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Council drills down on Capitol plan

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 by Jack Craver

An ongoing effort by the state of Texas to move much of its workforce downtown has City Council members wondering what, if anything, the city can get out of the project.

The state is planning on getting started with implementation of the Texas Capitol Complex Master Plan, which envisions four new buildings around the Capitol to accommodate 3,500 additional state employees who now work in other parts of the Austin area, a five-level underground parking garage and a large grass mall on Congress Avenue, between 16th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Speaking to Council members at a Tuesday work session, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said that the state was going to build the new buildings no matter what, but that she and state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) were trying to get the project to reflect the interests of the city as much as possible, notably through the creation of the mall, which will likely include a new museum.

The mall, however, depends on city action. Council must approve an interlocal agreement with the Texas Facilities Commission to grant it right of way. The state is also requesting $6.8 million of city fee waivers.

Whatever they think of the other parts of the overall master plan, Council members should seize the opportunity to create the “four-acre, urban green space,” said Howard. Rejecting the state’s request won’t stop other parts of the plan that Council members may find less appealing.

“The state will move forward with building these buildings without the mall if that decision is made,” she said. “And the state will do that because it can.”

In a city already choked by congestion, the influx of another 3,500 state employees downtown is certainly grounds for grumbling.

Council Member Ora Houston suggested that the state could reduce the resulting traffic by partnering with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to develop park-and-rides in other parts of the city. Commuters traveling from the outskirts could park somewhere outside of downtown and catch a bus to work, she said.

Peter Maass, deputy executive director of planning and real estate management at the Texas Facilities Commission, said that his agency certainly didn’t have the authority to undertake such an endeavor, which would entail purchasing tracts of land for parking lots elsewhere throughout the city.

Maass did note, however, that the agency has been coordinating with Capital Metro on bus service to the development and is even planning the construction in a way that would align with a future rail system, “if it ever happens.”

Council members were also left wondering if there is anything else the city can get from the state in return for the millions of dollars of fee waivers. The city already has a $1.3 million ledger from waivers or other assets it has provided the state without compensation. If the new fee waivers are approved, the total will climb to over $8 million, but nobody at the meeting could say what that entitles the city to.

While Development Services Director Rodney Gonzales recalled that “the state legislature did at one point consider that there would be property exchanges between the state and the city,” Maass emphasized that his agency would not be able to offer the city any property without legislative approval.

Asked by Council Member Alison Alter what type of museum would eventually grace the new pedestrian mall, Howard said that although hopes of a Texas Music Museum had been dashed by Houston-area legislators during the last legislative session, whatever is approved would be something complementary to the nearby Bullock and Blanton museums.

Photo by Daniel Mayer (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

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