Losing Ground?

CSC Has Say on City Hall

On another CSC-controversy front, some citizens are asking for assurances that the planned City Hall, which will be sandwiched between two CSC buildings and across a public plaza from a third, will be designed with adequate attention to community input and concerns. Downtown Commission and Planning Commission member Jean Mather wrote a memo to this effect to council members this week, protesting that the preliminary CSC agreement approved by the council in April calls for the development of "compatible architectural design standards in cooperation with CSC and AMLI [which is building a residential development within the project] and approved by the city of Austin, CSC and AMLI prior to facilities constructions." The provision also limits the City Hall building height to "approximately 40 feet," or about three stories.

The two corporations shouldn't have veto power over the design of Austin's City Hall, say critics, and the height limit is an early sign that the city's interests might be vulnerable to subordination by corporate aesthetics.

Schneider said that the city is negotiating with CSC to try to get the height limit increased in the final contract: "They're trying to protect their views" of Town Lake, "but there are other ways to do that" than imposing a height limitation.

Negotiations or not, Mather said she finds the situation a little bit backward: "It's their land that CSC is building on, and they have to negotiate with CSC to get a higher building?" Pretty much. According to CSC spokesman Howard Falkenberg, the city "willingly entered into" the height limit, and it was part of the campus-like atmosphere the company was promised in order to entice it out of the Terrace and into downtown. Though the height limit is indeed still under negotiation, "the whole concept that was proposed to CSC was a campus downtown. One of the things that's important to a campus is to have some common greenspace that your buildings feed into, and that is the plaza that the City Hall" will sit on. Nevertheless, Falkenberg said, "CSC is not designing, and has no desire to design, the city hall."

Mather says that CSC did cross the line into City Hall design when CSC architect Larry Speck advised the city's Design, Downtown, and Planning commissions not to make an amendment to the Waterfront Overlay (which governs design standards in the area) that would require council chambers to be on the first floor of the building. The overlay calls for 50% of ground-floor uses to be pedestrian-oriented. City lawyers had originally interpreted that to mean retail, but the Planning Commission preferred to have council chambers instead, and maybe council offices, too, on the ground floor. They compromised on wording that would allow, but not require, first-floor council chambers, but Mather still feels that Speck overstepped his bounds.

"What business is it of his where the city council chambers are?" she asked. And Jeff Jack opines, "If you had an architect on board for the City Hall right now, advocating for the city, I would feel much more comfortable that the city's getting a fair deal." Now, it's the "fox guarding the henhouse -- architects for CSC trying to design our city hall, without any public input."

But Speck says that nobody is trying to marginalize the City Hall or its design. "Everyone knew from the very beginning the city didn't have their plans far enough along" to hire an architect right away, said Speck. "The wheels of business turn faster than the wheels of government." He said the Design, Downtown, and Planning commissions have worked harmoniously with CSC on everything, including unanimously approving amendments to the Waterfront Overlay that limited the size and height of what CSC could build. "The blocks could have much, much higher density and higher buildings," he said. "But CSC has really bent over backward to comply with every urban design wish that the city and any of the various boards and commissions suggested."

Schneider said the city is planning a public process to select an architect who would be able to represent the priorities and passions of the Austin citizenry. And according to Schneider, just like the proverbial misunderstood snake on the garden trail, CSC is just as scared of us as we are of them: "They're as concerned about their project being overwhelmed and overpowered as we are," he said, adding that "CSC has the same goals and visions the city does."

This Week in Council: In addition to the CSC items, the council will consider approving the sale of property owned by the Austin Housing Finance Corporation at 4606 Connelly to LifeWorks, Inc., for use as a transitional housing facility for homeless youth. (LifeWorks is the new name for the recently merged Youth Options, Child and Family Services, Pathways Community Counseling, and Teenage Parent Council.) The group would rent to own, leasing the facility for five years and making a lump payment at the end, all of which would come to $323,000. The city bought and renovated the facility for $405,000 in 1993-94, but is willing to take a loss on the property "due to the extreme shortage of transitional units in the community for homeless and runaway youth."

The council will also consider ratifying two of the conservation program changes recommended by Austin Energy's Roger Duncan in his June memo to the council: extending the city's Green Building consulting program to individuals and businesses outside the city's electric service, and offering district heating and cooling services from localized facilities, operated by Austin Energy, and serving roughly several blocks each. A district cooling system is part of the CSC incentive package, and the utility hopes to do more such systems in the future.

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Council Watch, Council, City Council, Jenny Staff, Csc, Computer Sciences Corp., City Hall, City Council, Day Labor, Arch, Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell, Jean Mather, Jeff Jack

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