Naked City

Council Watch

Naked City
By Doug Potter

Vital Signs

Abandoned for more than a decade and boarded up just on the east side of I-35, the old Communications Workers of America (CWA) building on East 12th Street has been an eyesore for years. Previous attempts have failed to either demolish or restore and inhabit the building, which was owned for most of the 1990s by the Anderson Community Development Corporation, developers of the controversial Anderson Hill (aka SCIP II) housing project across 12th Street. The city now owns the building again, and as recently as a month ago was readying it for use by either Any Baby Can or another nonprofit.

Fixing up an old building is rarely cheap, though, and this one has a few extra expenses thrown in. Like many properties in East Austin, the lot was once used as an underground storage site for natural gas, which may or may not have leaked into the ground over time. Moreover, the building itself is believed to contain asbestos. The time and money required to clean the site up have been too great a hurdle for the city -- or anybody else, for that matter -- to leap.

An item brought to the council this week by Council Members Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez would instruct the city manager to examine the possibility of turning the CWA building, as well as several boarded-up houses and vacant lots on Juniper and Olive streets, over to the Austin Revitalization Authority, the community group charged with implementing a 1999 urban renewal plan for East 11th and 12th streets. The city, which has already turned over several properties to the ARA, could then rehab the CWA building with part of the $9 million federal HUD loan that is supporting the ARA's efforts, instead of using the already scarce federal housing funds that it needs to finish building the Anderson Hill project.

Once cleaned up and cleared of any dangerous contaminants, the CWA building would be leased out as office space for groups in the neighborhood, such as Eastside Story, the Texas Empowerment Charter School, the Capital City Chamber of Commerce, and Huston-Tillotson College. The other buildings would become "moderate income homeowner housing" or be used for "other compatible uses in the area."

"These buildings have just been sitting there empty," says Thomas' aide Linda Dailey. "The ARA's task is to redevelop that corridor, and it's a little difficult with those buildings sitting there."

But it may take some careful accounting and persuasive talking to sell the whole package to HUD. "HUD is going to want to see a few more details about the proposal," says city housing officer Paul Hilgers. "It will be important that the use of the facilities meet a national objective." In short, the federal bean counters will want to know where their money is going and why. "If not handled correctly, it could cause some problems," Hilgers says.

Thomas and Alvarez are hoping, no doubt, to avoid a collision with HUD, which has slapped the city for irregularities in both the ARA and SCIP II projects, by doing a feasibility study before the city moves ahead with the project.

Doesn't Ad Up

Not quite satisfied with the Billboard Amendment on the council's agenda this week, Council Member Will Wynn was still looking at press time for a way to bring more billboards down. After a week spent in a huddle with the city's law department trying to thread the maze of state law, though, hope was waning.

Unless Wynn rallies before Thursday, the amendment the council votes on will clarify a small legal quibble: When the city amended the code last time to say that billboard repairs could only cost 60% of the sign's original value and signs bought out and replaced by other companies had to be 25% smaller, they didn't mean to say that all sign replacements had to be 60% of the cost and 25% smaller.

It seems that Reagan National Advertising got all confused on this point last year, and apparently convinced city staff that the smaller and cheaper interpretation was what they meant all along. Since Reagan controls about 80% of Austin's billboards, they wouldn't object if anybody who wanted to buy and replace signs got hit with that double whammy. But preserving Reagan's monopoly wasn't what the council had in mind when they amended the code the first time. They just wanted to start phasing out what they saw as unsightly blemishes on the skyline.

Shrinking the signs is a mighty slow way to go about it, especially considering that newer, smaller signs tend to last longer than bigger, older ones. And state law mandates that billboards be maintained. Various buy-out and moratorium options have been tossed around and may come in front of the council eventually, but at the moment it looks like we'll have billboards with us for some time to come.

Bennett's Last Stand

A vote to rezone the Bennett Tract, located just east of I-35 at 11th Street, was slated for this week's council meeting but has been postponed. Surprise, surprise. The tract's contentious history goes back 10 years now, and its council postponements are well into the double digits.

The tract was zoned in 1991 for a shopping mall that was supposed to be the spark in East Austin's economic engine. Neither the mall nor the East Austin boom ever made it off the drawing board, but despite promises to the neighborhood, the city did not roll back the high-intensity zoning in 1993, when it was set to roll back if ground hadn't been broken on the mall.

The option to develop the tract is now in the hands of Riata Development Corporation's Matt Matthias, who had been in discussions with residents of the surrounding neighborhood for 10 months when the mediation was formally declared at an impasse in February.

Valid petitions have been filed by neighborhood residents and several of the tract's owners to prevent the City Council from moving forward with the city staff-recommended zoning, which would allow a more heavily commercial use than either side would prefer.

Still, council insiders insist this is the very last postponement. Disagreements between the developer and neighbors over height limitations and setback have already been settled. However, conflicts over the use of the various buildings Matthias is proposing -- specifically, where residential development should be required -- still loom large and weren't addressed by city staff or the Planning Commission. Bennett is supposed to be back on the agenda, this time for real, by the beginning of May.

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Urban Renewal Agency, Austin Revitalization Authority, Danny Thomas, Raul Alvarez, Linda Dailey, Paul Hilgers, billboard ordinance, Will Wynn, Reagan National Advertising, Bennett Tract, Riata Development Corporation, Matt Matthias

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