Council Watch

City Council members award themselves a raise; neighborhood residents protest looser rules governing backyard cottages; and the council approves a convention center parking lot on property whose owner doesn't want to sell.

Council Watch
By Doug Potter

City Council members provoked hardly a word of dissent Thursday when authorizing a $3.5 million purchase of downtown real estate and hiking their own salaries by $15,000, but an item loosening restrictions on garage apartments brought the watchdogs out.

Neighborhood reps, however, could not dissuade the council from approving, on all three readings at once, a change to the Land Development Code that allows backyard cottages to be constructed on smaller lots with less restrictive zoning, an idea once unspeakable outside offices in the Municipal Building. Rosedale and Hyde Park homeowners complained that the change, which essentially permits cottages on any lot zoned to allow a duplex, will open the gates to a new flood of renters and undermine their own planning efforts. They said that while they agreed with the council's intent to clear the way for more affordable housing and give homeowners a tool for subsidizing their mortgage payments, the real beneficiaries would be landlords looking to cash in on the hot rental market.

But though neighborhood autonomy is all the rage right now, council members clearly felt that the shortage of housing stock in the inner city is too dire to wait for neighborhoods to decide where and how rental property will be developed. Council Member Bill Spelman added that he doubts the more permissive standards for cottages will open a new field of speculative interest in rental properties. "There's not going to be a land rush on this stuff. ... There just aren't that many places that can build this kind of thing," he said.

The Land Development Code still requires the same setback and impervious cover restrictions as before, and second structures are limited to 850 square feet. And at the bequest of Council Member Jackie Goodman, the council ordered the Planning Commission to examine whether there were further design guidelines which ought to be applied to such cottages. Those recommendations are due back at council on August 17.


Convention Center Update

Speaking of speculative landlords, the council set aside $3.5 million to buy a downtown lot adjacent to the expanding Convention Center, where it plans to build a parking garage. The problem is, the lot's current owner, attorney Harry M. Whittington, said he didn't care to sell, prompting the council to call down eminent domain immediately after approving the expenditure. The city had originally hoped to include a multilevel parking garage underneath the new Convention Center hotel, but that plan fell through when rising interest rates drove the hotel's construction costs -- which the city is financing through revenue bonds -- up by $10 million. To save money, says Convention Center director Robert Hodge, the city decided to scale back the size of the underground garage and resort to its backup plan -- purchasing Whittington's lot for an above-ground structure.

That route, however, leads through Travis County court, where a judge will assign a special commission to decide on a fair price for Whittington's property. But assistant city attorney Reynolds Shelton reports that Whittington, who was planning a mix of apartments, offices, and retail space on the site, has said he won't sell for any price, so the matter could be tied up in civil court for years. In the meantime, though, the city can begin building the garage as soon as it deposits the purchase amount named by the special commission into a Travis County account. That price could be set about mid-July, says Shelton.


Council Pay Raise

Every once in a while City Council members get to do what for many frustrated office workers is only a fantasy: reward themselves with a big raise. The proposal, placed on the consent agenda, passed so fast that co-sponsor Bill Spelman didn't even get a chance to hand out the documents he had compiled in support of the move. Council members' salaries were raised from $30,000 to $45,000, and the mayor's pay went up from $33,000 to $53,000. Car allowances were also increased, from $250 per month to $400.

The item's other sponsor, Council Member Gus Garcia, said that low salaries were preventing less-affluent residents from running for office. Watson said he was uncomfortable with the council setting its own salaries, and that he wouldn't accept the additional pay (though that didn't stop him from voting in favor of the raise). When the council voted in its current pay structure in 1985, council members earned about the same as city engineers and managers. Since then, some city salaries have nearly doubled to keep up with the cost of living, while council pay has remained the same.


Making Plans for Montopolis

Is it possible that anyone would be so devious as to secretly cook up a neighborhood plan just so he could be boss of the block? Council members were suspicious of a Montopolis plan concocted last year by realtor Roland Ortiz that didn't appear to have involved many in the "neighborhood." Those left out of the loop on the plan included used car salesman Brad Joiner, in business on East Riverside for 16 years. Hoping to relocate, Joiner purchased a residential lot two blocks down from his car lot last year, thinking that changing the zoning to commercial would be easy, since that was recommended in a 1985 Montopolis study.

Joiner soon found, however, that Ortiz had filed a new plan on behalf of the Montopolis Area Neighborhood Improvement Council (MANIC) -- a group Joiner called the "best-kept secret in Montopolis" -- that allowed only single-family use on the lot, even though it is surrounded by commercial uses. Joiner says Ortiz is an old courtroom adversary, whom Joiner once sued over a car sale. Ortiz claims he wants to keep businesses off the lot because an elementary school is two blocks away. The council refused to rule on the case until Montopolis neighbors meet formally to discuss the plan on May 23 at 1416 Montopolis Dr.; for more information, call 385-4540.


Postponements:

Council put off a request from Austin Energy that its contracts and other closely guarded financial information be exempted from open records requests, a protection enjoyed by private utilities. Also, a hearing on controversial development proposed on the Bennett Tract, located at East 11th and I-35, was pushed back so new council members could participate.


This Week in Council:

Council is expected to approve a package of incentives for the Intel Corp., which currently has about 300 employees in Austin, to move its design center downtown. As written, the package includes $7.7 million in direct incentives and $7.4 million in avoided capital recovery costs. Also this week, council is set to extend the moratorium on site plans for the Bennett Tract, and to discuss possible sites for the relocation of the St. David's Church-owned Fontaine House from its current location downtown.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

duplexes, Land Development Code, Bill Spelman, Jackie Goodman, Austin Convention Center, Henry M. Whittington, Gus Garcia, Kirk Watson, Robert Hodges, Reynolds Shelton, Roland Ortiz, Brad Joiner, Montopolis Area Neighborhood Improvem

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