Naked City

Parked in Court

Eager to break ground on an $18 million parking garage, the city of Austin is seeking a partial summary judgment in its condemnation case against property owner Harry M. Whittington, who has some development plans of his own for the prized block near the Convention Center.

City attorneys are asking a Travis Co. judge to rule on the validity of Whittington's arguments. The landowner says the city has failed to prove that a public necessity exists to justify condemnation. City plans for the property include a 730-space garage to serve the newly expanded Convention Center, and an Austin Energy chilling plant that will occupy a third of the downtown block, located between Red River, Sabine, Fourth, and Fifth streets. The city's actions have drawn sharp criticism from downtown boosters who question the wisdom of removing private property from the tax rolls for a development that fails to follow the city's own pedestrian-friendly design standards.

Whittington believes private interests are driving the effort. A privately developed Convention Center hotel -- under construction across the street from the contested block -- will include retail shops and nearly 100 private residences. The city loaned Landmark Corp. $15 million to build the facility and will take possession of all but the residences in 30 years. Whittington, a politically connected downtown landholder, says he has similar retail and residential plans for his own block, including the possibility of a hotel. He believes his own development would present competition for the hotel project. Moreover, he points to records showing that the existing Convention Center parking garage, at Second and Brazos, is rarely full. "We don't deny that a parking facility could be a public use, but we question whether there is a need for it," said Whittington, a lawyer and chairman of the Texas Funeral Commission.

A hearing on the matter is set for Oct. 4. In its motion, the city calls Whittington's "naked allegations ... baseless and without merit." The 32-page pleading lays out the city's eminent domain rights in relation to the newly expanded convention center, for which a municipality is obligated to provide parking. If the judge rules against Whittington, a jury will then decide the value of the property -- also a major point of contention. The city first offered $3.5 million in 2000, and then over $5 million the following year. A court-appointed commission placed the value at $7.5 million -- about $3 million shy of the appraisal Whittington independently obtained. The city has already paid the $7.5 million, but the check sits in escrow pending the outcome of the case.

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