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Loop 360/Davenport fire station lease raises questions

Tuesday, February 1, 2022 by Jo Clifton

After serious questions about whether staff members had provided City Council with sufficient information before moving forward on construction of a new Loop 360/Davenport fire/EMS station, Council on Thursday approved a 40-year lease for the property at 4601 Westlake Drive. The $9 million lease agreement with the Episcopal Diocese of Texas includes an option for an additional 40 years on the lease, which is for property in District 10.

Council Member Kathie Tovo objected to the lease agreement, arguing that the city has a policy of purchasing rather than renting property. She said Council had not received notice about the lease prior to the item appearing on the Jan. 27 agenda. She proposed an amendment to the action directing management to change its process for notifying Council about property purchases and leases so that they would have the information before it came time to vote. She also moved to direct the city’s real estate staff to look for property in the area that the city could buy.

Later in the day, however, Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter, who represents District 10, asked her colleagues to reconsider their earlier decision to direct staff to look around for a site to purchase because Public Works Director Richard Mendoza told Council that reopening the property search would be detrimental to the project. “Speaking as the project lead, I can advise that doing so at this moment would be hugely adversely impactful to the program and the success of building this fire station, both to project schedule and project budget.”

He noted that the lease agreement “supports the third of the five highest-priority fire and EMS stations to be built within six years throughout the city, per Council resolution from 2018.” Mendoza said starting over at another site would set the project back by two years, possibly more. He noted that real estate staff started looking for the property in 2018 and found it in 2020, and that contractors started site work on the property in December.

City records indicate that Council authorized the design of the Loop 360/Davenport fire/EMS station on Dec. 12, 2020. They authorized an expenditure of $24 million for construction of the Loop 360 station and design of the Goodnight Ranch and Canyon Creek fire stations on Oct. 14, 2021.

Alter clearly had been following the negotiations over the Loop 360 station and knew at that October meeting where it was going to be built. According to the Council transcript, Alter said, “But I also want to acknowledge item 25 and our staff. We’ve worked really hard to fulfill the direction to create and build five new fire stations. Item 25 sets forward the funding for the construction of the Davenport/Loop 360 station, which is in my district, which is the third of these to be constructed …. This work is really important for us to improve response times for fire and EMS for this particular station for Davenport/Loop 360. It’s also going to be critical for our wildfire response potentially and I really look forward to moving these forward. … I know that the task that we gave to staff in moving forward with these five stations was a large one and I’m pleased to see them execute on this and also want to thank St. Stephen’s for working closely with us to identify and work with us on a location. Thank you.”

The Episcopal Diocese of Texas owns St. Stephen’s.

Alter noted Thursday that the area presents numerous challenges for builders because of environmental regulations, rough topography and rocky ground.

In September 2021, the city’s Environmental Commission approved variances allowing city contractors to cut up to 17 feet and construct a parking area on a slope with a gradient of more than 15 percent. The item included the address at 4601 Westlake Drive. The Planning Commission gave its approval on Nov. 2 and that item also included the address.

The Virtual Builders Exchange reported on Nov. 5 that the city had requested a variance to build a fire station: “The 1.6 acres is undeveloped and located at 4601 Westlake Drive in the city’s Davenport Village neighborhood. The city is proposing to construct a new four-bay, 23,525 square-foot fire and EMS station. The estimated cost of construction is $2.9 million.”

Community Impact newspaper also reported on Jan. 15, “Construction will begin in 2022 on a fire and emergency medical services station located on Westlake Drive just west of Loop 360. The $14.1 million project is estimated to be completed in March 2023, according to a memo issued by the city of Austin’s Public Works Department on Dec. 30.”

Mendoza sent that memo on Dec. 30 outlining progress on fire stations requested by Council in 2018.

According to that memo, a virtual public pre-construction meeting was held Nov. 18. The city received the site plan permit and a notice to proceed was issued to the contractor for a Dec. 6, 2021, starting date. The estimated completion date is now March 2023. The memo did not include the exact address or information about the fact that the property would be leased.

After a brief discussion, Alter made a motion to reconsider the lease agreement item, striking the part directing staff to look for another property to buy in the area, but keeping the part directing the city manager to provide more information to Council about property purchases and leases in the future. The item passed unanimously, with Council Member Greg Casar off the dais.

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