Developing Stories: Where Are They Now?

The latest on this year's big digs


Las Manitas: The City Steps Up

What a difference a holiday makes.

Staring down a Dec. 31 lease expiration – now extended by 30 days – the Enchilada Sisters Lydia and Cynthia Pérez had been at an impasse in negotiations with their landlords, the Finley Co., and White Lodging Services, which intends to displace Las Manitas and develop the Downtown block on Congress Avenue (between Second and Third) as a $185 million Marriott hotel complex. But last Thursday, Dec. 21, the city stepped forward with a proposed new program, the Congress Avenue Retail Retention and Enhancement Fund, which could break the deadlock by providing a funding source to help Las Manitas Avenue Cafe stay on the avenue.

While the Pérez sisters had explored moving their restaurant into the historic building they own at Congress and Third, the associated moving and building-renovation costs – likely to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – were prohibitive for the small Tex-Mex eatery. The new Congress Avenue fund could help them cover those costs, Mayor Wynn indicated; joining him in his proposal were Council Members Mike Martinez and Betty Dunkerley. The fund would be bankrolled by standard fees that Congress Avenue developers will be paying the city (for things like closing alleys, temporary sidewalk closures, or even maintaining construction barricades), which could total more than a million dollars in a year. Significantly, White Lodging wants the right to build over the alley on that block – and that land belongs to the city. The value of that alley alone, and the air rights to build over it, could provide the meal ticket to help Las Manitas, as well as its neighbors Escuelita del Alma and Tesoros Trading Company.

Developing Stories: Where Are They Now?
Illustration By Doug Potter

Attorney Amon Burton, now representing Las Manitas in its negotiations, called this "a major step in maybe resolving the impasse." While many details remain to be worked out – council won't formally consider the proposal before its next meeting, Jan. 11 – the intention is for the fund to help a diverse mix of businesses stay on Congress, including minority-owned and women-owned small businesses like Las Manitas and Escuelita. The fund, in theory, would bolster other city efforts to increase storefront retail along Congress and to make it affordable for local entrepreneurs.


Escuelita del Alma: No Room at the Marriott

Can the new Congress Avenue fund help the Spanish-immersion child-care center, too? That's only one of the details to be worked out later.

As of last week, Escuelita del Alma had abandoned all hopes of staying in its existing building on Congress. It has retained Southwest Strategies Group to find a new space and real estate attorney Steve Drenner to negotiate a lease extension – hopefully through August. SSG principal John Rosato is known for community-oriented projects, including Penn Field and the Seaholm Power Plant redevelopment.

Developing Stories: Where Are They Now?
Photo By Courtney Chavanell

While Escuelita would love to stay Downtown, "It's proven harder than we might have guessed six months ago," said parent Jim Walker, due to sky-high prices. In the past, said Walker, White Lodging had insisted that any promises to extend Escuelita's lease would become null and void if its hotel permit application was denied at City Hall – a condition unacceptable to Escuelita and parents, as it provided no security for families through the school year. "Escuelita del Alma's obvious preference is to purchase space, but a long-term lease will also be considered," Rosato said. "We fully expect the Finley family and White Lodging will give Escuelita del Alma a reasonable amount of time to find a new location."


Downtown Austin Plan: Mapping the Future

The city still hasn't finalized its contract with ROMA Design Group to do the new Downtown Austin Plan, but ROMA hopes to have the paperwork signed and begin digging into the planning work by mid-January. To date, they've just looked at introducing commuter rail to Downtown and along Fourth Street, according to ROMA principal Jim Adams and Jim Robertson with the city's Urban Design Division. The intent is for the Downtown Austin Plan to create a clear policy direction for how Downtown should develop in the years to come and define desired changes in the land development code, leading to codification by ordinance of the city's best intentions for urban planning.

Developing Stories: Where Are They Now?
Photo By John Anderson

ROMA had not yet studied the Downtown Sites & Development Potential map prepared by the Downtown Commission. That map of all potentially available development sites in the Central Business District indicated that with current zoning, height, and view corridor restrictions, not enough sites are available to reach the mayor's stated goal of housing 20,000 more people Downtown over the next 10 years. According to Commissioner Robert Knight, the map and study were "warmly received" by council when presented in early fall. Council asked the Downtown Commission to follow up with a "cost-benefit analysis" of the individual view corridors (which limit building heights when they would interfere with views of the state Capitol). For example, said Knight: Preserving the view straight down Congress Avenue "costs" less in lost development opportunities than preserving the Capitol view from the upper deck of I-35 (which may eventually be torn down). That study should be completed within the next six months, said Knight, along with a look at how Downtown can best transition into East Austin.


Mueller Town: Liftoff

Until New Year's Day, an evening drive down Manor Road past the new Mueller neighborhood is brightened by the "NOEL" display on the old airport's traffic-control tower. A favorite of decades past, the holiday lighting was brought back at the request of surrounding neighborhoods.

Developing Stories: Where Are They Now?
Photo By John Anderson

In 2007, Mueller will become 3-D. The facade is already going up on the shopping center fronting I-35 at 51st, for which both local and national retailers are signing leases. Dell Children's Medical Center will open in the summer, as will a pediatrics medical office building. And with many new trees taking root, the northwest Mueller Greenway will open for public recreation in early 2007, with a hike-and-bike trail, a playscape, and other amenities.

Austinites interested in moving to Mueller can begin getting residen-tial information in the first quarter of 2007. Construction of the first single-family homes is scheduled to begin next summer; the first Muellerites could be hanging curtains and planting posies by year's end. Mueller Central, an information and home-leasing/sales center, is completing construction; developer Catellus is still seeking an adaptive reuse for the neighboring Browning Hangar. (Anybody have a project so big it needs an airplane hangar?)


Republic Square Projects: Slow Simmering

Gradual, behind-the-scenes progress has been made since August on the three major Downtown projects slated for three sides of Republic Square Park: redevelopment of the post office site, a new Austin Museum of Art, and a new federal courthouse.

The U.S. Postal Service and its redevelopment team of Novare Group/Andrews Urban have high-rise hopes for the site of the existing Downtown post office, a prime block on Guadalupe, between Fifth and Sixth. "We're making very good progress," said Taylor Andrews, principal of Andrews Urban LLC. Plans are for a brand-new post office to get built across the street (on the block immediately west) as part of a mixed-use tower. Once the new post office opens, the current USPS site will be freed up for – yet another Downtown mixed-use tower. Mayor Wynn must be smiling every time he licks a stamp.

In August, AMOA had announced a front-runner partner for a new museum-cum-condos project: local developer T. Stacy & Associates teamed with New York architect Pelli Clarke Pelli. But while AMOA had hoped the new museum would be rolling forward by now, nothing has yet come to fruition for the block they own facing Republic Square across Fourth Street. "We are in the process of negotiating a partnership plan for a mixed-use development, but due to a strict confidentiality agreement, we are not able to discuss anything until a formal announcement can be made," said AMOA Executive Director Dana Friis-Hansen. He could not confirm whether Stacy was still the museum's development partner of choice.

The new federal courthouse is essentially designed, although construction by the General Services Administration may be held up until 2008, due to delays in federal funding. While handsome new, more traditional federal courthouses are being built in other cities, the latest renderings show Austin getting stark, neo-brutalist architecture. The architect is Atlanta firm Mack Scogin Merrill Elam, with local input from Larry Speck of Page Southerland Page. With its raw concrete and massive blocky forms, the building appears in renderings to be unfriendly, cold, and inhuman in scale. Did no one in Atlanta get the e-mail that here in Austin, most folks like architecture to have a Texas-friendly regional sensibility?


Republic Square: Trash Cans, Ahoy!

On Dec. 6, the nationally respected Project for Public Spaces facilitated a workshop with more than 55 stakeholders interested in the future of Republic Square. Participants focused on how the park should best interface with the future courthouse (to include a plaza and other outdoor public areas) and the planned closure of San Antonio Street between Fourth and Fifth. PPS was brought in by the GSA's Good Neighbor program; their report with recommendations is due in January, but the likelihood of GSA funding to implement improvements to the park itself remains iffy.

Meanwhile, the Republic Square Partners, an ongoing local stakeholder group that works with the Austin Parks Foundation and the city's Parks and Recreation Department, will meet Jan. 10 to address short-term needs; they're asking for GSA's ongoing involvement with longer-term planning. In addition to more seating, trash cans, signage, and irrigation improvements, a major concern is protecting the health of the square's historic Auction Oaks (under which parcels of land were auctioned off to help fund the new Republic of Texas). According to Earl Broussard, principal of landscape-architecture firm TBG Partners, this involves removing the berms (funny earth lumps) in the park. Broussard said he's putting together a restoration plan and helping with a fundraising plan to finance it. The city's 99-year lease on the state-owned Republic Square land runs out in a few more years, which could bring further changes in the park's future.

The Austin Parks Foundation raised about $800 to buy new park furniture and trash cans by organizing a raffle, selling chances to take the first crack at the despised Intel structure, currently on the courthouse site; congrats to winner Michael McGill. Don't miss the demolition party early in the new year!


Conservation Development: Good Guys, Please Apply!

On Dec. 19, Travis County commissioners approved a new "conservation development" ordinance that provides incentives for landowners to develop rural land in a manner that permanently protects 50% of it as open space in perpetuity (see "Save as We Pave?," Oct. 20). Also approved was a Conservation Development Design Manual that gives developers a step-by-step guide to meeting program requirements. Both the ordinance and the design manual are online at www.co.travis.tx.us/tnr. "It's done; now we'll see if anyone salutes," said the county's Joe Gieselman of the voluntary program. In discussions with the county about becoming the first landowners to do a "demo" conservation development under the ordinance is Robert Huthnance, president of Frost Bank and an outgoing board member of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Developing Stories: Where Are They Now?


Riverside Condos: Bad Faith

In response to community objections to its site plan for a residential tower at 222/300 E. Riverside, developer CWS Capital Partners has submitted a new site plan – to make the project worse.

Those familiar with the negotiating tactics commonly used by CWS' agent, attorney Richard Suttle, regard the move as a ploy to create more "bargaining room" to get what the developer ultimately wants – variances to build closer to Town Lake and East Bouldin Creek than city code currently allows. Preventing the developer from building on protected waterfront land has been the primary concern of neighborhood associations. Suttle did not respond to the Chronicle's invitation to comment.

Developing Stories: Where Are They Now?

City reviewer Javier Delgado, who had given the new site plan a quick once-over, said the major changes were to the building on the 300 E. Riverside site and appeared to be: 1) It was moved significantly closer to Bouldin Creek; 2) the footprint of the tallest, 200-foot (17-story) tower was enlarged by about 5,000 square feet; 3) the building was increased from 352 to 450 units; and 4) heights of other project elements are no longer stepped-down to comply with neighborhood compatibility requirements. The buildings are still shown within 80 feet of Town Lake; city code requires a setback of 200 feet.

Delgado was told the developer had changed the site plan "to reflect some input they received from the neighborhood." The co-president of South River City Citizens, Danette Chimenti: "The new site plans submitted are even further out of compliance with the city land-development code and, therefore, are less acceptable to the neighborhood."

A recommendation on the variance requests from the Parks Board (which then passes the matter to the Planning Commission for a decision) was delayed to give the developer more time to address neighborhood concerns. But Chimenti said, "Unfortunately, this is a step backward for any potential negotiations with the neighborhood. It indicates that the developer is not really negotiating in good faith." A group organized to protect Town Lake waterfront land, Save Town Lake, is holding a Jan. 6 benefit concert at Antone's featuring the Flatlanders and Jimmy LaFave; for updates and tickets, visit www.savetownlake.org.


Big Box Ordinance: Not Yet Sealed Up

The city's toolbox to prevent another Northcross Wal-Mart debacle may soon improve – although the hammer isn't yet in place. On Dec. 14, City Council unanimously approved, on first reading, a new city Big Box Ordinance, which would require increased public notification, input, and study before a retail store of more than 100,000 square feet can be built in Austin. The size limitation rose from 50,000 square feet at Planning Commission, and more amendments appear likely, on second and third readings, before council adopts the ordinance. Advocates fear that developers and the Real Estate Council of Austin may do some serious arm-twisting to weaken the ordinance before council reconvenes in January. RECA Executive Director Janice Cartwright said the group's members are concerned that conditional-use permit hearings could turn into popularity contests on individual users, such as Wal-Mart. (Radical suggestion to retailers: If you wish a warm welcome in Austin, practice excellent corporate social responsibility.)

Developing Stories: Where Are They Now?
Illustration By Doug Potter

One possible amendment being explored by Council Member Lee Leffingwell would streamline the developer's approval process when zoning variances or changes are also needed for a project; allowing a single public hearing for all issues is being considered. Council Members Mike Martinez and Betty Dunkerley have discussed exempting certain areas from the ordinance. Sensibly, this might be a short list of major intersections of major highways, in areas identified by Envision Central Texas as desirable for such development. Ominously, the exempted areas could be any land along highways, which would essentially gut the ordinance. Have we seen this before?

Stay tuned in January ... end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Urban development, Escuelita del Alma, Southwest Strategies Group, John Rosato, Jim Walker, Steve Drenner, White Lodging Services, Amon Burton, Las Manitas Avenue Café, ROMA Design Group, Downtown Commission, Robert Knight, Republic Square Park, Andrews Urban, Novare Group, AMOA, Austin Museum of Art, Project for Public Spaces, TBG Partners, Austin Parks Foundation

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