Naked City

Council Watch

Naked City
Photo By Doug Potter

Bennett Traction

The pace of City Council meetings has slowed considerably over the past few weeks, but this week's meeting should make up for the lull. In fact, Thursday's meeting has every chance of running far into the wee hours, just like the glorious meetings of old.

The centerpiece Thursday evening will undoubtedly be the rezoning of the Bennett Tract, the chunk of land just east of I-35, between Seventh and 11th Streets, that has sat empty for more than a decade pending a decision on its zoning. If all goes as planned, the council will determine just what Riata Development Corp. can and can't build on the tract, whose zoning has been postponed a dozen times since 1991. City Hall insiders insist that this time it's for real.

The council's decision will amend the 1991 Neighborhood Conservation Combining District (NCCD) that overlays the property, imposing shorter height limitations and setbacks on some portions of the tract. For instance, a maximum of seven stories will be permitted on the side of the tract that faces I-35, shrinking to two stories where the tract borders residential Ninth and San Marcos Streets.

The plan that goes to council Thursday would allow Riata to build 43,560 square feet of commercial space, 743 multi-family units, and 141 townhouse units. No single-family housing is planned for the tract. Still, the plan has less retail space and a lot more residential space than was planned for the shopping mall that the 1991 NCCD was created to accommodate.

Those concessions aren't enough for many neighbors of the tract, who filed a valid petition against the rezoning months ago, after a 10-month mediation effort between Riata and the neighborhood was formally declared a flop. (A petition, citing similar complaints, is also on file from Bennett's owners.) Besides objecting to the sheer mass of the project, members of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation have said all along that the zoning should allow for more affordable housing and less commercial space. The problem is that single-family housing, as Riata sees it, just won't pay for itself. The housing/commercial conflict between the developer and the neighborhood was the final sticking point that broke down mediation. What to do?

Enter Smart Growth. It was bound to come up at some point, wasn't it? It seems there's a stripe of the tract between San Marcos Street and the highway (aka "Robertson Hill") where Riata might be able to qualify under the city's Smart Growth matrix. The tract is smack in the middle of the neglected east end of downtown where the city would desperately like to lure good developers.

An item on the agenda this week would authorize the negotiation of a Smart Growth deal with Riata. If the developer can jump through a few hoops, like cooperating with city-sponsored energy-efficient building codes and such, a juicy incentive package might be in store for them as well. And with that subsidization, Riata could build affordable housing without sacrificing profit margins.

On paper, it works pretty well, and at press time, city insiders engaged in last-minute negotiations were still hoping to massage a few names off the petition. With a petition filed against it, council can pass the rezoning only on first reading. The item will return for second and perhaps third readings (unless it gets postponed) on May 10. That's close timing, since the interim development controls the council passed to keep the developer from breaking ground during the negotiations expire the same day. An ancillary item sponsored by Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas would extend those controls another year or so, giving everyone involved a bit more breathing room.

With Bennett on the agenda, it's a good bet that at least a few angry Eastsiders will show up to protest that allowing upscale commercial uses and pricey townhouses to be built on their side of the highway is an open invitation to big developers to swarm in and throw longtime, low-income residents out on their duffs. Gentrification is the bogeyman in the closet these days for the neighbors of any big (or medium-sized) development planned east of the highway, the flip side of every city promise to jump-start the Eastside's economic engine. With retail property, office buildings, and expensive housing come increased property taxes, rising rents, yuppies, and everything else that drives the old-timers out of the area. Or so the worriers believe.

Nobody has too clear an idea what gentrification is, or how it works, or when and how it happens. City staff did some research and prepared a memo on the subject a few years ago, which has languished in obscurity ever since. Another motion by Thomas proposes to convene a Gentrification Task Force that would use that memo as a starting place to look at just those questions.

Brother, Can You Spare a Quarter-Cent?

Another item that could keep the council in its chambers late this week is the question of how to spend the money that would have gone to pay for light rail. Following rail's narrow defeat at the polls in November, Capital Metro voted to return the quarter-cent in sales tax they had been setting aside for rail projects. About 97% of this money -- $30 million or so -- comes to Austin (with the rest divvied among nearby communities like Manor and Leander) for transportation projects the voters did approve, like the hefty road bonds package that passed last year. The public gets their say again in a public hearing before the council. With plenty of different ideas floating around town about how we ought to get to the places we go, the dividing and re-dividing of this pie is sure to take some time.

Some ideas of where the money ought to be spent are pretty much universal; most people agree that a portion should go toward completing the Lamar Blvd. pedestrian bridge. Other, less universally accepted items, like turning South First into a reversible one-way street to funnel people into town in the mornings and out in the evenings, will presumably meet with more opposition.

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Bennett Tract, Riata Development Corp., Smart Growth, Raul Alvarez, Danny Thomas, Capital Metro

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