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Austin Energy still in search of spot for substation

Tuesday, September 29, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The placement of the Austin Energy substation at Mueller is a complicated set of maneuvers that did not appear to get any easier during discussion at last week’s Planning Commission meeting.

Neighbors in the Windsor Park neighborhood, led by Rick Krivoniak, admitted they probably were more frustrated with the General Land Office than they were with Austin Energy, which was represented at the commission meeting by a beleaguered and somewhat apologetic Stanley Poole.

Commissioner Danette Chimenti, among others, questioned Poole carefully on the choice to put a substation on a lot at the opening of a neighborhood. This was not a choice Windsor Park wanted and probably not a choice Austin Energy preferred.

“I don’t have a good solution for that,” Poole admitted in his presentation. “There is not a lot of developable land left, open acres, that is not a park.”

One of the golden rules of the Mueller neighborhood plan – a rule that was practically iron clad through years and years of planning – is that you don’t waste Mueller space. That meant that the placement of a regional emergency call center certainly was a stretch — and opposed by neighborhood leaders — and the thought of putting an Austin Energy substation on Mueller land was out of the question.

With years of effort behind them, local neighborhood leaders have treated the land at Mueller as being as valuable as any land in downtown Austin. It was finite and it was precious. And Krivoniak, right in the middle of all that talk and on the Mueller advisory committee, has agreed to all those precious Mueller principles.

Rewind a few years, when the Mueller planning was in full swing and the combined emergency call center was being planned. Then Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza promised the substation would go on the same land as the call center. However, when the time came to building the substation – and it needs to be online in 2011 – the call center insisted it would interfere with frequency traffic.

No matter. Austin Energy had a plan. A small sliver of land, a portion of the former state Aircraft Pooling Board site, could easily accommodate the substation and its transmission lines. Unfortunately, it’s also now the home of Director Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios. Suddenly, the GLO wasn’t interested in selling, or even selling an easement to the land, no matter how far away it was to the studio, or even if Austin Energy was more than willing to swap land for the deal.

So what was left? A nice lot right there in the front of the Windsor Park neighborhood, to the chagrin of Krivoniak and his neighbors. As one neighbor said, Windsor Park has become the one subdivision where every halfway house, ill-begotten TxDOT project (the less-than-successful jug handle), nasty-looking water tower and poorly conceived affordable housing project appears to come to roost when rejected everywhere else. The argument pretty much painted Windsor Park as the “patsy” of Northeast Austin, so naïve it ended up taking in every stray project.

At the Planning Commission meeting, Krivoniak was the mediator as Windsor Park’s lead speaker, noting that he could bat either in the “neutral” or “opposed” category, drawing laughter from the audience. In his five-minute presentation, Krivoniak noted that Austin Energy had done everything right since the community had raised its issues: postponing the zoning case without complaint and attempting to do everything it could to mitigate the issue.

But, yes, the issue remained. The City of Austin and State of Texas were at a loggerhead on the studio easement. GLO did not appear to be ready to budge. All Krivoniak could argue was that Austin Energy needed to be as thoughtful as possible with its process, which would string transmission wire – under which no development can occur — along what was anticipated to be a major transit corridor. 

“I know you have to zone this property ‘P,’” Krivoniak said. “It’s the location of the site. But this is a heavily treed site, so I’d like to save the trees. You know, I’ve often imagined this site, with all the trees, as a kind of Shady Grove, but I know that’s not likely to happen soon. We wanted to keep green space along 51st Street.”

Austin Energy is not locked into a choice. Yet. Poole is still waiting on reports that assess the interference with the regional communications center. If the center can be shielded from interference – even if it took some effort on the part of Austin Energy – the utility was ready to take that direction as its preferred route.

All of this maneuvering, unfortunately, was a surprise to some in the neighborhood, although Poole insisted the neighborhood association had participated in planning meetings. The neighborhood expected the land in question to be preserved in the flood plain as a drainage easement, unfortunately, so these power lines were a surprise, Krivoniak said after the hearing.

Ironically, Mueller doesn’t have overhead power lines. Its master plan require underground connections, so it will be Windsor Park paying the price, so to speak, for the cushy accommodations of its upscale neighbors.

Chair Dave Sullivan did question whether the property needed to be zoned “P,” instead of “GR.” Just because the city owned it, didn’t mean it needed to be zoned Public. Still, even if it remained zoned GR, nothing could be built beneath the lines.

Commissioners agreed to leave the hearing open and delayed a decision to Oct. 13. At that time, Poole should have the results back from an assessment of transmission interference, so that he can determine whether a rezoning of the land in front of Windsor Park is necessary or if Austin Energy can use the communication center land.

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