Battle Over Downtown Block Continues

A downtown landowner continues his fight to keep the city from condemning his property.

Battle Over Downtown Block Continues

A downtown property owner is appealing the city's condemnation process as he continues his two-year struggle to maintain ownership of land the city says it needs for a convention center parking garage. Although the city paid $7.6 million for the property and has taken possession of the block -- bound by Red River, Sabine, Fourth, and Fifth streets -- construction plans for a 700-space parking garage and a district chiller plant are on hold pending the outcome of the appeal.

The city may be in for a lengthy wait, given the history of this particular land battle. "I'm sure we'll be in litigation for a long time," predicted Harry M. Whittington, the owner of the property and a lawyer who is also chairman of the Texas Funeral Commission. The city's $7.6 million payment, meanwhile, remains untouched in a third-party account. While the city argues that they need the land to serve the parking needs of the expanded Austin Convention Center, which is slated for a May completion, Whittington contends that neither a parking garage nor a chiller plant constitutes a public use that justifies condemning private property.

The city had originally contracted with the Landmark Organization Inc., developers of the Convention Center hotel, to provide at least 300 underground parking spaces for Convention Center guests. But the bedrock beneath the hotel, or the $30,000-per-space cost of digging through it, prompted the city to look to Whittington's property, a surface parking lot that the city had leased for Convention Center parking.

But Whittington has had different plans for the property that he's owned since 1980. He says he wants to capitalize on the revitalization of the eastern end of downtown and develop the block for multiuse purposes -- retail, residential, office space, perhaps even a hotel. Clearly, Whittington believes, the block's value will increase substantially when the Convention Center shifts its front doors to face the Whittington block.

"The city had a contract with the developer to provide parking and they let the developer off the obligation," Whittington said. His theory is that a private hotel, which will also house retail shops, is using the city to do the condemnation. "By condemning us, they get rid of a potential competitor," Whittington said. "The hotel itself will have parking underground for its guests and for its penthouse [residents], why, then, can't it provide parking for the Convention Center?"

Convention Center Director Bob Hodge brushes off Whittington's theory of ulterior motives involved in the condemnation process. "If he wants to build another hotel, bring it on," he said. Hodge added, though, that when the city solicited proposals for hotels, none of the developers suggested building lodging on the Whittington block because it falls within Capitol view corridor constraints.

City officials cannot deny Whittington is a tough sell. He turned down previous offers of $3.5 million and $5.1 million during pre-condemnation negotiations. (He says he's had the property appraised for as high as $11 million.) Whittington also averted the city's first condemnation lawsuit because the process server failed to also serve Whittington's wife and daughter, who co-own the property. Whittington collected $150,000 in damages for that mistake, and regained control of his property -- until the latest condemnation. Early in the negotiations, Whittington said, the city rejected his offer to enter into a design/build agreement to build the parking garage, which would allow Whittington to maintain ownership of both the land and the garage.

Now, the planned parking garage is in the design stage -- which will take at least until the end of the year, Hodge said -- and construction itself will take 12 to 13 months. When the Convention Center expansion opens in May, with grand opening activities planned for May 16-18, the parking will be handled the way it always has been -- by making do with what's available, and providing shuttle service if the need arises. In any case, says Hodge, the larger-scale conventions -- the ones that have previously bypassed Austin because of the lack of accommodations -- won't be hitting town until the new hotel opens in 2004.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Convention Center, Harry M. Whittington, Landmark Organization Inc., Bob Hodge

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