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Council may – or may not – decide WTP4 issues today

Thursday, July 27, 2006 by

Carollo contract, habitat questions could be decided

Although the City Council has two items on today’s agenda that would move the city forward toward construction of Water Treatment Plan #4 at the site known as Cortaña, there has been considerable confusion on the timing of those items.

Last month, the Council moved away from replacing the Green Water Treatment Plant on Town Lake in favor of the WTP4, which will draw water from Lake Travis. (See In Fact Daily, June 23, 2006.)

One item is the execution of an amendment to the professional services agreement with Carollo Engineers for preliminary site assessment of the 45-acre tract. The $10 million amendment would allow Carollo to prepare to assess the site as soon as the endangered black-capped vireos leave the area, probably in September, according to Acting Assistant City Manager Juan Garza. That item is likely to move forward today.

Leslie Pool, a member of the Water and Wastewater Commission, said the commission had cancelled a special called meeting on Tuesday. The meeting was called so the commission could make a recommendation on the Carollo contract extension. The commission’s chair was out of the country, Pool said, and she believed that neither the contract nor the BCP amendment would come up at today’s Council meeting.

Garza said he was uncertain about whether either the contract or an item relating to the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP) would be postponed. While Mayor Will Wynn had indicated he was reluctant to move forward before the BCP Citizens Advisory Committee and the BCP Scientific Advisory Committee had made a recommendation, Council Member Lee Leffingwell had indicated that he was ready to approve the item today, Garza said.

Ted Siff, chair of the BCP Citizens Advisory Committee, said the group had just received word yesterday that they would be meeting on the matter on August 8, so that the Mayor and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty—who are charged with asking the US Fish & Wildlife Service for permission to make changes to the habitat plan—can meet on the matter on August 9.

City staff has said that the Cortaña site is environmentally less sensitive than the previous site planned for WTP4. The Environmental Board, however, has complained that the Austin Water Utility staff never gave them the information they needed to make a proper assessment of the new site. Some board members have expressed concern about the vireo habitat, and many have expressed their frustration about not receiving a report on the four sites considered for the plant.

Garza said he found out last Thursday that the utility had been holding back an alternative site evaluation report since last September. Garza sent the report to members of the board, as well as members of other advisory committees on Friday.

"The way it’s written there’s nothing in that report we couldn’t share with the public. Someone just made an ill-advised decision," Garza said. He said he would be trying to "bring the advisors up to speed and even take their abuse, which is deserved." Garza said he hopes to get the various advisory groups to acknowledge that relocating from the headwaters of Bull Creek, the site where WTP 4 was originally to be located, would be a good move.

"Even a statement of neutrality on the Cortaña site….would be great for everybody," he said. Garza said he plans to schedule a joint meeting of the Environmental Board and the Water and Wastewater Commissions next week in order to answer their questions about WTP4.

County starts process for new civil courthouse

Travis County Commissioners are about to start the clock ticking on the construction of a new civil courthouse for the county, one that could be open by the end of 2011.

In a workshop session last week, a team of county employees led by Executive Manager Alicia Perez outlined a request for services that could be brought to county officials as soon as August 1 in order to start the process and timeline on the courthouse. County officials set aside $150,000 this year for an outside consultant to re-validate past master plans for construction and begin the process for both finding a site for the courthouse and defining the amount of space needed to carry the county through 2040.

District Judge John Dietz, who serves as the administrative judge for the civil courts, anticipates that the county will need an additional district court every five years. At this point, the county has run out of space in the historic civil courts building, although it would be the wish of Dietz and others that the historic courthouse continue to be used for county courts-at-law, as well as the justices of the peace and the county clerk.

Ironically, it was demographer Steve Murdock’s population projections in the school finance case that have given fuel to Dietz’s fire over a new courthouse. According to estimates, the Austin of 2035 will be the same size as the current San Antonio. Given that rate of growth, Dietz estimates the county will need 24 district courts by 2035.

"The simple fact of the matter is that we are out of capacity within the courthouse," said Dietz, noting that space on the third floor of the courthouse was converted for the newest district court, which will open in 2007. "There is simply no more space for any type of court, and it’s been that way for the last several years."

If county officials were to start now with an RFP for a consultant on the courthouse, a bond would likely go to county voters in 2009, with the intention of starting the 24 months of construction almost immediately on the courthouse.

Roger El Khoury, who heads facilities management for the county, noted that the biggest problem the county would face is the Capitol View Corridor. It is best – and hoped – that the new courthouse would be adjacent to or near the existing courthouse complex. The obvious choice for the site would be the former University Savings Building site that once housed some of the sheriff’s offices. Keeping that building in scale, and within the Capitol View Corridor height requirements, will be very difficult, El Khoury said. The likely alternative would be a site along San Antonio Street.

El Khoury used the 17-story Harris County Civil Courthouse as a possible benchmark on the cost of a Travis County facility. Harris County, back in 2003, spent about $182 per-square-foot on 660,000-square-feet of space. Travis County will not need nearly that much, but if inflation and cost adjustments hold true, the county could be spending about $220 per-square-foot on construction by the time it is ready to build its new courts.

Commissioner Karen Sonleitner said she came into the process of the criminal courts building construction well after the design was chosen. She noted that a civil courts building – in the middle of so many historic buildings such as the civil courthouse, the Governor’s Mansion, the Austin History Center and the historic Wooldridge Park – would have to be especially sensitive to its surroundings. People don’t come to see the county’s Granger Building, but they do come to see the Governor’s Mansion, Sonleitner said.

"I don’t know what the point (in time) should be, but we need to not only talk about what this is going to look like but also how it’s going to blend in with its neighbors," Sonleitner said. "To put a 17-story building on the University Savings site right next to the two-story Governor’s Mansion is inappropriate placement and out of context with all our other buildings in the area, none of which are more than six stories. There has to be some consideration of massing and size."

And it seemed a consensus that most would like for it to look like a traditional courthouse. Dietz joked that the new Austin City Hall seemed to be a perfect expression of city government — "going every which way and designed by committee." What the county needed was its own expression in the architecture of its future courthouse.

Perez said the RFP for a consultant on the courthouse would come to the Commissioners Court on August 1. At some point, the commissioners will also consider a steering committee on the project, which Dietz would like to see include representation from the bar, various courts, the Downtown Austin Alliance and the various downtown neighborhood associations. The court will also consider a firm timeline on the courthouse construction at its first meeting in August.

Nanotech boosters seek city support

A unique group of business owners and researchers want the City of Austin to help them make something very small into something really big. The Council’s Committee for Emerging Technology and Telecommunications heard from a group Wednesday seeking help to develop the city’s fledgling nanotechnology industry.

Nanotechnology is the development of structures, devices and systems on a molecular scale with applications in semiconductor, biotechnology, pharmacology and other fields. It is based on working with materials that are 100 nanometers or smaller. For comparison, a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers.

Addressing the Committee were David Gino of Molecular Imprints, Dr. Sanjay Banergee of the UT College of Engineering, Dr. Bill Williams with the UT College of Pharmacy, and Adriana Cruz, director of corporate recruitment for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

With the right conditions and infrastructure, the group said, Austin could become one the major centers for nanotechnology in the country.

"The best way the city of Austin can help is to create an atmosphere that will draw small companies looking to develop ideas into companies," said Gino. He said the city could help with funding, tax subsidies, discounted service costs, infrastructure upgrades, improved educational system and electric power reliability. "Education is the key to promoting activity here. The research that goes on at a flagship institution such as the University of Texas is key to driving big and small companies into the area."

Two weeks ago, UT System officials announced that they are planning to build a $30 million regional nanotechnology research facility on the UT Austin campus. Funding for the facility will come from the UT System, the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, and the semiconductor industry. Each plans to kick in $10 million.

That kind of research energy will help Austin compete with areas like Silicon Valley, San Francisco, upstate New York and other areas, according to the Chamber’s Cruz.

"The future is huge," she said. "It is estimated by the year 2015, the nanotechnology industry will have high growth and long-term stability. We are projecting as much as $3.7 billion in research funding by then."

Williams said whatever the city can do to lure medical research to the area would help.

"Do whatever you can do to start a medical school here," he said, noting that Austin was the only high-tech center in the nanotechnology game without one. "It can have a synergistic effect on startups."

Cruz added that the city itself is a big draw to many companies.

"There is the mystique of Austin," she said "It has a reputation of being cutting edge city with a lot of excitement, and that attracts companies. It’s not just the money offered in incentives but the quality of life that is offered."

Banergee agreed, noting that a poll of graduate students in his nanotechnology engineering department said that Austin would be their first choice for starting a business.

"They said, in essence, to keep keeping Austin weird," he said.

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

Today’s meeting . . . Although the agenda has 153 items, today’s City Council meeting may be over before midnight. That’s because some of the most controversial zoning matter will be put off until the special August 9 Zonarama meeting—so named by Rachel Proctor May, aide to Council Member Brewster McCracken . . . The Council will be considering a retail zoning request at 11801 Dessau Road, despite pleas from neighbors that the change would create a heavy traffic burden. Former Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman has been helping the neighborhood, on a pro bono basis, trying to convince the Council not the grant the request . . . There has been a barrage of email from supporters and opponents of the Star Riverside Residential project at I-35 and Riverside. The matter is up for second and third reading, with the only real question being the maximum height. Council granted the owners a 120-foot building plus two shorter towers . . . The Council will hold two public hearings at 6pm, one on annexation of the Lost Creek MUD into the city . . . City Hall wins design award . . . City Manager Toby Futrell has announced that the City' has received a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design "LEED" Gold Certification for the new City Hall by the United States Green Building Council. This project has been in progress since November of 2004 with an original goal of obtaining a LEED Silver Certification. In order to receive the LEED certification, the Austin City Hall Design Team pursued points that were related to six major building categories specific to Austin's culture: Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Innovation and Design Process . . . Mayor’s aides honored …A group of more than 150 well-wishers gathered at 219 West on Wednesday night for a Bon Voyage party honoring departing mayoral aides Richard Arellano and Matt Curtis. Arellano, Mayor Will Wynn’s Chief of Staff since 2003, is headed to the Austin Housing Authority. Curtis, who leaves City Hall after aide stints for both Council Member McCracken and Mayor Wynn, will go to Capital Metro. "These guys did incredible work for me and for the citizens of Austin, and I owe them both an enormous debt of gratitude for their service," said Mayor Wynn. Former Mayor Bruce Todd and Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole were also on hand to honor the departing duo . . . Tower shooting remembered . . . Austin officials will commemorate the 40 th anniversary of the University of Texas Tower shooting spree by recognizing one of the Austin Police Department officers involved in the conclusion of the incident. This event will take place at the 5:30pm recognition ceremonies during today’s Council meeting. Ramiro "Ray" Martinez was one of two APD police officers involved in the end of Charles Whitman’s shooting spree from the UT Tower on Aug. 1, 1966. The incident left 16 people dead and 33 people wounded. Aug. 1, 2006, will mark the 40 th anniversary of the shootings. . . . Stluka named to health board . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court has appointed Robert Stluka to the Williamson County and Cities Health District Board of Directors. Stluka will fill the unexpired term of Scott Evans who passed away. He will serve through December 31, 2007. . . Barton Springs meeting . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board could declare a Critical Stage Drought tonight if the flow at Barton Springs is low enough. The board meets tonight and will consider that issue, just one week after the Edwards Aquifer Authority in New Braunfels issued a drought alert for the main portion of the aquifer. The board meets at 6pm at the district headquarters at 1224 Regal Row in Manchaca . . . Landfill meeting in Hutto . . . Officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Williamson County will be on hand for a community meeting in Hutto tonight to discuss a permit application to expand the county landfill near there. The matter has been the subject of a long-running battle between a group of Hutto Citizens and the County Commissioners, who allowed changes in the contract with Waste Management to allow the facility to accept waste from outside of the county. County officials announced earlier this week that they are planning to renegotiate the contract with WMI to resolve those problems. Meanwhile, look for a long and noisy session beginning at 7pm at Hutto High School at the corner of SH 79 and FM 685 . . . Come here often? . . . Austin still remains a good place to get lucky, according to Forbes.com. In its annual listing of the Best Cities for Singles, Austin ranked in the Top 10 at No. 8, after just missing at No. 11 last year. Denver was the top spot for the third year in a row, followed by Boston, Phoenix, San Francisco, New York, Raleigh-Durham, Seattle, Austin, Washington- Baltimore, and Miami. (Why do we ALWAYS lose to Seattle?) In its sixth annual ranking, Forbes looked at 40 large metropolitan areas and judged them on nightlife, culture, job growth, number of other singles, cost of living alone, online dating and coolness. Of course, Austin has slipped a bit in the rankings. Back in 2003, we ranked first.

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