News briefs from Austin, the region, and elsewhere
Another test of council will concerning building heights in western Downtown: The zoning case for 800 West Ave., a 1.2-acre Shoal Creek-front site at the corner of Eighth Street, returned to council for a final vote at press time. Last fall, Cypress Real Estate Advisors sought an upgrade to Central Business District zoning to build a 250-foot condo tower, to be designed by Muñoz + Albin Architecture and Planning. (The contested 33-story 7Rio condo tower, at nearby Seventh and Rio Grande – now on hold – won CBD from council last year.) When 800 West Ave. came before council in November, members instead approved, on first reading, Downtown Mixed Use Conditional Overlay zoning, which limits height to 120 feet. But according to unhappy project neighbor Ben Procter, retiring Council Member Betty Dunkerley then encouraged a developer-friendly "pass" on height-limiting compatibility standards triggered by nearby residences – a perk of CBD, not DMU. Definitive development guidelines for this peripheral urban district, rich in historic homes, are due later this year in the Downtown Austin Plan. – Katherine Gregor
Where are the city of Austin's climate-change allies? The city hasn't built a strong community network in support of the Austin Climate Protection Plan – a strategic omission that's now coming home to roost. As local Realtors vigorously attack the city's energy-efficiency initiative for existing homes – smeared citywide by Cid Galindo as the "Green Home Tax" during his failed City Council bid – few in Austin have raised opposing voices. Only the Sierra Club has actively rallied to the city's defense and the underlying cause of climate protection. Observes Chris Lehman, chair of the Sierra Club's Austin Regional Group and a 25-year commercial real estate appraiser: "It was very painful to see the transparently misleading and incorrect assertions of the chairman of the Austin Board of Realtors." Read the group's point-by-point rebuttal of the Realtors' campaign at www.texas.sierraclub.org/austin/actionalertpbp.html. It appears the Realtors' dirty tricks are prevailing; the draft ordinance at the task force has been significantly watered down. Most likely now: Home buyers will receive a disclosure on a home's energy use, but the city won't require even minimal upgrades. Do Austinites really want to continue wasting energy on leaky old homes – and fund another power plant so they can? – K.G.
Is a 2008 transit vote frozen in its tracks? Maybe not. Austin streetcar supporters are quietly making one more rally, still hoping to get an urban-rail referendum on the ballot for November, when high voter turnout is anticipated. Mayor Will Wynn had originally advocated November but backed off when the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transit Working Group (which he chaired) adopted a new project evaluation process that made that goal appear impossible. ROMA Austin is currently on track to present its findings and recommendations to City Council July 24; the urban planners are finishing up a costing, alignment, and ridership analysis for the city. Meanwhile, the suspended TWG is rousting itself to try to meet again before July 4. The potential sleeper: Elgin's proposal for commuter rail, which could beat the Austin project to CAMPO approval. – K.G.
Tunnel vision: Right now, you can see and comment on models of the engineering structures planned for the Waller Creek tunnel, on display at City Hall through June 23. While the intent is to invite community comment, the models are about as clear as a muddy creek given that they lack explanatory signage. It's impossible to tell which amenities shown are real and which are wishful thinking (e.g., nearby parking lots magically turned into green space). The problem: These flood-control tunnel engineering designs, by KBR Inc. and Espey Consultants Inc., are preceding the completion of the Waller Creek District Master Plan, to be completed by ROMA Austin over the next year. The master-plan vision will show the recreational/waterfront amenities that most interest the public. Gary Jackson, the city's project manager in Public Works, said the models, by architects Graeber, Simmons & Cowan, show just preliminary designs for the few points where the tunnel project is visible on the surface – the tip of the engineering iceberg, so to speak. Design must proceed on them now, in tandem with engineering design. The preliminary designs depicted reflect extensive input from the community, boards and commissions, Parks & Recreation, and others; final public hearings on them will occur over the next month. In the model on display, the amphitheatre on Lady Bird Lake has vanished – due to lack of public enthusiasm, reportedly – and instead, the outflow facility is styled like a natural lagoon with wetland plants. At the Waterloo Park end, the facility's roof is shown as an open terrace to host public events; level with the park, it overlooks a scenic and accessible "pond" at the creek head. For more info, visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/wallercreek. – K.G.
According to parents like Holly Castille, a member of the Autism Society of Austin and mother of an 8-year-old autistic son, Austin's lack of centralized resources connecting and educating the special-needs community has left many families feeling isolated. "You simply can't make it with professional resources alone; your best information comes from other parents," says Castille. That's why local moms Kim Webb and René Craft are bringing parent-to-parent support to the special-needs community via Cyberspace. Their website, SpecialNeedsNeighborhood.com, is a free social-networking site connecting parents to one another as well as to service providers. Since its launch this spring, the site has had 1,192 total visitors. It features a resource list, user-built calendars, a community Q&A forum, and Craft's blog about daily dealings with her son. ASA volunteer board member Ann Hart says she welcomes the website's efforts. "Getting the word out is tough," she said, but "the power of the Internet in the disability world can't be underestimated." Webb and Craft will be exhibiting at the Texas Parent to Parent Conference, June 27-28, at the Omni Austin Hotel at Southpark. For more resource info, see www.txp2p.org, www.groups.yahoo.com/group/autismsocietyaustin, and www.austinautismsociety.org. – Sara Robberson