Photo by Ryan Thornton
Tuesday, November 3, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Plan for new Domain substation leaves Council, moves forward

City Council has approved a plan to construct a much-needed Austin Energy substation, hoping it will speed through the city’s zoning process with public input as quickly as possible.

Mayor Steve Adler opened the discussion by stressing the urgency of the situation, and getting Austin Energy “out there just as quickly as possible.” In order to ensure that, Council members considered two separate measures: One would rezone the property through the normal public process, and one would alter the civic land uses allowed within the transit-oriented development zoning under the regulating plan for the area.

Though there was some consensus that modifying the uses allowed in the plan would move faster, ideological issues and worries that the process would bypass notification requirements ended in a vote to indefinitely postpone that approach. The city will instead move forward with a case to change the zoning at 2412 Kramer Lane to “Public.”

In addition to a debate over process were lingering concerns that the plan to build a new substation could interfere with construction of the Red Line Trail, a planned 32-mile bikeway along Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Red Line.

Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent said they had already reached out to the Red Line Parkway Initiative, though they could not commit to a route without first working through some logistical issues.

“We are in support of trails,” Sargent said. “We are looking at the best alternatives to accommodate a trail on the site. … We’re ready and we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and make that happen, because we appreciate the efforts for mobility that this Council and this community have been striving to bring forward.”

“I don’t see the trail as an issue. We’re committed to it,” she continued.

That said, Sargent said she was concerned with moving forward through the zoning process, as reliable electrical service for Austinites and new development hinged on its efficiency.

“We cannot have any more delays for this project,” she said. “We need a path forward.”

Tom Wald, the executive director of the Red Line Parkway Initiative, told the Austin Monitor that they supported the public process of rezoning.

Council Member Alison Alter said she had heard “wildly different estimates” of how long the normal zoning case that Council ultimately approved would take. With that uncertainty, and in an effort to bypass site identification and surveying, Council decided to rezone the entire tract, noting the case could be scaled back as the case moved through the process.

The rezoning passed in a vote of 10-0-1 with Council Member Leslie Pool abstaining.

As if having two approaches to address a single issue wasn’t complicated enough, the discussion about the two options also became a proxy fight for the Land Development Code rewrite. At issue was whether changing the regulating plan without giving notice to nearby properties was akin to doing the same during the land code rewrite.

Sparking a scuffle, Council Member Greg Casar said he appreciated the unanimous agreement that Council could move forward with changes to the regulating plan “without giving individualized notice to every property owner.”

“That how we did it in years past. That’s how we did Affordability Unlocked. I think that’s what state law says. I think that’s what we are allowed to do,” Casar said. “It seems clear that everyone is on the same page here and I think that’s a good thing. I hope that precedent continues to be set.”

That very issue continues to be at the heart of an ongoing court case over the Land Development Code rewrite. Council Member Kathie Tovo said the two things were “fundamentally different” than the nature of the request to change the regulating plan.

Her frustration was echoed by Pool, who said she just wanted to see the substation built quickly.

“This is not my fight,” Pool said. “I do not understand how it has gotten so frigging complicated. To me it’s pretty simple. We should endorse Austin Energy moving forward with this critical infrastructure piece, which is going to provide electricity support for the upcoming soccer stadium at McKalla Place and for the 6-million-square-foot development of the old IBM campus … and other development.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin Energy: As a municipally-owned electric utility, Austin Energy is a rarity in the largely deregulated State of Texas. It's annual budget clocks in at over $1 billion. The utility's annual direct transfer of a Council-determined percentage of its revenues offers the city a notable revenue stream.

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