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Neighborhood arguments over density continue

Thursday, September 15, 2005 by

Fight will continue over value of infill lots, small lot amnesty

New Urbanist ideas to increase density met once again with fears of higher taxes, greater susceptibility to flooding and loss of neighborhood ambience as the Planning Commission labored Tuesday night and into the wee hours of Wednesday morning. In the end, the commission voted to recommend approval of the South River City Neighborhood Plans with some modification to staff recommendations for greater density.

About 50 South Austin residents attended the meeting to voice their concerns over the plan. Urban in-fill options allowed under the plan, they said, would lead to over-development of the neighborhood, driving up property values and consequently increasing the tax bills for existing residents.

“The stakeholders voted against these options for three main reasons,” said Danette Chimenti, co-president of the South River City Citizens. “Lack of necessary infrastructure, affordability impact to the neighborhood, and the destructive impact of real estate speculation.” Chimenti said those speculative real-estate investments were responsible for the neighborhood’s most significant problem, “the loss of older, affordable, and often historic homes to make way for Scansions.”

The city staff had recommended that the neighborhood plan allow the small lot amnesty and secondary apartment options for in-fill development in both parts of the neighborhood planning area, designated as the South River City neighborhood and the St. Edwards neighborhood.

But according to Chimenti, members of the neighborhood planning team opposed those options for several reasons. First, she said the drainage system in the older neighborhood did not have the extra capacity necessary to accommodate an increase in population. “Representatives of the Austin Clean Water Project came to notify the neighborhood of their plans,” she said. That on-going upgrade of the city’s sewer system would not be enough, she said, to meet the demand that increased density would create. “The two-year project was merely to bring our dilapidated water-wastewater infrastructure up to current capacity needs for health and environmental standards.”

Chimenti also told commissioners that while the in-fill options did not officially require a homeowner to add a second unit, many residents would feel pressured to do so. “Our property tax structure is such that people are taxed on a property’s potential,” she said. “If a property has the potential for a second dwelling, then the appraisal will reflect that.”

The existing residents are also being squeezed out, she said, by developers seeking to build new, larger, more expensive homes. “Real estate speculation was selected as a top concern by 78 percent of stakeholders responding to the final survey. Demolition of existing homes in order to replace them with huge houses is a growing national problem and one currently facing most of Austin’s inner-city neighborhoods,” she said. “Experience has shown that once tear-downs start, they proliferate. Most tear-downs do not add density but simply replace existing homes with larger and more costly structures.”

Commissioners sought input from Chimenti on ways to solve the problem while still allowing for some change within the neighborhood and encouraging the development of affordable housing. “We see city staff telling us the positive benefits of those things (small lot amnesty and secondary apartments), that by increasing the supply of lots, then you increase the supply of lots on which homes for families can be built,” said Commissioner Dave Sullivan, “and by allowing a secondary unit, you allow someone to gain income from their property so that when they retire they can continue to get some form of income and provide housing for somebody. I think we would all agree that there are pluses and minuses. So we need to balance those. If you have evidence of those, we need to see the evidence.”

Chimenti responded that the current conditions in the neighborhood were proof enough of the possible negative impacts of any measure that could boost property values. “The evidence that we have is what’s going on in the neighborhood now with real estate speculators coming in and just taking advantage of anything they can,” she said. “While it may be that in some neighborhoods, what city staff is saying is correct, I don’t think they know our neighborhood very well.”

Other South Austin residents spoke at length about the need to protect their neighborhood and the flaws in the staff’s recommendations. More than a dozen residents spoke, most of them urging the commission to take steps to remove the small lot amnesty and secondary apartment options from the plan.

“I am very concerned that the public works infrastructure was not designed for the type of density that this could bring to the area,” said Ellen Ward. “If you double the number of families in the area, it will increase the taxes, which will begin to force out the elderly and the young families in the area.”

Aloa Matthews, who said she still lives in the house she grew up in the Sherwood Oaks neighborhood, said there is also a concern that the increase in impervious cover could cause more flooding.

“Public Works has already determined that the drain pipe in our neighborhood is not up to standards,” she said. “We are already listed in the Top 10 flooding areas in the city. The city said that without CIP funding to improve the drainage, they will have to refer us to FEMA for help.”

Other residents spoke against what they believed was part of the plan to extend St. Edwards drive all the way through to South Congress Ave. However, a check with city staff showed that such an extension was not a part of the plan.

While commissioners did not dismiss the complaints of the neighborhood, they did take pains to point out the possible upside of the staff’s suggestions for in-fill options. “I believe there is a serious dearth of two-bedroom, one bath houses,” said Sullivan. “My hope is that with 2,500 square foot lots people could not build more than a 2,500 square foot house. The average house being built in America is now 2,200 square feet. The point is the 2,500 square foot lot is intended to be a tool to provide more affordable housing. There will always be unintended consequences. The argument is over whether the intended consequences succeed over the unintended consequences, and it’s a valid argument.”

Commissioners finally ended the public hearing and began debating the plan after midnight. Several plan amendments were offered, including one which would change the language of the urban in-fill options to discourage the demolition of existing homes in order to built larger structures on the same lot. Commissioners also added a suggestion from Travis Heights resident Jean Mather that would aid in extending the north side of the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail from near Congress Avenue to connect with the trail east of I-35. The amendment would add a 15-foot landscape buffer to all properties along that stretch of Town Lake.

After all the amendments, the commission voted 8-0 to recommend the plan to the City Council.

Heidrick seeks health plan for uninsured

The Travis County Hospital District should take progressive steps to address the high percentage of uninsured in Central Texas, according to the chair of the district’s board of managers.

Health care insurance costs continue to push people out of the market and into the public health care system, Board Chair Clarke Heidrick said last night during a stakeholders’ meeting on the district’s progress. The more the price of insurance rises, the fewer people can afford to pay for it. The time has come for the region to consider a collaborative effort to provide an affordable health care product to the uninsured, he said.

The Hospital District’s board has already been in tentative discussions with the University of Texas Medical Branch, which offers a product called ThreeShare as a managed care alternative. Heidrick said the district’s board of managers is intrigued by the concept, especially if the product can be designed to reach across the region.

“The current uninsured rate is 25 percent. If we could cut that in half, to 12.5 percent, then that’s a metric that could make a dent in the problem we’re facing,” Heidrick told the group. It also would address one of the essential, and critical, issues of health care in the region.

Stakeholders proposed a number of priorities for the hospital district at last night’s meeting. Representatives of the El Buen Clinic wanted to see more emphasis on preventative care, which Council Member Betty Dunkerley said should be coordinated with the city’s public health department. Other health care providers wanted stronger lobbying at the Capitol, to provide a collective voice in the face of indirect cuts to the hospital district, such as the state’s decision to cut mental health care beds in the state hospital system.

Some in the audience also expressed a concern about reimbursements for Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Trish Young, CEO of the hospital district, said the reimbursements include both short-term care for flood injuries and longer-term Medicaid and Medicare enrollment.

Last night, Dr. Mark McClellan of the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare assured the Congressional delegation that Texas would see a five-month, 100 percent reimbursement for all Texas Medicaid costs incurred because of Hurricane Katrina.

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

Correcting the record. . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas told In Fact Daily Wednesday that they were in support of the city’s latest proposal to firefighters—a proposal that led the whole Council to vote Monday to add $127,000 to next year’s budget. Council Member Brewster McCracken said Monday that he, Dunkerley and Thomas had opposed adding the $127,000 when they discussed the matter prior to the vote. But Dunkerley said Wednesday, “We needed a little bit more money for me to be able to say that for every step and rank we were the highest in every major Texas city. So, that was my goal. In order to do that, we needed that $127,000.” Thomas said, “I never said no to the $127,000.” After talking to Dunkerley, McCracken and Thomas, there appears to have been a misunderstanding . . . Definitely running . . . Eliza May, president of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, says she’s definitely running for the seat now held by Council Member Raul Alvarez. Alvarez has not announced his intention to step down or gather the signatures required—5 percent of the qualified voters in the city, but his silence on the subject has been taken as a sign that he will not try to run for a third term. May, who has served as president of the chamber for the past five years, would be a strong contender because of her deep roots in the Democratic Party. She said John Hernandez has agreed to be her campaign treasurer but she has not yet hired a political consultant . . . Considering a race . . . Dianne Mendoza, director of business and community relations for Capital Metro, says she also is considering whether to run for the Place 2 spot . . . Meetings today . . . The Board of Adjustment and Sign Review Board will meet at 5:30pm in City Council Chambers. The Council will not meet again until September 29 . . . The Travis County Hospital District’s Board of Managers meets at 6:30pm in County Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th Street. . . . Agency budget hearing has few takers . . . Capital Metro held a public hearing on the agency's proposed budget Wednesday night, but only three people showed up to speak . . . Union, StarTran still disagree. . . Also on Wednesday, representatives of StarTran met with members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 for another round of contract talks. Those talks failed to produce any new agreement . . Job fair results . . . A job fair for Hurricane Katrina evacuees produced good results Monday, according to WorkSource Austin, the local branch of the Texas Workforce Commission. A total of 700 evacuees attended the job fair. Of those, 102 were offered jobs. Another 408 applications are currently being processed by the 150 companies on-site for the job fair. . . . Disability Award nominations. . . The Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities is accepting nominations through September 19 for the 26th Annual Disability Employment Awards Program. The committee is seeking nominations of Austin businesses, agencies, organizations and individuals to be recognized in one of the following award categories: Employers with fewer than 200 employees (private & public); Employers with more than 200 employees (private & public); The Distinguished Service Award (for volunteers and service providers); The Entrepreneurship Award; The Media Award; The Martha Arbuckle Meritorious Service Award; and The Employee of the Year Award. Individuals may submit nominations by completing the nomination form on the Mayor’s Committee web page at: http://www.cityofaustin.org/ada/nomform.htm. . . Diez y Seis . . .The Austin Parks and Recreation Department celebrates Diez y Seis from 11am to 2pm at Republic Square, 422 Guadalupe St. today. Republic Square is a historically significant site to Austin’s Mexican American community because between 1870 and 1927, the Diez y Seis celebrations took place at this site. This year’s free cultural celebration will include music by Mariachi Estrella, and the Texas Wranglers. Food and drink will be available for purchase.

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