Then There's This: One Step Forward ...

Updates on Barton Springs, Gables Hotel, and amphitheatres

It's hard to imagine spring break and SXSW without Barton Springs Pool in the mix, but the mighty swimming hole is closed for repairs, dang it. The city had targeted a mid-March reopening date, but construction work on the bypass tunnel, which runs the length of the pool and helps keep the spring-fed water clean and shimmery, is taking a little longer than expected. Keep your fingers crossed for the gates swinging back open in late March or early April – not a moment too soon for die-hard Springs fiends who've spent the last few months in withdrawal.

On top of the business of going cold turkey, there is still bubbling suspense over the fate of a proposed grounds improvement plan for the pool's no-frills south side. Do we want to doll it up or leave it in its "natural" state with minimal upgrades? Regular swimmers are either passionately for or equally passionately against the cosmetic components of the plan, and both sides are counting on particular City Council members to back them up when it comes time to vote. Right now, though, it's hard to tell how the votes will stack up.

The City Council was headed toward possible action late this month on the grounds improvement plan. But after the Planning Commission stuck a fork in much of the proposal, Council agreed to hit the pause button. Opponents of the plan cheered the delay over the objections of members of Friends of Barton Springs Pool, including the group's former president, Robin Cravey, one of the creators and drivers of the plan. He likened the postponement to "pussyfootin'" on a deal that should have been done by now. Anyway, a public hearing is set for April 11, with a pre-hearing briefing from Parks and Recreation Department staff expected March 21 or 28.

The Council doesn't always accept the recommendations of its boards and commissions, but because the Planning Commission holds some regulatory authority, that panel's decisions sometimes – sometimes – carry a little more sway with Council when considering high-profile development issues. The PC didn't just throw sand on the plan; it suggested some constructive changes, such as installing a porous (as opposed to concrete) ADA pathway to the south gate, reconfiguring or removing the overlook on the south slope, and rethinking or eliminating the plan to pave and expand what is now a dirt-and-gravel south parking lot. On the issue of parking, the planning commissioners echoed the city's less-is-more mantra, which squares with the comprehensive planning goal of weaning people off of total reliance on cars to get to popular destination spots around town. In fact, the PC wants PARD staff to give serious consideration to an off-site parking plan that would include shuttle service to the pool, and redesigning the lot with foot and bicycle traffic in mind. (For background, see "The Pain of Change at the Springs," Feb. 15, and Then There's This, July 6, 2012.)

Gables Curveballs

The rezoning of the proposed Gables Residential/Hotel ZaZa project at Fourth and Guadalupe passed last week on a surprisingly narrow 4-3 vote, with Bill Spel­man throwing not one but two curveballs before casting his no vote. (Less surprising were the dissenting votes by Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo.) The developers were asking for additional height allowed by CBD-CURE zoning (shorthand for increased floor-to-area ratio through urban redevelopment in the Central Business District), but Tovo, Morrison, and Spelman weren't willing to budge without more consideration of affordable units as part of the guidelines of the Council-approved but yet-to-be codified Downtown Austin Plan. Given its uncodified state, affordability is not mandatory under current ordinance, and developer rep Richard Suttle and Mayor Lee Leffingwell were clearly irritated with the affordability discussion on the dais. Spelman argued that he and other Council members "have the discretion to vote yes or no on how well we think [the project] is going to fit our vision for the city, and how well we think it's going to provide benefits to the city." Leffingwell later reiterated a previous warning that requiring a developer to provide separate benefits for a zoning change borders on illegal "contract zoning." Spelman then raised another concern brought to his office by the Workers Defense Project concerning Gables' allegedly poor safety record on other Gables construction projects. By this time, Suttle was steaming. He disputed the allegations and said they had nothing to do with the zoning case. (See "Council Tentatively Approves Gables Project," Feb. 22.)

Ordinance on Amphitheatres

At long last, Austin now has an ordinance defining amphitheatres and requiring such venues to go through a "conditional structure" process. The new rule on the books is in direct response to an administrative decision in 2010 that cleared the way for a 1,000-seat plus amphitheatre adjacent to three subdivisions in southwest Austin. While Council's vote last week doesn't erase a staff member's determination three years ago, the permitting of these venues now requires a public process. While Council passed the ordinance on a 7-0 vote, it wasn't unanimous on the head-count cap for a venue to fit that definition. The number started at 100, dropped to 25, then went back up to 100 before stopping at 50, which passed on a 5-2 vote, with Morrison and Tovo voting no.

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