Naked City

A Long, Dark Shadow

For a while, it was like listening to pro- and anti-gun forces debating the true meaning of the Second Amendment. Counting some of the Waterfront Overlay's framers (and a passel of agitated South Austinites, who continue to flood council offices with anti-Gotham calls, e-mails, and postcards) among her supporters, Council Member Beverly Griffith had been opposing the proposed Gotham condominium project slated for Congress Avenue and the river because, she said, it violates the spirit of the city's Waterfront Overlay ordinance and the Town Lake Corridor Study, the community planning document that created it.

But whether those documents were intended to stop such projects as the Gotham has been called into question. At last week's meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman broke her relative silence on the intent of the ordinance (she was an original member of the Town Lake Corridor Study), saying, "A lot of people have been more than generous with what they remember; since I was there, I thought I deserved equal time."

Goodman warned council members that to focus too intensely on the building's height (opponents say the proposed 120 feet would be twice the 60 feet that planners intended) would be to miss the point. "I just want to make sure we're putting everything in perspective, not shooting from the hip and losing an opportunity ... by being so set on a specific (height restriction)," she said. "I don't think it's nearly as easy as that, and I don't think we should smugly be self-satisfied in taking either position at this point without really getting into the intent and the potential of the overlay and the master plan."

Goodman read off a list of other factors to consider when evaluating development on the waterfront, including floor-to-area ratio, access to the lake, superior urban design, and maintaining Austin's architectural heritage. She said the study also concluded that an infusion of residential use along the river would protect it in the long run. (Throughout her comments, Goodman did not announce her intention to vote for Gotham, as she did when the council granted it preliminary approval. Despite her apparent support for the project, look for her to hold Gotham to many of the standards she laid out in her discussion of the Waterfront Overlay.)

Council Member Griffith now says that, Waterfront Overlay aside, approving Gotham could create an unwanted precedent and lead to the construction of the dreaded "concrete canyon" along Town Lake. Brandishing a map showing ownership and zoning of lakefront properties from Congress Avenue to the east side of I-35, Griffith pointed out the number of ripe-for-redevelopment properties lining the south side of the lakefront. If Gotham proceeds, she said, the precedent could lead to a spate of inappropriate commercial projects along the river that -- while providing a quick payoff in terms of building tax base and providing central city housing -- would compromise the will of Austinites who have long called for special protection and preservation for lakefront areas.

Griffith said that such protection should be codified, and the values of the community quantified, in a new Waterfront Overlay that would be more specific, and presumably stricter, than the current version. Griffith said that members of the Parks Board's Land and Facilities Committee and the Planning Commission's Land Development Code rewrite committee have gotten together to take on just that task, forming a new advisory body that will work on recommendations for such an ordinance.

When the council votes on Gotham tonight, Thursday, Dec. 9, we will discover which side the majority of council members fall on. Is strict constructionist reliance on the Waterfront Overlay a misguided tactic -- like the UT Regents' supposed adherence to the campus master plan -- or does it express the will of every community planning document, from the Austin Tomorrow Plan to R/UDAT, that development along the lakefront be tightly regulated and restricted?

Neither side has yet claimed the support of swing-vote Council Members Bill Spelman and Willie Lewis (who has been visiting Nigeria in recent weeks). But council watchers have whispered of a possible alliance forming between Gotham developer Randall Davis and Doris and Willard Finklestein, who own the building behind the Gotham site and have strongly opposed the project. Word is that Davis has committed to buy the Gotham tract whether or not the council grants the zoning change that he would need to get the project built. And while this news has led to speculation on what, if not Gotham, might be built on the land, it has also led to some wild theorizing about how this will affect the position of the Finklesteins, who could change their tune once Davis is a fact of life in their neighborhood.

The Finklesteins' property is not for sale, according to their lobbyist, Mike Kelly, and any rumored "putative cooperative efforts" between his clients and Randall Davis "do not exist." Aside from an anonymous offer to buy their property in 1998, which they believe came from Davis, the Finklesteins have had no contact with the developer. "To say we're not in touch [with Davis] overstates the level of intimacy of the relationship," said Kelly.

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