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McCracken group proposes commercial design guidelines

Tuesday, November 30, 2004 by

Council Member Brewster McCracken’s Commercial Design Task Force has delivered a list of initial proposed guidelines for the city. Now developers will take those proposals and apply them to the reality of the city’s development projects.

Over the years, Austin has set some standards for areas such as façades and signage but little in the way of an articulated vision for design standards. After an online survey, the creation of a task force and a session with national retail expert R obert Gibbs, the task force has issued a 44-page document making recommendations in 11 areas. The guidelines would be assessed on a matrix intended to set a baseline for performance.

“Everything that we’re proposing is up and running in successful and dynamic real estate markets,” McCracken said at an afternoon session yesterday. “We’re not proposing anything that hasn’t been proven to be successful elsewhere.”

McCracken’s office will take comments through next Monday, then meet with focus groups of design professionals, real estate developers and other interested parties. The initial date for Council approval was set for January, but it is expected that a full evaluation will mean postponing Council consideration until February or March.

McCracken said the 44-page design standards document is compiled from more than 125 pages of notes taken by the task force. But he stressed the task force was ready for feedback and change. “This is a completely open process,” McCracken said.

The handful of developers at yesterday’s meeting, including those tied to Mueller and many of the city’s H-E-B-anchored projects, returned repeatedly to the theme of the “ideal” versus the reality of the Austin market.

For instance, attorney Richard Suttle pointed to the glazing requirements in commercial buildings. Was the requirement for glazing – additional glass on the first and second floors of larger buildings – going to be too costly for some developers? The concept is intended to provide “eyes on the street,” but it might be considered excessive for some projects, especially those with westward-facing buildings.

Task force member Girard Kinney, one of two representatives from the Design Commission, said the task force had hashed out the issue and decided that the requirement would only have to apply to the first and second floors of commercial buildings, and awnings were still an option for many sites.

That kind of discussion – and the discussion of the different areas of design standards and how they interrelate – are likely to be the topic of many of the focus groups. No clear opposition to any design standard emerged at this initial meeting, but many spoke of taking the design standards back to clients and developers to decide whether they would stand the “real world” test.

“Nothing is set in stone,” McCracken said. “This is our best effort, knowing that some of the details may not work out and some of the things may not mesh well together.”

A matrix will measure the design guidelines. All non-residential and mixed-use development would have to meet a minimum threshold. Beyond that, developers would be encouraged to use “best practice” guidelines in areas such as parking, lighting, connectivity, orientation, landscaping, exterior lighting, signs, screening and storm water management.

The task force was also concerned about speed of approval. McCracken said they made a conscious effort to make sure most of the answers on the matrix are a straightforward “yes” or “no.” A developer should be able to hand a completed form to a city staff member for assessment. The goal is to integrate the guidelines – and variances to the guidelines–into the current system rather than creating a new bureaucracy, although it’s still unclear exactly how the process would be handled.

None of the guidelines would trump existing city standards such as the SOS Ordinance or neighborhood plans, McCracken said. The standards also encourage redevelopment of inner-city parcels by allowing permitted standards such as impervious cover limits to stand on properties that might be redeveloped. That gives developers a more tangible incentive to stick closer to the urban core, rather than heading to vacant land in the suburbs, said task force member Richard Weiss.

Greg Weaver, who heads up the Mueller project for Catellus Development, suggested that the document note exactly where the design guidelines had been successfully implemented. He also suggested doing a “test fit” proposal on different sites, so that developers could see how the design guidelines might work together. Already, city staff members are running current projects through the matrix to make sure they pass muster.

A full list of the guidelines is available for review at

Stick files challenge to election

Baxter election confirmed by recount

State Representative Jack Stick, who lost his District 50 race to Democrat Mark Strama by a margin of 556 votes, yesterday filed a challenge to the election results with the Texas Secretary of State and the Texas House of Representatives. Stick, the Republican incumbent, claims the election results are in doubt, blaming the Travis County Clerk for his inability to investigate possible voting irregularities.

Strama characterized the challenge as a strictly partisan political move. "After last session's scandals and partisanship, I can't say anything surprises me in politics anymore," he said.

Also yesterday, ballots in the District 48 race were recounted and Rep. Todd Baxter was confirmed as the winner by the same number of votes—147—as previously tabulated. Challenger Kelly White, a Democrat, has now withdrawn her request for a recount, according to a statement from Travis County Clerk Dana de Beauvoir.

Stick’s challenge means that the result of the election could be up to the Texas House. State Rep. Talmadge Heflin of Houston, who lost his re-election bid to challenger Hubert Vo by a mere 31 votes has mounted a similar challenge. In all, three challenges have been filed with the Secretary of State in House races and one challenge has been filed in a State Senate race.

In his filing with the Secretary of State, Stick writes, "The county clerk of Travis County has failed to make available any data concerning the names, addresses, and certification numbers of voters for the 2004 general election. Accordingly, it has been impossible to prove or disprove allegations that the results in the Texas House District 50 election were tainted by over voting (that is, more individuals voting than were eligible), double voting, voting in the election by people who legitimately did not live in the district and voting by individuals who are ineligible to vote for other reasons,"

Stick writes. "Until information is provided by the Travis County Clerk, it is impossible to determine who won the election. Accordingly, I hereby contest the election results and ask that this matter be referred to the Texas House of Representatives for further appropriate action." Stick was unavailable for further comment.

However, De Beauvoir said on Monday that the information in question was not under the jurisdiction of her office. "Neither I nor my office have received a request, either verbal or written, from Mr. Stick or his campaign, or anyone claiming to be acting on his behalf," DeBeauvoir said in a prepared statement. "If I had received a request for such information as the names, addresses and voter registration certificate numbers of Travis County voters, I would have forwarded it to the Voter Registration office of the Tax Assessor-Collector's Office, the correct source for the information he claims to have sought."

Officials with the Tax Assessor-Collector's Office said on Monday that the some of the data in question, based in part on information gathered by poll workers on Election Day, was still being tabulated. Workers are checking the data for accuracy to ensure there are no duplications or other errors. Completion of the task had been delayed by last week's government holiday and vacation time taken by some key employees in the office. Several people have requested voter information from the Tax Assessor-Collector's Office, including operatives for both the local Republican and Democratic parties, and office representatives said they would be provided the data as soon as it becomes available. They stressed that in no case was information being improperly withheld.

Now that Stick has filed a challenge, it will be up to Speaker of the House Tom Craddick to choose a committee to investigate allegations of improper votes. Once that committee reports its findings, the full House of Representatives could decide which candidate to seat in District 50. The House also has the option of requiring another election. Until the issue reaches the full House, Strama will be seated in District 50 but only allowed to vote on procedural items. The Texas Election Code requires the candidate filing the challenge to post a $5,000 bond pending the outcome of the dispute, to cover the cost of the investigation and proceedings. For those who want to read the law, it can be found at:

WMI, BFI seek new sites

But landfill space is difficult to find

Waste Management Inc. and Browning-Ferris both have made efforts to find new landfill locations away from Northeast Travis County, although neither has found a suitable alternative site yet, the companies told county commissioners last week.

More than six months ago, WMI and BFI promised to try to relocate to other sites in the region as their first priority over expansion at their current sites off US 290. Last week, the companies provided a progress report on what is likely to be a slow process. Landfill operators say it could be three to five years before they would be able to locate a site, test its suitability and clear the necessary permits for a landfill site.

The two companies have tackled the task in different ways. Attorney John Joseph said WMI had looked for a combined 1,200 acres of property. Joseph said WMI had found four sites, including acreage off the south runway of Austin Bergstrom International Airport. WMI passed on the tract, considering it too close to the Blackland Prairie.

At this point, only one of the four sites still appears to be promising, Joseph said. Moving from “possible site” to “probable site,” however, will require about 18 months of study. The landfill operator would sign a letter of intent with the property owner, pay some initial fees and then decide if the land was suitable for a site.

“I can tell you that in the normal course of things in development it usually runs about a year to two years from the time you decide a site is good for a commercial endeavor and you do your due diligence and your on-site evaluation and begin your development and the permitting process through the county and the city to get on that site,” Joseph said. “This one is encumbered as well by the fact you have to go to the TCEQ to get a Type 1 landfill. I think the initial phase of it would probably take a year or more–more like a year and a half or two years to make the evaluation of whether or not this was a — from a geological standpoint a site that would be usable for a Type 1 landfill.”

Steve Jacobs of WMI said the letter of intent is followed by an analysis of subsurface geology, as well as the tract’s location within flood plains and airport flight paths. “The (geologic) tests are very specific,” Jacobs said. “We can tell pretty quickly whether the land is suitable for a landfill.”

While WMI is looking for 1,200 acres, Jacobs had to admit under questioning from commissioners that the company would be willing to take a tract as small as 750 acres. The current permitted site is 300 acres. Joseph said three real estate brokers were scouring the region for potential sites that can be combined for a landfill location.

Browning-Ferris Industries General Manager Brad Dugas said the company had approached its search differently. The company had looked for properties in the area with a minimum of 500 acres and a goal of 1,000 acres, said Dugas. The acreage had to be within a 30-mile radius of the current landfill. About 30 sites were located and 18 sites were eliminated immediately from consideration.

Right now, the company is going down the list of the remaining properties, from the most desirable to the least desirable. The owners of the top three properties have all refused to pursue negotiations with BFI. “It’s a fairly large tract of land, and we are progressively moving down in our ranking, trying to come up with our property,” Dugas said. “Then we would go in and do site geology work.”

Commissioner Ron Davis told the two companies they should continue to work diligently on sites away from Northwest Travis County. Davis intends to continue his pursuit of the completion of the county’s solid waste ordinance.

As far as action items, County Commissioners were faced with two issues in Northeast Austin last week: excessive truck traffic along Yager Lane and the preliminary subdivision plat for the expansion of the Waste Management Inc. landfill.

When it came to Yager Lane, the commissioners could take some actions to address the traffic. The action, effective in January, would restrict truck traffic along Yager Lane between Cameron Road and Parmer Lane. Long term the goal would be to complete Arterial A, which would provide a bypass for trucks, both those going to the landfills in the area and those simply crossing Northeast Austin to get from US 183 to US 290.

The second issue was the Waste Management plat, which the company intends to pursue in the event that an alternate location cannot be found. Commissioners delayed a decision on the plat because Trek English and other neighbors were concerned that approval of the plat would denote tacit approval of the landfill expansion. Commissioners took an extra week to consider the options on the subdivision plat.

Waste Management met all the county requirements for the subdivision plat, which would divide three lots into open space and space for landfill expansion. After some discussion, commissioners agreed to approve the plat with a plat note that indicated approval of the plat would not indicate approval of a landfill.

Could be a hot time in a small town tonight . . . The Pflugerville City Council will hold a special called meeting at 7:30pm tonight to consider holding a non-binding referendum vote in February. The subject, as you may have guessed, would be whether to allow development of a proposed racetrack in Pflugerville . . . Looking forward to retirement . . . Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman says she and husband, Jack, a member of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board of Directors, plan to start a consulting business together after she leaves office next summer . . . Looking forward to running . . . Although she has been in McKinney dealing with a family emergency, Place 3 candidate Mandy Dealey came back into town long enough to talk to her friend, James Aldrete of Message Audience Presentation, which specializes in political advertising. Aldrete, who has served with Dealey on the Planned Parenthood Board of Directors, will be working on the campaign along with fundraiser Susan Harry and Elyse Yates, Dealey said . . . Noted nationally. . . The Austin Toll Party’s Sal Costello is alerting his email list to a new Time Magazine story on the Trans Texas Corridor, which notes in passing that tolling existing roads has turned out to be pretty unpopular in the Capital City. While going through the pros and cons of the TTC, the article notes, “After Austin approved eight new toll projects for roads and bridges, a recall campaign was launched against the Democratic mayor and two city councilmen. It's been a true grass prairie fire,’ says Brewster McCracken, one of the city councilmen targeted. He's now against conversions” . . . Meetings . . . The Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission is set to meet at 6pm at Waller Creek Center, Room 104 . . . The Environmental Board subcommittee considering a mitigation policy for the Barton Springs watershed was scheduled to meet at 2pm, but that meeting has been cancelled . . . The Planning Commission’s subcommittee on codes and ordinances will meet at 6pm in Room 240 of One Texas Center . . . Friday education discussion . . . The Austin Chamber of Commerce will host a round table discussion of school choice, charter school and vouchers on Friday morning. Panelists will include Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, American Youth Works CEO Richard Halpin and Texas Justice Foundation CEO Allan Parker, all proponents of choice. The forum is scheduled for the Maloney Room at St. Edward’s University at 7:30am. . . Holiday fund-raiser. . . The Center for Child Protection is holding its annual fund-raiser ' A Taste of the Season' from 5 to 8pm on December 12, at Lexus of Austin, 9910 Stonelake Boulevard. The holiday event features delicious cuisine and refreshments prepared by local restaurants, holiday music and a prize wheel. The highlight of the evening will be a drawing for the 13th Annual Luxury Raffle, sponsored by the Friends of Christopher Guild. First prize is a 2005 Lexus IS 300, second prize is a seven-day Cancun vacation, and third prize is a $1,500 H-E-B gift card. Tickets are $30 per person with sponsorships available. Contact the Center for Child Protection, 512-472-1164, . . Hungarian business . . . United States Ambassador to Hungary George Herbert Walker and Hungarian Ambassador Andras Simonyi and D r. János Kóka, Minister of the Economy for Hungary were keynote speakers at a road show entitled “Business and Investment Opportunities in Hungary” at Austin Community College last night. It was an opportunity for Austin businesses to learn about investment and other opportunities in the Eastern European country. The event was hosted by the International Business Institute of ACC and the Austin Export Assistance Center of the U.S Department of Commerce . . . Money for babies . . . Congressman Lloyd Doggett made a stop in Austin on Monday to announce a $1.8 million federal grant to help fund the CRADLES program, operated by the non-profit groups Any Baby Can and Family Connections. CRADLES, which stands for Collaboration to Reduce Abandonment and Deliver Local Education Support, is designed to reduce the number of babies abandoned by their mothers in Central Texas. As part of the program, caseworkers visit local hospitals and health clinics to provide counseling to young mothers with HIV or drug problems that are considered to be at a greater risk of abandoning their children. The program also provides funding for childcare and offers parenting education classes for the women, as well as assistance in finding and using other social services.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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