The Austin Chronicle

Council Goes Back to Work

White Lodging, Taco PUD, and More

By Amy Smith, August 9, 2013, News

After a monthlong recess, City Council returns to the dais today to tackle an oversized agenda of weighty items, some of them particularly emotional – including but not limited to: a height controversy over a proposed condo project, a wage dispute between construction workers and a hotel developer, and a monumental battle over the historic monument at Mount Bonnell.

All three are set for public hearings and possible Council action, which almost certainly guarantees the meeting will take a long day's journey into night. The condo project, proposed as a planned unit development, or PUD, at 211 South Lamar at Riverside (currently the home of a Taco Cabana), centers on a requested zoning change to increase the height to 96 feet. The height issue creeps into emotional territory -- city land code holds height and setback restrictions along Lady Bird Lake; developers have had some success brokering variances, but shoreline protection advocates and area neighborhood associations believe the city rolls over too easily on its own ordinance, and also claim this is a misuse of the PUD loophole. Developers for the project, Post Paggi, LLC, have touted a range of community benefits they'll provide in exchange for the variance, including a certain amount of affordable housing units or a $430,000 fee-in-lieu to the city's affordable housing fund.

Next up: If you see a couple dozen people in the Council chamber wearing "I support White Lodging" tags, please note that some of them may have no idea why they're there or why they're wearing stickers. White Lodging is the developer of the upscale JW Marriott Hotel under construction at Congress and Second. In 2011, the Council approved $3.8 million in fee waivers for the project on the condition that the developer pay its construction workers prevailing wages. Two months ago, city management revoked the waivers after investigating workers' complaints that they were getting stiffed on wages. White Lodging is challenging the decision and the city manager has tossed it back to Council with several options (Item 11). Council was originally scheduled to consider the matter at its last meeting in June. That's the day employees of all ranks from the area's White Lodging hotels were instructed to put on an "I support ..." sticker and head to Council chambers. One employee, through a Spanish-speaking translator (Workers Defense Project's Gregorio Casar), told the Chronicle that she was merely told to put on the emblem of support and appear at a building she had never realized was City Hall. That's where she met Casar, who told her and other Spanish-speaking employees why White Lodging had wanted them there. (For more on this, see the Newsdesk blog from Aug. 7.)

A controversy over proposed park improvements at Mount Bonnell (Item 114) threatens to take the romance right out of this iconic spot. Council will consider an appeal by the West Point Society of Central Texas, which has hit roadblocks at the city in its attempt to replace a weather-battered 1938 monument with a more durable granite monument. The West Point group "adopted" Mount Bonnell as part of the city parks department's Adopt-a-Park Program, and has obtained the blessing and funding from the original donors of the monument, the Covert family, to replace the limestone monument with granite. The Historic Landmark Commission and city staff are instead recommending restoration of the existing structure.

Also, there are a slew of items from Council, including:

• A resolution brought by Council Member Chris Riley and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole directing the city manager to "initiate a comprehensive small-area planning process for the South Shore Central Sub-district of the Waterfront Overlay" and three adjacent properties in Travis Heights (Item 58).

• A proposal (Cole, Riley, Mayor Lee Leffingwell) that could potentially kickstart an expedited building permit review process (Item 63).

• A resolution (Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo) to initiate amendments to the City Code to ensure that designated affordable housing units in the Rainey Street area remain affordable for at least 99 years on owner-occupied dwellings and 40 years for rental units.

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