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City Council votes to continue downtown plan

Friday, March 13, 2009 by Steven Pickering

The Austin City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to go ahead with the next phase of the Downtown Austin Plan, despite reservations from some Council Members that the plan was too expensive. The ROMA Design Group is charging $841,860 for phase two of the plan, bringing the total contract amount to more than $1.4 million.


After a mayoral debate Wednesday, Council Member Lee Leffingwell had questioned the wisdom of paying for the plan, especially during the downturn. But he ended up voting to proceed with it. “I think here in Phase II we’re actually beginning to get into the meat of it, the most important part,” said Leffingwell. “Frankly, I’m not sure that we got anything much worthwhile out of Phase I. We basically got a reiteration of things that other task forces within the city had recommended. That’s kind of hard to come to that conclusion.”


“I think we ought to proceed with Phase II with an eye towards wrapping this up,” he said, “because we’re $1.5 million so far in to this study, and I think that’s a whole lot of money to spend on one part of town.”


Jim Robertson, manager of the city’s Urban Design Division said that the first phase of the plan was meant to identify some of the major issues facing downtown, including affordable housing strategies for downtown and a framework for offering density bonuses to new development.


The second phase, Robertson said, would be more detailed and would include a master plan for parks and open space downtown, an infrastructure improvement plan, a refined transportation plan, and specific boundaries for unique districts within downtown. “All this would be wrapped up in the document that we would hold up as a community and say ‘this is our downtown plan,’” Robertson said.


Downtown business leaders urged the Council to press on with the planning process. “We have a great downtown, but we also have a lot of concerns about downtown,” said Tom Stacy, Chair of the Downtown Austin Alliance. “And the downtown plan is addressing a lot of concerns. We have a lot of uses that are over-saturated downtown, and we want to find ways that we can encourage other uses that may be more conducive to growing the tax base. The downtown plan has already helped us in a lot of regards. This plan is not just the Downtown Austin Alliance’s plan, it’s the community’s plan…and I think it’s very important.”


Council Member Laura Morrison attempted to convince her colleagues to postpone a vote on the plan for two weeks in order to see if more of the work could be done by city staff. “The fact that we are moving forward with our comprehensive plan in the near future at a cost of $1.4 million just really raised the flag for me that maybe we need to take a look at whether there is a way to minimize the cost,” she said. Her motion failed to find a second.


The Council authorized hiring ROMA for the first phase of the downtown plan in October 2006 for $600,000. On Feb. 28, 2008, the City Council authorized spending $250,000 for transit and transportation planning. One month later, the Council authorized $200,000 for ROMA to study affordable housing and density bonuses in the downtown plan area. In Fact Daily erred in a story Wednesday when it reported that those funds were in addition to the initial $600,000 appropriated for the downtown plan.


Robertson said Thursday that the $250,000 for transportation and rail planning and the $200,000 to study affordable housing and density bonuses in the downtown plan area were actually “subsets of the $600,000,” not additional appropriations. However, Robertson added that the affordable housing and density bonus work was co-funded by the Community Development and Neighborhood Housing Department, with $100,000 coming from that department.


After questions from Council Members Leffingwell, Morrison, and Mike Martinez, the motion to approve the contract with ROMA for Phase II passed on a vote of 7-0. City staffers say the company should have a document ready to present to the Council in the summer of 2010.

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