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Council OKs Crescent plan, Seaholm project

Friday, February 3, 2006 by

Five hours of debate ends with approval of Gables-Park Plaza Project on Town Lake

After a half-dozen starts and stops over the last 20 years, the City Council approved a series of interlocking votes last night to finally complete the deal for a mixed-use high-rise on what was once known as the Lumbermen’s tract and clear the way for the Seaholm redevelopment.

The deal required a number of hearings and actions over five hours last night — a zoning change on the Gables/Lumbermen’s tract, choices on the realignment of Sandra Muraida Way and the Pfluger Bridge, a master developer agreement with Gables to put Gables-Park Plaza in motion and, finally, a vacation of Bowie Street.

The result will be the Gables-Park Plaza project, a combination of residential, ground-floor retail and possibly office space, with an adjacent garage. The DMU-CURE zoning was necessary to accommodate pushing the height from 120 feet to 195 feet on one of two buildings on the property. The architect on the property argued that the height adjustment would provide better massing and allow for a bicycle-pedestrian thoroughfare through the property, which was intended to make the project more palatable to the community.

The zoning case rezoned the 4.5-acre property at 910 West Cesar Chavez, the home of a one-time cement plant on the Town Lake waterfront, from downtown-mixed use district zoning (DMU) to downtown-mixed muse-central urban redevelopment (DMU-CURE). The adjacent city property, known as the Crescent, was rezoned to DMU.

Those who protested the project – led by the Austin Neighborhoods Council – were concerned about both the height and the concessions the city made to the developer. Some, like Jeff Jack of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, said the height variance violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Town Lake waterfront overlay ordinance. Others, like Brad Rockwell of the Save Our Springs Alliance, accused the city of failing to be as aggressive as developers when it came to protecting city assets like parkland. Some, like Mark Gentle of the Friends of Town Lake Park, wanted a fuller review of the developer agreement and better disclosure before a final vote was taken.

The Zoning and Platting Commission had recommended DMU-CURE-CO, with the conditional overlay to deal with traffic issues on the Gables property. By the time it reached Council, those conditions had been redrafted into a restrictive covenant. Under the master agreement, the developer agreed to share in required paving, right-of-way costs, traffic signals and relocation of a major sewer line. In addition, the developer agreed to public park improvements and maintenance, as well as contributions to the public art and great streets programs. That totaled more than $3 million.

In last-minute negotiations to try to broker a deal between opponents and the developer, Council Member Jennifer Kim also secured a $250,000 donation to the city’s affordable housing trust fund. The donation will be added to the development agreement as a condition of the deal.

The two zoning cases passed on unanimous votes on all three readings as recommended, with the exception of a minor amendment on the zoning case added by Council Member Raul Alvarez to limit the height on the Crescent to 60 feet. That point may be moot, as most of the developable city-owned property – which could one day be used as a location for a parking garage for the Seaholm development – falls within the Capitol View Corridor and would likely, be limited to no more than 40 to 45 feet in height.

Approval of the zoning and development agreement is a coup for attorney Steve Drenner of Drenner Golden and for supporters of more expansion of the concept of downtown as well as bicycling groups which have longed for the completion of the Pfluger Bridge. It is a loss for those who sought to have the Town Lake Overlay enforced in its original form—preventing any tall buildings near the lake—and for those who see downtown growth as a threat to nearby neighborhoods.

Once the zoning was complete, Austan Librach, who is in charge of the Seaholm project, made a presentation on the other actions that could now go forward since the zoning was changed. Those included the street grid proposed to finally give access to the Sand Beach Reserve parkland, plus the extension of the Pfluger Bridge over Cesar Chavez and into the Gables property. The bicycle pathway will pass across the Gables property, cross an underpass under Third Street and then rise up to meet Bowie Street, where it will connect with other bikeways.

Former ACTV chief charged with theft

Investigators say Villarreal took more than $350,000; faked audits to cover tracks

An arrest warrant has been issued for John Villarreal, the former ACTV Executive Director who resigned in late 2004 amid questions about the non-profit group’s finances. Villarreal is wanted on felony theft charges. Investigators with the City Auditor’s office tell police they believe Villarreal stole $354,521 from ACTV over a five-year period and fabricated audit reports to hide the missing funds.

The City Auditor’s office began reviewing the records of ACTV in the fall of 2004 after receiving complaints from ACTV board members and producers that Villarreal was not providing them with detailed information about the group’s finances (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 06, 2005). According to an affidavit on file at the Travis County District Clerk’s office, an investigator with the City Auditor’s office learned in early 2005 that the accounting firm that had supposedly prepared annual audit report required by ACTV’s contract with the City of Austin had not actually done so. Instead, the firm told ACTV board members that they had not prepared an audit for ACTV since 1995.

That same investigator reviewed the 2003 audit of ACTV and found several irregularities, including an unusual format and a misspelling of the accounting firm’s name. Representatives of the firm told the City Auditor’s office they believed the document, which had been submitted to the city by Villarreal, was a forgery. The city’s investigation ultimately concluded that Villarreal had made more than 90 unauthorized withdrawals from bank accounts belonging to the non-profit group organized to manage the city’s public-access cable TV channels.

Villarreal has not been indicted, tried, or convicted. If he is eventually found guilty of the first degree felony theft charges, he could face prison time ranging from 5 to 99 years plus a fine of up to $10,000.

When the contract to run the city’s public-access cable TV channels came up for bids last year, the City Council awarded the contract to a new non-profit group (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 6, 2005). City of Austin Chief Financial Officer John Stephens said the city’s experiences with ACTV (known officially as Austin Community Access Center, or ACAC) would play a major role in how the city deals with the new non-profit group, Public Access Community Television (PACT).

“We learned that, number one, we need to get more on-going information on a monthly or quarterly basis, such as bank statements reconciled with their internal accounting records,” he said. “The other thing is that we do need to make sure the board of the non-profit group is more involved in the financial matters of the organization.” Stephens noted that ACTV Board had not taken some basic steps to review the group’s annual audit, such as having the accounting firm make an official presentation to the full board.

Safeguards along those lines will be incorporated into the city’s contract with PACT, which Stephens said was still being negotiated. “I think we’re very close to having a contract we can sign,” he said.

Mental health panel addresses challenges

Saying it is aiming at Mayor Will Wynn’s goal of pursuing mental heath with the same intensity that Austin pursues physical health, the Mayor’s Mental Health Task Force issued its first Annual Report to the Council on Thursday.

Prepared by the Task Force’s Monitoring Committee, the report gave city officials a snapshot of mental health care delivery in Central Texas, and details of its long-range action plan.

Dr. Susan Stone, a consultant who helped prepare the report, told Council Members that the panel had identified five strategies and eight goals for 2006, with much less emphasis on the current status of mental health care delivery.

The strategies outlined were: Criminal Justice Prevention and Diversion; Safe, Affordable, Accessible and Integrated Housing; Access to Mental Health Services; Schools; and Community Awareness.

From these areas, Stone said, the committee developed eight specific goals for 2006:

• System Mapping – Develop a guide to mental health services in the community that will help policy decision makers allocate resources;

• Comprehensive Housing Plan – Develop an entity that is specifically designed to see to the housing needs of the mentally ill.

• School Issues – Noting that early intervention is a key element of prevention, increase the focus on mental health issues in schools.

• Psychiatric Emergency Services – Reductions in funding for mental health services and shortages of beds keeps the system in a state of crisis.

• Suicide Prevention – Continue to implement Guidelines for Suicide Prevention in Austin/Travis County, and expand efforts where possible.

• Necessary Balances – Analyze decisions and policies that span various agencies and interest groups to determine the consequences of those decisions.

• Cultural Competence and Elimination of Stigma – A major issue identified in the original Task Force report was the stigma and cultural disparities of mental health.

• Fleshing out of Concrete Indicators – Identify a set of indicators that are measurable and empirically valid to gauge the status of Austin as a mentally health community.

Council members were particularly concerned over the state of emergency psychiatric services in the city. Council Member Lee Leffingwell noted that both Brackenridge Hospital and the Austin State Hospital had been placed on “drive-by” status several times during recent months. Drive-by status means that the hospital is closed to all but the most critical cases because it has reached capacity.

Another area of concern is the number of mental health cases handled by the criminal justice system. Stone told Council Members that the Task Force is working on programs that measure the scope and number of persons with severe mental illnesses in the criminal justice system, as well as programs that identify persons with mental illnesses and divert them to appropriate care.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Lobby story . . . Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas told In Fact Daily Thursday he was none too happy when he learned that the proposed lobby contract with a dozen different lobbying groups did not include someone who should have been included before now. Thomas said decisions were made while he was in the hospital and he had no idea that his favorite new hire had been left out again. It turns out the person Thomas want to hire was Demetrius McDaniel of Akin Gump, which is No. 2 on a list of top lobbying firms, according to Mike Hailey's Capitol Insider. McDaniel is listed in the same publication as the ninth of 10 "hired guns" in the state. John Hrncir, director of government relations for the city, said all those lobbyists hired for the coming year have previously worked for the city. However, Hrncir said McDaniel, an African-American, is highly qualified and would be “an asset to the team." Brothers Robert and Gordon Johnson, who lost their contract when the city had to tighten its belt were added to this year's list by cutting the amounts being paid to the lobbyists. For example, Washington D.C. lobbyist Barbara McCall is only authorized for a total payment of $55,000 this year, down from $75,000 last year, he said. Adams & Zottarelli, an Austin firm, will see a reduction in its contract from about $180,000 to $90,000. The only African-American on the team is Carl Richie with Gardere Wynne Sewell. Others include Reggie Bashur, Randy Erben, Susan Rocha, Marta Greytok, Carl Parker, Clayton Pope, Cliff Johnson and Andrea and Dean McWilliams. Parker's contract is for $30,000; Greytok’s for $65,000 and Rocha’s for $72,000. The rest will receive up to $90,000 each for a total of $942,000. The contract has extension options for the same amount for an additional year to cover the 2007 legislative session. Thomas did not object for the record when the Council voted on the matter yesterday afternoon . . . Mayoral announcement . . . Mayor Will Wynn will officially announce his candidacy for re-election today with a party at the Broken Spoke from 5-7pm. Wynn will speak at 6pm. Asleep at the Wheel will provide entertainment . . . New city employee . . . Democratic stalwart Nancy Williams has joined the staff of Council Member Lee Leffingwell. Williams said she has not yet been assigned specific duties in her part-time position . . . Union leader thanks Mayor . . . ATU Local 1091 President Jay Wyat t paid a visit to Thursday’s Austin City Council meeting to offer his public thanks to Mayor Will Wynn for his help in the contract talks between the union and StarTran. “I appreciate the Mayor’s leadership ability to step into the negotiations with us,” Wyatt said. “I’m glad I was able to reach out to the Mayor and he was able to help.” . . . New Fire Chief . . . New Fire Chief J.J. Adame was sworn into office Thursday, telling Council Members he was eager to report for his first day on the job on Monday. “This opportunity to lead one of the best fire departments in the state and the country is very humbling, and I’m privileged to have the opportunity,” Adame said. City Manager Toby Futrell had special praise for Acting Fire Chief Jim Evans, who did not apply for the department’s top position. “Today’s a great day,” said Evans, “one that I’ve been looking forward to for the past year.” Evans will remain with the department in his previous rank of Assistant Fire Chief . . . Black History Month Celebration . . .The Austin Parks and Recreation Department and the University of Texas invite the public to the "Marching On: Independent African American Films from 1935 to 1950" film program at the University of Texas and George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center through February 25. The film program includes features, shorts, newsreels, an exhibition of film posters, photographs, lobby cards, press books, heralds and promotional materials selected from the world renown film archivist, collector and historian, James E. Wheeler. The events are free and open to the public. For a schedule, go to . . . The city kicks off observance of Black History Month with a program today at the George Washington Carver Museum.

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