Mega Hotel Subsidy Draws Fire From Austin Council

Mega Hotel Subsidy Draws Fire From Austin Council

congress ave hotel

It seems that having Armbrust & Brown attorney Richard Suttle as the representative of the hotel developers I wrote about Monday may be a little too hot for some council members to handle.

On Tuesday morning, Council Members Bill Spelman, Sheryl Cole and Laura Morrison seemed skeptical that his clients need almost $4 million in city breaks to help to build a hotel downtown.

Students of city politics should note that the power base at city council has now shifted from Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Chris Riley — who are losing defeated incumbent Randi Shade — to the other council members, who are gaining Kathie Tovo next month.

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Mega Presentation On Urban Rail Tuesday

Mega Presentation On Urban Rail Tuesday

austin rail

NEWS FLASH: According to a source at City Hall, the Austin Transportation Department is slated to give a big presentation June 14 that will be “a substantial briefing” on urban rail and begins to start answering Uncle Lee’s 30 crucial questions and “then some.”

The mayor has pushed a 2012 bond election funding a first leg for a new mode of mass transit in Austin.

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Is Austin Bicycle Theft On The Rise?

Is Austin Bicycle Theft On The Rise?

austin-stolen-bike

There were more bike thefts reported in the heart of downtown Austin during the first five months of 2011, compared to 2010, according to city police records I compiled. However, reports are down in the South Congress area.

I know this because I decided to do my best Council Member Chris Riley impression — sans silver hair — and work on reducing my car usage in favor of pedal power to commute to the Capitol area. I bought a bike over the weekend, did some research and promptly shelled out another $200 for accessories, aimed mostly at anti-theft.

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5 MAJOR ISSUES OF CONCERN ABOUT THE “BOARDWALK” PROJECT

5 MAJOR ISSUES OF CONCERN ABOUT THE “BOARDWALK” PROJECT

Boardwalk Pic-Battleship Rest Area

Part 2 of 2 Parts (click here to read Part 1 – The Overview of the project and its design)

1. It is not a “boardwalk”. Look closely. It is an elevated concrete human highway. 14-feet wide, 6-feet above the water, up to 70 feet out from shore. Built of concrete and steel. Out over the open waters of our beautiful and naturally pristine lake/river.

Existing LBL Trail in front of Hyatt Hotel

2. Cheaper alternatives exist. Either fully on land, closer to land, or a combination of both. With specifications that start with the minimum specs of the existing Trail: the Hyatt Regency segment, 5 to 6 feet wide, between the First Street and Congress Avenue bridges. This CAN be built across nearly the entire 1.2 mile stretch. For far less cost. However the necessary analysis and conceptual design work has never been done. The necessary conversations have never been had.

3. The “full project cost” could actually be over $20 million. Nearly $4.3 million has already been allocated toward consultants and design over the past two years out of existing city budgets of which $2.4 million has been spent or obligated to date. Plus the $16 million more now sought for construction. All for 1.2 miles of roadway. This road should be paved with gold.

Existing LBL Trail pedestrian crossing over Longhorn Dam

4. This project does not “complete” the trail gap. It will lead users east along the shoreline to the Longhorn Dam. That dam has a narrow and dangerous sidewalk crossing – where two strollers can barely pass each other over the Dam – alongside heavy traffic flow on Pleasant Valley Road. Clearly a “Pfluger-style” pedestrian bridge needs to be built parallel to the west side of the dam. A very expensive bridge. Then there is another “gap” on the North Shore around the former Holly Power Plant. Those segments? Not addressed.

5. The cleverly packaged and named “Boardwalk” is itself a hazardous solution for the need it is trying to fill and the improved safety it is attempting to yield. True, the existing sidewalk-based trail routing along Riverside Drive has a challenging crossing at IH-35 and some close proximity to road traffic. Interestingly, though, no ped-bike-vehicle accidents statistics have ever been produced. Folks know they must be very careful getting through there. But the 14-foot wide Boardwalk over-design intentionally promotes high-speed, two-abreast, bicycle traffic…in two directions…out over the open river waters…in direct conflict with pedestrians, strollers, wheelchairs, dog-walkers, and others who would also be on the same pathway. There is nowhere to jump out of the way of danger. There is no easy way to reach injured parties. There is no shade out in the open water.

Some folks have been asking how this project came to be?  Good question.  Please read on…

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A Concrete Human Highway IN Our River? No. YES! And Why You Oughtta Care

A Concrete Human Highway IN Our River? No. YES! And Why You Oughtta Care

Pic of Real Boardwalk in Forest

Part 1 of 2 Parts – The Overview

If you browsed the Austin American-Statesman or Austin Business Journal yesterday, no doubt you saw the headlines:

“$16 million boardwalk leads Austin bond proposal. City releases draft list of $84.8 million in transportation projects for possible November election.” (AAS)

“City unveils $85M bond package” (ABJ)

At first glance, it might sound like an appealing proposition, this Boardwalk project.  What’s not to like?

A sample "Boardwalk" you may envision.

Or maybe something like this.

The term “boardwalk” itself conjures up images of a pretty little wooden footbridge traversing burbling creeks and meandering through soggy sections of beautiful dense forest.  It’s a project of the Parks Department, and we all do love our parks, yes?

Finding a way to “extend” Downtown Austin’s wonderful riverfront hike-bike path through one of the sections where it currently follows a narrow sidewalk along a busy road, Riverside Drive — well, that sounds like a no-brainer, too, right?  At least to those of us who frequent the Town Lake Trail multiple times a week.

(Sidenote for those of you paying attention: City Council changed the name of the urban portion of the river from Town Lake to Lady Bird Lake after the former First Lady and Trail Founder passed away in 2007.  The name of “the simple walking path along the shore” that she envisioned back in 1971 is still called the Town Lake Trail in Parks Department materials.  Hard to tell what to properly call it.)

And $85 million, though it’s a big number for a still-sluggish economic recovery, nevertheless is a comparatively small chunk of change when you apply that spend against a truckload of “transportation projects”.  Concrete and asphalt don’t come cheap.

To find the serious problems in this equation I’m afraid there’s no substitute for having to dive into the details.  As with so many of life’s problems and issues, that’s where the devil is hiding.  Let’s take a look.

First off there’s the topline math.  $16 million for a single project — one that is a luxury add and carries no financial ROI with it — out of a total $85 million bonding capacity.  That’s almost one-fifth of the total ask!  For just one project.  According to the ABJ story, the Transportation Department and the Bond Review Task Force were charged with evaluating 500 projects that had to be divided into “A,” “B” and “C” categories.

The “A” list of “highest priority” projects added up to about 45 and still carried an estimated total cost between $2 billion and $3 billion, three to four times the total bonding capacity.  Somehow the Boardwalk, in its totality, made it to the further shortened list of  “A” projects left standing.  What about the other 480 or so projects?  What about all the other regions of the city and their transportation, sidewalk, pothole and trail needs?

Then there is the matter of the Boardwalk project itself.  While it hasn’t been an entirely secretive endeavor, its details have been less than well publicized or understood by the broad Austin citizenry, that’s for sure.  For the past three years, this project has been marching its determined way through the city conceptual and design process, rubber-stamped by two unanimous city councils every step of the way, and fueled by almost $4.3 million in dedicated allocations out of the past couple city budgets.  For the past year, that’s been a reported spend rate of about $40,000 per week for consultants, plans and documentation.

Next let’s check out this purported Boardwalk and find out what it’s really made of using the City’s own slides from its presentation decks.  The following pictures are quite self-explanatory.

Shock.

Gasp.

Horror.

What?

How can this be?

There are no boards in this boardwalk!

The entire battleship structure is made of concrete and steel!

And it’s out IN the friggin’ river!

And that, friends, is how we end up with something like THIS rather than the “simple walking path along the shore” that Lady Bird Johnson had sought.

Can’t help but wonder: what would she think of all this?

Though about a year out of date now, what information the city has provided on this project can be found here.  There is some bare bones stuff there about the proposed routing, construction materials and answers to about 20 FAQs. Check it out.

In Part 2 of this story I’ll tell you about:  The Top 5 Issues of Concern about the Boardwalk project.
Finally, in Part 3 we’ll contemplate some other realities about our crown jewel community asset, the Town Lake Trail, that may finally be time to come to grips with: bicycles vs. pedestrians.