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Naked City

Council Watch

By Kevin Fullerton, May 18, 2001, News

Narrow Is the Way?

It was with little fanfare last Thursday that City Council members, preparing for a pro forma vote on $78 million worth of transportation projects underwritten by Capital Metro revenues, pulled the most prominent item: A $29 million appropriation to purchase right-of-way for the northern MoPac extension. The council postponed moving ahead with that project, which would extend MoPac from Parmer Lane to SH 45, until June 7.

Council members later explained that the city has no intention of backing away from the extension. But the delay is an indication that a pending vote by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) board could nix plans to increase capacity in the central portion of MoPac -- between 183 and downtown -- proposed by the state transportation department. Even the mildest of TxDOT's proposals (except the "no-build" option) could take out more than 80 homes in the Enfield, Old West Austin, Oakmont Heights, Brykerwoods, and other neighborhoods, and have been virulently opposed by affected residents.

The CAMPO board, which includes Council Member Daryl Slusher and Mayor Kirk Watson, could vote to overturn some of CAMPO director Michael Aulick's recommendations to move TxDOT's proposals into the next phase of development, which would include thorough environmental impact assessments. If that happens, the transportation department will have to find new solutions for the looming traffic crisis on the six-lane freeway as the regional population grows by as many as a million people through 2025. And next time, the council wants to bring different ideas to the table -- perhaps encouraging the use of telecommuting, flexible work schedules to decrease demand at peak time periods, even (dare we say it?) light rail.

By postponing the vote on the MoPac extension, the council bought time for Watson to meet with Texas Turnpike Authority officials, who are responsible for the new stretch of freeway, to confer about what that road might look like. If CAMPO doesn't approve two new HOV lanes for central MoPac, the council certainly doesn't want those lanes built on the six-lane northern segment. Slusher says it appears that the local citizenry, having won last year's bout with the state over the route for SH 130, may finally be gaining some control in solving transportation issues. Council Member Beverly Griffith's aide, Jeff Jack, says he hopes the city will be able to send the signal that "Central city property rights are on a par with the convenience rights of suburban commuters."

Overdue Process

Having failed in an embarrassing first attempt to take a city block from lawyer Harry M. Whittington for a new parking garage to support the Austin Convention Center expansion, city officials have resorted to a more diplomatic approach as they try to strike a deal with the landowner. The city and Whittington could not agree on a selling price for the block last spring, so the city brought eminent domain proceedings against Whittington. But the court proceeding -- to force the sale of a block worth between $4 million and $9 million, depending whose appraiser you ask -- got upended by an errand that went awry: An employee of the company the city hired to serve Whittington and his family with notice of the condemnation proceedings did not give copies of the notice to Whittington's wife and oldest daughter. Under the strict rules of condemnation process, that's a big no-no, and Whittington got the proceedings dismissed.

Now the city is back to square one, with the new wing of the Convention Center scheduled to open a year from now and no parking structure in sight. The city is also out $150,000 in rent it had to pay Whittington for the few months it occupied his land during the court proceedings. Desperate to reach an agreement with Whittington, city officials are engaged in heavy negotiations with the landowner. Mayor Watson recently met with Whittington, as did Griffith and City Manager Jesus Garza. The renewed negotiations are a marked change from last year's truncated round of discussions: Whittington had scarcely begun talking with Convention Center director Bob Hodge when the letter arrived from the city's real estate department offering a selling price. Whittington's family has owned the block, bounded by Fourth and Fifth Streets, for 20 years, and the city's curt diplomacy got his dander up. "It wasn't in our interest to cooperate," says Whittington. "We were hoping to develop the land -- that was a long-term family goal. … Most people want to set their own destiny for their land if they can."

Assistant City Manager Roger Chan says the city and Whittington are talking about possible lease arrangements, which could entail either the city or Whittington taking on the construction of the parking structure. Whittington says the most attractive option from his point of view is a deal that would let him lease out the ground floor space to retailers. But can both sides find a price they can live with? Whittington says present-day downtown property appraisals, which didn't increase in 2000, don't reflect the long-term potential of his block given the millions that have been invested in nearby projects.

Considering this piece of land is so dear to Whittington's heart, could it be that last year, when the process server came to his home to give Whittington and his wife notice of eminent domain proceedings, he encouraged her to leave the notice with him instead of putting it directly into his wife's hands?

"She asked if my wife was home, and I said, 'No, she's not,' and she said, 'Well, here's her copy,' and I said, 'Thanks,'" says Whittington.

This Week in Council

This Thursday, council will vote on whether to approve the new City Hall design offered by architect Antoine Predock, and whether to accept extras that would add just over $9 million to the cost. The city may also approve a new contract worth $1.2 million to fix the leaky Ulrich water main -- to the same contractor who originally laid the flawed pipe. Word is, though, that someone's going to pay for the botched job, once the city figures out whom to sue.

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