could recommend how much money the state should be providing for education. “We need to know how effectively the money is being spent so we can balance the competing interests,” he said. Stick also called for taxes on items like beer, alcohol and cigarettes to be channeled into education.

Dropped in between the education comments were some jabs between the candidates.

In her opening remarks, White repeated her request that Baxter return contributions from T exans for a Republican Majority PAC, claiming that the incumbent had been elected with “tainted funds.” Three TRM-PAC fundraisers and several corporations have been indicted in connection with alleged campaign law violations and money laundering. White repeated her request that he return the money or give it to an appropriate charity. Baxter did not respond but charged White with failing to file financial records on time with the Texas Ethics Commission. White said that while she was a “rookie politician” and did file the material late, it was only by a matter of two hours and was corrected. She accused Baxter and Stick of working for (U.S. House Majority Leader) Tom DeLay instead of the people that elected them.

The candidates generally agreed on increasing teacher pay but differed on how best to hold teachers and schools accountable. They also split on incentive pay for teachers with Stick calling for incentive pay based on performance and Strama calling for factors other than student performance to be used in evaluating teachers. White commented that incentives should not even be considered until the state can find a way to fully fund education at an appropriate level.

Other topics included funding levels for higher education and the recent spate of problems with charter schools in the state. The event was sponsored by the Austin Council of PTA’s, the Association of Texas Professional Educators Austin Chapter, the Austin Classroom Teachers Association, the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association District 13, and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Sandy Dochen moderated the forum.

Task force still wrestling with tax questions

Hearing tonight on proposals for historic ordinance changes

The numbers may be clearer with the help of the city's Budget Office, but the Historic Preservation Task Force has yet to arrive at a solution to resolving the issue of grandfathering current tax abatements on historic residential properties. The task force has been grappling with just how to maintain current tax abatements, given the plea from owners of historic properties that the tax abatements were crucial to their finances. The current level of commercial property abatements would remain untouched under the proposed ordinance.

A hearing on the proposed historic preservation ordinance is scheduled for tonight at 6pm at the Austin Energy Building. Monday night, Jason Batchelor of the Budget Office provided the task force with firmer numbers on the impact of the ordinance, both as a whole and on specific properties. Based on the proposed assumptions, rolling back tax abatements would bring another $62,000 to the city's coffers in returned taxes. An earlier estimate had pegged the change as negligible. City projections use current property values and the current tax rate. Residential exemptions would be 50 percent for land, and 100 percent for structures—as they are now, but would be capped at the lesser of 50 percent of the city tax levy, or $2,000. Commercial exemptions would remain unchanged, at 25 percent for land and 50 percent for structures.

City staff had recommended that tax exemptions be reduced to 100 percent for the value of the house and 25 percent for the value of the land for residential structures. Staff also proposed a reduction in tax abatements for commercial properties, leaving the exemption at 50 percent of the value of the structure but eliminating the exemption on the land.

The Budget Office's calculations also assumed 15 new residential properties and four commercial properties would enter the system each year. That's a drop from current levels of 20-25 additional houses a year. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said the figure was not scientific but was based on a reasonable expectation that the number of properties making it through the process would drop with the more stringent criteria suggested under the proposed ordinance. According to statistics compiled by city staff, current exemptions abate $336,731 in taxes for commercial properties and $677,109 for residential property.

Batchelor said the new caps would not affect 70 percent of the properties currently labeled by the city as historic. Those people would see no change in a tax bill or an exemption rate. The exemption cap of $2,000 would affect the Top 50 most valuable properties. With the limitations, the tax bills would go up by $1,155 for the 50 affected parcels.

Overall, the average property tax exemption for the 172 residential parcels currently zoned historic would drop from $1,820 to $1,484. If an average of the total were used, the average property tax revenue collected would change from $348 to $684 per residential parcel.

To stimulate some discussion, Commissioner Terre O'Connell suggested a variety of approaches: a gradual reduction in abatement levels; putting all properties back on the table to go through the new landmark process; putting a time limit on abatements; or making the granting of abatements a competitive process to "divvy up" a limited pot of money.

No vote was taken, but most commissioners opposed many of those options. Even O'Connell said she did not support some of them but simply wanted to start discussion.

The group also briefly discussed figures that placed an estimate of abatements for improvements at $500,000 over the next 10 years. O'Connell considered that figure a bit high, given that the proposal was to freeze tax value on approved improvements, rather than a freeze on taxes for the entire property. The Budget Office offered to complete further research on the issue to address just how that figure was calculated.

O'Connell did make a more serious effort to align the age on designations and abatements. Under the current proposal, a landmark can be granted on buildings at least 50 years old, but abatements would not apply to buildings any newer than 75 years old. O'Connell argued for consistency. Chair Betty Baker was more comfortable closing the door on the pool of homes that would be 50 years old but would never qualify as historic.

O'Connell argued that most of the houses that are between 50 and 75 years old that have qualified for historic designation in recent months were worthy of the honor, citing the Briones House on 7th Street, which was built in 1952. She said that the bar clearly was set high, and that the newer properties that were designated historic had proven their worth.

Baker was swayed enough to suggest some exceptions to the rules, possibly a highly outstanding house by an well-known architect that is just 60 years old. Ex-Officio Member Laurie Limbacher, who serves on the Historic Landmark Commission, countered that exceptions would only muddy the water when the intention was to set clear expectations. In the interest of time, Baker cut off discussion, saying that O'Connell didn't have the four votes necessary to change the standards under the proposed ordinance. O'Connell withdrew her motion, with the intention of bringing it up at a future meeting.

Eastside group to fight rail ‘misinformation’ A coalition of Eastside activists on Tuesday vowed to go door-to-door to spread their message in support of Capital Metro's commuter rail proposition. Members of the new political action committee, called Adelante Metro, said their efforts were necessary to counter misinformation being spread about the impact of the plan to run passenger trains from Leander to the Austin Convention Center on existing tracks.

"There are some myths out there that need to be dismissed," said Travis County Commissioner Margaret Gomez, who is serving as the group's treasurer. "One is that housing will be razed. That is not going to happen."

Joining Gomez was East Austin resident Johnny Limon, who said the rail proposal would not harm existing businesses on the east side. "I guarantee you that every single one of us that's up here today will be there and fight with you and stand with you if ever any entity would ever want to go and demolish your home or your business because of this commuter rail—because that is not a true fact," he said. "Our purpose is to educate our relatives, our friends, our community that we need to do something about the traffic now and this commuter rail is one of the first steps in doing that."

The tracks chosen for the commuter rail service run through East Austin, past Plaza Saltillo, before coming to an end downtown. Business owner Cathy Vasquez-Revilla said the influx of new people would mean new customers, which would in turn lead to increased availability of services and housing near the rail line. "We believe that the commuter rail will promote economic vitality, create economic opportunities for minority-owned small businesses, and create jobs," she said. "The small businesses and restaurants will enjoy a much deserved economic boost because of an expanded client base, new residents, construction workers, and visitors to revitalize the area." She also predicted there would be improvements in the neighborhood's infrastructure that would come with new development, including new sidewalks and underground utility improvements.

Vasquez-Revilla and Limon also praised the impact that the commuter rail would have on traffic in East Austin. For Limon, the benefit would be a reduction in the number of drivers cutting through his neighborhood to get downtown. "If we can put those people on the train without them having to bring their vehicles into the downtown area, that's automatically going to cut back on the traffic that already exists in my community," he said. For Vasquez-Revilla, the primary benefit would be improved access for Eastside residents to major employment centers including downtown, and Highland Mall.

The group is holding its first fund raiser tomorrow at Nuevo Leon from 5:30- 7:30pm. On Friday, members will hold their first weekly meeting at Juan in a Million starting at 5:30pm.

Endorsements for Strama . . . The Austin Association of Professional Firefighters, T ravis County Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Association and the Fraternal Order of the Police, Texas State Lodge will hold a press conference this morning to endorse Democrat Mark Strama for State Representative, District 50. The press conference is set for 10am on the public sidewalk in front of Austin Fire Station #40, 12711 Harris Glen . . . Happy news . . . Veronica Briseño, aide to Council Member Raul Alvarez, has a new diamond ring. She and boyfriend Sal Lara became engaged over the weekend. No date is set for the wedding . . . Meetings tonight . . . The city task force on historic preservation, which has been meeting for nearly a year to come up with proposals for changing the way this city designates historic landmarks and the tax abatements granted the owners of those landmarks, will hold a hearing tonight on proposed changes to the ordinance. The hearing will begin at 6pm at Town Lake Center on Barton Springs Road . . . Also tonight . . . Both the Environmental Board and the Water and Wastewater Commission are also scheduled to meet tonight at 6pm, with the former meeting and Room 325 of One Texas Center and the latter meeting at Waller Creek Center. . . Attorney Steve Drenner is seeking amendments to the ordinance for a planned unit development (PUD) at the Davenport Ranch known as Gables Residential. Consultant Sarah Crocker is once again representing the owner of a boat dock on Lake Austin. Those are the only items on the Environmental Board agenda tonight . . . The Water and Wastewater Commission is scheduled to discuss an amendment to a wastewater cost reimbursement agreement with the owners of the Wild Horse Ranch development. Developers wish to add about 100 acres to their development and construct an additional 27-inch wastewater main for the property, which says east of Decker Lane and North of Lindell Lane . . . A subcommittee of the Environmental Board will meet at 9:30am on the 4th Floor Conference Room B (Room 410) at One Texas Center to discuss the proposed Barton Springs Mitigation Policy.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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