Tower of Ill Dispute

When the city settled its boundary dispute with Lumbermen's Investment Corp., it didn't close the book -- it opened up a sequel.

When the city of Austin settled a 16-year-old boundary dispute last year over a war-torn tract of property north of Town Lake, the truce between the city and landowners didn't exactly close the book on controversy. Rather, it left open the possibility for a sequel.

In this latest dust-up, it's not the land that's being disputed but what its owners, developers Lumbermen's Investment Corp., want to build on top of it: a 180-foot luxury condo tower. Because current zoning only allows a height of 120 feet, the tower would require a zoning change. Lumbermen's wants to rezone the property under the Central Urban Redevelopment Combining District (C.U.R.E.) zoning, which the city originally designed for neighborhoods less fortunate than the trendy west end area where Lumbermen's plans to build its posh project. The City Council is expected to consider the item today, Thursday, Sept. 27.

The property in question is an idyllic spot of green just north of Town Lake, between Lamar Blvd. and the Seaholm Power Plant. Stakeholders on both sides of the issue have spent the past two weeks meeting privately with council members in hopes of swinging a majority vote in their respective favor. If the city approves the zoning request, Lumbermen's, as specified in the settlement, will provide $500,000 for landscaping and park improvements adjacent to the project, and a $750,000 contribution toward parking for visitors to neighboring Seaholm, which the city plans to convert for unspecified public use.

The Seaholm carrot is what's driving the support of people like community activist Leslie Pool and architect Sinclair Black, two original members of the Seaholm Reuse Planning Committee. Once a city-sanctioned outfit, the committee continues to meet as a private citizens' group. Pool says her first choice would have been for the city to buy the Lumbermen's property, an idea that was floated as a possible bond proposal in 1998 but lacked enough support to gain a spot on the ballot. "The city is not willing to buy the land, so we're trying to work within the construct that's been created for us," Pool says.

On the other hand, re-zoning opponent and longtime parks advocate Mary Arnold says the Seaholm perk isn't worth destroying the Town Lake Corridor with a towering condo. "I don't feel it's necessary to have the Lumbermen's project in order to get parking for Seaholm," she says. "When you look at the overall costs of the Seaholm [redevelopment] project, $750,000 for parking is just a drop in the bucket."

If Lumbermen's doesn't get the C.U.R.E. zoning, development lawyer Jay Hailey says his client will have no choice but to build on the western half of the 5.13-acre tract, which is currently zoned to allow an even more imposing height of 220 feet. Opponents angrily regard the either/or proposition as a thinly veiled threat, but Hailey says he's merely stating a fact. "I don't see that as a threat at all," he says.

Back in 1984, Arnold and fellow community stalwarts Roberta Crenshaw and Susan Toomey Frost pooled their funds and filed a lawsuit against the first developer who tried to put sticks in the ground. The trio claimed that Town Lake Joint Venture -- in which former Mayor Ron Mullen had financial interests while serving in office -- was encroaching on city-owned Sand Beach Reserve property, which lies just south of the Lumbermen's tract. In 1945, the state deeded Sand Beach to the city specifically for public use.

To make a long story short, the joint venture (and Mullen) went bankrupt, Lumbermen's foreclosed on the land, years of more controversy followed, and finally, late last year, city officials and Hailey retreated to the back room to settle the matter -- presumably, once and for all. The council vote on the accord was unanimous, with the city winning peace of mind by settling the southern boundary of the Lumbermen's tract.

Despite the settlement, Arnold still couldn't stomach the idea of a towering 180-foot condo in the Town Lake Corridor. Back to war she went, this time with Crenshaw, colleagues Shudde Fath and Jean Mather (who cast the lone dissenting vote on Lumbermen's zoning request from the Planning Commission dais), and a coalition of six area neighborhood and parks groups. "It's hard to give up when we've put so much of our own money into this, and so much time and effort," Arnold says. "A 180-foot building is really not what anyone envisioned for the Town Lake Corridor."

Earlier this week, Arnold said she was continuing to meet with various council members. At last count, she believed at least three -- Jackie Goodman, Beverly Griffith, and Danny Thomas -- would vote against the zoning proposal. She was less certain how Daryl Slusher and Raul Alvarez would vote, and no one expects Will Wynn and Kirk Watson to stray from their support of the Lumbermen's project.

While Arnold's effort has garnered the support of politically active neighborhood groups, the Lumbermen's project is backed by an uptown crowd that includes the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Assn. (D.A.N.A.), Downtown Austin Alliance, West End Alliance, the Design Commission, and the Downtown Commission, who applaud the Seaholm boost and welcome more housing developments in the neighborhood. Former D.A.N.A. President Chris Riley acknowledges that the Lumbermen's project, like others before it, would not address the affordable housing void downtown. "But anything we can do to increase the supply of housing downtown is going to help in the long run," he said. Meanwhile, Arnold and others question whether any new downtown construction is even warranted when public space is so limited, particularly along the shoreline.

One little bright spot in this murky picture: Lumbermen's is in no rush to evict the Cedar Door from the property. Their lawyer Hailey says council members specifically asked to maintain Austin's favorite nomadic watering hole on the site as long as possible. Clearly, no one on council wants another cross to bear (à la Liberty Lunch) in the name of downtown revitalization.

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