Mutiny on the Waterfront: Gotham Proposal Raises Hackles Aplenty
Holy catfight, Batman! When the topic of whether to allow the 120-foot Gotham condominium project to lay stakes at Town Lake and the Congress Avenue bridge arose at last week's council meeting, Council Member Beverly Griffith wasted no time laying a motion on the table: Deny Gotham's zoning, send Houston developer Randall Davis packing, and start work on a new waterfront overlay ordinance that would succeed where our current one failed in keeping too-big, too-incompatible projects like Gotham off the riverfront. As if expecting Griffith's charge, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman was ready with an alternate motion: postpone a decision on the Gotham zoning while an alternate overlay is developed -- the clear implication being that if Davis could meet the standards set by a new overlay, he would be welcomed to the "world-class" riverfront site he has sought for over a year.
What should have been a civilized discussion between two longtime progressives and parks advocates took on a nasty tone from the start, a result of the strong emotions Gotham has provoked in people on all sides of the issue, and the politicking that always comes with it. It was partly for this reason, in fact, that Goodman moved to postpone the issue: "The environment that we have, quote, discussed this in is not an environment where you can talk about planning issues at all," she said from the dais.
If only the atmosphere that pervaded the early moments, when Ruben Ramos opened the meeting by singing "One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus," could have carried over to the Gotham discussion -- but it didn't. The vote was accompanied by more unfortunate moments of strife between Goodman and the hard core of the city's neighborhood and progressive factions. South Austin had been agitating for weeks, and the troops were out in force, sitting through assorted other council business until about 10:25pm, more than four hours after the scheduled 6:15 start time. Stalwarts included Shudde Fath, Mike Blizzard, Jeff Jack, and Gary Hyatt, and many of them were having none of the compromise talk coming from Goodman's part of the dais. As Griffith held steadfastly forth on the need to nip the Gotham problem in the bud, they egged her on, clapping at all the applause points and expressing audible dismay at the stance taken by Goodman, herself a Deep South Austinite.
After much heated discussion, the council approved Goodman's motion by a vote of 4-3, with the losing coalition being Griffith, Daryl Slusher, and Willie Lewis. ("Losing faction" isn't really an accurate term for Griffith's coalition, however; the real losers were the developer and his reps, who clearly did not have four votes for approval, and had to fall back to the "compromise" motion to even stay alive.) The motion also directed city staff to propose, as early as this week, a model for a public process that would recommend for council approval by March 15 a new overlay, based not on the previous overlay, but on the principles of the 1985 Town Lake Corridor Study. Goodman is optimistic that a new overlay could succeed where the previous one failed. She said, "I know a lot more about writing ordinances now" than she did back in the Town Lake Corridor Study days.
Goodman said that the spirit of the waterfront overlay was to provide incentives for good uses on lakefront land, and that recent compromise overtures from developer Davis (including a public deck that could be used for bat observation and concession sales and public lake access from the Congress Avenue bridge) indicated that it was at least to some degree having that effect. While the entire council agreed that the principles of the Town Lake Corridor Study were not adequately translated into an overlay ordinance, Goodman believed that a compromised waterfront overlay and a compromised Gotham might possibly find common ground. And, she pointed out, the site proposed for Gotham currently has industrial zoning, a highly inappropriate designation that the arrival of condos on the site would reverse. "If you got anything out of the overlay and the task force work, I hope it was that the vision does not have industrial zoning on the river front," said Goodman. "So the goal, among many other goals, was to [get] industrial uses away from the river and get people around the river."
Gotham's opponents still maintain that the proposed 120-foot height, among other things, is a deal breaker which no amount of compromise on other matters could mitigate. Slusher said he wanted to get Gotham off the table so that the project did not drive consideration of the new overlay, among other reasons. "I'm just going to skip down to the last [reason]; it's because Shudde Fath is against it, and she has a real strong record of being right," Slusher said. ("That last point almost got me," the mayor agreed.) For her part, after the vote, Fath did not mince words. "I'm disgusted," she said of the council's decision not to kill Gotham outright. "You can get rid of the 120 feet tonight, and get rid of light industrial later. Why didn't they go ahead and get the misery over with?"
After it was all over, both participants and onlookers expressed disappointment in the tone of the proceedings -- including the mayor pro tem herself. "I never thought I'd get hissed for opposing light industrial zoning on the waterfront," Goodman said. Prime Gotham opponent and Bouldin neighborhood leader Gary Hyatt tried to strike a conciliatory note, commenting that "both points of view were valid," and adding that he and his group were looking forward to taking part in the new overlay deliberations.
However things end up for Gotham, the upcoming rewrite of the waterfront overlay will likely have enormous implications for development along the riverfront -- and perhaps significant political ramifications too, considering that the new year will see the kickoff of the next council election season. The misery that Fath alluded to may or may not be one byproduct of the process that has started here, but there's no doubt that the harsh light of the "consensus" spotlight could end up doing good for properties along the south side of the river. One observer close to the issue put it this way: "I don't think anybody thought that building Gotham was going to open the Pandora's box that it opened. But it's open as hell." Over the objections of Council Members Griffith and Lewis, who said the increase was too great, City Manager Jesus Garza got a $24,360 raise. Council members said the boost was part of the city's recent effort to bring all city employees' salaries up to market rates, which bumped computer programmers' salaries up by a startling 30 to 40%, according to Bill Spelman. The effort also increased the city's minimum wage to $8 -- deemed to be the "Living Wage" necessary to afford housing in the city.
Spelman, primary council number cruncher for the issue, said that he calculated market value for Garza's position -- given the size of his budget and number of employees in his charge -- at about $164,500. He then added a 4% merit increase to arrive at $171,000.
Lewis, explaining his "nay" vote, said the raise alone "is more than a lot of city employees make annually," plus it was too much at once. Lewis further said he was not persuaded that Garza had earned such a hefty amount. As for Garza's touted takeover and management of Austin Energy, which was done without consulting the council, Lewis said he wasn't convinced that conditions at the utility warranted a takeover. "None of us knew [Austin Energy] was a problem. I can't actually say it was a problem and it was corrected." Griffith added that although Garza had "had a good year -- it's 16.6% at one time, and it's hard for me to justify to myself or to the community."
Garza also received praise from several council members, including the mayor, who cited him as an important reason for Austin being "on the right track," and Goodman, who called him "the best city manager Austin has ever had." Representatives of two Eastside communities visited the council to register their disapproval of the city's plans for their neighborhoods. Early afternoon brought some residents who objected to the city's plans to turn the Brown Distributing Co. building at 411 Chicon into a storage facility for the city Public Works Department. Though folks like Jose Quintero and Marcos de Leon are glad the city is purchasing the building, they said they'd rather have affordable housing on the site. Council Member Gus Garcia said that housing on that land would be anything but affordable, as property values would drive lot prices alone up near $100,000. And he added that the city's tenure on the site would be an improvement. "There won't be any more beer trucks," he said. "I don't want any more advertising for beer in the neighborhood." And the city will take down the razor wire that's atop the fence surrounding the property. "We're going to take the razor blades off the fence. I mean, that's almost inhuman. I think we could turn some people over to some humanitarian organization for putting that fence in a neighborhood."
Though supporters of the city's decision say the site, which is across from some train tracks, is inappropriate for housing, the opposing El Concilio-related faction is serious about its wishes, having already dissuaded Meals on Wheels and Austin Community College (which wanted to install a warehouse distribution facility) from purchasing the property.
Later in the evening, 30-plus residents of the Crystal Brook neighborhood near LBJ High School came to oppose the city's plans to build a levee and concrete floodwall to control floods in their five-year floodplain. The city claims that the levee is not only cheaper -- by over $5 million -- but also more environmentally friendly than putting in a concrete channel, and will preserve more of the natural beauty of Walnut Creek as it runs through the neighborhood.
Citing concerns of levee failure in the flood-prone area (some homes are inside the five-year floodplain), residents say they prefer the channelization approach. They further argued that the city has neglected to remedy the substandard drainage system in the area, a charge supported by Lewis, who said that a solution to that part of the problem is long overdue.
A vote on the item was postponed for 90 days so that the engineering firm selected for the project, Raymond Chan and Associates, can do further study to determine how, exactly, the project would affect some houses along Walnut Creek.
This Week in Council: The last Austin City Council meeting of the millennium will be a busy one, with consideration of final zoning for the Champion tract, expenditures for Prop. 2 land acquisition and destination parks on the Eastside, and the distribution of $9 million in federal funds for the 11th and 12th Streets Urban Renewal Plan, just to name a few items on the agenda. In its morning session, the council will hear a briefing on the proposed annexation plan, which was postponed from last week. And at 6pm there'll be a public hearing on a proposed new valet parking ordinance, followed by council action on said ordinance. The council will also take up the still-smoldering issue of Hyde Park Baptist Church's expansion plans (see "Naked City").