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Las Manitas plot thickens with new ordinance idea

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 by

The rally for Las Manitas began – without a site plan and with no developer present – as the Historic Landmark Commission heard a first tentative first presentation on the history of the buildings in the 200 block of Congress at last night’s meeting.

The Historic Landmark Commission, led by Chair Laurie Limbacher, can do little until a demolition permit is filed with the city. At the request of the commission, however, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky presented a first broad overview of the block, which required no action from the commission.

Still, a number of Las Manitas supporters were on hand at last night’s hearing to pass out flyers to a fund-raiser this week to support Las Manitas and Escuelita del Alma, which are in the path of a proposed future complex of Marriott hotels. For more information on this week’s Las Manitas fund-raiser, go to http://www.savelasmanitas.org.

In his presentation, Sadowsky talked about the hotel and saloon days of lower Congress at the turn the last century. The 200 block of Congress, across the street from the train depot, was devoted primarily to liquor stores and houses of ill repute. Sadowsky’s polite term for the area was that it was “low rent” with “plenty of nighttime activity.”

In later years, the block was home to the Sam Wah Café, Copeland Drugs and the Travis Hotel. At this early stage in the research, it’s impossible to know how much architectural integrity the block retains, although it is clear the building in which Las Manitas is housed – the former Travis Hotel – has undergone significant alterations. The Travis Hotel, as it was originally built, was a three-story structure.

But history may not be the only front for Las Manitas, or the successive “Keep Austin Weird” structures that locals may want to preserve. David Sullivan, chair of the Planning Commission, made an initial presentation last night on an iconic preservation ordinance.

“Iconic preservation is the idea to identify businesses and land uses that are highly valued by the Austin community that may not be satisfied by the current requirements for historic zoning – at least not yet – but have significant public appreciation,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan noted the idea was still rough but suggested the possibility of using an iconic label – the result of a famous, eclectic or unique identity – that could be used to provide incentives for preservation. Under the proposal, the city would reward those land owners who chose to preserve unique and popular businesses – such as Maria’s Taco Xpress, Lucy in Disguise or Las Manitas – by offering businesses incentives.

The property owner would not lose any rights to redevelop a piece of property, Sullivan said. Instead, the owner would be offered some kind of reward for preserving a business, such as zero-interest loans, frozen taxes, ease in permitting or zero-interest loans. Those are broad ideas that must still be fully vetted, Sullivan said. No idea is final yet.

Cases would start with the Historic Landmark Commission. Under the proposal, Sullivan said, those property owners who want to earn the benefits of the iconic label would sign a memorandum of understanding with the city to gain the benefits of the program. Business owners could end the iconic business, but property owners would be encouraged to maintain reasonable rents and zoning for the iconic business.

Sullivan said the Drag, East 12th Street, Riverside and South Lamar were obviously places that the city might consider preserving. While his suggestion was brief, it was well received by the Historic Landmark Commission. Limbacher said the iconic label might be another way to address some of the inherent conflicts of preservation.

“This could be something we could use,” Limbacher said. “Sometimes we feel like the tools available to us don’t allow us to respond as effectively as we could.”

New SOS ordinance creeps forward

Out of last spring’s contentious City Charter Amendment elections that saw a pair of citizen-initiated proposals soundly defeated, one idea was heard repeatedly: They were good ideas that were poorly conceived by their backers.

After that election, City Council Member Lee Leffingwell decided to try to capture the essential elements of protecting the Barton Springs zone, minus some of the problems posed by the proposed amendment.

Supported primarily by the SOS Alliance, one amendment was aimed at putting more of the city’s public information on the Internet, while another was designed to protect the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer from further development.

Leffingwell asked a number of environmentalists and real estate professionals, among others, to offer guidance on a proposed ordinance. At the same time a subcommittee of the Environmental Board began looking at the same issues.

Last week, the Environmental Board Chair Dave Anderson talked about the subcommittee’s work thus far.

“We spent the first seven meetings gathering public input on the proposal,” he said. “We documented all of the concerns, then we had staff review it for their input. We did our best to come up with what we thought were the key items that we thought were worthy of bringing forward for further consideration.”

Leffingwell’s proposal would establish that it is the city’s priority to protect the Barton Springs Zone through infrastructure planning for growth and urban development in the Desired Development Zone and to limit development in the Barton Springs Zone. In doing that, the city must:

• Prioritize investments in roads, utilities, and other infrastructure in a manner that minimizes adverse environmental impact on the Barton Springs Zone using the Environmental Suitability Matrix.

• Balance watershed protection for transportation projects, along with safety and efficient transportation for existing residents.

• Perform a cost-benefit and environmental analysis comparing a proposed infrastructure extension with non-structural alternatives such as buying out proposed development lands.

• Not enter into any economic development agreement that has the effect of subsidizing private development within the Barton Springs Zone.

• Review all claims from developers that the land they seek to develop is “grandfathered” under state law, and affirm that the basis for the claim is legitimate.

While the Environmental Board subcommittee generally backed most of the Leffingwell proposal, it offered several suggestions to strengthen its provisions.

In general, the subcommittee called for the city to undertake comprehensive master planning for the Barton Springs segment that would balance environmental concerns, community needs, and transportation options to adequately protect the Edwards Aquifer and other natural resources in the BSZ. It called for such a master plan to attempt to quantify the value of Barton Springs and the aquifer to the community (as drinking water, source of tourism dollars, etc.), as well as the cost of mitigation incurred by the City when they are not protected.

Other specific parts in which the subcommittee called for stronger provisions included:

· recognizing a need to hold accountable a company whose activities are controlled by another company that violates the city’s policy of locating major employment centers in the BSZ;

• Sarah Baker with the Save Our Spring Alliance said the subcommittee’s work will make the ordinance more effective.

“They entertained discussions from all sides of the table,” she said. “I think there was a thorough discussion of the ordinance. The meetings were very inclusive, open and allowed a lot of discussion. The ordinance allows increased analysis and public participation on important decisions the city makes in the Barton Springs Watershed.”

Leffingwell’s group is now considering the Environmental Board subcommittee’s recommendations. After that, both group’s recommendations will go to the Planning Commission.

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

Hyde Park still experiencing changes . . . The Historic Landmark Commission could do little to stop the expansion of two Hyde Park homes at its meeting last night. More than a dozen neighbors showed up to protest remodeling permits of two homes on Avenue H in the National Hyde Park Historic District. Owner James Dunaway wanted to put a second floor on 4105 Avenue H. The owners at 3807 Avenue H wanted to add a rear 600-square-foot addition to create two large duplexes. Neighbors reiterated a fear that super-sizing local homes would destroy the fabric of the Hyde Park community before a local historic district could be set up. Commissioner Jean Mather said it was clear to her, from last night's discussion, that the McMansions ordinance still needed work . . . Tonight's events . . . Democrats are set for the 19th Annual "Yeller Dawg" Event from 5:30-8:30pm tonight at the AFL-CIO Building at 11th & Lavaca. Every year, South Austin Democrats gather to honor those who have served their country and party in the trenches. This year, the group is honoring Maria Canchola, Walter Hinojosa, Shirley Johnson, Gerard Washington, and Judge Jon Wisser. Senator Gonzalo Barrientos will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. Tickets are $10 at the door . . . Activists could have a busy night shuttling between the Democrats' event and the Liveable City Vision Awards. This year's recipients are the African American Quality of Life Community Teams, Capital Idea, and Las Manitas. Was politics involved in the selections? According to the Liveable City website, "The theme of this year's Liveable City Vision Awards is 'celebrating Austin's civic spirit,' the spirit that brings us together to create community and a sense of place." The three were chosen as "examples of this spirit in action because of their dedication to increasing opportunity and creating a livable city for every Austinite." The event is from 6-8pm at Mexic-Arte Museum, 4th and Congress. Tickets are $25. For more information, visit http://www.liveablecity.org/donate_awards.php . . . Meetings . . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Parks and Recreation Board meets at 6pm at PARD Headquarters at 200 South Lamar … The S altillo District Redevelopment Project Community Advisory Group meets at 9:30am at the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp. at 1000 Lydia Ave. . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am at the County Annex on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . . The Hays County Commissioners Court meets at 9am at the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos . . . ABIA passenger traffic up . . . Austin-Bergstrom International Airport has set another record for boarding in August. Total passenger traffic at ABIA for August 2006 was up 4 percent from last year to 697,538. Boardings totaled 348,204, up 4.5 percent from last year. Southwest Airlines again brought the largest share of passengers through the airport, with 249,433 travelers last month — up 9 percent from August 2005. ABIA's air cargo operation, however, continues to slump. August 2006 air cargo totaled 20.5 million pounds, down 7.5 percent compared to August 2005. . . . Becker to add tuition for kindergarten . . . Hoping to boost enrollment at South Austin's Becker Elementary School, Austin school board trustees agreed last night to implement a tuition-based component to the school's full-day pre-kindergarten program. The expansion will be implemented immediately, with a maximum annual tuition set at $4,656 . . . In praise of banned books . . . The ACLU-Central Texas Chapter is hosting a Wednesday night reading and reception at Brave New Books, 1904 Guadalupe, at 6:30 p.m. That's in the basement of the Chase Bank building across from Dobie Mall. Guest readers will include, among others, Council Member Lee Leffingwell, UT Professor Bob Jensen and former Austin art teacher Tamara Hoover, who lost her job due to semi-clad online photos. For more information, go to http://www.aclutx.org/chapters/austin.php. Parking is in the rear of the bank building and in the Dobie garage . . . Hispanic Chamber awards . . . The Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GAHCC) announces local individuals and companies that will be honored at an upcoming awards ceremony for their outstanding contributions to the Austin community. The award recipients will be recognized at the 2006 Annual GAHCC Community Service Awards Luncheon at 11:30am on Thursday at the Omni Hotel in Downtown Austin, 700 San Jacinto. The theme for this year's ceremony will be, "Educación y Salud: The Path for a Strong Future," in honor of those who dedicate their time and energy to making Austin a better place to live by educating the community on health initiatives. For information, contact Nayeli Gallegos at 441-1930, or ngallegos@hispanicaustin.com.

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