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Council to mull purchase of Bull Creek property

Tuesday, September 9, 2014 by Jo Clifton

City Council members will discuss whether to purchase the state-owned property at 45th Street and Bull Creek Road at 9:30 a.m. today.

Council Members Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo and Bill Spelman are sponsors. With Mayor Lee Leffingwell a definite no and Council Member Mike Martinez seeming to lean that way, the votes of Council Members Chris Riley and Sheryl Cole will be in the spotlight.

The vote comes at a time when Tovo and Riley are working hard to distinguish themselves as the right person to represent newly created District 9. Tovo, for example, walked door to door Saturday talking to residents of the Cherrywood neighborhood.

Tovo spent some time talking about affordability and traffic, stressing her commitment to making Austin a more affordable place to live. Residents were not asking her about the Bull Creek proposal, but the item had just surfaced on the public radar that morning at the top of the Statesman.

When the Monitor asked her about her sponsorship of the $28.5 million purchase of the Bull Creek property and her commitment to keeping taxes low, Tovo responded, “It’s a very valid question, and we are hearing some concerns about the cost. I believe that we’ll realize the financial value of that tract of land in the course of its development through the increased taxes that we’ll receive, as well as potentially selling off bits of it. But I think it’s of great value to the community generally, not just to the city itself, to have that development happen under the umbrella of the city of Austin.”

Asked if the plan would end up costing citizens more money, she said, “I believe we will realize financial value from it. There will be a cost to the city of doing things like creating some parkland and I’m supporting affordable housing on that site, which I think are the two best opportunities on that tract.”

Asked if the city would not benefit more by simply letting a developer buy the property, Tovo said, “It’s not just all about the bottom line. I think the community values we’ll receive from having it, if we can do some significant affordable housing on the property … that will be of real value to the community. I think paired with the financial value, what we would realize would be a net benefit … If we’re really committed to having affordable housing in every part of town, that’s the best opportunity to come along in a really long time to have affordable housing in West Austin.”

Riley also spends considerable time talking about affordability as he campaigns. Sunday night he was at the Café Medici close to the University of Texas campus listening to students who, for example, told him they were paying $500 a month to share a bedroom in an apartment close to campus, with parking costing an additional $100 a month.

When asked about the property Riley said, “I want to know what benefit we would get out of owning it as compared to simply regulating it. Are we really going to get $28 million worth of benefit out of it? It’s possible that we could whether through affordable housing or flood control but I don’t know. I think that’s something to talk about and that’s the kind of questions I’ll be asking.”

Members of a group called the Bull Creek Road Coalition asked the Council to consider buying the property, which contains some state buildings and considerable open space. The Texas Department of Transportation owns about 30 acres, with the remainder dedicated to the Texas State Cemetery. Both agencies are ready to sell and have given the city a Friday deadline to make an offer. According to the Statesman, Stratus Properties has also expressed an interest. However, the state must allow local governments a chance to buy the property before taking bids from private developers.

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