Polling the Poleyard

Questions Abound on Downtown

illustration by Doug Potter

In all the excitement over Mayor Kirk Watson's push to revitalize downtown, questions have often been taken as criticism, and suggestions dismissed as uninformed attacks. Nevertheless, since the council has started the wheels turning on its second residential project downtown last week, it seems a good time to balance some of the well-publicized pros with a few of the possible cons of the stated mission to create a "critical mass" of 2,000 downtown residential units before the turn of the century. The council enthusiastically approved a letter of intent last week to begin negotiations between the city and apartment developer Post Properties out of Dallas on the ground lease of the Poleyard site at Third Street and Bowie Road for the construction of an upscale apartment community. In the first place, as a site for residences, The Poleyard - a skinny strip of mud and dust bordered to the south by the Union Pacific railroad tracks and to the west by the Electric Lounge - is what some councilmembers are calling a "design challenge." But the questions its location raises about council's thought process in regards to downtown deserve to be asked, and answered. The Poleyard is the second city-owned parcel to go up for lease to residential developers as part of Watson's grand scheme to jump-start downtown revitalization out of city hall. The city is already in negotiations over one city-owned parcel, at Second and Colorado, to be developed by AMLI Residential, Inc. in conjunction with a twin apartment project built on a privately owned parcel at Third and Colorado. City officials weren't taking chances this time around, however, after their January passage of a letter of intent with AMLI stirred up controversy when Councilmember Beverly Griffith protested the inclusion of the financial terms of the agreement prior to the completion of appraisals or market analyses. So this time the letter of intent on the Poleyard parcel was a relatively dry, innocuous laundry list of dates for inspection, site plan approval, and final negotiations ending with a May 8 development agreement with the city.

Nevertheless, Councilmembers Griffith and Bill Spelman were not satisfied, and pushed for the greatest possible latitude in negotiations for the city. Spelman succeeded in adding the option for an extension to the May 8 deadline, in case the council feels it needs more time to examine the development agreement. But Griffith, who proposed guidelines for city ground leases in the wake of the AMLI agreement, was back demanding that appraisals and market analyses be secured before the development agreement with Post is crafted. Support for Griffith's suggestion flagged when a prolonged back-and-forth with city staff resulted in the conclusion that no such appraisal could be produced without Post's site plans on the table. But Griffith did succeed in having the letter of intent expressly spell out that no final negotiations would take place until the council had first reviewed such an appraisal.

And while all this wrangling is going on at the city, Post is busy figuring out how to turn a downtown brownfield into a boon. Boosters of the council's push for downtown residential point to cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston as proof that overlapping uses like nightclubs, railroads, and residential can all live in urban harmony. But Austin ain't Boston. In the first place, this city currently lacks the public transportation necessary to make a truly dense downtown workable, and parking in the area is already at a premium. But boosters point out that plans for light rail could use those tracks and "not ignore the rail, but incorporate it as an amenity, as a plus," says one member of the Downtown Development Advisory Group (DDAG) commissioned with overseeing the Poleyard and AMLI projects. Of course, Capital Metro will first have to build the light rail, and you might not want to hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Secondly, with Watson telling reporters to stop using the "A-word" to refer to affordable housing and instead revise the term to "reasonably priced" housing, is it any surprise that council's promised concern for the affordability of the apartments built on their land extends only to a yearly income minimum of $35,000? That is the DDAG's standard for assuring that the Poleyard be affordable for "firefighters, policemen, and service industry people." (Amusing, then, that the councilmembers, who make only $30,000 a year, have effectively priced themselves out of their own development.) Robert Shaw, president of Post's Western division, reframes the affordability concern this way: "We have got to be able to deliver good value. That doesn't mean cheap, but it means that what [tenants] get, they feel like is worth what they're paying."

Furthermore, the fight between downtown residents and clubowners over the city's sound ordinance is already in court, and yet the council does not seem to think it necessary or relevant to discuss the fact that the residential influx they are encouraging downtown will be built adjacent to very loud, very successful nightclubs. Instead, boosters of the downtown projects prefer to postulate that those who choose to live downtown will necessarily be prepared to live with noise. "Part of the attraction is that living downtown is stimulating, there's lots of action," says Griffith. But in the wake of the council's lukewarm support of the Austin Music Network, and the recent discussions over the possible eviction of Liberty Lunch from a city-owned site, the music community is beginning to feel left out of the economic boom they feel they helped create.

Similar to the AMLI project at Second and Colorado, which is across the street from Liberty Lunch and near the Austin Music Hall, the Poleyard will be built approximately 30 yards away from the Electric Lounge, on land which is often used as extra parking for the club. While co-owner Mike Henry says he considers other retail developments nearby a real boost for his business, he is concerned that as property taxes increase in relation to the area's increasing development, his club will no longer be able to continue charging the same low entrance costs which currently characterize the Austin music scene. "Go to San Francisco or New York, and you're going to pay $20 to see the same band at a place my size," he says.

These parcels of land (A, B, C) are slated for residential development near existing music venues (1,2,3,4). A=The Pole Yard, B=Privately owned ALMI property, C=City-owned AMLI property, 1=Electric Lounge, 2=La Zona Rosa, 3=Austin Music Hall, 4=Liberty Lunch

"I'm excited about all the development in this area, but I am concerned that the development is going to occur at the cost of some existing businesses. I'm afraid that this not an area that [the council] is particularly familiar with," worries Henry, who has yet to be contacted about the Post development going in across the street.

And he has reason for concern. On questioning, Watson and the members of the DDAG admitted they were unaware of the Electric Lounge's existence, and a recent comprehensive Statesman guide to downtown revitalization failed to include the Lounge on their maps. "I feel like the little old lady in the middle of New York City, standing on my house surrounded by skyscrapers and waving my arms yelling, `Hey! What about us?'" jokes Henry.

Post's Shaw says that the design of the apartment complex "will in no way operate on the assumption" that the Electric Lounge is going to go away. He says that making residential lemonade out of urban lemons is a Post specialty, and points to a converted flour mill in Dallas and a converted hospital in Denver as proof. Still, Shaw does admit that in Post's extensive experience of developing downtown residential, the process usually involves "taking out some of the less compatible uses so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

Although city hall insiders say that clubs bumped from one location could simply pick up and move, Henry shares the concerns of Liberty Lunch's owners that the cost of moving their businesses to another location downtown makes relocation a "dicey proposition." He points out that when the Electric Lounge began five years ago, it was an abandoned warehouse in a forgotten part of downtown. "To go and do that someplace else just doesn't exist," Henry says, adding, "For years I felt safe, I felt like the city government really believed that this was the live music capital of the world. It does seem like things are moving and developing downtown, but I feel like it's moving in a different direction now."

Tim O' Connor, owner of La Zona Rosa and the Austin Music Hall, is hoping club solidarity will help raise consciousness about the music scene among city planners, and he's currently helping to form an association of club owners in the Southwest end of downtown, called the Moontower District. He hopes that existing downtown businesses can secure the kind of protection neighborhoods have in other parts of town, where notification and negotiation are required before nearby development occurs. "People are overlooking a four-leaf clover here," he says of the boom in downtown businesses. "We welcome residential. We welcome all kinds of development, but we certainly want a voice and some communication."

Henry agrees that now is the time for downtown businesses to assert themselves as a planning force to be reckoned with. "For years, we kind of existed over here in this blissful anonymous capacity. But now it's time for us to get on the map with the city," Henry says.

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