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Twenty years in the making, Mueller MDA approved

Friday, December 3, 2004 by

'Once in a lifetime' deal for community takes big step

The unanimous vote to pass the Mueller master developer agreement ( MDA) last night was painless—evidence of two years of work, the involvement of 150 city employees, dozens of neighborhood meetings, plenty of obstacles and one determined developer.

In spite of—or maybe because of—the 20 years of work that preceded the Mueller master developer agreement, Council members found it difficult to believe the time had come to finally get the spades turning at the 700-acre former airport. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who made the motion, talked about the long hard fight to get the airport moved to a new site, just the first step in the effort to redevelop the site.

Goodman spoke of the struggle of the neighborhoods to keep Mueller a real Austin neighborhood. Neighborhood leader Jim Walker, who has chaired the advisory commission and the Mueller Neighborhood Coalition, nodded his head in the back of the room. Now that the vote was at hand, Goodman had one simple statement.

“I don’t know if I really believe it, but I’m ready to vote,” she said.

Mayor Will Wynn, who has seen his share of large-scale development deals, said he was struck by the magnitude of the Mueller deal and what it means to Austin.

“The amount of community involvement is virtually incalculable, it's been 20 years on and off. It ultimately has delivered a product that I think is truly going to be a model internationally,” Wynn said.

“I feel so lucky that the four and one-half years I served on Council were when this deal really came together and the documents were signed,” said Wynn, noting the achievements of both Mueller and City Hall. “It’s a remarkable moment for us here on the dais, to close this process and to now move to the next phase. I can’t wait to watch the dirt fly.”

The project team reviewed the basic facts of Mueller: the billion dollars it will add to the tax base, the 10,500 jobs the project will create, the $60 million the city will see in new tax revenue over the next 20 years, the commitment to affordable housing, pedestrian orientation and live-work design principles.

Project Manager Greg Weaver said Catellus was committed for the long haul and committed to the community’s long-term vision for Mueller. Weaver said the MDA was the result of unprecedented input and commitment over 20 years.

“It’s time,” said Weaver, whose wife sat in the audience to watch the vote. “The plan is good, the agreement is sound, and we hope you will act tonight to allow Mueller to move forward.”

Walker said all he wanted was to know the plan was voted on and approved before Christmas and before the Legislature got back to town. Legislators, particularly outgoing Rep. Ron Wilson (D-Houston), have a long history of trying to divert Mueller property to state uses. Even as recently as last session, Wilson said Mueller would “never happen.”

By the time a short list of speakers gave their speeches, most of them in favor of the project, the Council members had little left to add. Council Member Brewster McCracken said Mueller would be this Council’s most significant legacy in both vision and design. Council Member Raul Alvarez called the MDA “an incredible end product” and a signature project for Austin.

Council Member Daryl Slusher thanked the community, especially the long-time volunteers from the neighborhoods surrounding Mueller. “Everybody involved is this ought to be really proud, because I think this is an important moment in the city's history. We're taking advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I mean once in the lifetime of the city, to have 700 acres right in the middle of town to redevelop. I think what the city government did here was listen to the people and the community and in particular the people around the airport, and that's why it turned out so well. It took a long time for us to get to this point, but I believe we've done it right,” he said.

Council Member Betty Dunkerley thanked Catellus for its wisdom and the ability to turn a vision into a reality in the master developer agreement. And Council Member Danny Thomas reminisced about Walker’s sharp questions about Mueller when he first ran for Council. He also praised Weaver for his honesty and his integrity through the entire process.

The Council unanimously approved all three readings of the MDA, as well as all the accompanying motions, with the exception of the tax-increment financing zone. Wynn said city staff needed another two weeks to finish the paperwork.

Surprise changes to historic ordinance

Only most expensive homes impacted by change

The City Council approved major changes to the Historic Landmark Ordinance yesterday, strengthening it with an eye towards the future. The changes will grandfather tax exemptions for all landmarks designated prior to December 1, 2004 until they are transferred to other owners, and lower abatements for high-priced historic homes that gain the landmark designation in the future. Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who sponsored the changes, said she was pleased that the process—which began more than a year ago—had been completed.

Mayor Will Wynn recused himself on the matter, which the Council approved on a 6-0 vote. Wynn is an investment in a historic buildings downtown, although the portions of the ordinance being changed yesterday would not likely have any impact on his property. There was no change to the rules regarding commercial historic structures, which have lower abatements.

In Fact Daily her major concern was “not so much with the abatements that are currently granted,” which amount to about $600,000 per year. “But looking to the future as our housing stock ages, more and more of those houses from 45th Street to Ben White, could be abated unless we really took a look at the ordinance and strengthened it.” Under the old ordinance, the owner of a designated historic structure who lives in the home and complies with all of the city’s requirements for upkeep and maintenance is given an abatement of 100 percent on the structure and 50 percent on the land. “Our ordinance is extremely generous—the most generous in the state,” she said.

The new ordinance maintains that percentage abatement, Dunkerley explained, but caps the abatement at $2,000 or 50 percent of the tax levied. “This would allow some of the average and lower priced historic homes to continue getting an abatement similar to what they're getting now. But it would bring those on the very high end, where we lose the most taxes, back in the line, so we’re at least getting 50 percent, not giving up a whole 100 percent.” Owner-occupied homes designated historic prior to Dec. 1 will be grandfathered, regardless of their appraised value. City staff had recommended a cut-off date of Dec. 31 and were caught by surprise when asked to change the date to eliminate structures designated this month. But that will only impact the four most expensive of the 13 houses given historic status by the Council late yesterday.

In response to questions from Council Member Daryl Slusher, city Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said that the owner of an historic house and land valued at around $450,000 would pay some city property tax. For example, he said, the Keith House on Harris Boulevard has a structure value of $360,503 and land value of $263,250. The tax is $3,074 and the exemption is $2,425. Under the new ordinance, the $2,000 exemption would mean the owners would pay an additional $425 per year in taxes.

“This tends to address the very high end properties,” added Dunkerley. Such properties, she said, “could be getting $10-20,000 in abatements right now.”

Laurie Limbacher, a member of the Historic Landmark Commission, told In Fact Daily the new rules represent “a tremendous improvement” over the previous ordinance. She said the new ordinance—which was crafted by the Historic Preservation Task Force over more than a year’s time—mirrored many of the recommendations made by the HLC in 1999. Limbacher served as an ex officio member of the task force.

Other key changes reduce the size of the Historic Landmark Commission from 11 members to 9 members and eliminate a number of requirements for slots. For example, the new ordinance requires appointment of one member of the board of the Heritage Society of Austin and one registered architect. The old ordinance included requirements for a member of the School of Architecture, the Travis County Historical Commission and the Travis County Bar as well as the Heritage Society member. Terms are set at two years and members are prohibited from serving for more than four terms. Three members of the current commission have served since the mid-1980s.

In Fact Daily will look at the part of the ordinance relating to historic districts.

Council approves annexation of state-owned land

Ford representative says auto maker will work with neighbors

The City Council approved the annexation of 33 acres of land at the intersection of I-35 and Brandt Road on first reading last night, with an eye toward zoning the land GR (General Retail). Zoning would not happen until second and third reading of the ordinance, set for the final Council meeting of the year, December 16. GR is seen as helping to level the playing field for negotiations between Ford Leasing Corp. and surrounding neighborhoods. (See In Fact Daily, December 1, 2004.)

Council Member Betty Dunkerley made the motion, intended to give the neighborhoods in far South Austin and Ford some time to negotiate an agreement, probably including GR zoning with a conditional overlay. The six acres that Ford has under option right now is part of a larger 33-acre tract that is owned by the General Land Office along the Interstate. The balance of the tract will go to a Texas Department of Transportation facility that will house trucks for the transit agency.

Last night, the room was filled with yellow “Annex Ford” T-shirts. The Brandt Road proposal for annexation grew out of local homeowners’ desire for the land controls over the freeway site. It wasn’t so many years ago that the same residents crowded a Council meeting at the Onion Creek Country Club, complaining that annexation was the wrong move for Onion Creek.

The public hearing was closed on the annexation proposal, but Mayor Will Wynn permitted a progress report on negotiations. Darlene Louk of the Parkside at Slaughter Creek Homeowners Association presented a petition with 1,026 signatures, asking for annexation of the site. Jim McNabb of the Onion Creek Homeowners Association spoke of annexation as the “last resort” and a tool to add design controls.

“Our neighborhood has been involved in all the development between Buda and Slaughter Lane, successfully, on both sides of I-35,” McNabb said. “Our negotiation in this case was not as successful as we hoped, and we turned to the tools we had available to us, which was to ask for the annexation of that property.”

Attorney Richard Suttle, who spoke on behalf of Ford, said that the General Land Office and Ford were comfortable with a delay that could give both sides more time to negotiate design standards that homeowners would consider “neighborhood friendly.”

“Our understanding is that the scenario is that this could be over on first reading and before we get to final reading we could work out the design standards for the site plan,” Suttle said. “We’re very comfortable with that, and the state is comfortable with that.”

Dunkerley proposed the annexation ordinance be passed on Brandt Road for the first time on Thursday night, then to come back for a second reading on Dec. 16, with a first reading on “GR” zoning. The third reading of the annexation would be set on the Council agenda for Jan. 27.

The GR zoning was to give Ford some assurance that the city was serious about encouraging the sale of the property, Dunkerley said. If either side was not considered to be cooperative, then the Council could step in to take the property out of the annexation plan or could propose its own conditions on the property.

“It gives our intent that we intend to move along in reasonable fashion,” Dunkerley said. “It also indicates to the state that we do not intend to disrupt their plans to sell their property, while it still leaves the Council in full control.”

The Council voted 7-0 in favor of the annexation. The land is located on the northeast corner of the intersection of I-35 and Brandt Road and is adjacent to the current full-purpose city limit on the west and south sides. The land is currently undeveloped.

Commissioners reappointed. . . Council Member Daryl Slusher reappointed Perry Lorenz and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman reappointed Holly Kincannon to the Design Commission. Donna Carter was reappointed by consensus to the commission with the longest possible name—the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission . . . Why Catellus understands Austin . . . At last night’s Council meeting, Attorney Pete Winstead shared the story of one of his important encounters with Nelson Riding, the former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman and CEO of San Francisco-based Catellus. Winstead was squiring Riding around town, trying to make a good impression on the potential developer of the former Mueller airport site. Winstead pulled up at a red light on Sixth Street and who should strut out into the intersection but Leslie Cochran, Austin’s favorite transvestite, in his usual scandalous lack of garb. Winstead shot a quick worried glance at Rising. “Oh, I feel like I’m at home,” said Rising blithely, referring to San Francisco’s equally eclectic street life. Winstead continues, “I knew instantly we had somebody who would get it in Austin and would understand this very unique community” . . . Sunday charity exercise . . . This year’s Brown Santa 5K Run/Walk and Kids K will be held this Sunday, at the Travis County Expo Center. Adults will begin at 8am and children will start at 10am. The Travis County Sheriff’s Department collects money and toys to help families at Christmas Special guests will include Santa, the STARFlight helicopter and pilots and the SWAT team and their equipment. Santa will be available to take pictures with the kids (and adults) with the STARFlight helicopter for a small donation to the Brown Santa program. Late registration will be available through race day. For more information visit the Brown Santa web site at and click on events or call Bonnie Floyd at 854-4173. Toy and food donations may be deposited at any Brown Santa Barrel, located at Travis County Buildings and HEB Stores around Travis County. Mail your checks to: Travis County Brown Santa, P.O. Box 207, Austin, Texas 78767-0207. . . Honoring Neal Kocurek . . . Prior to the start of Thursday's Council meeting, all seven members and City Manager Toby Futrell gathered at the Austin Convention Center for the unveiling of a marker renaming the building for Neal Kocurek. Mayor Will Wynn described it as a fitting tribute to a man who helped bring the community together after years of debate over the Convention Center. "Ultimately, Neal played the role he played so well in so many different arenas," he said "and that was building consensus.” . . . Pipeline protest. . . The LCRA's Board of Directors could vote next week on a new water line for some landowners along Hamilton Pool Road. But opponents of the project are asking the agency to wait. They staged a small demonstration outside the LCRA late Thursday afternoon. "We would like to see the LCRA slow down long enough to get regional planning in place," said Karen Hadden with the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition. "Three organizations that they've been funding are very close to completion of their work (on a regional plan)…and yet, the LCRA is poised to go ahead and vote on this pipeline." . . . And don’t do it again! . . . The Cedar Park City Council, as part of an agreement with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, has acknowledged that it violated the state’s Open Meetings Law last spring during negotiations to remove the city manager. Council Members Bob Antle, Tina Collier, Scott Mitchell, Phil Duprey (now resigned), Art Nelson and Bob Young agreed to complete open government training, and to participate in legislative activities next session to promote any new law advocating open government education for public officials. Young, the former mayor, is cooperating with the Attorney General as part of a plea bargain. Council members could have faced much tougher penalties, up to a $500 fine and six months in jail for each violation.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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