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Vancouver could inspire code changes

Monday, November 28, 2005 by

ZAP starts process to aid affordable housing, open space

The Zoning and Platting Commission has started the process to introduce a series of amendments to the City Code designed to generate more money for affordable housing in downtown Austin. The idea stems from discussions during a ZAP subcommittee on the Spring Condominium “point tower” proposal.

Much of the debate during those subcommittee meetings focused on development regulations in Vancouver, British Columbia, where those narrow high-rise developments have proven to be a popular way of increasing downtown density while preserving open space. That city also has rules linking development rights to contributions for public space and other public amenities (see In Fact Daily, Sept. 27, 2005).

The ZAP’s resolution, approved unanimously, requests that the City Council and other boards and commissions consider amendments to introduce new fees for downtown residential development based on square footage, with the proceeds going to fund affordable housing and parkland maintenance. That resolution also requests amendments changing the rules for spacing between commercial and residential developments downtown.

The ZAP’s action only begins the process of changing the City Code. Any amendments will have to be considered by other boards and commissions and approved by the City Council. “Our hands aren’t tied, it will come back to us,” said Chair Betty Baker. “It will go to the Planning Commission and other boards.”

Austin Neighborhoods Council Vice President Jeff Jack, who attended most of the Spring Condominium subcommittee meetings, urged the ZAP to keep the amendment process open to the public.

“I would just suggest that we look at making sure that we have adequate input from all of the neighborhoods that surround the central business district,” he said, “in order to gain from their experience in how they deal with some of the issues that you’ve confronted recently. I’m just asking that the process be open and inclusive and that the neighborhoods be invited to the table to participate.”

Many factors to blame for rise in prices

Travis County is suffering from a serious case of “sticker shock” after a preliminary estimate on the Anderson Mill Road Project came back 75 percent higher than the initial budget. Initially, the county had budgeted $4 million for the project. The low bid on the project, however, came in at $7 million. At last week’s Travis County Commissioners meeting, Joe Gieselman, executive director of Transportation and Natural Resources, attributed the bids to a combination of local, national and project-specific factors.

The county will not be building the project at a cost of $7 million. Even after working through the project with bidders, though, Gieselman expects to see a high mark-up on Anderson Mill and possibly another half-dozen projects that are currently in the pipeline. Such increases may require the county to seek gap financing to fund projects, possibly through certificates of obligation. That discussion will continue on Tuesday.

“The message of this agenda item is to expect, probably, a 15 to 20 percent increase in the price of the remaining projects,” Gieselman said. “You may even be getting requests for projects underway that have now suffered some cost incrases that they could not anticipate at the time they bid the project.”

Gieselman outlined the factors that were driving costs up on Anderson Mill: the increased post-Katrina cost of materials, especially among materials constructed by the petroleum industry, such as PVC pipe; heavy local construction work for large-scale projects such as State Highway 130; the demand for raw and recycled materials out of China; and even project-specific issues such as the anticipated cost and time delays of utility relocation.

The Texas Department of Transportation, on a 10-year construction schedule, can delay and shuffle construction projects, Gieselman said. In Travis County, bond covenants dictate a more rigid sequence for projects, giving the county limited flexibility when it comes to how long particular projects can be delayed, Gieselman said. The Anderson Mill project falls under the bond issue approved by voters in 2001.

Travis County anticipated some extenuating factors, Gieselman said. For instance, the county tries to bid around the larger Texas Department of Transportation projects so the county can avoid premium prices on local projects. The SH130 project, to be finished in 2007, totals more than $1 billion. Travis County projects are rarely more than $4 million. It’s impossible for the county to compete head-to-head, Gieselman said. So the county plans its bid process on timelines that avoid direct conflicts.

TxDOT is dealing with the same issues of cost escalation, Gieselman said. The department is looking to include additions to contracts that would allow escalation and de-escalation of contract prices if suppliers are placing unfair demands or price increases on the project after the bid has occurred, Gieselman said.

Contractors build more cushion into construction budgets when they anticipate that utility relocations will cause delays. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said it was important that local jurisdictions understand the cost of delays when it comes to moving utilities. Gieselman said the delays had less to do with local municipalities and more to do with negotiations with the private utility companies…

County declines to join I-35 corridor group

Despite a full-court press from a Dallas delegation, Travis County Comissioners decided to pass on membership in the River of Trade Corridor Coalition.

The River of Trade Corridor Coalition, initiated by Dallas City Council, has a history frought with controversy. Dallas, concerned that Gov. Rick Perry’s Trans-Texas Corridor might bypass the Metroplex, hired Dean International to create the group to lobby on Dallas’ behalf.

That raised the ire of Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, who banned the Texas Department of Transportation staff from attending any Dean International-sponsored function – including the Texas Transportation Summit – saying that Dean International was at cross-purposes with the agency through its opposition to the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The ban, announced during a Texas Transportation Commission meeting, was unprecedented. In the meantime, Dallas has continued to pursue additional members of the corridor coalition in the hopes of uniting opposition and sharing the cost.

County commissioners were split on the issue. County Judge Sam Biscoe saw a need to provide an education on State Highway 130, possibly encouraging truck traffic and other drivers to get off Interstate 35 and onto SH 130 past Austin. But as Commissioner Karen Sonleitner pointed out, the Dallas coalition wants just the opposite: To encourage traffic to continue through the Metroplex on I-35, which Dallas city leaders see to be the lifeblood of business in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

Dallas is interested in Dallas issues, just as the members of Congress from Dallas are interested in North Texas rather than Central Texas, Sonleitner said.

“We visit all of the Dallas representatives and they get (our message), but they admit they are also more focused on their issues in their part of the state,” Sonleitner said. “They want to be helpful, but when it comes down to who is going to get the money, they are quite focused on the transportation issues in their part of the state, as opposed to what is happening in Austin, Texas. They’re just not there.”

At the final vote, Biscoe and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty were willing to support the coalition. Sonleitner and Commissioner Margaret Gomez voted against it, and Commissioner Ron Davis abstained, saying he needed more information.

Austin city leaders have yet to take a vote on membership in the coalition although they did not seem disposed to join after hearing the group’s pitch earlier this month. Biscoe refused to entertain a second vote if city leaders decided to join the group. The RTCC is also scheduled to make a presentation to Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization at its December meeting.

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

Making it official . . . It won’t be a surprise to anyone, but Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas plans a 9am news conference this morning on the City Hall Plaza to announce his candidacy for Mayor. Local news media has run several stories in the past few days that Thomas planned to challenge incumbent Mayor Wynn next spring. Thomas has served in Place 6 on the Council since 1999 and was elected Mayor Pro Tem by his colleagues this year. He spent 21 years with the Austin Police Department, and is also an ordained minister . . . Meetings . . . The Human Rights Commission meets at 6:30pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Library Commission meets at 7pm at the Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe St. . . . The Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees meets at 7pm at AISD headquarters, 1111 W. Sixth St. . . . Write on….Essayist, novelist, poet and reporter Spike Gillespie will be the featured speaker this week in Mayor Will Wynn’s Write On, Austin! workshop series. Gillespie’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, and many others. She is the author of two books. In the workshop, Spike will describe her life as a writer, answer questions about writing, and lead participants in several fun and very helpful writing exercises, with an emphasis on memoir writing. The workshop is 7pm Wednesday at the Austin History Center at 810 Guadalupe St . . . In review . . . Williamson County Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom McDaniel will hold a "Year in Review" Town Hall meeting from 2 to 5pm Thursday at the Sun City Social Hall, Two Texas Drive, in Georgetown to discuss his first year in office. All Precinct 3 constituents are invited. He can be reached by e-mail at or his office number is 943-3370. . . Wildlife preserve grants . . . The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking proposals for conservation projects on private lands through its Private Stewardship Grants Program. For FY 2006, approximately $6.5 million is available through this grant program to support on-the-ground conservation efforts on private lands. In September 2005, the service awarded 72 grants totaling more than $6.5 million to individuals and groups to undertake conservation projects for endangered, threatened, and other at-risk species on private lands in 38 states and one territory. Proposals must be submitted by January 23, 2006. For more information, visit the service’s Private Stewardship Grants website.

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