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Bond proposals hit $536.4 million

Monday, May 8, 2006 by

Council hears review of requests for affordable housing, park land and open space

As the dust cleared on city staff’s proposals for the November bond election, the final total came in at $536.4 million, slightly beyond the point where Council members and staff had pledged to hold the line. City staff said in February, when the November 7 date was set for the election, that it hoped to keep the bond package near $500 million and no higher than $530 million.

Still, the $536.4 million bottom line represents a fair amount of carving on the initial Needs Assessment of $769.1 million and a $614.8 million package from the Bond Election Advisory Committee. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 10, 2006) Council members have five weeks to finalize the ordinance to set the Bond Propositions.

Thursday’s final Bond Election Review looked at funds for affordable housing, park land acquisition, and open space acquisition.

Paul Hilgers, director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, outlined what called a “critical” need for affordable housing in Austin.

“Austin is the most expensive city in the state for housing,” he said, showing a chart indicating that Austin has the highest median home price and the highest cost for rentals. “That, combined with a downward trend in average income, creates the need for more affordable housing.”

Hilgers noted that there are 4,406 families on the waiting list for the city’s 1,920 public housing units, with an additional 5,100 families waiting for housing vouchers. He also notes that Austin’s rate of home ownership – 48 percent – compared to a state average of 64 percent and a national average of 66 percent.

Hilgers said his department is asking for $30 million for its Rental Housing Development Program and $20 million for its Home Ownership Program, for a total of $50 million.

Warren Streuss, Director of the Parks and Recreation Departmen t, said his department is seeking funds in three areas, Infill Parks, Greenways and Destination Parks. Streuss said PARD has set a goal of having parkland available within one mile of every location in the city.

To that end, he is recommending $10 million in bonds of infill, or pocket, parks; $5 million for greenways, or green belts near creeks and other waterways; and $5 million for destination parks, large parcels of land such as the Morrison Ranch Tract, recently named for Mayor Pro Tem John Trevino.

The city is also seeking $30 million dollars for the acquisition of open space. The city has acquired almost 32,000 acres over the past 15 years at a cost of $130.4 million dollars, including water quality protections lands and preserve lands. The last major purchase of open space by the city was 2,717 acres for $13.4 million from the November 2000 bond election.

The next step in the Bond Election process is for City Council to hold a public hearing on the bond recommendations at its May 18 meeting. Council will then have two meetings to consider ballot language and final approval of the Bond Program on May 25 and June 8.

Commission recommends against 12-story condo complex

The developers of a proposed 12-story condominium complex in northwest Austin will have to go to the City Council without the endorsement of the Zoning and Platting Commission. After initially voting to support a compromise motion to grant MF-6 zoning, but with a 60-foot height limit, the Commission returned from a brief recess and rescinded that action, ultimately voting 6-2 to simply deny the request for MF-6.

The design presented for the Arboretum Tower ( http://www.arboretumtower.com) calls for 139 units in a 12-story high-rise tower. Even with MF-6 zoning, the developers would still need to go to the Board of Adjustment for a variance to achieve that height, since nearby single-family -3 zoning would trigger height limits under the city’s compatibility standards.

Agent Amelia Lopez-Phelps stressed the positive aspects of the project in her presentation to the ZAP, with assistance from former Mayor Gus Garcia.

The 12-story residential tower, Lopez-Phelps said, would help prevent urban sprawl by providing housing within the city limits and at a lower cost than most downtown high-rises. She said the developers would commit to making 14 units available under the city’s SMART Housing program at a cost of $125,000, compared to the market rate units ranging from $200,000 to $500,000. She also tried to address the concerns of neighbors about the height of the structure, noting that even from 120 feet the area’s dense tree cover blocked the view of nearby homes and pointing out that the site was surrounded on three of four sides by commercial uses.

Garcia said, "I don’t usually come before you, and you probably won’t see me here for another three to ten years." Garcia urged commissioners to consider the citywide demand for affordable housing, which has historically been concentrated on the city’s East side. "I think it’s time to be putting SMART Housing throughout the city," he said. "Presumably it’s going to bring in people from other income levels. That’s one of the things I liked about it."

He also said that having more affordably-priced housing within the city limits could help stem the flight of retirees to outlying cities, telling the commission that many of his contemporaries who had moved to the suburbs when they retired had since moved back into Austin. "The good doctors are here, the good hospitals are here, the good shopping areas are here," he said. "So I think it behooves the city to provide good housing for people in my age group to stay in the city." Developers have said their target market for the condominium project would be people age 50 and over, especially those "baby boomers" nearing retirement.

But neighbors were not swayed by the talk of affordable housing or the promise that their homes would not be significantly impacted by the project. "That’s going to be a Godzilla of a monster that we’re going to look at as long as we live there," said Bill Brewer, summarizing the feeling of the nearest residential property owners. "I don’t think I can take it, unless you allow me to build a 90 foot wall so I don’t have to look at that monster…and that’s just as ridiculous as having that sucker put in where it is."

As members of the ZAP discussed the requested zoning change, it became clear that they were also uncomfortable with the prospect of a 120-foot tower at that location. "This case is not that complicated to me. I think high-rises are fine…and there are places to build them and places not to build them," said Commissioner Clark Hammond. "If I lived in that neighborhood…I’d be as unhappy as many of them are about the prospect of having an extremely tall building literally in my backyard. It just doesn’t seem right from a zoning point of view to plop something that tall down right next to a one-story ranch-style house subdivision."

Commissioner Keith Jackson moved to support the MF-6 zoning, but with a conditional overlay limiting the height to 60 feet. That would have meant that the Board of Adjustment could not have waived the height restriction. The ZAP approved that motion on a vote of 5-3, with Commission Chair Betty Baker leading the opposition. Baker was not in favor of greater height, but said Jackson’s motion did not follow some commonly-held planning principles. "It’s spot zoning," she said. "Like uses should face like uses. Envision Central Texas would not support this, because it’s suburban. We’re not densifying the downtown core area. If this had perhaps, even one-third SMART housing I would have felt a little better, but ten units didn’t quite cut it for me."

After that vote, the commission took a brief recess. When they returned, Jackson moved to reconsider the case after making sure that the applicant’s agent had returned to the meeting. "During the break, I started thinking about some of the points the chair made and what really made sense for this site," he said.

At Baker’s suggestion, commissioners had previously engaged in a discussion about changing the zoning on the site from GR to GR-MU. Adding that mixed-use component would have allowed for residential development, but the commission was not able to consider that as a motion since the case had been posted for a consideration and MF-6.

The GR-MU zoning would have been a more permissive zoning than both the posted proposal and the existing zoning. "I would simply deny the request and then they could re-post for something else. Hopefully they’ve gotten the message that we would really like to see GR-MU-CO." Jackson’s motion to deny passed on a vote of 6-2. Commissioner Joseph Martinez was absent. Commissioners Jay Gohil and Stephanie Hale opposed the motion.

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

Props 1 & 2 draw PAC money . . . Whichever side wins, the controversial Propositions 1 & 2 on Saturday's ballot has brought out some big political spenders. In papers filed with the City Clerk on Friday, the Clean Water Clean Government PAC listed expenditures of almost $200,000, while the opposition, the Committee for Austin's Future spent about $235,000. Both PACs drew significant amounts of their money from two or three heavy-hitter donations. In Fact Daily will have a complete analysis on Friday's Campaign Finance Reports filings from both PACs and Council candidates . . . Good Timing . . . Austin Energy crews, with some help several CenterPoint crews from the Houston area, expect to finally get everyone's electricity back on after last week's severe storms. That topic will come up in a timely fashion at today's Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee meeting, as the Tree Trimming Taskforce will report its finding. Austin Energy reports that many of the outages over the weekend were due to trees in central city neighborhoods that had not been trimmed back sufficiently to protect the electric lines . . . Meetings . . . The Council Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee meets at 3pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Design Commission is planning a special called meeting at 5:30pm in Room 1029 at City Hall . . . The Urban Transportation Commission meets at 6pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall . . . The Board of Adjustment/Sign Review Board meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . Early Voting . . . Early voting continued through the weekend for Saturday's City Council and Charter Elections. As of Sunday evening, 13,522 ballots have been cast. That's just under 2.5 percent of Travis County's registered voters. Early voting end Tuesday . . . The Travis County Clerk's Elections Division has made a few last minute changes in some polling places. A complete list of polling places is available online at http://www.co.travis.tx.us/elections . . . Candidate fills out GOP ballot . . . Valerie Covey, a Georgetown CPA who lost in a run for Williamson County district clerk earlier this year, on Thursday won the Republican nomination for the Precinct 3 county commissioner seat formerly held by the late Tom McDaniel. McDaniel died unexpected in March.

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