Land Lock

From the East to the West, Austin's Land Use a Hot Topic

In a break from its all-Bradley, all-the-time agendas of late, the council turns its attention this week to the Eastside, where there are two percolating land-use issues figuring into the neighborhood's vision of itself. More portentous of the two is a set of items regarding the future of the on-again-off-again Bennett tract. The council has three Bennett tract-related items on its agenda: the adoption of a 90-day moratorium on approval of site plans for the property; down-zoning to allow for more neighborhood-sized uses, and a briefing from city staff on an "action plan" for the area. Though the property (which lies just east of I-35 between Eighth and 11th streets) might seem to some like an ideal focus for a Smart Growth-type installation of a major employer, which is what Matthew Mathias of Riata Development aims to do, there are those who disagree. Residents of the Guadalupe neighborhood, which abuts the 8.5-acre tract, argue that the density of an office building will squelch their plans for the area, which include housing, neighborhood and shops -- not high-density office space. Ebenezer Baptist Church, a powerful social and economic force in the area, is expected to continue its support for the project, on the grounds that the area needs the economic shot in the arm that the building would bring. Then there's the Austin Revitalization Authority, which adds further uncertainty since its development plans for the area are -- allegedly -- just getting off the ground. The Bennett tract agenda items are set for a time certain of 2pm today, Thursday, March 23, during the council's afternoon session in the Hancock Building at the Lower Colorado River Authority offices, 3700 Lake Austin Blvd. The action plan briefing on the Bennett tract is slated for the council's morning session at City Hall, Room 304.


Brown Building's Future

Today may also see council action on whether the warehouse at 411 Chicon, now owned by the Brown Distributing Co. facility, will become the new home of the city's Building Services Dept. The $2.6 million city purchase has flummoxed the Planning Commission, which has demurred rendering judgment through a series of delays, and through the only partial approval of the city's proposal. Eastside opposition to the project will be aired tonight at a 6pm public hearing. Despite opposition from El Concilio and other neighborhood residents, who advocate a residential/multi-use purpose for the site, one council source said the votes are in line for approval of the city's plans.

Council Member Gus Garcia, often the target of El Concilio members' criticisms for his failure to support their goals for their neighborhoods, has stated his support for the city's plans. According to Garcia aide Paul Saldaña, the purchase (and the P for public zoning that will accompany it) "puts the city in a better position to be able to do something long term for the community there," such as affordable housing, community services, or other neighborhood-friendly uses. As an example of where that has taken place, Saldaña cited the city-owned River Street property, south of the Convention Center, which is currently in the process of becoming the site of the Mexican American Cultural Center.

The Bradley Deal: Tick, Tock

As negotiations run down to the wire on the proposed settlement with Circle C developer Gary Bradley, tempers in the heretofore surprisingly civil negotiations have grown decidedly hot. A meeting on the city land option proposal to acquire some of Bradley's property "was not fruitful," according to Council Member Daryl Slusher, who attended the Bradley meeting along with Council Member Beverly Griffith, SOS chair Robin Rather and vice chair Mary Arnold, Save Barton Creek Association's George Cofer, and outside city attorney Casey Dobson. "What was laid out [in terms of what conditions Bradley would impose on a land sale to the city] is not going to work," Slusher said. Those unfavorable terms, Slusher added, were that any land Bradley sold the city would still be included in the settlement's total impervious cover calculations -- meaning Bradley would get credit for keeping that property undeveloped, thereby decreasing the overall amount of impervious cover that will be charged against his account as per the terms of the agreement.

Not only did they fail to reach an agreement on the land options, but Bradley leveled several threats against the city, according to participants in the meeting. He leveled them, they said, mostly on behalf of his associate, Grant Gomez, heir to the Belo Corp. fortune. If the settlement is not approved, Bradley reportedly said, Gomez may file a federal suit in Austin or in Dallas, on his home turf, on the basis of discrimination: that he hasn't received his rightful grandfathering permits due to his ethnicity, which is Hispanic. And if that weren't enough, Bradley reportedly said that Lt. Gov. Rick Perry would call a special legislative session in order to bring an uppity Austin into line on the grandfathering issue.

Despite the SXSW/Spring Break-inspired lull in council business last week, city environmental staffer Nancy McClintock cited late-breaking developments Tuesday, including tightening of the provisions for groundwater pumping on Bradley land. While previous drafts of the agreement have only limited the pumping of new wells, "we now have a provision disallowing the use of existing wells if they are drilled into the Edwards Aquifer," McClintock said. Other updates included Bradley's assent to several demands of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which continues to stay at the table as a likely third-party accountability partner with the city in the conservation easement. These provisions included requiring the hotel and resort to emphasize native plants and landscape, in keeping with philosophy of Wildflower Center, and adding native-plant-focused landscaping as an option for homeowners in new Bradley-properties development.

In addition to the pumping limits, another concern raised by SOS attorney Bill Bunch has been answered through the negotiations: McClintock confirmed that Bradley has agreed to revised assumptions about the amount of impervious cover that will typically occur on a given lot. She said the assumptions have been in the city code since 1986, "and they have been changed with the Bradley deal." Assumptions of how much impervious cover will occur on a given lot have been increased across the board, and in some cases, doubled. "He's being held to a higher standard," said McClintock. "These changes need to be made citywide [because] houses in Austin are getting bigger and bigger."

Overall, however, another SOS attorney, Grant Godfrey, said SOS remains steadfast in its opposition to the deal as it stands now. "The developer gets the immediate and substantial benefit, and we get a promise of something in the future," Godfrey said. "And that is not a good deal to cut with Gary Bradley."

Though some substantive questions regarding the deal and its prognosis for success remain unanswered, today is Judgment Day for the council, and the $64,000 question is this: How will the council members vote -- up or down? State-of-the-art rumors coming out of City Hall have five likely yes-votes for the agreement, and one likely "no" -- from Council Member Beverly Griffith. Sources say Griffith is still pushing on the impervious cover issue, for even higher assumptions per lot than those city staff have achieved. She's also said to be pushing for higher standards of accountability in the future allotment of impervious cover as the Bradley properties are built out. Though Council Member Willie Lewis has been rumored as a "no" vote in recent days, the latest report is that he's back in the "yes" column to stay.

All this leaves Slusher between a rock and a very hard place. Because the deal would require an ordinance change, city code says the item must pass with six out of seven votes. With Griffith's likely "no" vote hanging in the air, the guy who may have the most Bradley-related baggage in town (Mary Arnold notwithstanding) is emerging as the swing vote that could make or break the whole deal. Slusher, in his former life as a columnist for this paper, dogged Bradley and his development designs on Austin's aquifer since the 1980s, and he prides himself as the council's institutional memory on Bradley-related development issues. Though he's been semi-public in his anguish over how to vote on the deal, Slusher has yet to announce his intentions either way, but he will assure Austinites of one thing: "I'm not going to make a political decision on this," Slusher said late Tuesday. "Even if I did, that wouldn't be easy."

Public hearings and council action on all Bradley settlement-related items, including zoning for the 3,076 acres covered by the agreement, are slated for 6pm tonight.


CSC and Minority Contractors

Today's morning session will include a briefing on Computer Sciences Corp.'s plan to increase minority- and women-owned business subcontracting participation in its big downtown project. Council aide Saldaña said CSC has indicated that it has 25% minority subcontracting participation on its overall construction project, but CSC hasn't released the names of those companies involved. Minority contractors are reportedly miffed, however, that a good chunk of the minority participation CSC claims is attributed to Standard Glass, which is a supplier, not a subcontractor, and thereby doesn't -- or shouldn't -- count toward the total.

Howard Falkenberg, CSC's public relations rep, said this week that he's "pretty confident we're gonna get there" on the minority hiring goals. If that's the case, then why the outcry? Falkenberg said it's because there hasn't "been enough communication" -- this despite weekly meetings between CSC, the city, and minority contracting groups (although we're told that CSC only recently began attending the meetings on a regular basis). Falkenberg said that another reason for the misunderstanding is that not all CSC's subcontracts have been let out yet, so people aren't seeing the full picture of the company's minority participation.

Meanwhile, back at the city code, possible revisions may be in order for the city's M/WBE (Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises) ordinance. Lawyer Colette Holt has reviewed a study of the existing ordinance (overhauled a few years ago after a long series of contentious hearings), and has recommended changes, which will come before the council for action within the next few months. One of the proposed changes includes incorporating M/WBE standards for projects built under ground-lease agreements with the city, such as the CSC project. Because no minority contracting provisions were in place on public-private partnerships, CSC was allowed to develop its own minority contracting plan, which led to the current state of conflict.


Tit for Tat for Tivoli

Chalk up another Smart Growth victory for the city with regard to corporate relocations. Today the council will consider an incentive package on the order of about $14 million for IBM-owned Tivoli Systems to build a new facility on 90 acres at 11400 Burnet Rd., just north of the IBM campus in the Desired Development Zone. (According to Mayor Kirk Watson, in response to the precedent set by companies including Motorola and CSC, both of which decided against building new digs in environmentally sensitive Southwest Austin, Tivoli "didn't even look" at property in the drinking water protection zone.) The incentive package cost breaks down like this: $11.9 million will go toward fee waivers and infrastructure incentives, and $2.2 million will go toward public works items. Though one source surmised that neighbors in the Gracy Farms Road area may have something to say about the move, so far the pricey item has remained remarkably quiet, which could indicate a quick and easy approval.


Also This Week ...

The council will consider selecting the team of architects that will design Austin's new City Hall, which has gotten woefully short shrift in the press and public eye, and likely behind the scenes, as well. And the already overburdened 6pm public hearing portion of the council meeting will include hearings on a number of Smart Growth-related items.

The council will also consider approval of a $120,000 grant from the governor's office that would allow the Austin Police Department to create a new program, the Faith Community Network. Based on programs operating in California and Florida, the program provides after-school activities to at-risk youth, including pairing the kids with senior citizens for a kind of two-way mentoring program. The program will also coordinate information about faith-based services for at-risk youth and their families. APD representative Lolita Slagle said that since the program matches up with Gov. George W. Bush's push toward "faith-based" solutions to social problems, the department will petition the governor's office for further funding. This isn't the first time the APD has sought the help of a higher power: According to a church member, Chief Stan Knee recently visited Hyde Park Baptist Church to request that members pray for his officers. Consequently, 1,300 HPBC members are praying -- by name -- for 300 Austin police officers on a daily basis. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Bennett tract, Guadalupe neighborhood, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Gary Bradley, Grant Gomez, Daryl Slusher, Robin Rather, SOS, Bill Bunch, Mary Arnold, CSC, minority contractors, Tivoli

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