Too Big for Our Bridges: Will Pedestrians Take Back Seat to Traffic? That's an Easy One
The Watson council has, for the most part, continued its breakneck whirl through Austin's various fields of public policy, sometimes seeming to solve long-entrenched problems at will. But some of the old baggage is still hanging around; and the Lamar Pedestrian Bridge, to consider one example, is a whopper. Discussion on the fate of the bridge was already considered overdue in the summer of 1998, when the council voted after a protracted debate to build a separate pedestrian bridge instead of cantilevering the bridge -- that is, attaching new pedestrian lanes to the existing structure. Touted as the "double helix" bridge because it was going to feature curves and two diverging ramps on each end (as well as a host of pedestrian-focused amenities), the new bridge was supposed to cost about $4.75 million (later increased to $6 million), and be completed in early 2000.
But that did not happen. The pedestrian bridge is behind schedule, and it would be over budget as well -- in the $8 million range -- if it were to be built as planned in 1998. Last month, looking for a better deal, the city re-bid the project. This time, they asked for cheaper proposals, too, including a modified bridge that would end at Cesar Chavez, instead of extending to Fifth St. as the original plan had it. But a cheaper project was not to be had: Due to steeply increasing construction costs citywide, the new bids were about $300,000 higher than the old ones, and even the modified version of the bridge would now come in at over the $6 million construction budget.
What to do? Fans of the cantilever option are gearing up for one last push, pleading with the council to reconsider the cantilever which, depending on whom you ask, is anywhere from $1 million to $5 million cheaper than the separate bridge. Enter Sinclair Black, Austin's own architectural Don Quixote. Apparently undaunted by losing the City Hall design contract to Juan Cotera and company, he's back with a last-minute bid to get the cantilever built. Black has been aligned with a variety of Austin architects (including transportation guru Janna McCann) in his support of the cantilever, and is currently working with architect Tom Hatch to try to make it happen.
When a meeting in March between Black, Hatch, and city staff revealed that revisiting the cantilever option would take up to 42 weeks worth of engineering work, including eight weeks and $82,000 just to determine whether the existing bridge could hold the cantilevers, Hatch and Black commissioned their own study, on their own dime. And Hatch said Tuesday that structural engineer Jerry Garcia will report to council today on whether the cantilever option is feasible. This week, therefore, the council has a tough decision to make: press on with the more expensive and separate bridge, or force another delay for the sake of pursuing the cantilever, reversing what some feel was a poor and costly decision. The estimated time difference between the two is about seven months -- the modified separate bridge would likely be finished in May of 2001; the cantilever, December of 2001.
But the council is not deliberating in a vacuum: The Lamar bridge, built in 1942 as part of the state highway system, is owned by the Texas Dept. of Transportation, and any expansion would have to go through TxDOT. And although a TxDOT representative wrote in an April 5 letter to the city that the agency has no problem with the cantilever expansion, there's another state agency out there that does: the Texas Historical Commission, which has consistently argued against modifying the bridge in any way, shape or fashion. The THC would likely intervene to try and stop TxDOT approval of the project, which could lead to yet another delay of the resolution of the Pedestrian Bridge saga.
Hatch, among others, argues that the cantilever could be done without harming the bridge's architectural value: "From below," he said, "there will be little, if any damage. From the trail, you'll see the full bridge." Hatch said the cantilever would not harm the look of the bridge "nearly as much as another bridge would block the view of it. It would be a violation of our public spaces. It's not good planning -- not the direct way to get people across the lake."
If, as Hatch suggests, the cantilever will be the most efficient, the most attractive, and the cheapest, why has so much time -- and according to Hatch, an estimated $2 million in engineering and other fees -- been spent pursuing the separate bridge option? Obviously, everyone does not believe this is so. One argument for the separate bridge is that by separating it from Lamar, it would allow pedestrians and cyclists a peaceful vantage point from which to admire the lake. Another is more practical: If the city adds the pedestrian lanes, the long-advocated (by some) expansion of the bridge's capacity for auto traffic will likely be thwarted.
Then there are the city staffers who may favor the separate bridge. City staff have always been integral players in the Lamar Bridge issue, ever since their mid-1990s advocacy of expanding the bridge to six lanes of traffic was rejected by the council, and some cantilever partisans feel that staffers may have stacked the deck for the separate bridge.
There are many unanswered questions regarding the cantilever, and it was the ever-irrefutable Mayor Kirk Watson who leveled the most damning argument against returning to that option: traffic. With the wealth of projects in that part of the city, a bridge project that would undoubtedly slow traffic could certainly prove problematic. For his part, Hatch says traffic is not problem. He says that the cantilever could be built with the closing of only one lane, and that only from midnight to 6am for a period of 30 days. Other cantilever fans say that the inconvenience that would inevitably come from the project would be worth it in the long run.
Which way will the rest of the council go today, Thursday, April 13? Look for some interest in the cantilever from council members Bill Spelman and Beverly Griffith, who abstained from the 1998 vote for the separate bridge due to their support for the cantilever option. Kirk Watson and his anti-cantilever vote will be absent, as he's attending a conference of world mayors in Israel. Other council members have expressed varying degrees of concern with the additional delay, which could lead to a vote against the cantilever.
(On April 8, 1998, two years ago almost to the day, Council Member Daryl Slusher told the Statesman: "There's a lot of sentiment on the council to get this thing decided. It's been floundering for too long." Slusher could not be reached for comment this week, as he's attending a conference on city government and environmental protection hosted by Boise, Idaho's alternative weekly.)
In other news, the council approved a spate of Smart Growth "infill" items this week, which were designed to facilitate new and upgraded construction in the Desired Development Zone. The late-night public hearings attracted only the hardy Will Bozeman, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, who stayed to communicate the ANC's uneasiness on several of the items, including one that would allow developments to be expanded without upgrading environmental controls. Bozeman said that while he was happy that more Smart Growth items were finally coming to the council for action, "We need to do more. I would be interested in making anything we do in the future much quicker." Bozeman was then admonished by both Watson and Slusher, who spoke against the ANC's inconsistency and negativity, respectively. Watson noted that the ANC usually criticized the council for moving too fast on things, not too slow. "I didn't want to let that go past, because that's just the opposite of what I usually hear," said Watson. And with that, the Smart Growth-neighborhood infill debate rages on.
Smart and Smarty
So what's going on with Hyde Park Baptist, you ask? The short answer: It ain't over yet.
Park It Right There
Now for the long answer: Last week, Council Member Bill Spelman presented an item that would have limited impervious cover on the site at 39th and Ave. D, where the church's massive five-story garage is planned, to 40% (the current plan calls for as much as 100% impervious cover), in keeping with the property's current single-family zoning. He noted that while the church's NCCD waives a variety of development controls on the proposed garage, it never mentions a waiver of impervious cover limits. Anticipating protests that building a garage at 40% impervious cover would be infeasible, Spelman came armed with color slides of four different garages with even smaller footprints, all of them within walking distance of City Hall.
Spelman's arguments elicited favorable comments from the council but did not convince them to vote to "re-interpret" the NCCD at this time. The item, which was initially placed on the consent agenda by Spelman and Goodman, was yanked at the last minute, reportedly due to concerns about "procedural issues"; in lieu of granting approval, council members Lewis, Goodman, and Garcia, as well as Mayor Watson, made remarks encouraging the church to reconsider its rigid stance on the garage.
"You do have a compelling argument there. The language is not specific enough; it is challengeable," Goodman told Spelman. The upshot? If the church keeps refusing to negotiate with neighbors, they might get a deal far worse than any that's been on the table so far; so -- for the first time in a long time -- neighbors appear to have the upper hand.
Hyde Park Baptist isn't limiting its growth just to Hyde Park, however; just this Tuesday, the church aired for the Planning Commission its proposal for a 300,000-square-foot development, including a gymnasium, high school, child-care center, and baseball fields -- at the Quarries, a sprawling neighborhood park centered around spring-fed Quarry Lake at the nexus of five Northwest Austin neighborhoods. Ultimately, the church and its prospective neighbors were sent to dispute resolution by a 5-2 vote of the commission (with commissioners Susana Almanza and Jean Mather voting no), and ordered to stay there "until some agreement is reached or this is found to be irreconcilable," in the words of commissioner Betty Baker, who brought up the motion.
Church lawyer Richard Suttle, the only church representative to speak at the meeting, told commissioners the church had already addressed neighbors' concerns in writing several months ago, prompting groans and shouts from the audience, many of whom live in the five neighborhoods surrounding the proposed development. More than 40 church opponents, including Quarries-area residents and activists from other neighborhood organizations, spoke against the development at the meeting, citing concerns about noise, traffic on small, neighborhood streets, and the influx of cars from students and faculty at the church's 800-student high school, which would be relocated from Hyde Park neighborhood to the Quarries site.
"The reason for citywide concern is that precedents would be set for development of similar facilities by a wide variety of organizations," said the ANC's Will Bozeman. Jill Thomas, who lives near the Quarries property, added, "To endorse this application would be to essentially eliminate meaningful zoning protections in neighborhoods throughout Austin." Until dispute resolution is finished -- and previous precedents set by the "negotiations" between the church and Hyde Park neighbors suggest the outcome is already pretty much determined -- this matter will sit in limbo, and will not go before council.