Naked City

Council Watch: Whose Land Is It, Anyway?

Naked City
By Doug Potter

Just how much of the disputed Sand Beach Reserve property on Town Lake is owned by Lumbermen's Investment Corporation is the subject of a suit that was filed in January. The disputed boundary line falls either north or south of the Cedar Door bar, depending on whom you ask. After months of litigation, Lumbermen's offered the city a deal: Let the company build its proposed condominium project across the disputed property, and, in return, Lumbermen's would build a road past the Seaholm power plant that would provide parking for 150 cars. Lack of parking has been the primary obstacle to the city's plans to redevelop Seaholm into a science and technology museum, and Lumbermen's proposal would put the project several steps closer to realization.

But members of the Seaholm Reuse Committee who were present at a Tuesday night presentation of the Seaholm Master Plan last week were disappointed. The firm that drew up the Master Plan -- San Francisco-based Roma Design Group -- never consulted the committee on the project, and they were also spooked by the architects' maps for the Sand Beach site, drawn up as if the development would be built while the lawsuit was still unsettled.

"It looks like we've been brought here to see something that's already finished," said Leslie Pool, chair of the committee. "People who've been involved in the issues have not been involved in the planning."

Architects and city planners who had worked with Roma were quick to say that the plan was anything but finished. "We are still very much at the beginning," said city urban designer Jana McCann. Roma only started working on the project in July, McCann said, and the usual process, which includes neighborhood input and public hearings -- can take six months to complete.

The plan was so far from complete, in fact, that a presentation to the City Council was jerked from the agenda at the last minute. A briefing on Lumbermen's proposed settlement with the city was pulled at the same time.

For some, the association between the two firms has grown a little too close for comfort. "It seems every time you hear Roma, you hear Lumbermen's," said one council insider. With Roma's plan sidelined for the moment, the arguments surrounding the settlement have become even muddier.

Roma wasn't supposed to make the settlement harder: They were supposed to be the referee. The city has trusted the firm to advise on development in Austin's most environmentally and politically sensitive areas, including the former Robert Mueller Airport and the Town Lake Corridor. If the condos Lumbermen's is proposing had complied with Roma's guidelines, it might have given the possibility of settlement between Lumbermen's and the city a boost. But it's hard to comply with something that doesn't exist.

Meanwhile, while the city and the reuse committee are demanding more discussion, Lumbermen's is pushing the city to decide whether or not to settle by October 12. Once the city decides, Lumbermen's says, there can be more discussion. "We'll meet with any group, anywhere," Lumbermen's attorney Jay Hailey told riled citizens Tuesday night. "We'll meet with you as many times as you want to meet. But we've got to answer this fundamental question of what piece of property do we own?"

Even those unhappy with Lumbermen's proposal might want to think twice before they attempt to derail the settlement, since no deal with Lumbermen's means no road for Seaholm. And whether they win or lose the lawsuit, Lumbermen's will be able to do what they please with the three acres of land they do own. While no one involved is crazy about the prospect of condos on Sand Beach, the consensus seems to be that it may be the best they can do without some magical third alternative.

But Council Member Beverly Griffith, at least, hasn't give up hope just yet. She points to at least three other sites she says could be used as parking. It might even be possible to swap the contested site for one closer to downtown, or buy it outright, though most council members were dismissive of that idea when it was brought up at the Sept. 7 meeting. "I think one thing that's clear at least," said Griffith, "is that there's going to have to be a lot more discussion with a lot more people involved."

But while Griffith scrambles to find an alternative to the settlement, Lumbermen's Oct. 12 deadline -- if you can call it that -- is looming. And the corporation is plowing ahead with plans that it says will be environmentally, and aesthetically, responsible. Lumbermen's and their developing partners LBJ Holding Co. have chosen Overland Partners, designers of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, as the architects for the project. "We don't normally work with developers," says Rick Archer, one of the two principle architects working on the project. "When they first called us, we said, 'It doesn't sound like the kind of project we normally get involved in.' But the more we came to understand it, the more we felt like we could do something significant for the city."

Hailey is optimistic about the settlement. "We've talked to more and more people and they're warming up to it," Hailey says. "I think there is a feeling among people now that they know more about it that this is a good plan."

A public hearing is scheduled on Lumbermen's proposal for this Thursday, Oct. 5, but with no Roma plan ready and no site plan on file for the condo project, it's hard to see what there will be for the council to discuss.

In the Stratus-phere

The ears of environmental watchdogs who've been waiting for the other shoe to drop since the city signed an agreement with Circle C developer Gary Bradley back in March may prick up at this item: The council will begin discussing a settlement with Stratus Properties (formerly FM Properties, as in Freeport McMoRan). In the past, there was talk at City Hall of swapping the land Stratus owns over the Edwards Aquifer for some portion of the former Mueller Airport property. But in a briefing Monday night, Stratus and the city talked only about what could be built on Stratus' current site. Under the terms sheet discussed Monday night, Stratus would abide by city regulations like impervious cover limits, even if the property were removed in the future from the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction. Stratus would also grant the city an option to purchase its 46-acre tract over the aquifer. More -- much more, no doubt -- to come.

Welcome to Camp

The city ordinance that prohibited camping in the public right-of-way, which sparked protests from Austin's homeless, was amended Thursday. Wording that barred "sleeping, or making preparations to sleep, including the laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping," was removed from the ordinance after Travis County Judge Jim Coronado ruled in May that the wording was too vague to be enforceable. Under the no-camping ordinance, violators were fined $250 or given a two-day jail sentence.

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SandBeach Reserve, Lumbermen's Investment Corp., Cedar Door, Roma Design Group, Leslie Pool, Jana McCann, Jay Hailey, Beverly Griffith, LBJ Holding Co., Overland Partners, Rick Archer, Circle C, Gary Bradley, Stratus Properties, FMProperties, Jim Coronado, camping ban

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