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Council rezones downtown lot to make way for chilling station

Monday, February 10, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite concerns about downtown noise, City Council members laid the groundwork for a chilling station for Austin Energy at their last meeting.


Austin Energy asked for a change from the current Downtown Mixed Use zoning to Public zoning on its 812½ West Second Street property, which is slightly more than one-half acre in size.


Council Member Chris Riley cast the lone vote of opposition, and the zoning change was granted in a vote of 6-1.


“This is a very important, evolving area. We’ve spent a lot of time in this room talking about this area, and figuring out various aspects of the city’s investment in the area. And that has entailed an awful lot of challenges,” Riley said. “We’re essentially giving them (Austin Energy) authority to proceed with putting a new substation-like piece of infrastructure in without knowing exactly what it would look like, or how it will affect the lives of the many residents in that area.”


“There’s just too much at stake for us to blindly give authority for this infrastructure to go in there,” said Riley.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell disagreed, saying the change was a “housekeeping item” solely intended to change the zoning, and authorization to build something on the land would come later.


Though the lot is currently vacant, Austin Energy plans to use the lot to support downtown chilled water operations, though they remain unsure of how the lot will be permanently used. Originally, the city had agreed to provide 315 parking spaces on the lot, but it was later determined that plan wasn’t viable. As a result, the Seaholm Power project will have the 315 public parking spaces on its site, instead. That same agreement directed the West Second Street tract be used for Austin Energy’s chilled water infrastructure.


Though the utility has two downtown chilled water plants – the Paul Robbins Plant and District Cooling Plant #2 – additional infrastructure is needed to serve new downtown development, including Seaholm and the new Central Library.


Some downtown neighbors were unhappy with the plan.


Though the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association supports the rezoning, and use of the property, member Barry Lewis told City Council that they objected to the potential noise from the project.


“The realities are that sound travels not just horizontally, but also rises like hot air,” said Lewis, who explained the size and shape of the lot created a “natural amphitheater” that would project sound to nearby residences.


Lewis asked Council to approve the rezoning – with a condition that a 50 decibel noise level be maintained.


Austin Energy’s Sonny Poole said that limit would be an “extremely steep hill” for them to climb.


Kathy Marcus, who lives at the nearby Spring Condominiums, said that while construction had made for a noisy life downtown so far, quiet Sundays gave her hope for the future. That hope was dashed when she investigated plans for the lot. Marcus produced a memo from Austin Energy that took the stance that noise concerns about the plant were “mooted” by existing train noise.


This troubled Riley.


“I think that was a very unfortunate statement to make, and has really cost a lot in terms of the credibility the department has now, and the trust level that people have,” said Riley. “It’s obvious that staff doesn’t take noise issues very seriously.”


Poole agreed, and said that it was probably an “off-handed comment that was written.”


“That’s not what we are,” said Poole.


Poole assured City Council that there would be “many opportunities” for the community to give input before anything was built on the lot, and the utility would make every effort to address concerns before, ultimately, bringing a design back to Council.


“The process brings the community along with us as we are developing this design. There’s no question in my mind that the next time you see this project, it’s going to have community support,” said Poole.

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