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Bonds, downtown development Top Stories of 2006

Wednesday, December 20, 2006 by

Council members cite charter amendments, WTP4, McMansions as other major events

Arriving at the end of a remarkably busy year, it seems like an appropriate time to take a deep breath and look back at some of the stories that made 2006 a memorable one for the City of Austin.

“THE story of 2006, of course, is our bond package,” said Mayor Will Wynn, who played a key role in fundraising for the $567 million package. ( In Fact Daily, November 8, 2006.)

The Mayor and Council began with a set of possible propositions, ranging from open space and parkland, affordable housing, street reconstruction and traffic signals to cultural facilities for a wide segment of the community. Then those ideas were sent to a citizens committee which spent many hours listening and arguing about which of the proposals should make it to the ballot.

Finally, an army of interested citizens raised money and talked up the bonds, which faced only token last-minute opposition. The Mayor, who raised about $275,000 in advertising money to promote the bonds, pronounced himself “very proud.”

Other Council Member echoed his remarks, with Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley saying she was “thrilled the public supported (the bonds) so overwhelmingly. It positions us over the next six to seven years to accomplish what needs to be done in our city.”

Both new Council Members, Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole, strongly supported the bonds too. In addition to what had been specifically outlined in pre-election discussions, the open space money provided a way to buy a rough-hewn environmental gem in East Austin—Oak Springs. (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 15, 2006.) They pushed hard during the past few weeks to preserve the six acres.

Martinez said, “On the positive side, I think the bond election was extremely powerful. I think it’s going to have an impact on the city for the next 50 years.”

For Wynn and other downtown boosters, another big story for 2006—and continuing into 2007—is the high rate of growth of downtown development. “What's happening downtown right now, including the fact that this year five tower cranes have been erected and three more are on the way, speaks volumes to the march to make Austin’s urban core the most vibrant in the country,” said Wynn. “That includes the decommissioning of the Green Water Treatment Plant,” he added.

Somewhat overlooked on the local level, but making news in Washington’s legislative circles, is the push for plug-in hybrid vehicles. Austin’s Plug-In Partners campaign, which began just last January, has made remarkable progress, Wynn said. He added, “The campaign finds itself as one key component on the national debate about climate protection and American energy dependence. (US) Senate and House members and even the White House are talking about this less than one year after the City of Austin kicked off the campaign.”

Another major milestone for the city was the May campaign to amend the city charter. The Save Our Springs Alliance (SOS) and its allies were disappointed when voters rejected their proposals, called Open Government and SOS (Propositions 1 and 2). City officials were relieved but environmentalists worried that the loss would be a permanent setback for environmental protection.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell, however, found a silver lining after the ugly campaign, setting up an unofficial group to propose changes to city policy to accomplish some of the goals of those who believed the amendments were the only way to protect Barton Springs. Leffingwell said this week that he believes that group’s proposals—expected to be completed in about three months, can “help save Barton Springs and be an economic benefit to the people of Southwest Austin.”

“I do think the one thing that came out of it is the spirit of cooperation between environmentalists and those that would normally be associated with the development community. Those people are working together so well you would think they grew up together . . .” He said the proposals would address mitigation and redevelopment in the Barton Springs zone and retrofit opportunities.

“I'm very optimistic and I think we’re going to have something that virtually everyone can support. When you get two guys like Craig Smith and Jeffrey Howard I think you're chances are good,” he concluded.

Leffingwell added, “I definitely think the decision the city made with building Water Treatment Plant 4 is right at the top,” of the list of most important stories of 2006, along with the decision to delay for almost 40 years the building of a new Green plant downstream. He said the water conservation task force that he leads would complete its work on Jan. 12.

Council Member Brewster McCracken stressed the importance of another charter amendment that did pass—the one allowing gays and lesbian city employees to enroll their partners in health care programs previously reserved for heterosexual spouses.

“Not only were we lifting something from our past,” namely the charter amendment prohibiting the granting of domestic partner benefits, “but for the first time in the history of our state that there’s been an election on the civil rights of gay and lesbians that has passed, he said. “That’s a pretty big deal.”

McCracken also said passage of the McMansion ordinance, the election of Democrats to the Hays County Commissioners Court and the election of Valinda Bolton as major stories for Austin and Texas as well.

He said one overlooked story might be emergence of digital media as an economic force in the city and said 2006 could be “a potentially significant moment when Austin became the alternative to Hollywood’s big studio film model.”

Martinez said Officer Julie Schroeder’s shooting of unarmed teenager Daniel Rocha was “the most significant police event of the year” and the single most significant negative thing to happen in the city this year. “And I think we will continue to struggle with the ramifications from that for a long time,” he said.

Cole found the budget process – her first – to be of great significance, showing that “we were very positive in our outlook on the city’s future.” The items added into the bare bones budget, along with the bonds, reflect a positive attitude by a unanimous Council.

Along the same line, Cole said doubling the amount of money the city provides for treatment of Sickle Cell anemia was a big story, reflecting the city’s commitment to funding health and human services for African Americans

Council Member Jennifer Kim said the Council retreat—or its resulting 70-some ideas—was a major event of the year. “Because we had a chance to actually think about strategic planning and our vision,” which is not usually possible given the fast pace of Austin’s current boom.

ZAP OKs Concordia's new home on Schlumberger tract

Concordia Lutheran College’s future home took another step forward last night, and the Zoning and Platting Commission approved adding College and University Uses to the planned development agreement (PDA) for the former Schlumberger tract in Northwest Austin.

The small, private college plans to move from its current 22-acre site just north of Downtown Austin to the 388-acre site that formerly housed the research and development campus for the oil field service provider. The move is tentatively scheduled to begin in the springs of 2008, with classes beginning that fall. The first class will graduate from the new campus in spring, 2009.

Of the 388 acres, 250 will remain a natural preserve, 110 will be used as buildable land, and another 28 acres has not been designated for use. There are six buildings currently in place from when Schlumberger occupied the property that will be converted into classroom space.

Concordia officials say the new campus will be arranged into four different villages, including areas for academics and administration, student life with a new chapel and student union, dorms and an athletics complex and sports fields.

Three architecture firms are overseeing the project, which will begin with renovations in six existing buildings in early spring 2007. Officials said it will take up to 20 years to complete the master plan, depending on the amount of money available.

Concordia has not released the sale price for the Schulmberger property, but the 388 acres was valued at about $17 million for tax purposes in 2006. University officials plan to finance building the new campus with money made through fundraising, proceeds from the sale of the downtown property, about 20 acres previously valued at about $90 million, and a possible bond sale.

Currently, Concordia’s enrollment is 1,231 students, about a 15 percent increase from 1,075 students in 2002. The student population is projected to grow another 8 percent, to 1,332 students, by 2010. Officials are also looking for a downtown location to accommodate 350 students in evening programs.

Changes to the Schlumberger tract to accommodate the college sailed through ZAP, with only one or two minor questions from the board. The owners of the property said if – for some reason – Concordia changed its mind and did not close on the property, they planned to develop the area for single family housing under the current provisions of the existing PDA.

Bus last week, the Environmental Board took a long, hard look at the transaction, posing major questions about how development as intense as a college campus can locate right next to the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.

Several members of the Environmental Board expressed concerns that the added buildings and roadways in the area could disturb the habitat of several endangered species in the area, as well as contribute to non-point source pollution in area creeks and waterways. Concordia officials agreed to take a number of steps when planning the new campus to mitigate possible environmental damage.

City boards to review, revise outdated noise ordinance

The Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee is only one of a number of commissions reviewing the city’s current noise ordinance. The current ordinance, approved in early 2003, has not kept pace with the downtown area’s growth.

At a meeting this week, the subcommittee heard both neighborhood complaints about loopholes in the current ordinance and new enforcement measures being led by Lt. Ronald Potts through the new PACE unit. PACE stands for the Public Assembly Code Enforcement team, which brings together police, fire, code enforcement, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Department of Public Safety to tackle problematic large assemblies such as clubs or fraternity parties.

Clara Hilling, who issues noise permits and was on hand for this week’s meeting, said the four-year-old noise ordinance was in need of an overhaul. Hilling noted the inability of the ordinance to fully address a number of situations: outdoor music next to residential or multi-family buildings; the deafening noise of construction at all hours; and the difficulty defining an infraction in areas such as downtown where the combined music or noise often is above the city’s allowable decibel limit.

Potts said the new PACE team, which launched in September, has been successful in curtailing problems at some chronic locations. That’s important in dealing with noise complaints, where it could take officers two to three hours to get to a low-priority noise complaint, especially in the early morning hours when bars close.

The subcommittee, chaired by Commissioner Chris Riley, circled around a number of noise issues: the difficulty getting officers with noise meters out to suburban areas; the fact that noise ordinance enforcement often has to be complaint driven rather than initiated by the officer; the incompatibility of noisy commercial establishments next to residential areas; and the inherent problem of the combined noise and vibrations of clubs for downtown residents. The group also agreed that the issue of car stereo noise, which is difficult to pin down and rarely fined heavily, should be addressed by the city.

The complaint-driven nature of the ordinance was a key issue, especially when it takes two to three hours to respond to the call. Laura Morrison of the Austin Neighborhoods Council said she understood the nature of the ordinance so there is only a reaction to neighbors’ concerns. But she also suggested that acoustical abatement was a better long-term solution for some of the repeat offenders. Perhaps the city could offer some type of loan program to assist in such measures in problem areas, Morrison said.

Other city boards and commissions are looking into requiring downtown residential building to invest in soundproofing to act as a barrier between residents and the clubs. Others are looking to fund better, more accurate sound meters for police and code enforcement officers.

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

Happy trails . . . There were still a few people around City Council offices Tuesday, but the numbers were dropping rapidly. In Fact Daily has declared sine die for the year. We will return with a new web site on January 8. In the meantime, we wish all of our readers and their friends the merriest of Christmases and the happiest of New Years . . . KAB Awards Winners announced . . . Keep Austin Beautiful has announced its Clean, Beautify and Protect the Austin Environment. Award winners. This year's winners and honorable mentions are: Beautification — Winner: Town Lake Trail Foundation; Honorable Mention: Highland Park West Balcones Community. Community Involvement — Winner: Austin Parks Foundation; Honorable Mention: St. John Neighborhood Association/J.J. Pickle Elementary School. Education — Winner: City of Austin Watershed Protection & Development Review Department; Honorable Mention: Beverly S. Sheffield Education Center. Dennis Hobbs Individual Achievement — Winner: Rene Barrera. Industry Leadership — Winner: Austin Energy; Honorable Mention: Whole Foods Market. Litter Abatement — Winner: The Rhizome Collective; Honorable Mention: Slaughter Creek Improvement and Planning Association (SCIAPA). Recycling & Waste Reduction — Winner: Austin Habitat for Humanity ReStore; Honorable Mention: University of Texas at Austin Campus Environmental Center. Freescale Youth Achievement — Winners: Clint Small Middle School and Gonzalo Garza Independence High School. Winners will be honored at Keep Austin Beautiful 22nd Annual Awards Luncheon at 11am on Feb. 7, at the Hyatt Regency Austin. Each winner will be presented with a unique and prestigious Award, made by a local artist using 100 percent reused material. To purchase tickets for the 22nd Annual Keep Austin Beautiful Awards luncheon, please visit http://www.KeepAustinBeautiful.org or call 391-0622. . . . Meanwhile on Congress Avenue . . . Even though we haven't heard any news on this front, there could still be developments on the Las Manitas/White Lodging story. Attorney Steve Drenner, who has represented Stratus Properties and the Gables, among others, has reportedly taken on a new client amongst those businesses who might be homeless come Dec. 31 . . . The story that has recently gotten all the press, Wal-Mart at Northcross, seems destined to continue long past a time when a disinterested party might stay tuned, certainly past Valentine's Day . . . Trail of Lights . . . Parks Director Warren Struss told the Parks and Recreation Board last night that attendance is up at the Trail of Lights in Zilker Park. He estimates between 30,000 and 40,000 people are walking the popular lighted attraction every evening. That's the cause of some traffic and congestion problems in the area but nothing so excessive that it has posed a significant problem. . . . There are a few meetings scheduled for tonight. We hope they have egg nog . . .The Water and Wastewater Commission meets at 6pm in Room 2005 at Waller Creek Plaza . . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Austin Public Safety Officers Association Meet and Confer Session meets at 9am at the Learning and Research Center at ABIA, 2800 Spirit of Texas Dr. . . . County OKs Conservation Ordinance . . . After 15 drafts, Commissioners Court has managed final passage on the conservation development ordinance and accompanying manual. At the vote yesterday, County Judge Sam Biscoe stressed the main point, which is that participation is voluntary. Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman noted that any type of contract, including proposed incentives, would come back to court. . . . Pay fines online . . . Those charged with tickets at Austin Municipal Court can now pay their tickets online at the court's web site. To access the service, visit http://www.cityofaustin.org/court, and select the "Online Citation/Ticket Information" link. The system can be accessed via ticket number, case number or name and date of birth. Offenders also will need a credit card to pay the citation. The court accepts Mastercard, VISA, Discover and American Express. Class "C" misdemeanors include traffic tickets, parking tickets, City ordinance violations and State code violations such as public intoxication, disorderly conduct, theft under $50 and similar offenses. Juveniles under age 17 and those charged with alcohol violations from ages 17 to 21 must go to the Municipal Court at 700 E. 7th St. Municipal Court handles more than 400,000 new citations every year, with about 140,000 parking tickets, 240,000 traffic tickets and 30,000 other citations. . . A New Year . . . All current subscribers of In Fact Weekly who have computers will be switched over to In Fact Daily in January. Please call us if you do not have email and we will make some accommodation for your needs.

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