No Parking Garage, Says Downtown Crowd

The proposed Convention Center garage finds few friends, and even trips over a city official's own testimony.

City officials seem to be catching hell from every corner in their dogged effort to secure a block of downtown property for a new Convention Center parking garage and a district chilling plant. Not only is the landowner waging strong resistance to the city's condemnation proceedings against him, but other downtown landowners and business boosters are jumping on the opposition bandwagon, questioning the city's rationale for taking a potential gold mine off the tax rolls to build a public parking garage with little pedestrian appeal. The chilling plant itself, boasting dimensions of 80 feet by 274 feet, will occupy a third of the block. The city's plans have already achieved dubious honors from the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Assoc., which deemed the concept worthy of its annual Urban Blight Award.

"This will be an incredible lost opportunity," downtown resident Chris Riley told the Chronicle. "Instead of creating a cool, urban space with a lively streetscape, we plunk down a parking garage and a chilling plant. It just makes no sense." Riley has become the lead spokesperson for the downtown crowd that doesn't fancy the city's apparently headstrong endeavor. A couple of weeks ago, he took his concerns to City Council, telling them that the proposed 730-space garage, estimated at $15-18 million, makes little economic sense given the apparent under-utilization of the existing Convention Center garage at Second and Brazos. Riley cited a two-year-old city parking study that shows the garage is the least used among a group of six downtown garages.

In many respects, the setting is uncomfortably familiar: The city has historically come under criticism when it comes to parking needs associated with the Austin Convention Center. The current headache was brought on by the increased parking demand the city expects from the newly expanded center. Earlier in the process, city staff had planned on nailing at least 300 additional parking spaces in the new Convention Center hotel, under construction just north of the expansion, but sky-high costs forced them to pursue another alternative -- right across the street. Block 38, as it is known, is bound by Red River, Sabine, Fourth, and Fifth streets and is owned by one tough landholder, Harry M. Whittington. The city initially tried negotiating a friendly land acquisition, and, failing that, moved on to the less-friendly condemnation battle, which has dragged on for more than two years. The city lost its first condemnation effort on a technicality, but won the second. However, the $7.6 million the city paid for the land remains in a third-party account pending Whittington's appeal. He and his attorney expect to depose a number of folks involved in the case; Convention Center director Bob Hodge endured two hours of hard-nosed questioning in June.

"We expect this to progress as normal litigation does -- at a snail's pace," Whittington says. Austin attorney John J. "Mike-- McKetta, no stranger to doing battle with the city, represents him. (McKetta and attorney Roy Minton made up the dream team that represented several landowners in a 1994 lawsuit against the city's Save Our Springs Ordinance.) Whittington says he's not convinced the city has demonstrated a "public necessity" to justify condemning his property. He points to Hodge's deposition testimony and other records showing under-utilization of the existing Convention Center garage: According to a transcript, Hodge said the city leases at least 500 of the 1,090 spaces to private individuals and companies, netting an estimated $400,000 a year. Opponents of a new garage also cite a 2000 downtown parking study that showed the Convention Center garage hitting an occupancy peak of less than 300 on the day of the study; other garages registered at near capacity on the same day.

City officials have moved to do damage control on Hodge's testimony and the parking study. The city actually leases out 452 spaces at the garage, said acting Asst. City Manager John Stephens, but 419 of those are subject to a first-come, first-serve basis. As for the study, Stephens said the results represent only one day; Convention Center records show that the garage exceeds capacity 90 days out of the year. Stephens inherited the parking garage controversy from his predecessor, Roger Chan, whose handling of the situation drew sharp criticism -- and howls of laughter, in one instance -- from downtown leaders. Many still roll their eyes in dismay when recalling one infamous memo that Chan wrote to the Downtown Commission, in which he defended the chilling plant as a potential draw for pedestrian traffic. "... The first floor of the chiller is windowed, does have human activity and does contribute to a vivid streetscape," Chan wrote. (Chan has since been reassigned, or kicked upstairs, depending on one's point of view, to the governmental relations office.) On that same score, Stephens says the city's Art in Public Places program may be called on to dress up the chilling plant's façade.

The Downtown Austin Alliance, the big daddy of the Central Business District, is not taking an official position on the parking dustup. However, DAA Executive Director Charlie Betts noted, "Many of our members are private property owners and they don't ever feel good about condemnations, so of course there's some sympathy for the landowner." Betts also noted that the DAA "believes the city should follow its own design guidelines," which call for pedestrian-friendly buildings. On the plus side, Betts said, the chosen site could benefit from Sixth Street traffic during times when the garage is not serving convention goers.

While the appeals process trudges along, the Whittington property continues operating as a surface parking lot, and the city moves ahead on its garage plans as though nothing stands in its way. An architectural team was hired to design the structure, and the city has set a completion date for some time in 2004, although a groundbreaking date is still up in the air. As for Whittington, no one expects him to back away from this fight. As a lawyer and owner of several downtown properties, he's no slouch when it comes to real estate deals. In the mid-Eighties he orchestrated the development of the Austin Centre, which houses offices and the Omni Hotel, and later sold the property to the developer after signing off on the design. The project went on to become downtown's most valuable property in the late Nineties, when Crescent Real Estate cheerfully paid $96.4 million for the booty. In a similar vein, Whittington says, he wants to capitalize on revitalization efforts in the Convention Center neighborhood by putting a mixed-use development on his block, located a stone's throw from Waller Creek.

The creek has long figured in developers' dreams of turning the banks of the murky waterway into an attractive river walk of restaurants and boutiques. To that end, voters in 1998 approved $25 million in bonds to build a Waller Creek tunnel. The ambitious flood-control project -- the first step in recharging the creek -- was dealt a big setback last week when the city decided it couldn't afford the now $46 million price tag (see "Austin@Large," p.15). Downtown boosters are really chapped about the city's decision to pull the plug on the creek project, with a proposed $18 million parking garage hovering on the horizon. Said one frustrated booster: "This is like a double whammy. Voters voted for that tunnel, not for the parking garage."

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