Champions Don't Always Win: Council Shrinks Northwest Austin Development
Bowing to the force of pure logistics, the Austin City Council gave preliminary partial approval to a neighborhood group's recommendation on the proposed Champion Tract development, giving the Champion sisters, the owners of the property, half of what they asked for. The logistical dilemma in question was how to reconcile the desire of the Champion sisters to build up to the site's capacity in light of growing traffic problems in the area. The RM 2222/Loop 360 neighborhood in Northwest Austin is one of the trickiest traffic flash points in town, even without the millions of square feet of development (which will generate an estimated 80,000 vehicle trips per day) already approved for construction by the city. Those extra vehicle trips would put RM 2222, already facing its capacity of 39,500 vehicle trips per day, at about 300% of its capacity -- not a situation for which the current council wants to be remembered. The 2222 Coalition of Neighborhoods' proposal adopted by the council would allow 44,000 square feet of retail and 260,000 square feet of office space (that's 304,000 total square feet, in contrast to the 556,000 square feet of office and retail requested by the Champions). The neighborhood plan also calls for a traffic cap of 6,500 trips per day once all the land is developed, as compared to the 13,500 trips proposed by the Champions. The council was ambivalent about whether to deny the Champions' request for more than 500 apartment units, which were not included in the neighborhood plan. Instead of the apartments, the neighborhood proposes 100 lots for single-family homes. Council members said they'd revisit the apartments issue before granting final approval for the project.
James Baker of the neighborhood association said the residents are wary of apartment uses due to problems with a previous developer who promised a mixed-use project that, with the addition of apartments, would create lots of "internal capture" (meaning residents could walk and shop and work in their little community), thereby reducing the amount of traffic out on 2222. But the apartments got built, and the rest of the project didn't, and the result is that many more commuters head downtown in the mornings with the rest of the slow-crawling mob.
For their part, the Champions feel thwarted by the very forces of growth that were supposed to drive the value of their property ever upward. The Champion family has owned the property since Hector was a pup, and since long before it was bisected by Loop 360 and RM 2222. Josie Champion told the council that the Texas Department of Transportation told the family the land would appreciate due to the roads' location there, and while that was surely true for a while, the roads' overcrowded state, combined with the city's (and the state's) refusal to expand 2222, has resulted in something of an impasse -- pun intended. "TxDOT told us that the highways would make our property more valuable. My sisters and I have held the land -- with difficulty and great expense. We are dedicated to our purpose, but even so it has been difficult for three women to do this."
City staff seem to have sympathized with the Champions, recommending that the city accept their proposal with the rather startling condition that it would require widening 2222 to six lanes through the area in question. The Champions had volunteered to pick up between 7% and 16% of the tab for the $7 million expansion -- not enough of a subsidy for either TxDOT or the city to volunteer for the job. On the contrary, it would be highly incompatible with the city of Austin's Smart Growth Goals, and the council indicated it would not be approving a Champion development plan that would require the expansion of 2222.
Indeed, Council Member Daryl Slusher expressed dismay that the detailed information on the 2222 traffic situation was not included in the traffic report section of the Bull Creek Watershed study, which was presented at the council's morning session. (City manager Jesus Garza said the council approved about $100,000 for traffic studies in the most recent budget, and that that money could be used for a 2222 traffic study). The report said that 54% of the watershed is built out, with another 5% already having development approval, and another 30% preserved as park or preserve land. That leaves only about 15% of the land undeveloped. The average estimated impervious cover in Bull Creek Watershed is about 21%, and is expected to rise to about 24% when it's completely built out. This future development is expected to increase pollutant loads by 5-10%, and some springs within the watershed have already shown signs of environmental degradation. The study also pointed out, in general terms, that traffic in the Bull Creek Watershed is bad and bound to get worse.
The city's taxi drivers are miffed at council members over the council's refusal to approve an increase in the city's drop rate; that is, the minimum fee a driver can charge a passenger for short trips. Back in July, the council balked at a proposal to raise from $1.50 to $5 the flat drop rate (the minimum for the first 2é13 miles, with a charge of 25¢ for each additional 1é6 mile). It's back, modified to a minimum of $1.75 for the first 1é7 of a mile and 25¢ thereafter. The 17% increase would be the first since 1994.
Are Taxi Fares Fair?
Peter Rieck, director of Public Works and Transportation, said city staff did not recommend the rate increase due to the fact that Austin already has the highest cab fares in Texas (though they're about middling nationwide). The proposed increase, Rieck said, would give Austin the fourth highest rates in the nation. "There is currently no demonstrated need for a rate increase," he said. "Given the multitudes of possible criteria to evaluate, we really don't know" whether the increase is justified, "but we feel based on the overall picture that a rate increase is not supportable." (The city's Urban Transportation Commission supports the increase.)
But drivers argue that they haven't been getting enough to offset the increased costs of living in Austin over recent years. According to information provided the city by Roy's Taxi, the costs of operating a taxi have increased to between five and 12 times what they were in 1994, but drivers' income has increased only by a factor of three over the same period. "What we're asking for is not a lot of money," said taxi driver Jimmy Switzer, and "times are getting a little tight over on my side. Show a little pity on old cab driver Jim, and give me a little more to operate with."
Rieck's analysis aggravated Austin cab driver (and Airport Advisory Board member) Hannah Riddering, who countered, "It's interesting that city staff is so concerned about us ending up having possibly the highest cab rates in the state. -- Since we already have the highest rents in the state of Texas, I'm wondering why Mr. Rieck is not standing before you with a proposal for a rent control ordinance. -- Apparently, [the city] is under the impression that the cab drivers are driving inflation in this town," said Riddering.
Even if the cab drivers did get a raise, one cab driver, Leroy Holmes Jr., pointed out, the taxi companies come along and increase their take from the drivers. Then Mayor Watson jumped in with a downright populist suggestion: He wondered if there was a way to regulate the relationship between the cab drivers and the cab companies to prevent the companies from taking a big chunk of the drivers' profits. City staff deemed such a move unfeasible, and the cab franchise owners deemed it unfair. The owners insist that they do not know how much cab drivers make, and therefore aren't in the business of matching rate increases with fee increases of their own.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that the kind of increase proposed would make cab rides hard to afford for those who need them most: People who either cannot afford cars or are unable to drive, and who depend on cabs for short trips to the grocery store, doctor's office, and the like. (The city asked member agencies of the Community Action Network, who serve such populations as the elderly, children, and AIDS patients, to weigh in on the proposed increase and got a resounding no vote.) One cab driver attending the council meeting suggested that this dilemma be solved by making the Super Shuttles, which have siphoned some of the increased profits drivers hoped to realize from the new airport, share in some of the less lucrative, community-supportive work that cab drivers perform. "They take the best of what we've got, and they don't share in the responsibility of driving a taxi. They don't take drunks home, they don't take people from HEB. -- It would be great if you could get them working on drunks and get rid of the DWIs in this city."
Easier said than done, of course, and in the end, council decided to split the difference, asking Rieck and staff to come back with a proposal for a more modest rate increase. The city will be meeting with industry representatives this week to try to work out a compromise proposal. The public hearing on the proposed Bradley settlement was a real non-starter, as the Champion zoning and taxi fare debates wore on into the night, pushing the Bradley hearing (and accompanying Barton Springs Zone briefing) from 6 o'clock to after 10pm.
A vote is tentatively scheduled for Dec.16, and a few folks are in high dudgeon over the lack of details that have been published to this point, and, therefore, the meaninglessness of any public comment that might be made on the vague plan. Pained council watchers saw shades of this summer's LCRA water deal debate as SOS attorney Grant Godfrey channeled Bill Bunch (who's on sabbatical), lamenting that without better information, the public input process being conducted "will only be perceived as a sham." SOS has called for both information and more time to review said information.
Accompanying the brief public hearing was a hurried presentation of the city's long-overdue report on development and impervious cover levels in the Barton Springs Zone. The study reveals, in short, that as of the end of 1997, the Barton Springs Contributing Zone and Recharge Zone are developed in the following fashions:
Contrib. Zone Recharge Zone
Single family 14.6% 14.0%
Commercial 3.5% 5.4%
Open Space 24.6% 22.9%
Roads 4.6% 10.0%
Undeveloped 52.5% 47.6%
Over the entire Barton Springs Zone, impervious cover makes up 3.3%. Within the city's jurisdiction, impervious cover is 7.5%; outside the city, it's 1.6%).
The study will be followed by a staff analysis of traffic in the area.
This Week in Council: The proposed Gotham Condominium project on the south side of Town Lake is back on the council agenda (see "Naked City"), and though another postponement is not out of the question, look for a vote on the controversial project tonight. The council will also consider adopting a three-year municipal annexation plan, as mandated by last session's SB 89. At 6pm, in addition to another public hearing on the proposed Bradley development agreement, the council has scheduled a public hearing on the proposed limited purpose annexation of the 1,630-acre Avery Ranch tract, which is 1.5 miles north of the intersection of FM 620 and Parmer Lane.