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Long Center seeks contract changes

Tuesday, January 11, 2005 by

Supporters of the Long Center for the Performing Arts are asking the City Council to extend the time period for construction and decrease the amount that would be immediately available for operation and maintenance of the center. The Council will vote on amending the lease of the old Palmer Auditorium complex this Thursday.

Howard Falkenberg, spokesperson for the nonprofit corporation’s board, explained that the $77 million total cost includes $67 million for construction and a $10 million endowment to generate revenues for future operating expenses. Under the old lease—which has now expired—the city would have been able to access the entire $10 million. However, he said the change is being requested because those being asked to contribute to the endowment want to know that their money will be available in for the center and not be put into the city’s coffers.

“The endowment is being set up in two parts….if something happened to the operator of the Long Center, the city could access $2.5 million of the endowment for whatever reason. The remaining ($7.5 million) goes into trust account that cannot be breached. Whoever has responsibility for operating the Long Center, they get the income, but nobody could ever breach the corpus of the trust account,” Falkenberg said.

He described the change as “a lot of to do about nothing. There’s really no major change.” The second change is the construction period. The prior lease gave The Long Center folks four years to transform Palmer into a new performing arts center. But the economy did not allow for that. The new lease begins when it is signed this year and extends through the anticipated end of construction in 2008 or 2009, he said.

So far, Falkenberg said, as of December 31, boosters had raised $57.1, with $19.9 million to go. That amount includes the $10 million endowment, which can be raised during the two-year period when the center is under construction. So, the Long Center needs another $9.9 million to begin construction. Although the Arts Center Stage web site predicts construction will begin in early 2005, Falkenberg would not speculate on when that might happen. See http://www.artscenterstage.org

Another change in the lease involves the description of the facilities. Originally, major supporters had hoped to build four venues at the same time. With changes in the economy, the project has been refocused, so that the center will open with the large Dell Hall and the smaller Rollins studio theater. The new lease will include the potential for additional phases of development, Falkenberg said. “All we’re doing is making the lease reflect the way things are now—true it up. It’s certainly no reason for alarm,” he concluded.

Remodeling OK'd for historic home

The owner of an historic home in South Austin will be allowed to go ahead with a remodeling project, now that the Board of Adjustment has given its approval. Robert Biard, owner of the Dawson-Robbins House at 1912 South 5th Street, plans to re-work an addition to the side of the home, which dates back to the 1890's.

That addition, said architect Laurie Limbacher, was likely added to the home at a later date. “I think the addition as proposed enhances the historic character of the house, because we're pushing a portion of it back so that we can better expose the historic bay window," she said. "We're uncovering an existing window on the house, so we're going to make it better." The proposed renovation has been reviewed by the city's Historic Preservation Office and given a certificate of appropriateness by the Historic Landmark Commission. Limbacher serves on the HLC.

The variance from the Board of Adjustment was required for the project because of the orientation of the home on the lot at the corner of South Fifth and Johanna. The front of the home clearly faces South Fifth—which would normally make Johanna the side yard. However, the lot has more frontage on South Fifth than Johanna and the City Code defines the front yard of a corner lot as the yard on the side with the shorter lot line abutting the street. That technically made the side of the house the front yard, putting the addition within the 25-foot front-yard setback. The board unanimously approved the variance decreasing the setback from 25 feet to 15 feet, in part because the home pre-dated that regulation.

One person did file an objection to the variance, but did not attend the meeting. The letter called upon the owner to forgo the tax break that accompanies the home's historic designation, but Limbacher argued that the historic value of the house was being preserved, as evidenced by the support from the Historic Landmark Commission. "That's not our purview," concluded Board Chair Herman Thun. "People can argue the validity of providing tax breaks for restoring historic homes….that is not our subject matter, and I don't think we should touch that with a 10- foot pole."

Design Commission to take on housing questions

The city’s Design Commission is ready to explore affordable housing that is more than “warehousing the poor” in an upcoming monograph it intends to present to City Council.

The Downtown Commission stepped forward to say the urban core needed more housing, including affordable housing. Now, the Design Commission is ready to talk about just what form that affordable housing should take.

One of the commission’s biggest struggles during last night’s discussion was deciding how design and financing should be separated in the monograph, which has yet to be written. Design and capital are linked in most apartment projects. In an overview of monograph topics, Chair Richard Weiss cited density and housing opportunities in the urban core; mechanisms used by other cities; and funding options that could expand and improve the affordable housing pool.

Commissioner Phil Reed said he was more concerned with the quality of affordable housing than the financing terms that might be offered. Too many times, cities like Austin have either relied on a “housing authority” model that has clustered low-income construction for low-income families or offered tax breaks to non-profit developers who are attempting to create stand-alone affordable housing. Reed said affordable housing should be integrated into future projects and scattered throughout the city.

Reed mentioned an apartment complex he passed on his way to Austin Community College. He said the project is clustered, cheap and fully low-income units.

“It looks like it’s been built as cheap as the developer can possibly build it, like they’re trying to do it for a profit,” Reed said. “They’re just working it on a scaled down kind of (profit) model… We ought to be past that now.”

Commissioner Juan Cotera recommended the monograph open with the clear statement that the city couldn’t create affordable housing without some kind of subsidies. Such a statement is usually understood but never stated openly by Council, Cotera said.

Cotera, who has worked extensively in the affordable housing field, said it was difficult to imagine the construction itself getting any cheaper. That means almost any effort will require some help from the city. The building industry has the cost of housing materials down to a science, making it difficult to cut corners.

Weiss spoke of land banks, bought by the city, as one way to address cutting the price of construction and make housing more affordable. The city would buy the land, then sell it back at a “better than market” price to developers in order to keep the price down.

Weiss wanted to discuss some of the recent ordinance amendments, including scaling back the size of garage apartments in the city. By downsizing the units, it puts more families out of the market for an affordable housing option, Weiss said. The model of mixed-use and high density was one that was encouraged by Envision Central Texas, and Weiss raised the question of incentives for increased density in the urban core.

Weiss also mentioned the concept of inclusionary zoning as a topic that should be explored by the city, although the policy is not without its detractors. Inclusionary zoning, usually set on the state level, would require a developer to set aside a certain number of units within a project for affordable housing.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon(D-San Antonio) has been the biggest proponent of inclusionary zoning at the state level, although the concept has not gotten much support. Commissioner Perry Lorenz said critics of inclusionary zoning say the policy does nothing but push the price “up” for non-affordable units in the project, forcing one renter or owner to pay for the affordable housing in the building.

Weiss would like the affordable housing monograph to be written by March, so that the commission can schedule a public hearing on the issue on the University of Texas campus before the spring session is over.

The Design Commission also intends to publish a monograph on the city’s parking issues this year, including a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of parking authorities.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Council announcement. . . As anticipated, Gregg Knaupe announced Monday that he will seek election to Place 3 on the Austin City Council. Like many candidates, past and present, Knaupe cites a need to deal with growth and bring environmentalists, developers, and others together to work for a resolution to the problems of sprawl, environmental threats, and social justice. His statement promises a plan for “real redevelopment for East Austin,” “real solutions for our homelessness crisis, “and that he will fight “to add a domestic partner benefits amendment to the City Charter.” The Council added domestic partner benefits for city employees in 1994, but a large majority of voters rejected that idea, adding a charter amendment prohibiting such benefits. Other candidates in this race include Margot Clarke, Mandy Dealey, and Jennifer Kim, all of whom hope to succeed Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman. . . Historic Council meeting . . . On Thursday, the City Council will hold its first meeting at the new City Hall. After a multi-faith blessing, the Council will consider a number of items still left unresolved last year, including release of about 48 acres in its ETJ to the city of Dripping Springs. Council Member Daryl Slusher has been reluctant to approve the item because of Dripping Springs’ lack of environmental regulations similar to the SOS ordinance. Whether those differences have been worked out remains to be seen . . . Board works fast . . . The Sign Review Board made quick work of its agenda Monday evening. The Board granted variances to allow a second monument sign for a shopping and office complex at 6001 William Cannon, which will allow the owners of Giss' Cafe and other businesses to put up signs. Samsung won approval to replace the sign at its main complex at 12100 Samsung Blvd. A representative of the Hillcrest Baptist Church also appeared to request a variance for a larger sign for the building on Steck Avenue, but chose to request a postponement when it became clear that the Board was not inclined to grant the variance based on the finding presented . . . Billboards return . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley is hoping that she can convince fellow Council members to bless changes to the city’s billboard ordinance. The current ordinance does not allow for relocation of a sign under any circumstances, which means that very few billboards are removed unless the property is sold and redeveloped. Dunkerley proposes relocation in specially designated districts not in urban renewal areas, scenic roadways, or historic districts. Her amendment would also prohibit relocation on a property abutting a residential district. The only tracts that could gain new billboards would be those zoned for commercial or industrial uses. The city would collect a fee of $120 for each proposed sign relocation. Three Council members dislike this topic so much that they took the unusual step of voting against setting the matter for hearing . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Planning Commission, (not the Zoning and Platting Commission as indicated on the city’s web site) will meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The Community Development Commission is scheduled to meet at 6:30pm at the Street-Jones Building Address: 1000 East 11th Street, Room 400A . . . The Airport Advisory Commission will meet at 5pm at ABIA, Department of Aviation, Room 160, 2716 Spirit of Texas Drive… Dignity for All Students . . . State Representative Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) will announce the filing of a bill to create the Dignity for All Students Act in a news conference Thursday at the Capitol. Coleman says he is filing the bill because there is currently no state law protecting students from discrimination in Texas public schools. “Homophobic, racist or sexist remarks and actions create a hostile, sometime violent, environment for students,” he said. “This, in turn, denies students equal access to an education. When students are discriminated against in school, and the school does nothing about it, we are failing them in a very fundamental way.” The announcement is set for 9am Thursday in the Speakers Conference Room.

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