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Plan for new city facility faces questions

Wednesday, February 8, 2017 by Jo Clifton

City Council members Ann Kitchen and Alison Alter along with Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo expressed skepticism at Tuesday’s work session about a staff plan to move the Development Services Department, the Planning and Zoning Department and some staff from other departments from One Texas Center to a new building to be constructed at Highland Mall.

Several members of the development community, most of whom requested anonymity, also expressed a lack of enthusiasm about having to travel regularly to Highland Mall.

Former city attorney and longtime development representative Jerry Harris told the Austin Monitor, “My initial reaction is that it seems to be an inconvenient location. I would rather blow up One Texas Center and build whatever they want to there. … Initially, I do not have a good feeling.”

Others said it made no difference and that they were looking forward to the smoother process they have been promised when the new building opens.

Geoffrey Tahuahua of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin said that staff members had kept him informed of their progress. “It was clear they either needed to renovate or build something new. We actually think it’s going to be a pretty good fit with them. There’s a large space they can use for training,” he said, noting that “sometimes it can get pretty tight in (Room) 325 at One Texas Center.”

He also said there is “a lot of (homebuilding) activity north and northeast.”

Tahuahua called parking at One Texas Center “either hit or miss, and you sometimes end up driving around in circles” in the parking garage. He noted that the site has good access to bus routes and the train. The Red Line, which runs from Airport Boulevard to downtown, could see more traffic once the new office starts operating.

Council is scheduled to consider an exclusive negotiation agreement with RedLeaf Properties LLC and Ryan Companies US Inc. for acquisition of about 5 acres of property and design of a new building on the north side of Highland Mall at East Highland Mall Boulevard and Middle Fiskville Road.

The city will make an initial payment of $650,000, which staff described as similar to an earnest cash payment for a house. The anticipated move-in date for the building is September 2019, staff said.

According to backup documents, the city needs approximately 800,000 to 1.2 million square feet of new administrative space “due to overcrowding, end-of-life facilities, and to replace lease space.”

Members of city staff, including Real Estate Services Officer Lauraine Rizer and Deputy Chief Financial Officer Greg Canally, assured Council members that if they are not satisfied with the design and the plan to move staff to the new location, they can reject the real estate purchase agreement when it comes before them in June. So far, there is no price tag on the building.

Since the release of the Zucker Report, there has been an effort to remedy problems with the development services at the overcrowded and poorly designed space at One Texas Center. The report specifically recommended a new, much larger facility.

However, Kitchen, Alter and Tovo all expressed concerns about how much time city staff would have to spend going back and forth between their new offices and City Hall. Kitchen told the Monitor, “We’ve made a lot of progress in coordination and getting rid of silos. I want to make sure we don’t backtrack on that.”

In addition, Kitchen said, “I really think our boards and commissions need to stay here.”

Tovo echoed that sentiment and pointed out that even though Highland Mall may be close to the geographical center of Austin, it is likely not closer to most of the development that is currently occurring.

Alter asked about members of other departments, such as Watershed Protection and Transportation, who assist with the development services process. Rodney Gonzales, director of Development Services, responded that those other departments would be required to relocate their staff members who are engaged in development services.

When the Monitor attempted to interview Joe Pantalion, director of the Watershed Protection Department, on his thoughts about the requirement that he relocate that part of his staff, Pantalion did not return our phone call. Instead, Rizer from the real estate department called to see what questions we might have had for Pantalion.

Rizer explained that Pantalion and other department directors with staff who are involved in the development process signed an agreement that they would allow their staff to be moved to the new development assistance center. However, she said they did not know at the time where those staff members would be moving because the selection was made recently.

Several lobbyists told us they were upset with the decision. One said, “They shouldn’t be doing anything of the sort until they get a new city manager.” This person said that staff and Council should not act until they have that manager’s point of view on how things should be organized. However, Council authorized a planning firm to begin work on the project in June 2015, long before City Manager Marc Ott decided to leave Austin.

Another said the city bought the property where One Texas Center currently stands and has the entitlements to build Two Texas Center. City staff have argued that they cannot do that because the floor plate would be too small. But this person said, “They’re the city – they can do whatever they want to.”

Mayor Steve Adler said, “I recognize that if you move out of downtown in any direction, it’s going to be a longer ride for some people and less for others.” He said most people using the One Texas Center offices are not development professionals.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar praised the plan, which will bring construction jobs to his district. He also said he liked the innovative financing method. Staff will issue $650,000 in certificates of obligation to make the down payment. When city departments are ready to move in, in about two-and-a-half years, the city will begin making lease payments and eventually will own the property.

Photo by WhisperToMeOwn work, Public Domain, made available through a Creative Commons license.

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