Watson & Co. Go to Washington to Talk Transportation
This week in council has brought more questions than answers. Juicy developments on a variety of fronts have had City Hall insiders and assorted council watchers talking (though, naturally, mostly off the record). Here's what they've been talking about:
Will the combination bond ballot of "Roads, Rail, and Sidewalks" that Mayor Kirk Watson seems to be aiming at with his new proposed $75 million in transportation funding for the May bond ballot smooth the way for the approval of light rail?
Rail 'n' Road 'n' Sidewalks
Though local wags have been speculating that the cash would go toward SH 130, and more specifically, toward right-of-way purchase that could encourage the selection of the eastern alignment preferred by the city, the mayor says that is not the case. Watson said Tuesday the money would be a treasure chest from which the city could draw local matching funds to encourage the allocation to Austin of state highway funds. Watson said that any project funded from the bond issue would have to go through the normal, annual process of approval by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board. He added that the fund would be subject to CAMPO's "15% rule" -- i.e., that 15% of road expenditure dollars go toward sidewalks and other nonautomotive transportation infrastructure, creating a well-rounded "transportation toolbox," as Watson is calling it. All the better, he said, if the road and sidewalk money "helps build coalitions around other tools."
The transportation tools that need the coalition building are certainly light rail related, and though that's all Watson chose to say on the subject of SH 130, the story being told on the street is that such an expenditure would be designed to neutralize any organized, well-funded opposition to light rail. (Names being mentioned as sources for such opposition include Texas Turnpike Authority chair Pete Winstead and Austin American-Statesman publisher Mike Laosa, who are said to believe that enthusiasm for light rail could interfere with SH 130.)
On the other hand, SH 130 boosters aren't the only ones who may find Watson's plan appealing. Such a balanced transportation diet is just the sort of thing that's been a big hit in post-development-wars Austin, where environmental and business groups have been known to trade support for, say, bond money for the Convention Center expansion and the greenspace acquisition program to create a formidable voting bloc.
But can Austin afford to issue more bonds at this time? There was a healthy dispute while the May 1998 bond package was being compiled over just how much transportation money to include, and some have suggested that issuing more than $56 million in bonds annually, at least before the end of the six-year cycle laid out at the time of the '98 election, is more than the city could handle. Watson said that is simply not the case, and that his proposal would only cost the average homeowner $3 annually. "That must have come from somebody who doesn't like my idea," the mayor said. "Look at our tax base over this past year. We can clearly cover this."
Will the addition of highway and sidewalk funding to the light rail ballot ensure its passage? It could depend in part on when the election is held. Though some say a May election would not allow sufficient time for coalition-building, others fear federal funds will be drained by the time a November vote rolls around. Speaking of the feds, Watson, Capital Metro board chair Lee Walker, and Council Member Daryl Slusher (also a Cap Met board member) left this week for Washington to explore the city's options.
According to one source inside the anti-light-rail camp, however, adding roads to the mix will do little to mollify light-rail opposition. "I'd go against the [bond item] if it were paired with rail just to make the point that we're not going to go quietly into the night," commented the anti-railer. "As far as I'm concerned, rail goes down whether it's tied to roads or not."
What did the council know and when did they know it? That was the question on everyone's lips early this week regarding the Terrace PUD (which got approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to build its grandfathered project by agreeing to spend $530,000 on 58 acres of mitigation land). Did the council facilitate the building of a million square feet of hotel and office space on the banks of Barton Creek with its contribution of Proposition 2 bond dollars to jointly purchase mitigation land with Terrace developers? Even if not, is the mingling of public conservation dollars with developers' funds akin to accepting blood money?
Out on the Terrace PUD
It is according to Mike Blizzard, an Austin political consultant who served as manager of the campaign for Prop. 2. "Clearly, the citizens of Austin would not support this sort of mitigation property," he said. "It's miles south of the development in a different watershed. That is not how people understand mitigation to work." Blizzard said that by commingling Prop. 2 money with Terrace mitigation money, the council compromised the principles of the Prop. 2 vote. "No one is saying, "Off with their heads,'" said Blizzard. "But this is really important. There was a certain purity of purpose, innocence, idealism [in the Prop. 2 campaign]. There's a sense of innocence lost here."
SOS Action, the Alliance's political action committee, went even further than that in their allegations. After the Statesman ran a story implying that the council's action facilitated the Terrace development, SOS went into high gear, issuing a flyer charging that "this secret sleazy deal allows Clayton Williams and his developer cronies to violate the water quality protections of the SOS Ordinance and pollute Barton Creek." The flyer urged supporters to attend a protest on Wednesday of this week at City Hall.
But the protest was headed off at the pass by Tuesday's announcement, in the form of a letter from City Manager Jesus Garza to SOS Alliance Chair Robin Rather, that the city would return the Terrace's money to the Nature Conservancy. Since the council had enough money to purchase the tract on its own, it was going to use the Terrace money to make further Prop. 2 acquisitions. Now, the city will simply forfeit the $530,000, and the Terrace will go shopping for another mitigation tract to purchase.
In his letter, Garza noted that even though the return of the money does not affect the Terrace development -- it still goes forward; it still has protection under SB 1704 -- "it was an oversight not to announce publicly that the $530,000 in mitigation money from the Terrace was being accepted as part of the Weisbart/Senterfit conservation easement purchase." The letter said the joint purchase was made in order to achieve the goal of purchasing more contiguous land, which is generally viewed as a more desirable conservation strategy.
Jeff Francell of the Nature Conservancy agreed that the council's action did nothing to facilitate the Terrace development, and that the Terrace developers would still have to buy the same amount of land now that the deal with the city has gone south. He added that it was a good buy: The Weisbart/Senterfit tract lies along Bear Creek in the recharge zone, "in Gary Bradley country." Francell said that "the only people who control land down there are Bradley and the city -- there was only one wild card piece, and we got it."
So if the deal is clean, why give the money back? So the council could avoid the political headache and "get on with governing," according to Watson. Asked to speculate on SOS's motives, Watson cited the election year as possible motivation. Slusher did him one better, getting in a jab at his oftentime allies by saying, "I couldn't help but notice but that before the sun went down [on the day the Statesman story ran] a mass fundraising appeal was sent out on this issue."
Will Circle C developer Gary Bradley divulge pertinent business information in time to make the proposed settlement deal with the city a reality? It now looks doubtful.
Back to Bradley
Negotiations with Bradley have reportedly slowed considerably. Before the holidays, Watson was predicting a speedy conclusion to the settlement talks, with a detailed agreement to be published for public vetting early in the new year. But said document has yet to materialize. Rumor has it that one reason for the delay is that the city is having a hard time getting information from Bradley, such as: Who are the partners in the deal, what authority does he have to bind them? The original rush on the settlement was to facilitate some pending deal of Bradley's, which presumably is no longer time-sensitive.
Though one council insider says the settlement has "not been a hot topic" around City Hall lately, it has been posted on council's executive session agenda at every meeting this month. Slusher says talks are "still creeping along," and he wants to reassure the wary public that any proposed settlement will be published at least 30 days before council action. Slusher also predicted that the details of such an agreement, if one is to be reached at all, will surface within the next month.
Much of the juicy stuff will happen this morning (Thursday, Jan. 27), as the council convenes for its first post-Second Street meeting. The morning session, which begins at 9am and will include briefings on the CSC development and the Hyde Park Baptist Church, will be held in Rm. 304 of City Hall at Eighth and Colorado. The afternoon session will begin at 1:30pm at the New Airport Project Team facility on Spirit of Texas Drive (Cargo exit) at Bergstrom Airport.
This Week in Council
Hyde Park Baptist Church: So the big question is, will the City Council step in to keep Hyde Park Baptist from executing nefarious designs on its surrounding neighborhood? At its 9am session today, the council will hear updates from both the church and neighborhood representatives on the negotiation process that, according to early accounts, is not proceeding smoothly. The council also has on its agenda an action item that would direct City Manager Jesus Garza to start the process of amending the ordinance that governs how HPBC may expand in Hyde Park, so it's possible that another chapter in the protracted battle could be written today. If it's going to act, the council has to act fast: The council-imposed six-week moratorium on the church's expansion is set to expire Friday, Jan. 28.
CSC/Retail: Will the advent of CSC-related retail jump-start a new retail corridor on Second from City Hall to Congress Avenue? The city's CSC project manager, Nathan Schneider, says city staff requested a waiver to the city's ordinances stipulating a minimum amount of ground floor, not to skimp on the amount of retail, but "to give the council an additional option" in the project design. (The request was denied earlier this month by the Planning Commission.) Now, Schneider says, there are two options for CSC-related retail. Build it as originally proposed, or implement a "much grander vision" as proposed by developers Federal Realty of Bethesda, Md., which proposed that the city lay the foundations for a retail strip that would run along Second from CSC to Congress. Schneider said the grand vision would include larger stores anchoring the end of each block, with smaller and local shops filling in the spaces between. He added that the vision would include clothing stores, which are the holy grail of urban retail development. "You know you've come of age when a clothing store moves into your area," he said. "When the Gap or Banana Republic moves in, you've come of age."
And what of that pesky contract with CSC, without which an astounding amount of dirt has turned? It's almost here, says Schneider. He says all the details of the final contract with CSC have finally been worked out, and the document is scheduled to be signed Wednesday, Feb. 2.
Also on the agenda: The council will consider the Mueller Neighborhood Association's recommendation to allow the Austin Film Society to rent a hangar at the old airport to house film production facilities. Council is also expected to direct the city manager to commission a consultant to develop a proposal for a new Town Lake Overlay, and appoint an advisory group to assist the consultant. Finally, at 6pm there will be a public hearing on the proposed annexation of the 164-acre Regents tract, the site of the private school that neighbors in the Southwest Austin Travis Country subdivision want annexed to prevent the increase in size of the school's recently installed football field.