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White Lodging responds to Council letter

Wednesday, November 1, 2006 by

White Lodging Services Group, which is mired in a dispute over its plan to build a Marriott Hotel on Congress that would displace Las Manitas Restaurant and other local businesses, responded in writing Tuesday to a letter from three Council Members asking for a different scenario. (See In Fact Daily, September 29, 2006.)

While insisting that it wants to work with the city, White’s response made it clear that the only scenario it sees is to relocate the local businesses and use the entire block to construct the Marriott. White also claimed that all its attempts to assist Las Manitas and Escuelita de Alma have been rejected. The current leases for those businesses end on Dec. 31.

“Our opinion is that a successful convention hotel can’t be built on the block between 2nd and 3rd streets on Congress if the existing buildings have to remain,” owner Bruce White wrote, also rejecting suggestions that the hotel be built around the existing structures.

Council Member Mike Martinez chose to interpret the letter positively, while Council Member Brewster McCracken expressed guarded pessimism.

“I think it’s a good sign that we got a response,” Martinez said “I think it’s an acknowledgment that we, as Council Members, are involved in this process. We are hopeful we can find the best possible solution.”

Martinez concluded, "I want people to understand that my involvement and my efforts in this issue are in no way to try to deny an individual their property rights. I realize what we’re dealing with but it’s my job as a Council Member to be a leader in situations like this and to find workable solutions and that’s what I'm going to try to keep doing . . . "

While Martinez said just getting a response from the developer was a good sign, McCracken said he didn’t see much flexibility in the company’s position.

“The letter speaks for itself,” he said. “I disagree with them that premium brand hotels have no responsibility to downtown or the community. I can't read their minds but I do believe we all need to work together to create a downtown that has a place for everybody, including local, small businesses. I also believe that everybody has a responsibility to make that vision of downtown a reality.”

Council Member Lee Leffingwell said the best thing to do at this point is to try and extend the amount of time left on the leases.

“I feel like my role in this is just as cheerleader,” he said. “I'm encouraging (the local business owners) to accept the agreement if they can come to terms on all the items to give us time to try to find some alternative location for their businesses, for La Escuelita and Las Manitas.

In his letter, the developer drew parallels to an earlier downtown project, the Austin Hilton.

“I am certain that when the Hilton convention hotel was built you determined that the entire block was needed, the alley was vacated and an increase in FAR was needed in order to build a successful project,” he wrote. “The same applies here. As you explore the concept of density bonuses downtown, please keep in mind that increasing the FAR and vacating alleys may be a development bonus for some projects, but for convention hotels, it is simply a necessity in order for them to work.”

However, the Hilton project was a city-backed development, built with bond funds sold by the Austin Convention Enterprises, a firm created by the City Council. The Hilton was also the final project receiving fee waivers under the city policy encouraging Smart Growth.

McCracken is on the record about what he sees as the city’s vision for the future of downtown.

“The Las Manitas question is about more than Las Manitas,” he wrote in response to a local newspaper’s editorial. “If you ask Austinites what their vision is for downtown in 2020, you’ll hear remarkably consistent responses. People want a bustling downtown with people from all walks of life. … Austinites want downtown to be a community. And they want everyone to be included.”

Also Tuesday, Dina Flores of Las Escuelita came down to City Hall with dozens of children on a Halloween mission. Former Council Member Raul Alvarez, whose daughter attends the school, pointed to the adult part of the mission—delivering about 1000 postcards to the Council from various people who asked the city to save the local businesses. Several Council Members stood on the back steps of City Hall and passed out candy to the children.

Flores said she and her colleagues had been looking for suitable space downtown but had not been able to find any space they could afford. She said they wanted a 60-day extension to conduct a feasibility study of costs of relocation.

Alvarez said, “We can't really negotiate on the financial aspects until we know what our relocation options would be.”

He added, “One of the provisions in the initial deal that wasn’t acceptable to the owners was that if they didn’t get whatever approvals they wanted from the city they could terminate the lease extension. That’s the part White Lodging and Marriott never talk about,” Alvarez said. Such a clause amounts to no lease extension agreement at all, he said.

“We don’t control what the city does and doesn’t do….they could give you 30 days notice….For me it’s just unconscionable, really, that they are putting our kids and our families in this position where we’re two months away from Jan. 1 and we don’t know whether we’re going to have child care services,” said Alvarez. He said Escuelita cares for about 120 children from 100 families.

The only thing certain today is that negotiations will continue because both sides have too much to lose by refusing to talk.

Travis County to join clean air group

Travis County Commissioners agreed to join the Texas Cities for Clean Air at yesterday’s commissioners court meeting, but only with the caveat that they see data from the group’s experts before expressing opposition to 17 coal-burning power plants being fast-tracked for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Earlier this month, Dallas Mayor Laura Miller made an appearance at commissioners court, asking Travis County to join the group to study the impact of the power plants on the clean air initiatives in areas either out of compliance with the Clean Air Act – like Houston and Dallas – or in near non-compliance – like Austin. Lobbyist Curtis Seidlits appeared before the court to defend TXU, the holder of most of the permits.

Seidlits argued that the support of the Texas Cities for Clean Air indicated the county’s opposition to the plants. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said he was not ready to support or oppose the plants but would be ready to make a decision once he could review objective data of the impact of the plants on Central Texas. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner argued it was crucial to join the Clean Cities task force, if only to gain standing before TCEQ, whether it was in favor or against the plants.

The first hearing on a fast-track coal plant will occur in three weeks. After some discussion, county officials agreed to join the coalition. Commissioner Margaret Gomez was absent from yesterday’s meeting.

The county’s contribution – a mere $10,000 – is the token amount charged to all entities that have joined the group, Miller said. Most of the significant funding will come from private contributions solicited by Miller. Environmental Officer John Kuhl made some quick drafting changes to the county’s resolution to suggest the county’s contribution was a contribution to the modeling efforts and not the lobbying efforts, as of yet.

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

November 7 election night parties . . . Mayor Will Wynn, other Council members and others supporting the city's Bond Election package will gather starting at 7:30pm at Joe's Bar and Grill, 504 West Avenue to watch election returns and celebrate if the package is approved. . . . Austin-area Libertarians will gather to celebrate the growth of the Libertarian Party in Texas. The party, hosted by the Travis County Libertarian Party, begins at 7:30pm at The Legends at the Holiday Inn Arboretum, 8901 Business Park Dr. . . .The Travis County Republican Party will watch the election returns next Tuesday from 8-11pm from the second floor ballroom at the at the Omni Hotel, 701 San Jacinto . . . The Travis County Democratic Party will watch returns and party starting at7:30pm at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel at 701 Congress Ave. . . . Watch this space for more announcements as Election Day nears . . . Travis County votes . . . Total early voting is up to 57,298, or about 10.3 percent of the registered voters in Travis County. Highest turnout locations on Tuesday were 706 voters at Northcross Mall, 694 at Randall’s on South MoPac and 808 at Randall’s on Research Boulevard . . . Meetings . . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . Lakeline extension . . . Williamson County will begin construction of the Lakeline Boulevard extension in November. A groundbreaking was scheduled for Oct. 25 but it was cancelled due to rain. It will not be rescheduled so that it does not hold up the start of construction. A ribbon cutting ceremony will be held when the project is completed in the summer of 2007. The Lakeline Extension will provide a free alternative to using SH 45 access and be a vital east-west connection from Parmer Lane to US 183. It will also provide direct access to the new Capital Metro Rail Station. Lakeline Blvd. Extension will run from Lyndhurst Drive west to Parmer Lane. It will be constructed on the north as two lanes of an ultimate four-lane divided urban arterial, including a 5-foot sidewalk along the north side. The project length is 1 mile, and the cost is $2,691,068.81. The road is designed by Carter Burgess and constructed by JC Evans Construction and HNTB. . . Gallery Watch purchased . . . The Economist Group of London, publisher of The Economist Magazine and the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, has acquired GalleryWatch. GalleryWatch is an Austin-based online legislative information tracking service that serves government affairs professionals at government agencies, trade associations, corporations, law and lobbying firms and universities. Terms of the deal were not disclosed . . . Another smoking crackdown . . . After a judge's ruling recently took some of the teeth out of Austin's Smoking in Public Places Ordinance, the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department has announced its stepping in to help with enforcement. Effective today, in addition to business establishments being subject to citations, A/TCHHS, with the assistance of the Austin Police Department, will be citing individuals who are in violation of the smoking ordinance. Those found in violation and cited can face fines of up to $500. Staff from both the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department and the Austin Police Department have jointly visited establishments to provide education and answer questions on the new enforcement guidelines. To report a violation of the Smoking in Public Places Ordinance or to ask questions about the ordinance, contact the Environmental and Consumer Health Unit of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department at 972-5600 or e-mail to:

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