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Council backs Spring Condo tower project

Friday, November 18, 2005 by

Only Thomas dissents, saying neighborhood issues not addressed

The City Council approved a zoning change last night that will allow construction of the 400-foot Spring Condominium point tower, sending a message that Council is committed to a downtown with higher density and more housing, often referred to in commission circles as “Vancouverism.” Six Council members voted to approve the project, with only Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas dissenting.

Earlier in the evening, the Council unanimously approved a 538-foot, 420-unit condo project at Third and Nueces. A joint project of Novare Group and Andrews Urban, the high rise a few blocks east of Spring attracted little controversy. Developers have promised to begin construction early next year with an eye to occupancy of the 40-floor building around the end of 2007. Like Spring, the Novare project won approval on all three readings.

In order to build the 220-unit Spring condominium tower to the height and dimensions they wanted, developers required a zoning change from DMU to DMU-CURE at Third and Bowie streets. The project, unique to Austin, had plenty of supporters in the audience last night, including members of the Design Commission, the Downtown Commission, the Downtown Austin Alliance, Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, the West End Alliance and the environmental community. A subcommittee of the Zoning and Platting Commission alone spent four meetings to review project specifics.

More than a dozen neighborhood associations, along with the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC), opposed the zoning change to complete the Spring project. ANC President Laura Morrison spoke of “DMU creep” out of downtown into surrounding single-family neighborhoods and called the Spring project both a mistake and a recipe for disaster that would destroy the proper transition between commercial areas and single-family homes. Morrison is a member of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association—which itself opposed the project, unlike two other neighborhood groups which are closer to the project.

Point towers are extremely tall properties with small floor plates. Those small floor plates are intended to decrease the heavy massing of high rises, while providing almost all units with high-rise views. Such projects are common to cities such as Vancouver and Seattle. Critics who spoke last night, such as Mark Gentle, called it the “supersizing of DMU” that will destabilize surrounding neighborhoods, especially in East Austin.

The development team on Spring included Robert Barnstone and Perry Lorenz, who developed the nearby Nokonah high-rise property on Lamar, Diana Zuniga, and Larry Warshaw. Zuniga, who represented Spring’s development team, described the high-rise as a project appropriate for the core area defined as downtown. Spring is a project that will be surrounded by similar mixed-use projects. Taxes on the property will increase from $39,000 to $1.6 million per year, she said.

Proponents said the high-density project would bring more affordable housing to downtown Austin. Opponents said the project’s price points were hardly in the range of those who might qualify for the city’s affordable housing programs.

Planning Commission Chair Chris Riley, one of the most vocal proponents of downtown residential development, called the Spring project one that “fits perfectly with that long-term vision” of a bringing life back to the area and vitality back to downtown. Riley noted three advantages to the property: a project with a density that could drive down price points; a location that would enhance the general streetscape, as well as the specific bicycle/pedestrian amenities around the Pfluger Bridge; and a project with the density that could increase the overall vitality of downtown.

While speakers such as Riley, Richard Weiss and Andrew Clement saw Spring as an opportunity to meet the vision of a dense, vibrant downtown, Morrison called any zoning change just another step on a path of city zoning mistakes. All those mistakes were caught and corrected after the fact, Morrison said. Those mistakes included the Pinnacle (scenic roadway ordinance), the Westgate (Capital View corridor) and high-rise “tunneling” along Congress (design guidelines). Gotham, just south of the Congress Avenue Bridge, almost became another one of the mistakes, until Council voted to reject high-intensity development, she said.

The zoning change passed, with some limited discussion, on a vote of 6-1. Council members cited a number of reasons to support the intensive zoning. Brewster McCracken and Raul Alvarez spoke of a project consistent with a vision of downtown. Jennifer Kim liked the high intensity near the possible future commuter rail station. Lee Leffingwell noted the environmental community’s support of the project, which the SOS Alliance’s Brad Rockwell noted would move toward decreasing sprawl in the suburbs.

The discussion and vote did provide an insight into two interesting splits. First was the split between some Central Austin neighborhood associations and the environmental community. The two groups, almost always allied, split over the Spring issue. ANC could see further repercussions from the issue since some downtown neighborhood groups supported the project.

The second split was between Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas and Mayor Will Wynn. Thomas, who has said he will challenge Wynn in the upcoming election, said he could not support the zoning change on all three readings without addressing some of the neighborhood issues, including the concerns about addressing diverse communities and affordable housing. Representing those “diverse communities” already is emerging as a theme in a Thomas’ potential mayoral campaign. Wynn, for his part, said the Spring project was consistent with the city’s goals for high-density development downtown. Wynn has been an enthusiastic supporter of downtown development since his days as a downtown property owner before he joined the Council.

Council finalizes billboard rule changes

Backers hope for removal of most signs over time

Although all of them agree on the goal of eliminating most all of the city’s billboards, the Council is very divided over how to do that—as demonstrated by yesterday’s 4-3 vote to approve the final version of the city’s long-debated sign ordinance.

Originally proposed by Council Member Betty Dunkerley last year, the final version allows the owner of a non-conforming sign to relocate the sign to an allowed area and keep it there for 25 years. But it also contains a “two-for-one” clause that allows sign owners to keep a relocated sign in place beyond the 25-year limit if they permanently remove a second non-conforming sign. She won support from Council Members Brewster McCracken and Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, bringing an end (at least for a time) to the seemingly unending saga of proposals to changes the ordinance.

Version “V” (as in versions A, B, C, etc.) of the ordinance failed to win support from Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Jennifer Kim and Raul Alvarez. But they did not support the earlier versions either. Alvarez in particular said he was opposed to passage because there had been several changes in the ordinance between second to third reading.

Alvarez was concerned by the addition of sign corridor districts. “I would like to see a map of the tracts for these sign corridor districts,” he said. “I have no idea what they are and I think the public needs to know before we approve this. I think we need a public hearing to look at these sign tracts.”

But Leffingwell said this measure is a major step in eliminating billboards. “This ordinance allows us to get rid of more signs sooner,” he said. “The more signs we move, the quicker they come down.”

McCracken agreed. “We need to do anything we can to rapidly eliminate these signs,” he said. “This makes more of an impact faster than any other way possible.”

Girard Kinney of Scenic Austin, speaking against the ordinance, said the “two-for-one” policy is the wrong move. “The effect of this action will serve as a golden parachute to the billboard industry,” he said. “They will be moved to other neighborhoods. All of the corridors will eventually be places where people live.” Kinney said the current moratorium on new billboards, which dates from the 1980s, is doing a good job of eliminating them.

Former Mayor Pro Ten Jackie Goodman said the ordinance needs to be written to stop billboards in their tracks. “Signs always have to be bigger and better,” she said. “That rationale is in error. This in an industry that should have been on its way out a long way back.”

In the end, Mayor Wynn said that while he wasn’t supporting the ordinance, he felt that the Council was in agreement on its goals. “I believe that we have had a good, sincere debate over this issue,” he said. “Ultimately, I think we’re all working towards the same goal here.”

The ordinance also establishes a $120 fee to be collected by the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department for removal and relocation permits.

Specific recommendations for a property tax abatement program designed to keep housing prices affordable in East Austin could be made by early next year by the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office. That’s one of several proposals the staff is working on as part of the Community Protection and Revitalization (CP&R) zone for the city’s east side, which was created at the direction of Council Member Raul Alvarez and Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas.

The two instigated planning for the zone in response to community concerns about gentrification, rising property values that push low-income residents out of their own neighborhoods. They sought ways to promote the development of affordable housing while at the same time attracting new jobs to the area.

In an update on the CP&R zone, Community Development Officer Paul Hilgers said solving the problem would likely not be completely within the city’s power.

“It’s important to recognize up front the systemic problems regarding gentrification,” he said. “While staff has made some progress, the City of Austin is limited in its options to solve this problem alone. The challenge before us is to continue to work on these initiatives and leverage the Community Preservation and Revitalization to work with other policy initiatives coming to this Council like the Community Land Trust.”

One of the initiatives being considered is property tax abatements for families that meet certain income guidelines. Hilgers said they would likely target homeowners at 65 percent or less of the region’s Median Family Income (MFI) and renters at or below 50 percent of MFI. The abatement could also be available for apartment complexes or other multi-family projects where 40 percent of the units are for families that meet the income guidelines.

Other incentives could be put into place for homeowners that make significant repairs or improvements on their property, thereby increasing their property’s value.

In the meantime, the Council will get an update on the concept of a Community Land Trust at its December 1 meeting. A bill authored by State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez which passed during the last legislative session allows for that funding mechanism for affordable housing within specific areas.

Thomas urged the staff to act quickly on the next set of proposals.

“As we know, time is of the essence,” he said. “People are really hurting, people are being pushed out, and it is very important that we move as fast as we can in those areas.”

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

Game over . . . City Manager Toby Futrell yesterday declined to continue the verbal ping pong game she had going against APA President Mike Sheffield on these pages. Both are well aware that Police Chief Stan Knee is scheduled to make a decision today on the fate of Officer Julie Schroeder after a meeting of the police discipline review board. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 16 and 17, 2005.) . . . Candidates trickle in . . . Mayor Will Wynn has officially designated his buddy Paul Carrozza, owner of RunTex, as treasurer of his re-election campaign . . . Gregory F. Smith has designated himself to be his own campaign treasurer to run for Place 6. He is not the Greg Smith who serves on the Board of Adjustment. He joins candidates DeWayne Lofton and Sheryl Cole, who filed their treasurer designations earlier. Darrell Pierce has also told friends and associates that he too would like to sit in the seat currently occupied by Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas but he had not taken the plunge as of 5pm Thursday . . . Ramos at Stratus . . . Jackie Ramos, who served as first mate to Council Member Daryl Slusher, moved to the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department when Slusher left office. Now she has become Beau Armstrong’s assistant at Stratus Development, where she again has a downtown view . . . Appointments . . . At Thursday’s Council meeting, Cynthia Riley was reappointed by consensus to the Community Development Commission, Mary Martinez was appointed by consensus to the Mexican American Cultural Center Advisory Board, and Jesus Lowenberg and Elizabeth McKay were appointed by consensus to the MBE/WBE Advisory Committee. . . The Council also appointed Environmental Board Member Julie Jenkins to the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan Coordinating Committee. She was nominated by Mayor Wynn and Council Member Lee Leffingwell . . . Coal-tar ban . . . Council members voted unanimously last night to approve an ordinance banning the use of coal-tar sealants on parking lots in Austin and its ETJ. A joint study by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the City of Austin discovered a significant link between the use of coal-tar parking lot sealants and dangerously high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, in the city’s urban creeks. PAHs are known toxins and carcinogens. . . Meetings . . . The Council Judicial Committee meets at 11:30am today in room 1101 at City Hall . . . The Environmental Board will meet at 9am Saturday for an educational retreat at 1511 Nickerson St . . . . A quorum of the Planning Commission may attend a SH 130 Corridor Summit on at 8:30am on Saturday at The Texas Disposal System's Exotic Game Ranch, 12200 Carl Road in Creedmoor . . . Unchaining . . . The Austin Independent Business Alliance is urging Austinites to give up chain store shopping for one day—Saturday—and shop only with independent, locally owned businesses. Austin Unchained! is part of a national campaign of the American Business Alliance (AMIBA), America Unchained. According to Steve Bercu, president of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, “Shopping on one Saturday in November in Austin generates $45 million in retail sales. If these sales were all in chain stores, the local economic impact is $5.85 million. But if all retail sales were at locally owned businesses, the local economic impact soars to $20.25 million—that’s an additional $14 million contribution into our local economy. Of course, we hope Austinites will think about this not only on November 19, but every day—and particularly with holiday shopping upon us.” . . . New Fire Station . . . The grand opening of Austin's newest fire station, No. 43, in Circle C. is set for 1:30pm on Saturday. This is the first fire station in Austin with a rain water collection system for irrigation. It is also the first built to the International Energy Efficiency Code and to receive a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification. On hand will be acting Fire Chief Jim Evans, Mayor Will Wynn, and City Manager Toby Futrell. The station is located at 11401 Escarpment Blvd. . . . Last day to vote . . . Today is the final day for Austin Firefighters to vote on a proposed three-year contract with the city. Firefighters have been voting all week at the Austin Firefighters Association Union Hall located at 7537 Cameron Road. Votes will be accepted between 10am and 2pm. AFA officials say the final vote count will be made public shortly after the polls close at 2pm.

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