Council Watch

It's All Meat and Potatoes Today: A Full Plate

Council Watch
By Doug Potter

It's a good thing the Austin City Council decided to take Veterans Day off last week, as it's taken all that time and more just to get a handle on the mass of momentous issues and decisions facing them at today's meeting (Thursday, Nov. 18). From downtown to the Eastside to the ever-fragile aquifer, there's something for everyone to get worked up about on this week's agenda. Take your pick:

Down by the Seaholm

The council is expected to take the next step toward revamping our currently empty, retro-cool industrial palace down by the river, the Seaholm Power Plant. Council Member Beverly Griffith, formerly a member of the Friends of Seaholm group that banded together to ensure a bright future for the building, is bringing forward an item that would give some formal definition to the project's future.

The item would direct the city manager to work with the Planning Department to develop a prospectus and issue a request for qualifications for those who might want to undertake the building's rehabilitation. According to one council source, "Staff is a little confused because there hasn't been a [council] vote, and there's no group to go to" for direction on Seaholm. "There's not an active, sanctioned group taking the bull by the horns -- Further, nobody has stepped up to the plate with a great idea and the financial wherewithal to do it."

Some Seaholm advocates have expressed disappointment that the city has not come up with the money to undertake the project itself, since the results of last year's Seaholm Reuse Committee report indicated that whether it was used for the arts, science and technology, both, or neither, the building should be preserved for public use. Jana McCann, a planner with the city's Planning Department (and former Austin Transportation Study planner), said the prospectus and RFQ will reflect the conclusions of the reuse study and will seek to ensure that the building serves a public function.

The item is meant to renew direction and momentum for a project that, while popular with the city and the public alike, has lost its focus. In the year since the reuse report was issued, "we dropped the ball a little," said McCann. To make matters worse, in recent months, the family that was the Seaholm Reuse Committee has gone largely dysfunctional, with a bitter feud breaking out between Reuse Committee chair Leslie Pool and Friends of Seaholm founder Ken Altes, over leadership and direction of the group. (It's something of a moot point, however, since the Reuse Committee no longer formally exists, having submitted its final -- and very well-received -- report to the council last summer.)

Seaholm and its environs still have the aura of a Sedona-like energy center for downtown Austin -- ground zero of the convergence of energy forces toward mass transit, downtown revitalization, and Town Lake Park revivalism -- and serving all those goals at once suddenly seems more feasible now that the city has filed a lawsuit against Lumbermen's Investment over two acres of land that make up the Sand Beach Reserve. Both the city and Lumbermen's claim ownership to the land known as the Cedar Door Tract, which is currently under contract with the Gables Corporation for construction of a 350-unit apartment complex, now making its way through the city's development review process.

In this battle, the city has John Cornyn on its side, as the attorney general has already weighed in on the matter and deemed the land off-limits for private use.

Gotham Up For Vote

Council members will consider second and third reading approval of the Town Lake Gotham condominium project, to which they granted preliminary approval last month. Though it looked like a go on the occasion of the original vote (it was 5-2, with Griffith and Daryl Slusher voting no), the project seems to have weakened since then. Gotham has taken a beating at the round of board and commission meetings at which the council ordered it to be vetted. Both the parks board and design commission have issued resolutions opposing the project, with the off-the-record comments being even harsher than what the two groups have put down on paper.

As an alternative to an up-or-down vote, the council could seek to compromise with Houston developer Randall Davis, allowing him to build the project under specifications that more closely meet those of the city's boards and commissions, as well as the "spirit of the Waterfront Overlay" -- a phrase that, like Smart Growth, means different things to different people.

Tricky Zoning Cases

Two other contentious zoning cases, Southpark Meadows and the historic Buratti-Moreno building, are sure to spark the interest of more than a few council members and citizens:

In the case of Southpark Meadows, neighbors are skittish about a zoning change that would allow Universal Concerts, the company that owns House of Blues, to rehab the rather shabby venue into a bigger, better, sleeker facility that would have built-in seats, and would markedly increase the number of shows held there each year.

And then there's the matter of alcohol. The venue has been serving alcohol since it opened in the early 1980s, by receiving one-time beer and wine permits for each individual show. With the new and improved Southpark, the liquor license would be a permanent one.

The venue is near a couple of public schools, and as you might imagine, neighbors have conjured images of school children getting drunk, playing on stage equipment, and hanging with roadies who may be passing through. Though the developer has made concessions to the neighborhood, including a strict no-minors alcohol policy and soundproofing of the property, neighbors say they want it in writing before the council approves zoning.

Then there's the Buratti-Moreno case, which pits Smart Growth and Eastside revitalization against Eastside culture and history, and according to some, self-determination. The building, at 1001-1005 E. Sixth, was the longtime site of a grocery store run by the Buratti family, a beloved fixture in the neighborhood. High-tech entrepreneur Jose Chavez wants to give the building a new life as the site of his latest business venture, but some Eastsiders, reportedly including members of El Concilio and possible City Council candidate Raul Alvarez, are opposing the deal. They would prefer to see the building get historic zoning in order to preserve the memory and heritage of the Buratti legacy. Father Bill Elliott of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church is said to have thrown his weight behind the historic zoning crowd, too. Look for a spirited discussion of this one.

Music Network Redux

The council will also consider diverting some of the surplus in Austin's "bed tax" on hotel rooms to fund the Austin Music Network, a move the Austin Music Commission has long supported. While council members including Daryl Slusher have said they think AMN is an appropriate recipient of bed tax funds, city departments already on the bed tax dole (including the Austin Convention and Visitors' Bureau, which ironically is the department that provides staff support for the music commission) and the Arts Commission are reportedly fighting the proposal tooth and nail.

Dealing With Bradley

In its morning session, the council will hear a briefing on the ongoing negotiations between the city and developer Gary Bradley, regarding how he will develop his extensive holdings in Southwest Austin. The gist of the negotiations is whether the properties, largely grandfathered from the city's environmental regulations by HB 1704, could be developed under SOS-level impervious cover limits, likely through the use of mitigation, or the "clustering" of impervious cover in one area in return for preserving undeveloped land elsewhere.

The 9am session, which is designed to "brief the public on what's on the table" with Bradley, according to Council Member Slusher, will include a presentation by Slusher on "the history of the [development regulation] situation in Austin, and how the citizens have attempted to take local control" of their development destiny.

Slusher said that while he has concerns about adopting a "go-forward mitigation" policy for new projects in the city, he is willing to consider mitigation for properties that have already been grandfathered under 1704.

This Week in Council: See above. The Champion Tract zoning cases, originally scheduled for this week's agenda, will not be heard, and are allegedly slated for Dec. 2, which will be the council's next meeting since it's taking Thanksgiving off. end story

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City Council, Seaholm Power Plant, Randall Davis, Gotham, Lumbermen's Investment, Southpark Meadows, Buratti-Moreno Building, Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith, Gary Bradley

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