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Downtown retail study calls for more infrastructure

Friday, January 28, 2005 by

Drainage, wastewater especially needed, says consultant

Additional downtown sewer lines and flood control measures could help speed up the process of bringing new retail outlets to the Central Business District. Consultants with Economics Research Associates ( made that recommendation Thursday as part of their report to the City Council on its Retail Development Strategy.

"Dealing with the drainage of the city is difficult at times. The main message we want to bring to you today is that fixing those drainage problems should be a primary concern to the city in terms of its economic growth and development policy," said Keenan Smith with ERA. "Certain areas of our city will be always constrained by the flooding problems, particularly on Shoal and Waller Creek." The city has been looking for a way to build the Waller Creek Tunnel, which could lower the flood plain along the creek in the southeast section of downtown. However, the funding approved by voters for the project in a previous bond package will not be sufficient. Discussion of the project was revived after a consultant's report last spring, but appeared publicly to slow down last fall (see In Fact Daily, September 15, 2004).

While the ERA report praised Austin Energy for its supply network downtown, Smith pointed out that the water and wastewater infrastructure would have some potential problems if the city were to draw new retail outlets to the area. "Certain pieces of the infrastructure are aging and reaching capacity," Smith said of the city's wastewater system, " as we look at the intensive development we're seeing in downtown, especially residential. Retail is not so sensitive to wastewater issues…but the residential growth and revitalization you're seeing will put pressure on your wastewater system." Smith said the age and layout of the city's water lines could also create a barrier to re-developing some downtown sites for retail.

Smith also touched on the city's Green Water Treatment Plant, which draws water from Town Lake. That location, he said, could be put to a significantly better use than municipal infrastructure. Mayor Will Wynn reached a similar conclusion in his " State of the City" speech earlier this week, and the ERA report's suggestions for improvements in the wastewater system downtown fall in line with Mayor Wynn's suggestions for an " Envision Central Texas" bond package (see In Fact Daily, January 19, 2005) to fund open space acquisition and wastewater line upgrades.

Since the main conclusions of the study regarding the potential market for downtown retail were released earlier this week, representatives of ERA used their presentation at Thursday's Council meeting to outline further details of their research. The population of potential shoppers downtown, said ERA Vice President Tom Moriarity, was much greater than the estimated 5,900 current downtown residents. There are approximately 60,000 office workers in downtown every weekday, and that number grows to 90,000 if the area is expanded across I-35 and across Riverside Drive to include territory within a one mile radius of 6th and Congress. "That is a ready, and some would say, captive market that just needs places to spend," he said.

With the addition of new stores downtown, Moriarity predicted that residents in the central city neighborhoods would stop flocking to the outlying shopping malls to make their purchases. ERA studied 13 ZIP codes surrounding downtown with a total population of approximately 360,000. "Austin residents want to shop downtown," he said. But focus groups revealed a common reason why those central city residents were traveling outward, rather than inward, for their shopping needs. "The answer was there are not enough stores," Moriarity said. "There is a hole in the donut, from a retail standpoint, that downtown can play a role in capturing."

This week Mayor Will Wynn’s Mental Health Task Force laid out its vision this week of making Austin a “mentally healthy” community and the Travis County Hospital District got a look last night at some of the hard numbers behind those goals—both in terms of the scope of the problem and potential cost of the programs to ameliorate them. It is expected that much of work to attain the Task Force’s goals will fall within the purview of the district.

Chair Clarke Heidrick has charged several subcommittees of the district’s Board of Managers with studying the status of various aspects of local health care delivery as a starting point towards developing programs to tackle the problems. The Mental Health subcommittee, chaired by Manager Rosie Mendoza, presented a detailed look at mental health care in Travis County last night that outlined the number of people needing access to the system, and the less-than-adequate resources currently in place.

The presentation, prepared and presented by Ellen Richards with the Travis County Health and Human Services Department, drew information from federal state and local sources to profile current conditions in mental health care.

She began with the widely publicized figure that Texas ranks 49th in the nation in per capita spending for mental health services, and that during the last legislative session, lawmakers cut $14.8 million in mental health spending. In addition, state funded mental health centers were ordered to limit services to three priority populations, those suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression.

“The cuts in funds and the stricter guidelines of who receives services is having a significant impact on the local services system,” Richards said.

An analysis by the Indigent Care Collaboration, an Austin-based alliance of healthcare safety net providers, shows that between 2003 and 2004, mental health diagnoses during visits to ICC providers increased dramatically. The report noted that in 2003, 20 ICC providers made 8,120 mental health diagnoses. In 2004, that number increased to 14,512. In the same time period., the Sheriff’s Crisis Intervention Team saw a 63 percent increase in calls, and Brackenridge Hospital saw a 15 percent increase in mental health diagnoses.

The report pointed out the cost of treating mental health cases in the emergency room can be staggering. The estimated cost of an ER diagnosis is $265, versus $101 at a community clinic. Medicaid’s average reimbursement for a mental health assessment and diagnostic visit is $125.

The scope of the problem is growing in Texas particularly among children and adolescents. According to statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services, slightly more than 24,000 children are diagnosed with a mental illness in Travis County, 5,300 of them considered severe. Of that number, 1,298 receive treatment through the Austin-Travis County MHMR system.

Among adults in Travis County, the state estimates that 133,000 are diagnosed annually with a mental health disorder, although only 19, 379 fit the priority profile dictated by the state. Of those, 7,336 received treatment at an A-TC clinic. The study also notes that approximately 23 percent of adult mental illness cases are complicated by drug or alcohol addition.

Other statistics point out that often, the Travis County Jail is the host to those with mental illnesses. A survey of the jail population in October 2004 showed that of the average daily population of 2,384 inmates, 386 had mental health issues. That matches the national rate of 16 percent.

Council OKs commercial zoning for E.12th Street

The City Council yesterday approved a request from the city Urban Renewal Agency to rezone a historic house at the corner of East 12th and Branch Street, which will allow sale of the property to be used as a business. Council Member Danny Thomas made the motion to change the zoning from single family historic to GR-MU-H-Neighborhood Plan. The Council voted 6-0, with Council Member Betty Dunkerley absent due to illness, to approve the zoning change on all three readings.

One speaker, Richard Ferris, who owns a business across the street from the property, objected strenuously. Ferris said business owners along 12th Street were opposed to the zoning change because the commercial designation would increase property values for all the surrounding businesses. He also said that in choosing to zone the property for townhomes, the Council would be ignoring the wishes of surrounding neighborhoods and the goals of Envision Central Texas.

“The goals of the Austin Redevelopment Authority and the 12th Street business owners are very different,” said Ferris. He said that despite the fact that the neighborhood has representation on the ARA board, they seldom prevail. In addition to his complaint about this specific case, Ferris complained about rezoning of the commercial corridor in general.

However, Ferris’ views were not echoed by Mike Clark-Madison of the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN). Clark-Madison sent a letter to the Council to clarify the group’s position. The letter stated that OCEAN “does not oppose, or object or call for a postponement on this case.”

Greg Smith, manager of community development for the Office of Housing and Community Development, told the Council that they had previously approved a reduction in the number of townhomes slated for the area. Originally, he said, the Urban Renewal Agency had wanted to put in 40 townhomes but had agreed to the reduced number through consensus-building with the neighborhood. Smith was presenting his last zoning case as a city employee. He plans to retire at the end of the month.

Thomas said he appreciated Ferris’ concerns but that the property had already been vacant for too long. The community had expressed a desire to have additional commercial development in the area. “I think this is a great move,” Thomas said, adding that he believes the neighbors will approve of the new business after it begins operating there.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved Dealey announces supporters . . . Place 3 candidate Mandy Dealey released a list of about 150 well-known Austinites supporting her candidacy this week. Among those listed were: Ginny Agnew, Ben Barnes, Terry Bray, Lulu Flores, David Hilgers, Ronya Kozmetsky, Lowell Lebermann, Don Martin, Eddie Safady and Beverly Silas . . . Invasion of the bloggers . . . In last year’s presidential election, the hottest new campaign tool was the blog, or weblog, a website where any and everyone can make their thoughts, feelings, gripes etc. available to anyone who wants to read them. Some conservative groups have claimed—arguably—that their blogging efforts made the difference in some close votes. Now blogs are a part of the Austin City Council campaign, with the first appearing on Greg Knaupe’s campaign website, Look for more of them to spring up on the web as the campaign heats up. . . . Postponed zoning cases . . . The City Council yesterday agreed to postpone a public hearing and decision on whether to grant historic zoning, which the neighborhood has requested, for the 1893 home at 609 West Lynn. The owner argues that the home is in extreme disrepair and would cost a small fortune to restore (see In Fact Daily, January 27, 2005). That case and one involving property at 2020 West Howard Lane will be heard in two weeks . . . Moving on. . . The City Council bid farewell to Austin Fire Chief Gary Warren, Assistant Fire Chief Paul Maldonado, and Greg Smith with the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department Thursday night. All three men are long-time city employees. Chief Warren announced his retirement several months ago, while Assistant Chief Maldonado has taken a position as the State Fire Marshal. "Two weeks ago, I was confirmed as the Acting Fire Chief. I just want everybody to know that these two guys are the two that I'm going to try to act like when I serve in that capacity," said Acting Fire Chief Jim Evans. . . . Making Austin “film friendly” . . . When the City Council on Thursday approved submitting a grant request to the U.S. Department of Commerce for $1.5 million to make improvements at Austin Studio s, it also approved a series of changes in the city's regulations for securing a street closure permit for film production. The biggest change will allow some permits to be issued without a fee. The city will still be able to suspend the permit if the crew fails to comply with the city's regulations. . . Hard working public servants . . . The Environmental Board is holding a retreat Saturday morning at the home of Chair Mary Ruth Holder. Among the items that will be discussed is the city ethics ordinance . . . Cream cheese and Nikes . . . Alert to runners and bagel eaters: here’s an activity for you. Austin’s fourth annual 5k run for the bagels, known as BagelFest, is set for Sunday, March 6. The event will benefit the Austin Jewish Academy and Any Baby Can. For more information, contact Barbara Wangrin, event coordinator, at 735-8350 or check the website at . . . Hospital District works OT . . . The Travis County Hospital District’s Board of Managers will be working overtime this weekend in an effort to complete the process of hiring its first executive director. Board members will hold an invitation-only reception at 4:30pm today at the offices of Gardere Wynne Sewell LLP, 600 Congress Avenue, Suite 3000 to introduce the four finalists. The board will also meet at 9am Saturday to individually interview each of the four candidates, and possibly decide on which candidate to hire. If they decide they need more time to mull it over, they have posted an additional meeting for 6:30pm Monday to continue deliberations. Both the Saturday and Monday meetings will be at the County Commission Chambers at the Granger Building, 314 W. 11th St..

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