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ROMA wins bid for Downtown Master Plan

Friday, October 6, 2006 by

Yesterday the Council chose ROMA Design Consultants, which is already involved in planning for a number of major city projects, for a $600,000 contract to develop a master plan for Downtown Austin.

Two of the three finalists chosen by city staff made 20-minute presentations to Council on their qualifications for the position. In addition to the San Francisco-based ROMA group – which had been recommended by city staff – EDAW Design of Denver made a presentation. A third group, Crandall Arambula of Portland, contacted the city Thursday morning and declined to make a presentation.

The choice stirred controversy among several local design firms, as city staff had disqualified any designers who own property in Downtown. That knocked local designers such as Sinclair Black and Cid Galindo out of the running.

One Council Member, Mike Martinez, was also upset with the process used in choosing the consultant.

“We just heard a couple of 15-minute presentations, and now we’re being asked to make a quick decision here,” Martinez said. “I don’t feel like we are truly able to view this amount of material and make an informed choice. I would really want more time to truly evaluate the companies.”

Council approved the staff recommendation for ROMA on a 6-0 vote, with Martinez abstaining.

ROMA is no stranger to working with the City of Austin. It is currently involved in design work for the Mueller Airport Redevelopment, the Saltillo District Redevelopment Plan, the Second Street Retail District and others. In its presentation, ROMA emphasized it’s already strong experience in Austin.

In its Request for Qualifications, the city called for a consultant to develop a vision for how the downtown area should develop over the next five to 20 years; recommendations for transportation, development, infrastructure, affordable housing, open space, and use of government-owned land; development of Station Area Plans for the Convention Center and Seaholm TODs; and implementation strategies for both the short (2-5 years) and the long (15-20 years) term.

Council Members were particularly interested in the candidates’ plans for developing affordable housing in the downtown area. Council Member Jennifer Kim questioned presenters about how they would achieve the city’s affordable housing goals.

Both consulting groups said they planned a variety of mechanisms to achieve affordable housing, from density bonuses to outright grants from the public sector.

Martinez was concerned that despite the fact that affordable housing might bring diversity to downtown, it would be difficult to make goods and services in the area affordable for those on lower salaries.

Consultants for ROMA said the plan for downtown would have a place for businesses of all kinds and not just the high-end shops and restaurants like those springing up in the 2nd Street retail area.

Arboretum Tower condos return

The developers of the proposed Arboretum Tower project in northwest Austin were back before the Zoning and Platting Commission Tuesday night, requesting a new zoning change for a 12-story retirement community with 130 condominiums. The design for the project is similar to the tower originally proposed for 11,940 Jollyville Road that drew opposition from the surrounding neighborhood earlier this year, but the new proposed location is now 11,601 Jollyville Road. That new zoning case will be heard by the ZAP at its meeting on October 17.

Since the project’s new address is less than a mile from the original location, many of the same neighborhood groups have organized to oppose what the say is inappropriate downtown-style development in their suburban area. They’ve maintained the web site they established during the original Arboretum Tower case ( http://www.notower.com) with a section devoted to the new project.

The focus at Tuesday night’s hearing was not on the merits of the project itself, but on how long the ZAP should delay its hearing on the case. Neighborhood representatives requested a 12-week postponement, while consultant Amelia Lopez-Phelps told the ZAP that a three-month postponement would effectively kill the project. “We have a very tight schedule on this project,” she said. “This is a project that actually, under a different name, began almost a year ago. It’s been postponed numerous times under a different name. We weren’t able accomplish anything productive.”

While the ZAP routinely grants first postponement requests in order to allow developers to meet with neighborhoods, Lopez-Phelps doubted the intent behind the neighborhood’s request. “It’s been made clear to us that the neighborhood is not open to any reasonable discussions on this and I believe their letter states they want to find some other users.” Since the financing for the Arboretum Tower project was secured nearly a year ago, Lopez-Phelps said, the developer was running out of time. “We do have a commitment with the lender that we have to finish this project by November,” she said, noting that the project still would have to go before the City Council and the Board of Adjustment. “At 12 weeks, you just don’t have a project. If the commission grants a postponement, which you normally do, please keep it at two weeks. We think that’s fair.”

Commissioner Clarke Hammond originally moved for a postponement until December in line with the neighborhood’s request. But that motion failed, and Commissioner Joseph Martinez moved for a two-week delay. “You’ve got someone who’s investing in the future of Austin,” he said. “We do owe them a timeliness to get about the business of what they would like to do.”

But that motion also failed. Chair Betty Baker suggested a six week delay as a compromise, and Martinez offered that as a motion. “This is not just a change for this neighborhood, this is a change for this whole area of the city And ,” said Baker, “it’s a big one. I think there should be a lot of people at the table.”

The motion for a six week delay passed on a vote of 7-0 over Lopez-Phelps’ objections. “The date you’ve given us has killed the project,” she said. “There’s not a project with that postponement.” She requested that the ZAP send the case to Council without a recommendation, or even with a recommendation to deny the zoning change. But the commission stood by its decision, with Baker urging Lopez-Phelps to visit again with the lender responsible for financing the project.

With that vote taken, the neighborhood representatives who were at the meeting went home. But after hearing another case and then taking a short recess—during which time Lopez-Phelps lobbied strenuously for a shorter delay—commissioners returned to reconsider the matter. After further consideration, they voted 6-1 for a two-week postponement instead of the original six weeks. Hammond opposed to the change.

At the end of the evening, neighborhood representative Brad Shafer returned to question the commission about their action. “I guess I’m just a little confused, to tell you the truth,” he said. He protested the commission’s decision to take action after the opponents of the zoning change request had left. “The motion was carried and it was closed. I went to the house.”

But under Robert’s Rules of Order, the commission does have the right to reconsider decisions made earlier in the meeting. “It’s done very infrequently,” said Baker. “I regret any inconvenience on your part, but it was done fairly and it was done legally.”

Council postpones asking panel to study salaries

The Austin City Council postponed indefinitely an item on Thursday’s agenda that would have directed the Ethics Review Commission to make recommendations on Council salaries and restrictions on outside income. Instead, the Council may consider a separate proposal in a few weeks to raise the salaries for Council Members by the same percentage raise granted to city employees since 2000 as part of their Cost of Living Allowance, or COLA.

While three members of the Council had sponsored the proposal to have the Ethics Review Commission make a recommendation on Council salaries, Council Member Lee Leffingwell objected. "I don’t think they have any purview," he said. "They don’t have any expertise. I think it puts the individual members of the commission in a very uncomfortable position. They are appointed by us, so they in effect would be recommending a salary for the people they work for. At best, that’s very questionable. At worst, I think it creates at least a perception of a conflict of interest."

Mayor Will Wynn said the Council should have some type of outside review before making any decisions about salaries. "What I liked about the original format of this proposal is the third-party advice," he said. "No elected official likes to vote on his or her salary; it’s just not a pleasant thing for any public official to do anywhere in any format."

It was Leffingwell who publicly suggested linking any raise for Council Members to the Cost of Living Allowances that had been granted to rank-and-file city employees since the last time the Council salaries had been adjusted in 2000. "I don’t necessarily oppose a salary increase for Council Members," he said. "We haven’t had one for seven or eight years, and I think a salary increase based on a retroactive COLA would be very much in order. It wouldn’t require a budget amendment, something above that would."

Leffingwell’s strong reaction to the proposal sponsored by Wynn, Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley and Council Member Brewster McCracken became evident on Wednesday. It was the source of several rumors throughout the day Thursday as McCracken struggled to convince Leffingwell to support the resolution. But when he could not convince Leffingwell, McCracken said he would leave it up to Leffingwell and Council Member Jennifer Kim to come back with a cost of living proposal.

Council Members salaries are set by ordinance at $45,011 per year, with the Mayor earning $52,998. But both the Mayor and Council Members also receive benefits other than straight salary, including health insurance valued at $7,004, a cell phone stipend of $900, and a car allowance of $5,400 per year. Adding in the amounts the city contributes for FICA and Medicaid, the total compensation package is $61,759 per year. Those extras for the Mayor bring his total compensation to $70,357.

A typical aide’s salary is about $41,500 plus benefits and retirement without taking into account prior city employment. The total for that aide who has no city seniority is about $57,377. Mayoral aides generally make more than that as do employees who have several years of experience with the city.

The vote to indefinitely postpone the item on Thursday’s agenda related to Council salaries was 6-0, with Leffingwell not voting. However, several Council Members indicated they would be willing to consider a cost of living increase. "Even if

there was a format for some type of straight cost-of-living approach, I’d still like to have that vetted in some arena or format," said Wynn, "and get some citizen input and feedback prior to us taking it up on this dais. I will work with any Council Member if they want to take a different approach. But I would still suggest that we reach out and ask for some type of community suggestion."

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

Fairfield consideration postponed . . . The Parks and Recreation Board got close but failed to get a quorum last night at a special-called meeting to consider a variance request for a new high-rise tower project on Barton Springs Drive next to the Hyatt. Chair Linda Guerrero apologized to attorney Michael Whellan but said the Parks Board would have to delay its decision for two weeks. Fairfield Residential plans two 200-foot mixed use towers on the same property as the Hyatt Hotel. The towers will be built roughly in the same footprint as the current parking lots. The Environmental Board recommended the project to the Planning Commission earlier this week (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 5, 2006) . . . Traveling . . . Council Members Brewster McCracken and Lee Leffingwell will travel to Portland this weekend for the International Downtown Association's annual meeting. Both are going not only as members of the Council but also as Capitol Metro board members. The transit agency is studying how and when to ask voters for approval of bonds to build a downtown rail or trolley system to connect with the light rail system . . . Council Member Jennifer Kim is winging her way to Phoenix for a meeting of the National League of Cities' committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources. She serves on the group's steering committee . . . Housing summit Saturday . . . The Third Annual Austin Housing Summit will begin at 8:30am Saturday at St. Edward's University's Ragsdale Center. Sponsored by Housing Works, the meeting's featured speakers include former Mayor Gus Garcia, Sheriff Greg Hamilton and Rev. Emilee Whitehurst. Topics include affordable housing, neighborhood concerns and the upcoming bond election. For more information, call 326-3356 . . . Swimming in the moonlight . . . The SOS Alliance is having its full moon swim and potluck tonight at Barton Springs Pool from 8-10pm. Admission to the pool is free . . . LIVESTRONG Challenge . . . Austin Mayor Will Wynn has urged Austinites to join him at Lance Armstrong's LIVESTRONG Challenge this weekend. "I'd like everyone to be a member of Team Will Wynn," he said. "You can be a part of my team no matter how you participate in the challenge." Wynn has signed up for the 5K Run on Sunday and has also encouraged the City of Austin's 11,000-plus employees to participate. LIVESTRONG Challenge events include bicycling, running, walking or volunteering. Participants can register online at www.livestrongchallenge.org or in the LIVESTRONG Village at the Convention Center from 4-8pm on Friday, and 12-6pm on Saturday. There is a $50 registration fee for all participants, excluding volunteers. More information on the event can be found at http://www.livestrongchallenge.org. . . A dirty job . . . A multi-agency partnership will come together to assist citizens with clean up of the Town Lake Trail and neighborhoods by providing information about the need for pet owners to scoop up dog poop. The group will hold a media event and photo opportunity at the North end of the Roberta Crenshaw Pedestrian Bridge at 10am Saturday. The group is kicking off a campaign to encourage dog owners to pick up after their pets. The multi-agency group will also offer rewards for pet owners that are spotted exercising responsible pet ownership and helping to keep parks clean. For more information contact Sara Heilman, COA Watershed Protection and Development Review Dept, 974-3540 Or Dorinda Pulliam, Town Lake Animal Center, 972-6088 . . . Drought meetings planned . . . The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District will hold two town hall type meetings to receive input from District permittees, individual groundwater users, and the public on prospective changes in the district's rules to improve drought management and enforcement. The district is proposing these changes in response to the challenges that have emerged from their efforts to manage the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer during the ongoing severe drought. The meetings are planned for Oct. 10 at Sunset Valley City Hall; and Oct. 11 at the City of Buda Council Chambers. Both meetings are at 7pm. For more information, call the District at 282-8441 or go to http://www.bseacd.org.

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