Caution: Wide Road Ahead
Some may believe they saw City Council members dancing with the devil last Thursday night; perhaps they didn't see the council casting the big wink that let us know it was all an act. Neighborhood leaders had hoped the council would drive a stake through the heart of road-widening projects proposed in the Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan -- essentially the same one written by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), the regional transit authority that distributes Texas Dept. of Transportation funds -- for South First, South Lamar, Manor Road, and other city corridors, but council members didn't oblige, though they said they wanted to. Striking those roads from the plan, they said, would mean the loss of state and federal funds that could eventually be used to improve them. As Mayor Kirk Watson and others tried to explain, the City Council holds the ultimate authority to design city streetscapes its own way, even if right now our transportation plan says TXDoT can improve them in its way -- which usually means more traffic lanes that knock out businesses and bisect neighborhoods.
"We don't have to take [TxDoT's] money for something we don't want," said the mayor. In the meantime, Watson said, the city can apply for federal funds that could pay for sidewalks, landscaping, or street calming along stretches of road named in the city plan.
How's that again? Is it really so easy to lie on your transportation application, take somebody else's money, and do what you want with it? Council members were obviously not entirely secure about this, floating motions to officially disagree with CAMPO's recommendations along certain controversial roads, just in case. But Watson appealed for an end to the nitpicking, saying the council will soon have another chance to argue with CAMPO when the authority updates its 25-year regional plan in December 2002. "For us to spend four hours going over roads that ain't going to happen any time soon anyway is really an exercise in futility," the mayor said. Money would not be appropriated for any of the contested projects for years, he added.
The council did pass an amendment by Council Member Daryl Slusher to remove from the plan a proposed extension of SH 45 from FM 1626 to I-35, preventing MoPac from becoming a bypass for I-35, Slusher said.
The council also rewrote its plan to limit any additional lanes added to Manor Road to the existing right-of-way; CAMPO proposes widening Manor to six lanes between Airport and 51st, and to four lanes from I-35 to Cherrywood. In limiting Manor's future expansion, the council acknowledged the burgeoning planning efforts in the Cherrywood and Blackland neighborhoods, where residents are fighting to prevent TXDoT from turning Manor into a major east-west arterial that would link I-35 with future developments, and perhaps SH 130, in far East Austin.
Five neighborhoods working together as the Upper Boggy Creek Neighborhood Planning Area have sent a message to the council that they prefer to create a bike- and pedestrian-friendly retail row along Manor, where a handful of restaurants now anchor a tenuous economic revitalization.
Neighbors say that the closure of Mueller Airport has eliminated the need to drastically alter Manor, and argue that a central turn lane would add all the capacity the road needs. But central East Austin looms as a potential transportation battleground in the not-so-distant future, with Mueller redevelopment promising to bring thousands of new homes and businesses to the area. City planners predict that traffic pressures will eventually force something to give in East Austin, and Manor Road is considered extremely vulnerable.
Residents, however, are working to route traffic away from Manor onto MLK. Manor has already become a natural pathway for bikes and buses, says Upper Boggy Creek co-chair Bo McCarver, and the neighbors are getting around just fine. But McCarver says he doesn't want his resuscitated Blackland neighborhood to be sacrificed for the convenience of traffic planners. "We've got a roomful of surgeons, and we're the patient," says McCarver.
Robertson Hill Green Light
In other action, the City Council couldn't watch a group of California investors drown in their own bad deal any longer and rescued the Robertson Hill development on the Bennett Tract just east of I-35. The council gave final approval to both a zoning plan and a $23 million incentive package offered in exchange for Riata Partners' pledge to include affordable housing and sponsor job training. Council Member Raul Alvarez, who had lately been shepherding the year-old negotiations between the Guadalupe neighborhood and Riata, said he'd gotten a significant last-minute concession from Riata that will hold building heights down to 160 feet, compared to the 200 feet originally proposed. It did little to appease the neighbors, however, who say they'll still fight the development. Council Members Slusher and Beverly Griffith and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman voted against the item.
The Austin Film Society will describe the productive and happy relationship it's currently enjoying with the city, which has also been leasing studio space to filmmakers in the abandoned hangars at Mueller Airport. Also, neighborhood residents opposed to a proposed nine-story apartment complex on Riverside Drive get their first chance to file their protests before the council; already, a battle is brewing over the height of the complex, which some South Austinites say is, at 90 feet, too much for them to live with. Not on the agenda will be the previously scheduled Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan (see "Austin Stories"). This will be the last council meeting until July 19.