Signed and Sealed

With Bradley Out of the Way, Council Turns Attention to Stratus

Signed and Sealed
By Doug Potter

Well, it's over. The city of Austin's settlement with Gary Bradley no longer has the qualifier "proposed" stuck before it, the way every criminal is described as "alleged" on the evening news. Instead, you can henceforth refer to it as the "unanimously approved" Bradley settlement, following the council's 7-0 vote in favor of adopting the deal early last Friday morning at about 12:45am. Unanimous, yes, but not expeditious. The room was packed for the public hearings, and the City Council voted to give each side one hour to make its case. (This after Council Member Willie Lewis astonished the council by insisting on public input on the day of the vote. Previously, Lewis had argued for approving the settlement on March 9.) The pro-settlement side, which notably included the Save Barton Creek Association, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and, in absentia, the "personal" support of outgoing SOS Board Chair Robin Rather, was nonetheless dominated by representatives from the Circle C Neighborhood Association, who stood to gain along with their agreement a settlement of their annexation-related claims against the city. The opponents, for their part, made moving arguments against making a deal with Bradley that could end up going south. The only problem? Nobody could explain exactly how the travesty of the golf course/ hotel in the recharge zone could be stopped.

The main alternative presented by opponents last Thursday night (March 23) came from SOS attorney Bill Bunch, who suggested that the city issue grandfathering permits to the Bradley interests in keeping with 1704. That way, Bunch argued, at least the development could stop there, and the infrastructure that could start "the next generation of sprawl" would not be put in place by the city. Bunch and company were asking the city to gamble: Turn Bradley down and basically dare him to achieve the momentous levels of buildout he had threatened would be forthcoming if the deal weren't made. "If it's so easy for him to build all this," asked SOS member Mike Blizzard, "why hasn't he done it already?"

Their scenario is not outside the realm of possibility. As Bunch, Blizzard, and their allies well know, such long-shot battles have been won before: with the passage of the SOS Ordinance, for example. Back then, the powers that be, aligned with pro-growth forces in the city, fought to keep the item off the citizens' ballot. And even once it was passed, it was later overturned by a Hays County Court and might have stayed that way if not for a tenuous 4-3 council vote to force a legal challenge. (Council Member Daryl Slusher referenced that vote and the fact that two current council members, Gus Garcia and Jackie Goodman, were part of the four-vote majority. "If it weren't for the courage of these two folks on my right, we wouldn't even have the SOS," said Slusher.)

But in the end, the council members chose the safe route -- the one that appeared the most logical given the information available, which was, one more time: Under the law as currently written, Bradley could have built more than 200 additional acres of impervious cover than will be built under the settlement agreement. And since, under the current political leadership in Texas, any efforts by Austin to manage growth and development will not only not be supported, they will be opposed at every turn -- the chance of a legal victory for Austin was looking remote.

And thus the council approval, but not without some council members working out their own personal issues. Whether Council Member Beverly Griffith's reported opposition to the deal early in the week was genuinely appeased by some last-minute changes, or whether it was simply a position assumed for the sake of bargaining power, it was fruitful: At the meeting, the city's outside counsel on the deal, Casey Dobson, announced that in addition to the increased-density assumptions the city staff have negotiated with Bradley, Bradley has agreed to be bound by any regulation the city passes to improve the accuracy of impervious cover calculations, so long as it applies citywide. In addition, Bradley accepted a Griffith-proposed amendment to downgrade the zoning on Pfluger ranch from SF-2 to Rural Residential, the least dense zoning category on the books.

Slusher spoke, by his own count, for 17 minutes regarding his logic for voting in favor of the deal, and is issuing a (short, he assures us) memo this week providing a more streamlined version of his comments. Even post-vote, though, Slusher wasn't entirely sure: "I think I'm making the right decision," he said, "but I'll probably be concerned about that for the rest of my life."

Retiring Council Member Bill Spelman, for his part, engaged in a philosophical dialogue with Bradley Settlement opponents Blizzard and Bunch regarding the ethical nature of the decision the council was about to make. Bunch had started it by exhorting the council, in his ever colorful and hyperbolic fashion, that "If someone else is going to pave the aquifer ... let the blood be on their hands." Spelman said that he disagreed strenuously, and that "We just want to prevent water quality [degradation], we don't care whose fault it is."


A Mueller-Stratus Swap?

There's no rest, however, for the weary Council Watcher (or wearier council members), because the truce proposals just keep on coming. One of the things that opponents of the Bradley deal warned -- and that city officials never denied -- is that once Bradley was taken care of, Stratus Properties (née FM Properties, aka Freeport McMoRan), would be right behind with a deal of their own. Which, if you accept the logic for approving a Bradley settlement, would not necessarily be a bad thing. According to one city estimate, Bradley and Stratus control about 87% of properties entitled to grandfather status under SB 1704, and getting some kind of control over that acreage would be, indeed, a good thing.

So no sooner was the Bradley deal done than word spread like grassfire of another deal in the works: that the city would offer some portion of the retired Mueller Airport land in exchange for some of Stratus' aquifer property. One city source has said that such a swap was considered but not adopted during negotiations with Bradley, and if achieved with Stratus, could have the very desirable effect of killing two birds with one stone. Through a spokesperson, Deputy City Manager Toby Futrell confirmed that the city is talking with Stratus. City spokesperson Michele Gonzalez said that the city is "considering several options" regarding Stratus, but "there is no concrete proposal at all." She added that due public process would be followed once the options are more firm. This is where the Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition would enter the picture in a big way; rest assured that neighbors won't be likely to take kindly to any Mueller-related deal that doesn't include them.


All Booked Up

Outcry over the proposed relocation of the city's Central Booking facility to the site of the new Travis County Justice Center at 10th and Nueces, which began with residents coming to the citizens communication portion of the council's weekly meeting, is reaching critical mass. Residents are asking the city, in an increasingly impassioned fashion, to keep the facility at its current location at Seventh and I-35, or to perhaps find it another home altogether. In response to their pleas, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said the council will hold a public hearing on the item -- with discussion of possible alternatives -- some time in April.

Though the county will likely move its (much smaller) central booking operation to the new building when it opens late this summer, the city's participation is not a done deal until an agreement between the city and the county is inked. Since several council members -- especially Goodman -- seem to have taken an interest in the concerns of area residents, don't look for the issue to go away quietly any time soon.


Moratorium on Bennett

The Bennett Tract at 11th and I-35 moved one step closer to lower-density development this week, as the council instituted a 90-day moratorium and initiated down-zoning of the property. Gus Garcia made yet another plea to have the thing settled before he retires from the council in June. He quipped that since the filing deadline had passed, he couldn't run again if he wanted to, and so the Bennett matter had better get settled before he takes his leave. At the behest of Council Member Willie Lewis, an economic impact statement will be done regarding how the zoning change would affect businesses along 11th and 12th streets. City Manager Jesus Garza said that since some of that work had already been done by the ARA, such a study could be complete within 30 days.


Buying the Brown

The city will buy the Brown Distributing Co. building in East Austin for use by the city Building Services Department. The council voted 6-1 to approve the purchase (with Lewis voting no), despite the concerns of some that the city's plan was incompatible with the uses preferred by some residents.

Neighbor Joe Quintero maintains that the use does not comply with the embattled East Austin Overlay ordinance, which governs industrial development in East Austin. (The city's action, however, will actually remove the industrial zoning that the property currently carries, replacing it with P for public.) He added that a nascent neighborhood plan for the area (the first meeting was held last week, and the process is expected to take six to nine months) will not include uses such as those the city is contemplating. As he has frequently done, El Concilio member Robert Donley charged that voting for the items would be tantamount to "endorsing" the racist decisions of the 1920s, in which city leaders determined to focus the city's light industrial zoning on the Eastside due to the large concentration of minority residents.

There was some discussion of the fact that the Brown site is adjacent to the proposed Fourth Street light rail corridor, which Council Member Garcia pointed out might not be the best location for residential uses. Then Mayor Pro Tem Goodman spoke up for concerned residents, saying, "I think the neighborhood is right. I will be looking for ways to increase the resources of the housing trust fund" (created by the council's social equity initiative last summer) to make sure that the use of the site as a maintenance facility is only temporary, and that the neighborhood's preference for housing in the area is soon achieved. Garcia apparently agreed, ultimately suggesting a five-year approval only, which was successfully added to the resolution: "I don't mean to punt this issue, but there are some things in the process right now that could affect how this is used in the future."


This Week in Council

The council's morning session -- to be held in Room 304 of City Hall -- will include briefings on CSC's minority contractng plan, as well as Austin Energy's energy conservation plan. In the afternoon session at Bergstrom Airport (at the Engineering Airfield Operations Building, 2716 Spirit of Texas Dr.), the agenda is loaded with hot-button neighborhood issues. Hyde Park Baptist Church is back on the agenda -- this time at the behest of Council Members Griffith and Spelman, who will lay out a proposal designed to sway the church to whittle down the size of its proposed parking garage to something more compatible with the neighborhood. Discussion on the item is scheduled for late afternoon.

Other neighborhood battles scheduled for a council vote include the proposed Home Depot at South I-35 and Woodward, and the proposed Southpark Meadows expansion, both of which feature agitated neighbors and anxious developers. end story

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