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Candidates questioned on incentives, TODs

Monday, April 25, 2005 by

Candidates for Austin City Council covered some familiar ground Sunday evening during a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the city’s Ethics Review Commission. The event, televised on Channel 6, drew out several candidates that have been noticeably absent from neighborhood forums, including Philip Byron Miller and John Wickham in Place 4 and James Paine in Place 1. Place 1 frontrunner Lee Leffingwell did not attend, and the forum moderator explained that his campaign has suspended all activities since the death of his wife, Mary Lou McLain, on Friday.

In the most closely watched race, Place 3, candidates all expressed their desire to support locally-owned businesses while voicing varying levels of reluctance to give tax abatements to larger corporations. “I’m a small business owner, so any kind of tax incentives to big corporations are not fair to those that have been here, worked hard, built their businesses, and are paying their fair share of taxes,” said Jennifer Kim. Citing her experience working for the U.S. Department of Commerce, Kim said money devoted to tax abatements could be better spent by improving community-wide infrastructure and public safety. “I would like our city to rely less on huge tax subsidies for these businesses because it really benefits their shareholders more than the city,” she said. “They usually go to businesses that would be here anyway.”

Other Place 3 contenders were more receptive to the idea of tax abatements to bring new jobs to Austin. Gregg Knaupe praised the Council’s current policy regarding abatements, saying it provided a guarantee that companies would meet certain standards before receiving any benefits. “The way that we have designed our incentives is that the company absolutely has to perform…so that there are investments made in the community, jobs produced, so that we as a city receive the tax revenue from that company,” he said, “and we pay that rebate once they have performed and made the investment. I am comfortable with that if it’s the right company.” Abatements or other incentives, Knaupe concluded, were a necessary part of the city’s economic development strategy. “I think that we do need those incentives to compete with certain cities for those businesses that complement Austin, whether it’s renewable energy, high tech, or health care.”

The candidates also had the opportunity to take a position on the Transit Oriented Development ordinance up for Council review, which is designed to regulate development surrounding stations along Capital Metro’s commuter rail line. Mandy Dealey pointed to the efforts of Catellus to work with the Robert Mueller neighborhoods as an example of how development could be acceptable to existing residents while still adding density. “It’s all about really bringing people together,” she said. Margot Clarke said the unique needs of neighborhoods surrounding each transit stop should be given a higher priority. “I think the best way that we can balance these needs is to realize that this is not going to be a one-size fits all proposition,” she said. “These rail stops are going to be in different neighborhoods, with different pressures and different needs, and so we’re going to have to really address the fact that these are individualized developments, despite the fact that they may be covered by a single ordinance.”

Of the areas identified by Capital Metro as being the most likely spots for passenger stations, Plaza Saltillo in East Austin has drawn the most discussion, with some neighborhood activists protesting the possible increase in property values that could come along with the proximity to a commuter rail station.

Knaupe highlighted those concerns in his remarks, noting that “there are examples in urban planning where these transit-oriented developments do actually complement the neighborhoods rather than give them the many problems they’re concerned about…increased values of property, increased taxes, and more traffic,” he said. “I think there is a balance and I think we can attain that. We just have to make sure we respect the neighborhood planning process that’s underway.”

Prior to the televised forum, candidates responded to a questionnaire from the League of Women Voters. Their responses can be found on-line at

Baker battles to save 110-year-old home

In another battle between the city and a developer over historic zoning, the Zoning and Platting Commission backed Chair Betty Baker’s efforts to preserve the Orsay-Koch-Hegman House over a developer’s desire to demolish the structure.

The Orsay-Koch-Hegman House at 903 Neches is another one of those structures that had plenty of historic value to the city but has fallen into disrepair after numerous interior renovations. Even the Historic Landmark Commission was split over the historic value of the structure, uncertain how true the 110-year-old house has remained to its heritage.

Baker, however, was ready to do battle to save the structure, which was the home of Henry Orsay, who led Union troops into Austin at the end of the Civil War. It was also the home to Charles Koch, the city’s first cleaner and dryer, as well as Elmo Hegman, who ran the Ritz Theater on Sixth Street through the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. The house has been empty since 1969 and was only sold by the Hegman estate in 2004.

Architect Steve Soward, who owns the property, had an architect from the Texas Historical Commission tour the house before he purchased it in 2004. Soward claimed the architect said there was “no continuity of style and materials on the exterior elevations. The various siding types are indicative of different time period alterations, conditions and modifications,” rendering it unworthy of designation. Soward told ZAP that the house had been “radically changed” over the last 50 years.

“The fact that anyone would go through this structure and say there was no historic significance….” Baker said. “That’s mind-boggling.”

Baker said she was distressed that those interested in historic preservation had not rallied around the house. The Historic Landmark Commission, conflicted about the renovations to the house, split on a 3-3 vote and sent no recommendation. Baker, the one-time Preservation Officer for the city, said she had to do something about the property.

“I placed this on the agenda out of total and absolute frustration,” Baker admitted to her colleagues. “If you want, I will withdraw it, but I am so frustrated that we have something of this magnitude and this importance that has been mistreated and neglected and ignored over the last 100 years, almost within spitting distance of the Capitol.”

ZAP had no problem voting MF-4-H zoning on the property, with little or no discussion. That hearing for the historic designation was followed by a zoning change request from the developer on that property, and others, in order to pull together a new project.

Soward had bought land up Neches Street and along Red River for his mixed-use project that was labeled the Neches Oaks Tower. Once ZAP had deemed the Orsay-Koch-Hegman House historic, the commission recommended that the parcel the house sat on be carved out of the rest of the zoning recommendation.

This was counter to the recommendation by the city staff. The request was to zone 901-903 Neches, plus 900 Red River and 501 E. 10th Street to CBD zoning. ZAP carved out the Orsay House as historic and created CBD zoning with a hole in the middle of it.

This, as Commission Melissa Whaley Hawthorne noted, created a “Schneider store” situation for potential developers Soward and Jimmy Nassour. The historic house will sit in the middle of the land the team intends to redevelop. The Council will make the final decision on whether the Orsay-Koch-Hegman House is saved by being zoned historic.

Charleston's King St. has lessons for Congress Ave.

Charleston, S.C. Mayor Joe Riley shared the historic preservation lessons of his city during last week’s 44th Annual Preservation Awards Luncheon for the Heritage Society of Austin.

Riley is a long-time leader in historic preservation efforts, such as the revitalization of the Charleston waterfront and the creation of affordable housing in the inner city. He told the group that affordable doesn’t mean ugly and preservation doesn’t mean gentrification.

“The efforts in Charleston are not just in rebuilding Main Street,” said Riley, who has served 30 years as mayor. “It’s about building preservation in the maintenance of a city.”

Efforts to preserve history were not ingrained in Charleston. Riley showed slides of a historic Civil War-era hotel that was the victim of the wrecking ball in the 1950s when the city decided it had to have a drive-in motel.

“There wasn’t a great city in America without a drive-in motel,” said Riley, with the kind of wry sense of humor that marked much of his speech.

Riley spoke of the efforts to create attractive, affordable housing in the city. Architects from around the nation competed to create the model for the housing. It would be “ New Urbanism” before New Urbanism had a name. And, as Riley told the group, “It didn’t cost any more to build than the ugly stuff.”

The housing also was scattered throughout the city. That was a risk, Riley said. It meant some compromise. No middle-class man in Charleston woke up in the morning and turned to his wife and say, “Honey, I’d like some public housing in my neighborhood.”

In the end, it was a good choice. In some neighborhoods, affordable housing sits next door to houses that now sell for $400,000 to $500,000. The important point is that the neighborhood will always be diverse, and that’s important to the neighborhood.

Riley spoke of older lost buildings – buildings nearly lost to fire and neglect – that he pushed to restore. The historic Freedman’s Cottage was an excellent model – the right size and style – to support affordable housing. Riley spoke of revitalizing King Street downtown, creating wider sidewalks and pedestrian-oriented storefronts that created a new livable city. Those restored buildings maintain the patina of the city’s history and culture. King Street, he said, is like Austin’s Congress Avenue.

Cities must draw the line on maintaining history, Riley said.. Pull down one house, even if it appears hopeless, and it starts to spread like a virus. And once the historic building is lost, that land is just as likely to become a parking lot for a department store. Restoring King Street – the King Street Riley remembered as a child – was an important step for the city.

Riley spoke of one small choice – the placement of pre-assembly space in the new convention hotel – that led to the restoration of numerous other buildings. By honoring the street on which the building was located, the entire street was saved. Riley showed a slide of the space and how it fit into the street.

“You see a building and you connect with it. The building has energy and purpose,” Riley said. “That one right use has been responsible for 75 buildings having been restored in the area, probably a half a billion dollars in investment.”

Every dollar a city invests in historic preservation has a return on it, Riley said, giving citizens a sense of pride.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

McLain memorial service. . . The memorial service for Mary Lou McLain, Lee Leffingwell's wife, will be at First Unitarian Universalist Church, 4700 Grover, on Tuesday at 11am. McLain died Friday. Those who knew Mary Lou will be encouraged to say a word or two. A reception at the Church will follow the service, sponsored by Family Eldercare. For those desiring, memorial contributions can be made to Family Eldercare, 2210 Hancock Drive, Austin, Texas 78756.. . . Takings bill moves to floor today . . . House Bill 2833, the session’s major “taking” bill, is scheduled to hit the House floor this morning. The bill, authored by Rep. Robby Cook (D-Eagle Lake), eliminates exemptions for property owners in certain ”taking” cases and establishes impervious cover standards no more stringent than those set by the state. The bill would add a new definition of “taking” as a government action that has the effect of limiting the overall impervious cover that can be constructed on a tract of land to less than 45 percent of the net site area. If it becomes law, cities such as Austin would be forced to choose between enforcing water quality ordinances and paying landowners compensation on properties zoned for less impervious cover. . . . Early voting continues . . . As of Friday night, 4,928 voters have cast ballots in the City Council and smoking ban election. That’s about 1 percent of those registered. More people had voted at the University of Texas polling place than any other at the end of last week, although Northcross Mall, with 144 voters, surpassed UT at 121, on Friday. Early voting will continue through May 3. Election Day is May 7 . . . Today’s meetings . . . The Design Commission will meet at 5:45pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall. They will hear a report on the civic and public art master plan. and plans for Brazos and Colorado street and sidewalk improvements . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission will hold a special meeting at 6pm in Room 500 of One Texas Center to discuss commercial and retail design standards . . . The Historic Landmark Commission will meet at 7pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . African-American forums begin today. . . The African American community is invited to participate in public forums, beginning at 6pm tonight, to discuss the quality of life of African Americans in Austin. All the meetings will be held at the Street-Jones Building, 1000 E. 11th St., fourth floor conference room. Tonight’s forum particularly focuses on students, although other members of the community are invited. Tuesday’s meeting, which will be held from 11:30am to 1:30pm, with emphasis on corporate citizens. Also Tuesday, there will be a session from 6:30-8:30pm with community leaders and others. On Wednesday, there will be a meeting from 11:30am-1:30pm with professionals especially invited. Thursday’s session, which will concentrate on native Austinites, will be from 6:30 to 8:30pm. On Friday, entrepreneurs, artists and others are invited to participate from 11:30am to 1:30pm.

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