Retail Details: Council Plots Downtown's Storefront Future
It was a lot of hurry up and wait at the Austin City Council this week. The first post-Second St. meeting was chaotic and long, the few meaningful public policy moments interspersed with lots of down time for travel out to the airport, as well as several executive sessions discussing everything from the Gary Bradley settlement (see This Week in Council, below) to the "legal and ethical" issues surrounding Hyde Park Baptist Church. One highlight came early, as the council voted to approve about $8.35 million for more than 65,000 square feet of retail downtown -- plus an extra $978,500 to fund an additional 11,000 square feet of retail meant to anchor a new downtown retail district that would run along Second Street, from the Green Treatment Plant on the west end to Congress Avenue on the east end. The vote would facilitate the grand retail visions of Federal Realty Inc. for Austin's downtown, provided, that is, that a nine-month feasibility study declares the project to be, um, feasible.
One surprise in the briefing was the news that Austin's ever-increasing boom would not necessarily translate to healthy profits for said retail. According to Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell, proceeds from the retail project will be enough to cover payments on the bonds sold to finance the project, but are not expected to bring Austin a civic windfall. "We are not finding that the retail will be a cash cow for the city," Futrell said. "We're not finding it's going to be a cash cow at all." There must be money in the deal for someone, however, as it would not otherwise have attracted the notice of national level fat cats like Federal.
The city waded into state -- and even presidential -- politics this week, with a resolution urging the Texas Railroad Commission to deny Alcoa's request to strip-mine more than 15,000 acres in Bastrop and Lee counties to get lignite for their power plant in Milam County. The unanimously approved resolution (which passed 6-0, with Mayor Kirk Watson already off for his Washington, D.C., transportation meeting confab) called Alcoa "the largest grandfathered polluter in Texas," and Council Member Daryl Slusher took the opportunity to get in a few jabs at our country-trotting governor. Slusher noted that it was legislation signed by George W. Bush that exempted Alcoa from this session's tighter air quality regulations, commenting, "every day, our water quality and our quality of life is being damaged by developers who don't want to comply with our regulations and who have gone down to the legislature." Slusher added that the impending EPA non-attainment status of a five-county Central Texas area including Travis and Bastrop counties would only be aggravated by the continuation of Alcoa's polluting ways.
Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute
Though the resolution will have no formal effect, Slusher raised the victory of Hudspeth County residents, along with allies from across the state and Mexico, in defeating the "done deal" nuclear dump proposed for construction in that county. "I am confident that we can stop this plant as well," Slusher said.
The council was lauded in its action by Travis Brown, who led a delegation of Bastrop and Lee County citizens, organized under the name Neighbors for Neighbors, to thank the council for supporting their cause. Brown noted that the westernmost boundary of Alcoa's activity is only 20 miles from the Austin city limits, implicating Austin as a stakeholder in the strip mine struggle. Council member Beverly Griffith couldn't agree more. To close the discussion, Griffith mixed her literary metaphors in an anti-pollution exhortation that left everybody more or less speechless: "Pollution knows no frontiers, no barriers, no jurisdictions; we are literally and physically in this together," Griffith, said, adding, "Ask not for whom the ozone floats, it's coming for you."
Though the Gotham Condominium hubbub has gone into hibernation for the time being, the council quietly took the next step in resolving that and other waterfront controversies this week, as they adopted a resolution instructing City Manager Jesus Garza to hire an "urban waterfront planning consultant" to develop a new overlay for the council's consideration, and to establish a council-appointed Town Lake Advisory Board to provide public input into said development. One council source said the consultant would consult with stakeholders and develop a proposal, "along the lines of what Peter Calthorpe did for the Triangle," and that that consultant "probably will end up being ROMA," of Mueller Airport redesign fame. The resolution, which specified that the new development standards be "specifically tied to -- community goals provided by the Town Lake Corridor study," required Garza to present a preliminary report on the process by May 15, a timeline which will stretch the proposed six-month period for revising the overlay to the limit, and perhaps beyond.
The Art of Planning
Far less quiet was the process by which the council decreed another moratorium in the case of Hyde Park Baptist Church vs. its neighbors, forbidding both the church's expansion and the Hyde Park Neighborhood plan from proceeding for a period of five weeks (see "The Waiting Game").
Better progress has been made in the case of Regents School vs. the Travis Country neighborhood, where council discussed both the city's possible annexation of the school's 164 acres of land, and an agreement that could end the battle taking place out on the county line (just north of Southwest Parkway, near Republic of Texas Drive). After extended and vociferous protests from the neighbors, the school has agreed to move their soon-to-be-lighted football field across the street, away from nearby Travis Country homes, and they've put their money where their mouth is, buying the tract of land necessary to make the move. Though pleased with this overture, neighbors are still requesting annexation so that the school will be subject to city ordinances governing noise and the like.
In other news, our city government won another national plaudit this week when the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University ranked Austin the second-best managed city in the nation (Phoenix came in first). The study rated cities in five categories: financial management, human resources management, information technology management, capital management, and performance management and strategic planning, and Austin came away with an A-- overall. Houston and Dallas both received a grade of C+. San Antonio got a solid B.
For the second week in a row, the council's morning session in City Hall (to be held at 9am today, Thursday, Feb. 3, in room 304) will likely see most of the day's good action. First up will be a briefing on the latest developments in the proposed Bradley Settlement. At last week's meeting, City Attorney Andy Martin said he was "optimistic" that the draft agreement would be ready in time for presentation at today's meeting. In preparation for that possibility, the council adopted a schedule for study and implementation of the agreement, including several public hearings, that would culminate in the agreement's adoption on March 9. (At press time, Martin said that though the agreement was not yet nailed down, he was still expecting to have it worked out in time to present it today. "It's just one of those things," Martin said. "Until it's there, it's not there.")
This Week in Council
In anticipation of this week's Bradley news, the SOS Alliance on Monday cranked out a list of "goals and recommendations" drawn up by a special SOS Review Team that's watching this settlement process like a hawk. "This deal," the SOS statement reads, "is worthwhile ONLY to the extent that it actually ends the "grandfathering' debate with Bradley once and for all --" The statement goes on to assert that the Bradley proposal should be written so as to provide a good precedent for future development in the watershed, and that the deal should not lead to the expansion of major roadways in the area.
Additionally, SOS wants Bradley to agree that the settlement "effectively ends all his business activities in the aquifer," settles the Circle C annexation headache, and ends his attempts to "influence" the boundaries of the recharge or contributing zones within the aquifer region.
SOS also wants the city to commit to do a number of things:
Obviously, this is a complicated issue. Once the settlement is released, SOS leaders say they will need at least four to six weeks to pore over the document before taking a formal position.
Following the Bradley briefing will be a good-government extravaganza of sorts, as the council receives briefings on the progress of the Goggio Health Care Consultants, the recommendations of the Charter Revision Committee, and a management study of the city clerk's office.
In executive session this week, the council will discuss plans for meeting Austin Energy's power generation needs -- in addition to, we might well assume, the future of Austin's electric utility in light of deregulation. Though a January 4 status report from Austin Energy's Strategic Planning deregulation review group stated, among other conclusions, that "there is significant value in Austin Energy remaining a community owned utility," the question of whether AE will privatize is still very much an open one. At today's meeting, the council is expected to set a public hearing for February 10 to allow public comments on deregulation options.