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Waterfront board calls out Council, staff for ‘stalled’ status on development plans

Wednesday, April 3, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The body charged with overseeing the development of the south end of the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge has called out city staff and City Council for not moving forward with recommendations it claims are needed to properly manage the future of Austin’s most important cluster of downtown real estate.

Last week the South Central Waterfront Advisory Board finalized the wording on a five-page letter detailing the resolutions it has passed going back nearly 18 months that have received little to no attention from related departments in City Hall. The sharply worded letter – which plainly says, “We have been stalled for months when we did not have to be” – was delivered to Council members late last week.

Board members contend that their votes should have prompted the launching of a variety of plans, studies and other steps needed to move forward with the South Central Waterfront Vision Framework Plan, which was adopted by City Council in 2016.

Among the initiatives currently in limbo are a study for a tax increment financing plan for the district, another study for a public improvement district, a draft regulating plan for the district, and action related to a possible economic development corporation to help guide redevelopment.

“The Board’s assigned support staff are doing everything they can to assist the Board, but management level staff from key departments have not been as cooperative, supportive or as forthcoming as is needed,” the letter reads in part. “We have repeatedly asked management level staff for updates on almost all of these issues and staff either does not show up, or they give presentations containing limited information.”

The board members also expressed frustration at being misinformed by staff that some of the planning and taxing mechanisms intended for the district were no longer possible because of the discontinuation of the CodeNEXT process last year. That was later found not to be the case and the board recently learned that money in the city’s current budget could be used to pay for the needed studies, consultants and other expenses.

At last week’s meeting, Board Chair Brooke Bailey said Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Kathie Tovo expressed concern over the lack of progress on the group’s work, and asked what was needed.

“We told them, we need you to get us this money. We know the money’s in the budget. We know these departments have the money … they’ve told us they have the money. They won’t give us the money and we can’t get this done,” she said. “I was surprised how much they didn’t know.”

Board members have been vocal about the need to have a comprehensive plan in place before redevelopment of some of the area’s larger parcels moves forward without the needed regulations in place. Of particular concern is the 18.9-acre parcel that currently houses the Austin American-Statesman, which sits on the shore of Lady Bird Lake and has been coveted by developers for years as a likely mixed-use site.

Board Member Samuel Franco said the city was fortunate to reach an agreement that produced money for affordable housing from the developers of the former Hooters restaurant site on Barton Springs Road, but can’t rely on goodwill alone to produce similar community benefits in the future.

“Properties keep on turning and we all know developers have their eyes on the properties around there. If we don’t do anything now, we may not be so lucky in the future. We were lucky with the developers for that one project but not everyone has to be that way,” he said.

“On the Statesman property there’s some roads that need to go in there, park space we’re going to add and bigger connectivity green spaces are envisioned within that property. If we don’t act on this now, the potential exists for not being able to realize the plan as it’s been envisioned.”

Architectural rendering by Stephanie Bower courtesy of the city of Austin.

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