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Walgreens,Taco Xpress plan wins final zoning approval

Friday, October 1, 2004 by

Complex plan result of lengthy negotiations with neighborhood

The long and complicated saga of a funky South Austin taqueria has come to a happy ending—not just for taco lovers, but apparently for everyone involved. The Austin City Council gave its final approval Thursday night to a rezoning request that allows Maria’s Taco Xpress and Walgreens Drug Store to cohabit the property at 2409 South Lamar. The plan permits Walgreens to build on the site that currently houses Taco Xpress in a leased building. An agreement will allow the drug mart to erect its own building on that site, and—as a part of the deal that proved irresistible—build Taco Xpress owner Maria Corbalan a permanent home for her business.

After the vote, Corbalan broke with the usual Council chamber decorum and shouted, “Yeah!” She took the podium, thanking Council members, neighborhood association members and anyone else within earshot. “I’m very happy that we finally have this done,” she said. “This has been going on way too long, about three years now. I’m glad we were able to work things out with the neighborhood. I hope they have the prettiest Walgreens in South Austin!”

Steve Drenner, attorney for Walgreens, was a bit more sedate, but equally pleased. “We are happy with the agreement,” he said. “We appreciate the hard work that the people in the neighborhood put in to working with us on this.”

The issue has bandied about the Council agenda since July, undergoing several changes and delays. The Zilker Neighborhood Association opposed the initial plan for Walgreens, expressing concerns over traffic on Bluebonnet Lane, the amount of asphalt and a 24-hour drive-through window. The same group successfully fought the company’s first attempt to get a zoning change on the property in 2003.

This year, neighbors also objected to the nature of a boxy commercial franchise business in an area with numerous “home-grown” small businesses, worried that the Walgreens would change the neighborhood’s character. That led to negotiations between the parties, which spawned the idea of the drugstore sharing the same site as the taqueria.

The final compromise agreement between the neighborhood, Walgreens and Corbalan had several caveats:

• That vehicular access along Bluebonnet Lane be of limited function, and prohibit right turns out of the property on to Bluebonnet.

• That a three-page document outlining standards on exterior lighting be entered into the city file for future reference.

Council members seemed happy to get the long-standing issue off their agenda, but Daryl Slusher had doubts about the prohibition of right turns onto Bluebonnet. “I want go on record that people who want to turn right are going to see the sign telling them ‘no,’ and they are going to wonder: ‘Who thought of this?’” That said, Slusher joined the rest of the Council in approving the deal with a 7-0 vote.

Corbalan said she was ready to get back into making tacos on a full-time basis, adding that construction on her new building should take about a year. “I hope to be opening up my new restaurant by Christmas of next year, ” she said.

City agrees to deal with Austin Music Partners

Staff will handle final details of contract for Channel 15

The Austin Music Partners (AMP) have received the City Council’s blessing to proceed with their plans to launch a regional TV network focusing on Austin music. The Council voted unanimously on Thursday to allow the City Manager to negotiate and execute a contract with AMP to provide programming on cable Channel 15, which has been the home of the Austin Music Network.

The city's contract with the Kenneth Threadgill Music Project to run AMN expired on Thursday. However, music video programming is scheduled to continue today on Channel 15, either under an agreement with Austin Community Television or through the efforts of Channel 6. It was unclear on Thursday whether the final interim agreement with ACTV had been signed, although the parties had been negotiating during the past few weeks. City management had a backup plan to allow the network to continue broadcasting temporarily with the assistance of Channel 6 employees.

The Council spent much of the morning portion of its meeting hammering out the final details of the new AMP contract. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman pressed for more specific definitions, including a tighter definition of what would qualify as "local music.” The initial definition would have applied that label to musicians or performances recorded within a 12-county region. "That's one I have a little difficulty with," Goodman said. "This is to enhance our economic development. Although I know good musicians come from all around, I'm thinking they should head closer to us before we use our resources." The contract was revised to specifically exclude San Antonio from being considered part of the Austin area and to add definitions of "local artist,” "local music,” and "local entertainment.”

Several other changes and clarifications kept Assistant City Attorney Sonny Hood busy altering the document. Goodman wanted all interested parties, including citizens attending the meeting, to have access to the final language before the vote. She also asked City Manager Toby Futrell to bring the contract back to the Council for review in the event of further changes before both parties sign the document.

"It's been a long journey, but it's terrific," said Connie Wodlinger of AMP after the vote. "The work just gets started, now. The city retains all of the equipment and everything that goes with AMN right now, so we'll be starting from scratch and putting it all together. There isn't a successful model for this channel, but we hope to create one."

Wodlinger said AMP plans to be on the air by the start of February 2005. Under the deal, the city will retain the rights to the name "Austin Music Network,” but AMP will be allowed to use the phrase " Austin Music and Arts Channel." AMP will also have to pay $100,000 to ACTV in the form of a 12-month, pro-rated grant within 150 days of executing the contract with the city, or within 30 days of assuming control of Channel 15.

The contract further outlines that AMP's control over the channel comes at no cost to the city and is intended to be entirely self-supporting. The city will receive ten 30-second commercials on the network each day as a means of promoting tourism and special events. Given the expanded coverage promised by AMP, the city estimated the value of those promotional spots at $2.8 million over the length of the deal.

The contract is set to run through August 31, 2012, an unusually long term for a contract with the city. Wodlinger has previously explained that the long term for the deal was necessary to secure outside investors to help cover the start-up costs associated with a new network, including the purchasing of equipment and studio space and hiring new personnel. AMP has the right to request two contract extensions of three years each.

Council approves money for parking garage evaluation

Citizen advisors say, 'I told you so'

Council members were lectured by one current and one former member of the Airport Advisory Commission on Thursday as they approved a $300,000 contract with an Illinois-based company to study problems at the parking garage at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

"This is a request to hire an engineering firm to assist a law firm that we've hired to review and potentially prepare for a lawsuit that we may get involved with relative to the parking garage," explained Aviation Department Director Jim Smith. That potential for litigation resulted in a lengthy executive session on the matter, but limited the Council's discussion of the contract in open session. M.W. Builders of Temple, TX built the garage between 1998 and 1999.

Construction Technology Laboratories, Inc. of Skokie, Illinois will be responsible for evaluating the parking garage, which has been showing signs of distress, and determine what repairs are needed along with the likely cost. In addition, the company is charged with advising the city regarding the best course of action for recovering the cost of those repairs.

Current Airport Advisory Commission Chair Hannah Riddering and former Airport Advisory Board Member Diana Castenada signed up to speak on the item. Both women told the Council they had previously warned of problems with the structure, but their complaints had been ignored. "The Board had discovered some cracks in the parking garage…we spoke to you about some of the issues about the parking garage structure. We brought this to you and the staff, and the staff just brushed us off," complained Castenada. "What I'm here to do today is to shake my finger at you, and tell you, 'we told you so,' about these issues regarding the parking garage." Riddering took a gentler tone with the Council, focusing her complaints on the lack of notification to the Airport Advisory Commission about the matter. "We need to do this," she said of the contract with Construction Technology Laboratories. "I just hope it's not going to cost the citizens of Austin millions and millions of dollars." She also told Council Members she had warned of problems with the structure. "These are things that I've been trying to bring to everyone's attention for five years," she said.

But city staffers told Council Members that the problems outlined by Riddering and Castenada were not the subjects of the current investigation. The cracks spotted five years ago, explained Assistant City Attorney David Peterson, were normal features related to expansion joints in the concrete structure. Those are joints designed to give the concrete room to expand and contract with changes in temperature. "This is a completely different issue, this is a completely different topic than the problems we briefed you on earlier. The expansion joints are not part of this study and are not part of the problems that we are seeking to address," said Peterson. “The issues Ms. Riddering is referring to primarily relate to expansion joints, and not the problems that we perceived."

Riddering, although not an engineer, is satisfied with that explanation. "We have always talked about not just the expansion joints," she said after the unanimous vote to approve the contract.

Although Council Members had limited comment during the discussion phase, Council Member Danny Thomas did express a desire to have the Airport Advisory Commission receive some type of briefing on the parking garage at their next meeting. City Manager Toby Futrell replied that type of briefing would be difficult, due to the possible litigation. "But at the next Advisory Board meeting, I'd appreciate some discussion on the expansion joint issue so they understand what that is," she said.

TxDOT promises solution for Wells Branch

Wells Branch residents could soon find out whether the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) can resolve a future commuting dilemma posed by the North Loop 1 toll road. Residents have complained for almost two years that the planned placement of a toll booth just north of Parmer Lane on MoPac would force them to either exit at Parmer and sit in long lines of congested traffic, or pay a toll to drive just a few blocks.

On Thursday, TxDOT District Engineer Bob Daigh told Texas Transportation Commission board members that the agency was working to resolve the problem by the time the Central Texas Turnpike project opens. “We are evaluating a number of possible improvements at this location,” said Daigh. “They include adding lanes to the frontage roads themselves, the possible addition of turnaround structures . . . and the possibility of adding flyovers.” TxDOT is studying every possible alternative, and hopes to decide what to do in the next few months, he said.

Added Board Chairman Ric Williamson, “The last thing we want to do is create a congestion problem as we are trying to solve one.”

Daigh says he’s comfortable that one option from among those under study showed promise in being sufficient to solve the problem without delaying the overall toll road project.

State Rep. Jack Stick, who has championed the neighborhood’s cause, praised TxDOT for its work to find a solution. “(The issue) is affecting home prices,” he said. “It’s affecting the values of the homes that are there. And it’s affecting whether or not people are willing to move into the area. It’s going to have a serious effect on economic development in the area.”

Williamson agreed to meet with Daigh next week to get a closer look at the options for the intersection. Daigh added that toll road funds would not be used to pay for any improvements to the intersection.

In other business affecting Central Texas, commissioners approved construction of the southeast leg of State Highway 45, between I-35 and US 183 South. Planners hope to eventually combine SH45 and SH130 to form a complete outer loop around the city, an idea that some Austinites have battled for decades. .

UNO work continues . . . Although residents who have participated in the University area's Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan are more than ready to move on with their lives, zoning of individual properties continues to present the City Council with thorny problems. Yesterday, the majority of the cases within the plan area set for a vote were postponed, either at the request of the property owner or neighborhood residents — or both. After several months of negotiations, attorneys for property owners along Hampton Road and Red River thought they had reached a final agreement. But a spokesman for some other neighbors said they had not been included in the negotiations, and opposed the plans others had agreed upon. The question of what to do about a disagreement between a West M L K property owner and his neighbors was also postponed so that attorney Nikelle Meade can have a week to try to settle the dispute . . . Doggett to announce federal assistance for minority businesses . . . Austin Congressman Lloyd Doggett, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, will hold a press conference at 2pm today along with representatives of the Austin Community Development Corp. to announce federal funding for businesses in low-income areas. He will make the announcement at the lobby of Reyna Insurance (2007 East 7th Street). . . . East Austin planning discussion . . . The Design Commission’s East Seventh Street Corridor Planning Committee will meet from 12 to 1:30pm today at 1801 North Lamar, the office of Juan Cotera and Phillip Reed. The two architects serve on the commission . . . On Saturday, volunteers will gather at Plaza Saltillo in East Austin beginning around 8:30am to participate in a community cleanup along the proposed urban commuter rail corridor. Volunteers will be assigned to pickup litter along streets and alleyways between East 6th Street and East Cesar Chavez, from I-35 to Pleasant Valley Road. Rock music will ring out from the plaza between noon and 1:30pm, when the band Yesca will perform in both English and Spanish. The Saltillo District Community Advisory Group is coordinating the events to show East Austinites that they care about them and their properties, and to urge them to become educated about the issues on the upcoming commuter rail referendum. For more information, call Lori C-Renteria at 478-6770 . . . Asleep at the Wheel performs with Austin Symphony . . . Grammy Award-winning Ray Benson and his band Asleep at the Wheel will make their first appearance with the Austin Symphony on Saturday at River Bend Center. For more information, call for 476-6064 or visit the web site, www.austinsymphony.org.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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