On Shaky Ground

Plans for Jewish Center and Palmer Still Undecided

illustration by Doug Potter

Hundreds came, but none left satisfied. Last week's council agenda was packed to the gills with juicy issues, but two separate agenda items in particular crammed the chambers with approximately 350 speakers each - the Palmer Auditorium issue and the Dell Jewish Community Center (DJCC) debate. Despite obvious community interest and hours spent addressing the complicated topics, however, decisions on both hot topics were postponed. The DJCC showed up at council on an appeal filed by the Northwest Austin Civic Association (NACA), stemming from a Planning Commission decision approving a conditional use permit (CUP) on the 40-acre DJCC site. The neighborhoods do not oppose construction of the DJCC in concept, but they object to various specifics such as increased traffic, outdoor recreational lighting, and access onto a small side street. In January's 6-2 vote, the Planning Commission approved the CUP which would allow what DJCC's backers want - two synagogues, ball fields, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a community center, educational facilities, and housing for the elderly. NACA, other Northwest neighborhood groups, and the Austin Neighborhoods Council oppose what they say is an incorrect interpretation of what is allowable as a CUP on the site's existing zoning - SF3 - which would normally allow for single-family duplexes.

As part of an agreement previously reached between the two parties and council, the DJCC and the neighborhood's side had 30 minutes apiece to present their arguments to council, which could then approve the appeal (thereby striking down the CUP and sending the DJCC back to the drawing board), deny the appeal (thereby completing the process of approval to build the DJCC), or amend the CUP from the dais. Neighborhood representatives argued that there are nine criteria for granting a CUP, and that the Planning Commission had ignored at least three of them. Criteria which speak to "potentially unfavorable effects... "adverse effects to... traffic" and to "reasonable protection... from noise and glare" were all cited as possible deal-killers for the DJCC's plan.

Neighbors of the proposed Jewish Community Center, located off Far West Blvd., (see locator map at left) are concerned about traffic, noise, and ball field lighting at the 115,000-square-foot development.

DJCC legal representative Richard Suttle took precision aim at the residents' argument, saying that the Planning Commission is only required to look at those criteria if it intends to deny a CUP, but since it approved the CUP, the criteria do not apply. He further pointed out that all the zoning along the Hart Lane side of the site is multi-family, and on the Far West side it is all commercial, and that the DJCC had agreed to turn off ball field lights and stop all play by 9:30 in the evenings.

Northwest Area Neighborhood Alliance president Karen Bauer says that the issue on ball field lighting is more one of precedent. Since Murchison Junior High's large field directly across Far West from the DJCC site hosts dozens of soccer and kickball games every week, Bauer fears that allowing lighting in the area would set off a domino effect for bright lighting at Murchison and all over the Northwest.

After a great deal of exhaustive evidence, Councilmember Bill Spelman presented one of his patented kamikaze compromises to cut the square footage of the community center by half - from 114,000 square feet to 57,000. His intent was to cut trip generation to the site, but the reaction was far more dramatic. "I'm just being told that the community center is phhtt with this motion," Suttle said, returning from fevered conferring with DJCC organizers in the front rows.

Suttle argued that any attempt to phase in the size of the DJCC's components would make both fundraising and the permitting process an endless nightmare. "We're fundraising to be able to serve the Jewish community not just for the next four to five years, but for the next 30 years," he said. "We're going to be forced to go find something somewhere else."

Despite demands that the council make a decision, Mayor Kirk Watson wasn't about to be cowed into anything hasty, especially not at 12:30 at night. "What character or quality do you see in us that makes you think that we are capable of making a decision at this point? Speaking for myself, personally, I don't possess it," the tired mayor joked, suggesting that the item be postponed for two weeks. The postponement passed by a sleepy 7-0.

Palmer Postponed

Dell Corporation was also behind the postponed Palmer Auditorium debate which had packed the chambers with over 350 people earlier in the day. Dell is just one of the many financial backers of the Greater Austin Performing Arts Center (GAPAC), a private nonprofit group formed to raise $50 million to refurbish Palmer for use by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Austin Lyric Opera, and Ballet Austin, none of which currently have dedicated performance spaces. The problem is that Palmer is not just sitting empty on the banks of Town Lake, it is being used on a regular basis by nonprofit groups and trade shows which would be displaced if GAPAC moves in.

Watson supports GAPAC and suggests that the city should find a way to fund a "civic center" for the trade shows as an exchange for the $50 million in private funds that GAPAC would provide. Councilmember Gus Garcia, on the other hand, thinks that GAPAC should fund the civic center since the city would provide Palmer - an estimated $50 million building - at no cost.

Most of the groups which use Palmer currently, such as the Junior League, which rakes in $1 million every year with its annual "A Christmas Affair" bazaar, were torn between their own need for display space and the city's need for performance space. "Having to mark a `for' or `against' box on a card belies the complexity of this issue for the Junior League," said Emily Baker, Junior League president.

Council similarly came to an impasse on the debate, and in a 4-3 vote - with Watson, Spelman, and Jackie Goodman voting against - decided to postpone the matter for two weeks. That will be the same day that the DJCC comes back for a vote. In other words, another fun meeting ahead.

This Week In Council: No meeting on March 19, and no "Council Watch" until the following week when reporter Kayte VanScoy returns from vacation.

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