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Design Commission endorses Spring zoning

Wednesday, September 28, 2005 by

ZAP committee still pondering condos

While members of the Zoning and Platting subcommittee formed to review the Spring Condominium tower proposal are getting some of their questions about the project answered, the project’s developers received an endorsement last night for their request for zoning change from the Design Commission.

Members of the Design Commission voted 8-0 to write a letter to the City Council backing the Spring project’s request to change the property at Third and Bowie streets from DMU to DMU-CURE to increase the allowable building height from 120 feet to 400 feet. In exchange for the commission’s blessing, Mark Nathan told members that Spring developers would pledge—in writing—that the project will include a number of design aspects sought by the commission.

Those conditions include a proviso that the developers would adhere to the city’s new Commercial Design standards; that a planned ground-level pedestrian arcade would be built using Great Streets standards; that the project would contain a minimum percentage of affordable units in the $200,000 range; maintain standards on certain aspects of the ground-level commercial spaces and the parking areas; and that the developers continue to keep the Design Commission appraised of progress in the design of the building.

Commissioner Joan Hyde was pleased with the developers’ willingness to give written guarantees. “There is good reason for suspicion on the part of this commission,” she said. “We’ve had verbal assurances before that were never done. We need these assurances in writing that they are going to go by the guidelines in designing this building.”

ZAP committee hears from neighborhood groups

Meanwhile, the ZAP subcommittee could make its recommendation to the full commission as early as October 10.

So far, subcommittee Chair Keith Jackson has tried to steer participants away from arguing the merits of the case and more towards providing or requesting information. But he has allowed some public comment at each of the subcommittee meetings, in which various neighborhood and stakeholder groups have made their positions known.

Members of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association have objected to the density and potential traffic impact on their neighborhood. “OWANA is not urging a moratorium on all high-rise development in the city,” said Laura Morrison at last week’s subcommittee meeting. “The concern that we tried to express was that there would be a moratorium on essentially up-zoning downtown until it can be done in context of the neighborhood plan. In the Old West Austin area, OWANA embraces the goals of the neighborhood plan…which include infill options, small lot amnesty, and garage apartments.”

But Morrison said the proposed 36-story point tower would not comply with those goals, or with the Vancouver model of development, which is being referenced by supporters of the project as a way to increase density without unduly affecting surrounding neighborhoods.

Morrison even sent an email to Gordon Price, the former Vancouver City Council Member whose article on development in Vancouver was distributed to subcommittee members as part of their deliberations ( Price, said Morrison, had written back, clarifying the intent behind some of that city’s regulations on spacing and building height.

“Vancouverism is not about the buildings. Yes, there’s a Vancouver style, and yes we do use point towers and podiums to achieve certain design goals, but much more important is the values of the community we base our growth model on and the process we use to achieve,” she said, quoting from Price’s response to her. “In particular, we leverage public benefits from private projects. The development is expected to help pay for growth and provide amenities not otherwise achievable. So I hope that, as this committee goes forward, if there is thought about the Vancouver model then it’s done carefully.” In return, Price quotes from Morrison’s emails in his most recent on-line “Price Tags” newsletter (

While OWANA residents have regularly attended the subcommittee meetings to voice their concerns about the project, members of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association have attended to show their support. Last week, former DANA President Cid Galindo made the group’s position clear. “Not every neighborhood organization is against this idea,” said Covington. “There is one neighborhood association that is very much in favor of it, and that’s the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association.”

At this week’s meeting, subcommittee members got information they had requested last week about the traffic impact of the high-rise on nearby streets. Jackson had specifically requested more traffic information, and developer Perry Lorenz presented the results of his consultant’s study. Since the tower would be primarily residential with only 10,000 square feet of specialty retail space, Lorenz said, the project would generate only about 1,300 trips per day, below the number triggering a mandatory Traffic Impact Analysis. “It had no impact on the traffic on Lamar or Fifth and Sixth Street. Those numbers likely overstate the traffic because of the nearby grocery store and shopping,” he said, explaining that residents of the condo tower would be able to take fewer car trips for shopping because of the proximity of the Whole Foods at Fifth and Lamar and other shopping outlets in the vicinity.

The subcommittee also heard from a representative of Capital Metro about the agency’s plans for Third and Bowie, which is near the Union Pacific railroad tracks. Should the Austin-San Antonio Inter-Municipal Commuter Rail District build a station in the vicinity of the Seaholm Power Plant, Capital Metro could attempt to build a station for its local commuter rail nearby.

“One of the concerns of people in this subcommittee are zoning this to allow some intensive use, then turning around and having Capital Metro have to condemn and buy it a year from now,” said Jackson.

“Nobody has suggested anything in that place yet,” responded Capital Metro’s Lucy Galbraith. “That doesn’t mean they won’t.” But the way to connect Capital Metro’s Red Line, which will end at the Austin Convention Center, to the western edge of downtown and the Seaholm area, is still under consideration. “We set it up so that we may know some answers before the end of this year. If not, then we will finish in June. Alternatives analysis studies usually take two years, we’re doing this one in just over one year,” she said.

That study involves considering several options for conveying rail passengers to other parts of downtown, including buses, streetcars, or even extending the train tracks a few blocks closer to Seaholm. That would likely require a public referendum, said Galbraith, but was not entirely out of the question. The agency is required to consider all options in order to comply with federal regulations. Failure to do so, Galbraith said, would jeopardize potential federal funding.

The subcommittee will not meet next week, but will return on October 10, at which time members could decide to vote on a recommendation to the full Zoning and Platting Commission on whether to grant the zoning change requested for the site. The subcommittee will also hear additional from city staff and consider additional traffic information requested by neighborhood stakeholders.

Bus drivers' union sues Capital Metro

The union representing Capital Metro bus drivers is taking its complaints against the agency to the courthouse. A malgamated Transit Union Local 1091 has filed a lawsuit against Capital Metro, claiming that the agency is illegally interfering with the union’s contract talks with StarTran.

Specifically, the suit alleges that “Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its President/CEO, Fred Gilliam, have unlawfully controlled and supervised Defendant StarTran, Inc., in its collective bargaining negotiations with the union in violation of the prohibition against collective bargaining by a government entity.”

That prohibition directly conflicts with a federal regulation which required Capital Metro to preserve the collective bargaining rights of transit workers which existed prior to Capital Metro’s formation. StarTran, an independent corporation, was created as a contractor and technically employs the drivers and mechanics who operate the Capital Metro fleet.

The suit points to a 1996 agreement between Capital Metro and StarTran giving StarTran sole authority to conduct collective bargaining. However, Local 1091 President Jay Wyatt says an attorney retained by Capital Metro has exercised veto power over StarTran’s decisions in contract talks. “We’re pretty much tired of the public being lied to by Capital Metro and the Board of Directors being lied to. Staff advises the board that they can not be involved in negotiations, but staff is involved in negotiations 100 percent,” Wyatt said.

According to the union’s lawsuit, its members have been harmed by the stalled contract talks, which Wyatt says were on the verge of an agreement before Capital Metro’s representative overruled StarTran. “We believe the sole purpose for doing that is Capital Metro is hell-bent on busting the union. I don’t believe the StarTran Board of Directors has the same desire, but I believe they’re being pushed to do it,” Wyatt said. “It should be the way it’s always been, that StarTran sits down and negotiates a contract with us, takes it back to Capital Metro, then we go on. That’s the way it’s been in the past.”

Capital Metro rejects the union’s claims, calling them another ploy in the ongoing dispute over the terms of a new contract. “During labor negotiations with StarTran, the union has filed three unfair labor practice charges and withdrawn two of them. This lawsuit is really another attempt to draw attention to the labor dispute,” said agency spokesperson Libba Letton. “Capital Metro believes these claims are completely without merit and will take all appropriately action to vigorously defend them. We urge the union to return to the bargaining table and accept StarTran's reasonable offer.”

Wyatt also hopes for a new contract, but not the one most recently offered by StarTran. He said he would like for the two sides to be able to resolve their dispute, although “at this point in the game, whether or not that’s possible, I don’t know. I just hope for the best. I hope that it gets through the process quickly and we can hear what the court thinks,” he said. “I’ll accept whatever answer they provide, but I know what the truth is. The truth is that Capital Metro is illegally involved in these negotiations and they shouldn’t be.”

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

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