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Congressmen promise federal reimbursement

Monday, September 12, 2005 by

City hoping rules will change to allow for more relief funds

Austin is receiving assurances from federal officials that the city will be reimbursed for its expenses related to operating the emergency shelter at the Austin Convention Center. All three of the members of Congress representing Austin visited the shelter on Friday to tour the operations and meet with Mayor Will Wynn.

“Austin is an important part of my district, and the Convention Center is actually located in my district,” said Rep. Lamar Smith. “So I have a special interest in the evacuees and a special interest that they get all the aid necessary. In what I’ve read about how the various cities are handling the evacuees, I think Austin has probably set the standard, and all is going well here.”

Wynn said Smith’s visit had been productive. “He pledged his ongoing support from Washington about our two pronged request now. Number one, to ensure that Austin is in fact fully reimbursed for all of these direct expenses. We have spent a lot of money, appropriately, on this effort,” he said. “Secondly, we want to make sure the federal government can step up to deliver the funding that will be needed as these folks transition into more permanent housing, jobs, transportation, access to services, etc.”

On Saturday, the Mayor met with Vice President Dick Cheney, who also toured the facility. “The Vice President and I had a very plain-spoken conversation and he assured me of two things,” Mayor Wynn said. “First, the people that were welcomed to the City of Austin will receive the help they need to rebuild their lives wherever they may choose to do so; second, he made clear to me that Austin and other Texas cities will receive full reimbursement of our direct expenses.”

Representatives Lloyd Doggett and Michael McCaul also visited the Convention Center, promising to work across party lines to secure federal aid for Texas to deal with the large number of people displaced from Louisiana because of Hurricane Katrina.

“We are working together well as a delegation to try to insure that Texas does get the support at the federal level that it needs…to not shift all the burden to local taxpayers,” said Doggett. “Wherever we can, we will be working through existing programs.” McCaul added that the state’s strong representation among the Congressional leadership, including support from both of the state’s Senators, should help secure an appropriate level of funding.

“We stand united as Texans in this crisis,” he said. “We’re not going to play the game of partisan sniping up in Washington.” McCaul said a bill would be filed in Congress this week to reimburse the state and local governments in three areas: health care, education, and operational expenses. “We intend to ask the federal government to pay its fair share of the burden that Texas has borne in this crisis,” he said, “to reimburse 100 percent of Medicaid that is spent throughout this state. We intend to ask for full reimbursement for the education costs to place those survivors from Louisiana into our school system…and lastly…reimbursement for what we’re doing right here today.”

The biggest costs related to the operation of the shelter come in the form of manpower from various city departments. “Much of our direct expenses are for police, fire, and EMS overtime, as well as overtime for Building Services staff, our Housing Department, the myriad of city departments with employees here—they are working virtually around the clock,” said Wynn. While reimbursement for those costs is likely, the city may not be able to recover money lost because of cancelled events at the Austin Convention Center. “I know in Houston, for instance, they’re asking for the time that the George R. Brown Convention Center lost where they could have had other things happen,” said McCaul, whose district includes part of the greater Houston area. “I suppose if Houston’s going to request that, then so will Austin. That’s a good reimbursable expense. We’re going to try to broaden the definition as much as we can to try to get as much of the cost, knowing that we probably won’t get 100 percent of everything.”

City Manager Toby Futrell said last week that those lost revenues from the Austin Convention Center could have the most noticeable impact on the city’s budget. “The only loss that I can think of that we are facing is the loss of revenue at the Convention Center and the Palmer Special Events Center. But we’re even talking to the federal government about changing that rule,” she said. Futrell noted that the city could have easily pursued other, less expensive options for housing the evacuees, “but we didn’t. We took care of them in the right way and I think the federal government should acknowledge that. We’re pushing for that, and I think we may actually be reimbursed for that.”

East 7th Street project under review

The East Seventh Street Corridor Project—designed to be the city’s gateway from Austin Bergstrom International Airport into the downtown area—is still a few design tweaks away from being constructed.

City staff presented it’s latest design for the plaza planned between Chicon Street and Pleasant Valley Road to members of the Council’s Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee (LUT) last month, but were sent back to make some changes.

Chair Brewster McCracken said the design—which staff called 85 percent complete—was “out of sync” with several Council policies and guidelines, including buried utilities, lack of a landscaped median and other amenities.

“It is important that we do this right,” he said. “I know you followed all the applicable city codes and regulations in putting this together, so that gives us an indicator of just what we need to deal with to make this happen.”

Plans for the corridor, which when completed will run along Seventh Street from I-35 west to US 183, began in 1997 with recommendations from the Citizens Planning Implementation Committee to improve the city’s east-west corridors.

According to staff, the long-term plan calls the Seventh Street Gateway to be built in three phases: I-35 to Chicon; Chicon to Pleasant Valley Road; and Pleasant Valley to US 183. Construction on the first phase is tentatively designed to start

A consultant, The Goodman Corporation, was hired, and completed the East Seventh Street Corridor Concept Plan in 2002, according to city staff. A second consultant, Urban Design Group, was hired in 2003, and developed the preliminary plan presented to the Council subcommittee.

The Chicon-Pleasant Valley sector will include five-to-six-foot wide continuous sidewalks on both sides of the street; driveway consolidation, instead of continuous curb cuts; burial of utilities, where possible; trees planted along the street; and smaller plants where utilities prevent the use of trees.

Plans also call for pavers in the center turn lane to visually narrow the road, and in bold patterns at intersections to accentuate pedestrian crossings. Bus stops will also be improved to match the décor, and “obeliscos” will have public art on the top half, and bus directions on the bottom.

Initial reaction to the plan from the subcommittee was positive, but McCracken said many of the elements proposed by the neighborhood in the original plan had not been included in this version. Staff said many of the items were left out because the budget of $4.2 million was insufficient to include all of them.

“Part of this should include a redevelopment plan,” he said. “It will be more costly to put those items back in, but this plan is not what the neighbors wanted.”

McCracken and Council Member Betty Dunkerley instructed the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning staff to go back the project designer and have them include the missing elements – contiguous sidewalks, a median, bicycle lanes and other items – and come back to them with the cost of the added items and/or the cost of acquiring the right-of-way to make them happen.

“We need to know what the additional budget figures are for this,” said Dunkerley. If we are going to do it, we need to be able to give you the tools to make it happen. The subcommittee is scheduled to meet again this afternoon.

Subcommittee to look at zoning for condo tower

The planned Spring Condominium project is getting a lot of attention these days. The project’s developers point to it as the prototype for Austin’s goal of high-density housing in the downtown area, while its detractors say it would be too tall, too expensive and built in the wrong place.

But either way, members of the Zoning and Platting Commission expect that the proposed 36-story building will have such a major impact on the future of Downtown Austin, they have taken the unusual step of forming a special subcommittee to study the residential high-rise.

After a public hearing on the project last Tuesday, ZAP Chair Betty Baker named a five-member panel to study zoning for the project, as well as its long-term impact on the city’s growth patterns. The subcommittee’s first meeting is at 5:30pm today at City Hall.

The Spring project, proposed in July by developers Robert Barnstone, Perry Lorenz, Diana Zuniga, and Larry Warshaw would be located at Third and Bowie streets.

“It is a ‘point tower,’ the type of building the city of Vancouver, British Columbia has used to increase its downtown population density,” Barnstone told ZAP commissioners last week. “Vancouver was recently voted the most livable city in the world, and their urban planners used point towers to increase population density without the ‘canyon effect.’ This building will replace the number of homes in an 80-acre subdivision, and it will get people out of their cars.”

The building will be located just southeast of the growing retail area near Fifth Street and Lamar Boulevard, within walking distance to major shops, grocery stores, and entertainment venues. It is two blocks from the Whole Foods flagship store, he said.

Plans for the building include street-level commercial space with 20-foot sidewalks and underground parking. There will be four to six units per floor in the building to be priced in the $200,000 to $400,000 range—putting it in what Barnstone called the “affordable” range for many Austinites. By comparison, he said, other nearby downtown condos cost an average of almost $500,000.

The developers came before ZAP to request a zoning change for the property, because the building is planned to be about 400-feet tall, and the current height limit for that area is 120 feet.

The “point tower” style of architecture, Barnstone said, a relatively narrow building style, would orient the structure in such a way that it would not interfere with views of the state Capitol or Town Lake.

However, some opponents of the building say they have major concerns about placing a high-rise structure that close to existing residential neighborhoods.

“It’s great to have mixed use building like this in Downtown Austin,” said Jeff Jack, who is president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, but told ZAP commissioners he was speaking only for himself. “But I have to question why we are putting a 400-foot tall building in this transition zone. It looks like we’re moving downtown all the way out west to Lamar. It’s pushing the central business district out past Shoal Creek.”

Jack also noted that while one building of this type may not obscure the view, that may not be the case when several of them are built next to each other.

“I just think it’s the wrong building in the wrong place,” he said.

Others raised concerned about increased traffic in an area without the infrastructure to handle it, and doubted Barnstone’s claims about the number of cars it would take of the roads.

At the end of last Tuesday’s testimony, Baker said she had major concerns, not only about this project, but the type of precedent it might set for future, similar projects in the downtown area. Saying it needed further study—albeit in a very short timeframe—Baker said she would keep the public hearing open and name a five-member subcommittee to study all of the relevant issues around the project and report back to the full commission in five weeks or less.

Barnstone protested the delay, saying it would be “a setback” for the project, but Baker persevered, naming Commissioners Keith Jackson (Chair), Joseph Martinez, Melissa Hawthorne, Clarke Hammond and Jay Gohil to the subcommittee.

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

New staff for Doggett . . . Planning Commissioner John-Michael Cortez has a new job. He’s now serving as the Outreach Director for the Austin office of U.S. Congressman Lloyd Doggett. Cortez started his new position last week as Congress was dealing with funding for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts . . . Gearing up for a City Council campaign . . . Speaking to the Capital Area Democratic Women last week, Austin lawyer and accountant Sheryl Cole said she is planning a run for the Place 6 City Council seat being vacated next year by Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas. Cole said political consultants David Butts and Mark Nathan would be leading her campaign, with fundraising help from former Doggett aide Kristi Willis and organizing support from community activist Eleanor Thompson. Cole, who if elected would be the first African-American female to serve on the Austin City Council, said she had also secured the commitment of Rev. Joseph Parker of David Chapel to act as her campaign treasurer. She told In Fact Daily that environmental leader Shudde Fath and businesswoman Bobbie Barker would chair her campaign steering committee . . . Today’s agenda . . . The City Council will meet at 10am to finalize the city’s budget for 2005-06 and set the tax rate. Indications are that the Council will opt for the nominal rate, the same rate as used this year. Council Members Raul Alvarez, Brewster McCracken, Lee Leffingwell and Betty Dunkerley have all expressed support for additional social service funding. (See In Fact Daily, September 8, 2005.) If there was any doubt at City Hall before Austin became the new home of several thousand people from the Gulf Coast, their arrival surely laid those doubts to rest. So, as the seven decision-makers gather this morning, it seems likely they will be able to arrive at consensus without the necessity of three separate budget meetings, although they are scheduled to meet again on Tuesday and Wednesday. Even Council Member Jennifer Kim, who initially proposed that the Council adopt the effective tax rate—which would have eliminated the possibility of new funds for anything without an accompanying cut somewhere else—is unlikely to oppose the increase. She has not said where she would like to see increased spending but her aide, Amy Everhart, told In Fact Daily her boss would like to add around $6,000 to the budget of each Council member’s office to fund a second aide. McCracken has been able to employ two aides because he has no full-time secretary. A survey by the Human Resources Department and Civil Service Department showed that Dallas pays aides about $6,000 more than Austin. “Council members in San Antonio, Corpus Christi and El Paso have no professional level support (and) Ft. Worth Council Members have two temporary support employees,” according to a memo from Vanessa Downey-Little, director of the department . . . The Council Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee is scheduled to meet at 3pm today in City Council Chambers at City Hall. . . The Platting and Zoning Commission’s Spring Condominiums Subcommittee meets at 5:30pm in room 2016 at City Hall (see above) . . . The Music Commission meets at 6pm in room 1101 at City Hall . . . The CAMPO Transportation Policy Board meets at 6pm at the Joe C. Thompson Conference Center on the UT campus. . . The Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees meets tonight at District Headquarters, 1111 W. Sixth Street . . . The Habitat Conservation Plan Citizens Advisory Committee meets at 4pm at the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Headquarters, 1124 Regal Row in Manchaca . . . Libraries help battle Katrina damage . . . The Texas library community is rallying to rebuild hope and the future for victims of Hurricane Katrina. While libraries throughout Texas are addressing immediate needs of evacuees, providing computers, story times, books and temporary library cards, the Texas Library Association is coordinating a two-part campaign to help libraries rebuild collections, working in concert with the state library agencies in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The group is collecting donations to help rebuild damaged collections. The TLA is also accepting books and reference materials to help libraries fill their shelves. Send money or books to the Texas Library Association at 3355 Bee Cave Road, Suite 401, Austin, TX 78746 or contact them at http://www.txla.org .

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