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Downtown trash still worries commission

Thursday, July 21, 2005 by

SWAC, Rhodes on somewhat better terms

Relations appear to be improving between members of the city’s Solid Waste Advisory Commission and Willie Rhodes, manager of the Solid Waste Services Department, after some bumpy spots on the road to cooperation over the past few months. But at last night’s meeting, there were still a few reminders that Rhodes and most of the commission members see SWAC’s mission in very different ways.

On two major issues, downtown trash collection and the department’s budget, commission members seemed perplexed that information on the topics was only available to them on an after-the-fact basis.

In a discussion of proposed refuse collection services for the downtown area, Rhodes announced that a request for bids for the project had gone out in early July, with the bid opening scheduled for July 28. The project, which would relinquish refuse collection in selected areas of downtown to a single hauler, was not recommended by the commission earlier this year, due to concerns that it was the first step towards privatizing waste collection in other areas of the city.

Chair Gerry Acuna was particularly concerned about the city’s expansion of the original downtown area—known as the “ T”—to add seven additional blocks to the project.

“When we discussed adding two segments to the original T, it seems that we expressed our opposition to that,” Acuna said. “Now that it’s going forward, it looks as though everyone here supported the idea. But that’s not the case. A motion to support the plan died for lack of second. We received no communication beforehand that this was going to happen.”

Commissioner Rosemary Wyman said she was frustrated with the lack of timely information.

“That goes around the purpose of us being an advisory committee if we can’t give our advice on projects ahead of time,” she said. “How do we advise if we only hear about these things after they have happened?”

Rhodes reiterated that he had a mandate from the City Manager’s office to go forward with the project, and added that SWAC would be able to review—on a limited basis—the bids on September 14 before he takes them to City Council on September 29.

“You will be able to look at the bottom line numbers on the bids that are submitted,” he said, adding that because of the bid process, he could not reveal many details of the actual bids.

Rhodes was also coy about just what he had proposed for the department’s budget for 2005-06, including a recommendation on the 812 Landfill near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (See In Fact Daily, March 14, 2005). The City Council has killed the idea of allowing a private company to operate the landfill, so the other choices are for the city to continue operating it or to shut it down.

When asked, Rhodes refused to discuss what he would be recommending to Council on the landfill

“I can’t discuss details of the budget before the City Manager presents it to the Council next week, he said. “The budget will be available to you on the 29th, the day after the Council meeting and you will have your regular meeting on August 10 to review it.”

There were a few signs of increased harmony during the meeting. During the discussion of the downtown project, Wyman pointed out that while the process has been somewhat contentious and frustrating, the result was indeed a compromise.

“We haven’t been kept in the dark here,” she said in response to Rhodes’ bid plan. “We were told that this was what he was going to do. Our discussions did lead to a smaller area of expansion of the T, and we have accomplished other things in the process. The way this started out was very frustrating, but we have been able to pull together and get some things done. I believe this is a good example of how things should work.”

In other action, the commission voted—on the advice of Council Member Betty Dunkerley—to create an ad hoc committee on Long Range Solid Waste Planning, and convert its current subcommittee on planning to fill that role.

J.D. Porter, chair of the subcommittee said Dunkerley attended the most recent meeting of the panel, and advised them to make the change. The committee member had expressed concern that they work would not be recognized by city staff and were seeking an “official sanction” from the Council.

“She laid out a path for us to legitimize the work of the task force,” Porter said. She recommended that we create an ad hoc committee and that the SWAC absorb the task force into that structure. That will give us access to staff support, consultants and other items that we may need.”

The ad hoc committee will present its findings to the SWAC, which will make long range planning recommendations to the Council.

Co-Ops ready for Nueces high-rise

Commission approves move for historic house

Two UT area student co-ops are joining forces to build a new high-rise housing complex in the West Campus area. While the College Houses Cooperative could build a 175-foot high-rise on lots at 1905 and 1907 Nueces, the group wants to partner with the I nter-Cooperative Council, which owns the historic T hornton House at 1909 Nueces Street. By moving that house to a new location on Pearl Street, the two groups hope to build a larger project and increase the supply of affordable housing for students within the area covered by the University Neighborhood Overlay.

Moving the historic home, which is owned by the ICC and houses the Helios Co-Op, requires a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Landmark Commission. Representatives from both co-ops and their nearby neighbors went before the HLC this week to make their case.

“They are wanting to restore and maintain this historic building; they do, however, feel it is best if they take the building away from its current location and put it on another property that they own and restore it,” said agent Mike McHone, who represented the co-ops. “Currently, the property is not in the best of conditions. It is in need of a complete systems overhaul, if you will. And when the house is moved they will be dealt with.” The two non-profit groups would be able to use some of the revenues generated by their proposed high-rise project to fund renovations on the Thornton House at its new location.

The Thornton House lies within the area of the University Neighborhood Overlay that allows the greatest height and density. McHone said that new development in the area would likely dwarf the house, changing the historic context of the surrounding neighborhood. “It is a difficult choice,” he said of the proposed move. “I was involved in designating the house historic in the early 1980’s.” By moving the home to a vacant lot at 2102 Pearl, he said, the house could be preserved and improved. “This is not a historic building that’s tied to a site. It’s the building itself and the person who built it. The context has changed because there’s very little left around it.”

Members of the two student co-ops urged the HLC to let them to move the house, allowing them to maximize the size of their proposed high-rise. While the project could be built on two lots without moving the home, Will Stovall with the Inter CoOperative Council said the need for affordable student housing would only increase. “We are here to provide affordable housing to students. Our rates are significantly lower than those of our neighbors in West Campus,” he said. “We really want to build a high-density co-op where the Thornton House is right now. With all these high-priced, high rises that are going to be there, it’s going to be harder and harder for poor students to get an education, to live near campus, and have that opportunity.”

Members of the College Houses Co-op said the high-rise development would also be an opportunity for their group to fulfill their core mission of providing additional housing for students. “We buy land, we hold it for a long time, we pay off the mortgages, and the co-op retains ownership of the land and we can pass that cost savings on to our future members,” said General Administrator Alan Robinson. “We can also use it to leverage any debt so we can expand. If we’re going to expand, we can’t buy land at the current prices, so we have to use our current land to expand. It’s zoned for very high-intensive development.”

Although there was no opposition from the surrounding neighborhood, members of the commission had reservations about the project. “I can’t support it, because I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that because something different gets put next door, even if it’s hugely different, you should change history and move it to some other place,” said Commission Chair Lisa Laky. “It might look better on Pearl Street, but that’s not its history. I don’t think there’s any reason for this house to move. I think it’s a dangerous precedent and a bad precedent.” Commissioner Jean Mather agreed that the possibility of a 175-foot tower next door to the home was not sufficient cause to move the house. “It is premature,” she said. “In the meantime, we don’t know what will be around it. We don’t know what it will look like, yet. It’s a scale thing.”

But a majority of the commission supported the plan. “It is easier to fight for a property when it is surrounded by other homes that are somewhat like that property…this is a property I feel could be lost when is overpowered by something 175 feet tall,” said Commissioner Julia Bunton. “I’m not always agreeable with moving a property, but when that house can be moved to a place where its beauty can be appreciated, then I have no problem supporting a recommendation to relocate.”

Commissioner Laurie Limbacher was the most vocal supporter of the plan, defending the proposed high-rise. “It’s just cooperative housing that is new, more efficient, and more dense than the previous housing,” she said. As for protecting the Thornton House, Limbacher said there were measures in place that would ensure the integrity of the home is preserved. “Retaining the historic designation on the house ensures that it has to go through the certificate of appropriateness process. I think that’s an important thing to consider.”

The commission voted 4-3 in favor a certificate of appropriateness to allow the home to be moved. Their approval is contingent upon site plan approval for the new project at Nueces and the relocation of the home on Pearl. Commissioners Mather, Laky, and West were opposed.

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

Judging the judge . . . is preparing nationwide protests and petition-gathering against President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge John Roberts. In Austin, at least five such gatherings are planned for today, including one at UT, one at the Wheatsville Co-Op, one at the federal courthouse and one in the Warehouse District. You can either join in or view it as street theater on an otherwise dull day. Regardless of where you stand on Judge Roberts, though, it would be wise to bear in mind that those who oppose the nomination will not have an easy time. Retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said yesterday that her replacement would be perfect—if only he were a woman. Slate, the online magazine, pronounced Roberts to have “three formidable shields: his outstanding legal credentials, his short paper trail, and his affable personality” . . . No City Council meeting today . . . The Council will meet again next week . . . The Planning Commission will hold a training on overhead utilities in the public right-of-way beginning at 8am today. It will meet in City Hall Conference Room 2016 . . . The Public Communication & Outreach Subcommittee of the Bond Election Advisory Committee has scheduled its first meeting for 10am today in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall. . . . Riley departs for Vermont . . . Timothy Riley attended his last meeting as a member of the Environmental Board last night. Both Riley and his wife are leaving Texas to attend Vermont Law School, which is known for its emphasis on environmental law. “It’s been an exciting time to serve on this board, and it’s been a privilege and honor to work with everyone,” Riley said. “There’s a lot of people who care about our future needs, who care about our environment, and care about economic development. I think this is probably one of the most important boards in the city.” . . . Still talking . . . Attorneys for Gables Residential and neighborhoods surrounding St. Stephen’s School, where Gables plans to develop multi-family residential units, are still in discussion over improvements the neighbors want at Westlake Drive and Loop 360. Those improvements, including turn lanes, are estimated in the $1 million range, which the developer would like the city to help fund. Zoning for the site, which needs the neighbors’ blessing because of private restrictive covenants, is once again on next week’s Council agenda. But such matters are always subject to postponement . . . Fun on the drag . . . Local businesses on Guadalupe from 23rd to 38th St. have joined together to hold a Third Thursday each month for music, fun, dancing, festivities, food and sales. The festivities start at 7pm tonight and are patterned after a similar program on South Congress. Participants belong to of the Austin Independent Business Alliance’s creation known as IBIZ (Independent Business Investment Zones). . . Smoking ban premiere. . . The City of Austin is sponsoring a series of community meetings on the Smoking In Public Places Ordinance scheduled to go into effect on September 1. Sponsored by the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, the meeting will be designed for bar, restaurant and business owners and anyone interested in learning more about the new smoking ordinance. Meetings are scheduled for August 2, 9, 17 and 23 in various locations around the city. Call Karina Moore at 972-5653 or email for more information about meeting dates, times and locations. I n Fact Daily will also list the meetings in this space as those dates approach.

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