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Financial details of Green redevelopment not available to public

Friday, May 23, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Council members spent more than three hours hearing presentations from five bidders Thursday on plans to redevelop the Green Water Treatment Plant and the Austin Energy Control Center. However, complaints also surfaced over the amount of public input and transparency of the multimillion-dollar project.


Five firms, mostly consortiums assembled by large development firms, spent one-half hour each making presentations to the Council on their plans for redevelopment of a five city-block area bounded by Cesar Chavez on the south, San Antonio Street on the north, Fourth Street on the East and the Seaholm Power Plant on West.


Catellus Development, Forest City, Simmons Vedder Partners, Stratus Properties, and Trammell Crow made presentations on Thursday, with each firm listing a number of local partners in their plans. Given the constraints of the project, many of the elements in the plans were similar, but there were significant differences, as well.


The Council is expected to make a decision on a developer on June 18, but apparently plans to keep a great deal of the process to itself and city staff. Mayor Will Wynn said he is confident that this Council is up to the job.


“Our experience in choosing, we believe, successful teams for our Mueller development, with Block 21, with the Seaholm property,” Wynn said. “This is the same format that allows for not only a significant period of time for not only public input of what we have seen from the development teams, but also substantial staff and consultant financial analysis of these things.”


Wynn did not say who the city’s consultants would be but he said city staff would mull over the proposals and make a recommendation. In fact, city officials are being tight-lipped about how much each of the companies is bidding on the project, with the Public Information Officer Gene Acuña saying, “The cost information is confidential until we negotiate and bring to Council a master development agreement with the successful proposer.”


So, although, the land has been appraised at $55.5 million, the amount accruing to the city from the sale will not be made public until negotiations are completed, a process that could take many months.


“Recognize there is a significant financial piece to this puzzle, although the actual purchase price of the property but also the potential public and private investments, everything from the affordable housing components can be bought down to and through shared public parking,” Wynn said. “So over the next two to three weeks the staff will be doing an in depth financial analysis of that important component of these five proposals before they make a recommendation to us early in June.”


Following the presentations, Council Member Mike Martinez asked Wynn if there were any public hearing planned for the proposals. Wynn said no, that he believed that in a situation like this, it would be too easy for one or more of the competing first to “pack the hearing” with their own people, drowning out the few that might be there to express their own opinion.


Earlier in the day, consumer activist Paul Robbins told Council Members that he believed it was a bad idea for the city to sell the property.


“The Central Business District is the supposed political cultural and mercantile nerve center in Austin. And despite all our modern communication technologies, personal presence and interaction are essential,” he said.  “Why are we leasing and selling valuable city land that we will need for office space and destination sites? Downtown land is only going to get more expensive. We need to hoard what we have left.”


Briefly, the five proposals included:


  • Trammell Crow – including Constructive Ventures and USAA Real Estate as  partners – is proposing a 350,000-square-foot hotel and a 250-unit senior assisted living facility in addition to condos, apartments, offices and retail businesses. Five public gathering spaces could accommodate as many as 2,700 people.
  • Stratus Properties proposal includes a two-story H-E-B grocery store, movie theater and bookstore to drive more traffic to the Second Street retail district. Stratus partner AMLI Residential is proposing the largest number of rental units, which would allow them to offer a wider range of housing prices. Other Stratus Partners include Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund, a partnership of Canyon Capital Realty Advisors and Magic Johnson Enterprises.
  • Simmons Vedder’s  team, including Austin firms Cotera + Reed Architects and Bury + Partners Engineering, is proposing to save energy by installing solar panels on the outside of its buildings, and use water collected from the condensation of air conditioners to flush the toilets. They are also proposing a waterfront art park and four bridges over Shoal Creek.
  • Catellus Development’s proposal is primarily residential, with 500,000 square feet of office space and 200,000 square feet of retail.
  • Forest City, with Novare Group and Andrews Urban, said it designed its buildings around its outdoor spaces, proposing a grand plaza at Second and Nueces with a fountain and transplanted moon tower. They also proposed a grand staircase inspired by the Spanish Steps in Rome connecting the plaza to the trail along Shoal Creek.


Each of firm’s presentations has been posted on the city Web site for public comments. ( Models of each of the projects are set up in the press room on the first floor of City Hall for public viewing. The public has until June 2 to make comments, the Mayor said.

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