Lee Leffingwell

City Council member Kathie Tovo speaks at Thursday’s Council meeting. The Council voted 6-1 in favor of “The Deep Clean” approach. Mayor Lee Leffingwell voted against the approach.

Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

In looking at the land development code rewrite Thursday, the Austin City Council voted 6-1 to approve Approach 2, known as “The Deep Clean,” which reformats the code with a medium amount of rewriting. Mayor Lee Leffingwell voted against it and said he supported the more extensive option of Approach 3, “The Complete Makeover.”  

The initiative, known as CodeNEXT, had three options to approach revising Austin’s land development code. Opticos, the city planning consultant hired by Austin to aid in the code rewrite, recommended “The Deep Clean” because it would take less time to execute than “The Complete Makeover” but would still hit many goals the city had in rewriting city code.

Council member Bill Spelman said he was concerned about the symbolism each option held after so much discussion.

“It seems to me the issue has been clouded to some extent,” Spelman said. “The way the issue has been framed — to take Approach 1, Approach 2, Approach 3 — very early became symbolic and political. We lost sight of the fact that we were talking about a scope of work for a particular contract, and it was not necessarily the same as, ‘Will this work better?’”

Spelman moved to adopt the second approach with a few amendments. He proposed to allow consultants to be more far-reaching when they decide how to rewrite the code.

“Coming up with new material is going to be more difficult for us than for Opticos,” Spelman said. 

Spelman added that the medium ground of “The Deep Clean” does not mean city staff cannot extensively rewrite where they see the need.

“They should not feel constrained to some moderate level of review just because it said so in ‘The Deep Clean,’” Spelman said. “If they believe there needs to be more extensive review in a section of the code, they should do so.”

Council member Kathie Tovo said she appreciated Spelman’s focus on giving more rewriting responsibilities to staff as consultants phase their contract out.

“It’s very useful to have a discussion about where the consultants begin to hand over the reins to the staff and empower them,” Tovo said. “That’s what I see is the main piece that you’re adding here.”

Council member Laura Morrison said she supported Spelman’s revised version of “The Deep Clean” but asked to add a few things to the motion.

“In terms of the rewrite being extensively rewritten, we’ve had a lot of input from landscape architects that we’re leaving the sustainability as a focus on the wayside,” Morrison said. “I would like the rewrite to have a focus including green infrastructure and sustainable water management. I think with the extensive rewriting, you need to get some of these things in there.”

Leffingwell said while he understood Spelman’s amendments to “The Deep Clean,” it was not enough.

“I am persuaded by Spelman’s comments made yesterday at a public forum,” Leffingwell said. “He recounted a situation a number of years ago when there was an attempt to clean up the code, and, as they went through it, that people suggested to change this, modify that. And the end result is very little got done at the end of the day. And I think that’s what will happen with option 2. I still support that, so I’m going to vote no.”

Photo Credit: Omar J Longoria | Daily Texan Staff

With both Capital Metro and Austin City Council endorsing Project Connect’s recommended route for urban rail, the council is expected to discuss bond language in August for the $1.38 billion project connecting East Riverside to ACC Highland.

If Austin residents approve a bond proposal in November, a three-year environmental assessment and engineering process will determine how to safely construct the rail, the bridge across Lady Bird Lake and the possible tunnel through North Austin. 

“Things could change,” project lead Kyle Keahey told The Daily Texan last month. “There’s lots of opportunity for public involvement at this stage.”

The urban rail proposal is a part of Project Connect, a collaborative vision for Austin’s transportation system between the city, Cap Metro and other Central Texas planning organizations. The approved route will run along Trinity Street through downtown and travel on San Jacinto Boulevard through the UT campus. Three of the rail’s proposed stops are on campus at the future site of the Dell Medical School, Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and on the northeast side of campus.

While some have complained about a lack of public engagement in the planning process, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said Project Connect and Capital Metro have hosted more than 200 public meetings to relay information about the rail and hear from the community.

“I believe that this has been one of the most open, transparent and inclusive processes I’ve ever seen,” Leffingwell said.

City council decided to limit public discussion to 30 minutes for both sides before they voted on June 26, excluding several in attendance that hoped to address the council. Among them was Jamie Nalley, an architectural engineering senior and Student Government representative.

“Students are a highly transit-dependent population,” Nalley wrote in his prepared speech, given to the Texan. “This current plan fails to take us into account.” 

The Student Government assembly has passed resolutions in recent years calling for an urban rail alignment along Guadalupe Street and Lamar Boulevard instead of the recommended alignment on the east side of campus.

The route on San Jacinto is incorporated into the University’s 2012 Campus Master Plan and was recommended to Project Connect by University officials.

A light rail on Guadalupe and Lamar was proposed in 2000 and lost a bond election by a narrow margin. The city later pursued bus rapid transit along those streets, and the Federal Transportation Administration awarded Austin $38 million in 2012 for the MetroRapid service, which began running in January. 

“It would be near impossible to justify additional FTA funding for this corridor so soon,” Leffingwell said.

The city will seek FTA funds to cover half of the project’s cost, with the remaining portion locally funded. The city has set aside $600 million for urban rail, leaving $100 million unfunded.

Mike McHone, who represents businesses, churches and residential communities near UT on behalf of University Area Partners, said he feels the city has placed MetroRapid where urban rail should be.

“We’ve been given buses instead of light rail. We never thought buses were the right way to go, but we got them,” McHone said. “So we’re going to compound a mistake?”

Thomas Butler, transportation director for the Downtown Austin Alliance, an organization with the goal of improving downtown Austin, said the route is designed for what the city will look like a decade from now. Butler said it will serve a population growing to the east, as well as the future ACC Highland campus, the Dell Medical School and an innovation zone for technology development expected to flourish in the northeast corner of downtown. 

Butler emphasized the route’s connectivity to the larger transportation system, including the rapid bus lines and MetroRail. Robert Svoboda, co-director of the Student Government city relations agency, said his main concern was that Project Connect failed to seek input from the student population.

“The plan approved is not perfect, but it’s a step toward more options for transportation and all students want that,” Svoboda said. “It’s been a hands-off relationship with city government, and we want to change that. Our goal is to educate students so they can vote.”

Correction: This story has been edited with the correct source of the $600 million funding for the project. It is coming from the city's strategic mobility plan and not the Central Texas Regional Mobility fund.

Mayor Lee Lefingwell speaks about his bacjground in public service and the future of Austin in a lecture Tuesday evening. The talk was part of a week long celebration of the Moody College of Communication.

Fabian Fernandez | Daily Texan staff

Photo Credit: Fabian Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

Although Austin has experienced exceptional population and economic growth in recent years, growth creates a host of new challenges for the city, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said in a talk on campus Tuesday.

In the lecture hosted by the Moody College of Communication Council, Leffingwell said Austin is the fastest growing city in the U.S., with its population expected to reach four million over the next 20 years.

“We have not done a good job of creating a transportation plan, and it’s something we badly need to cope with [because of] the growth we’re experiencing,” Leffingwell said. “Urban Rail, along with other forms of mass transit, has to be a part of that system. We need an option for people to get into Austin that doesn’t require sitting in traffic for two hours.”

Leffingwell said Austin’s diverse economy helped it through the recession and is continuing to bring money into the city. 

“Our economy is red hot right now,” Leffingwell said. “We have industries in gaming, microchips and renewable energy. The Formula 1 race alone brings in $300 million. That’s a lot of barbecue.” 

According to Hugo Rojo, Communication Council administrative director, Leffingwell was chosen as a speaker because of his public advocacy and dedication to Austin.

“Leffingwell has taken a leap into the digital age to connect with Austinites and increase government transparency with tools like a recent Reddit “Ask Me Anything” and a weekly email newsletter,” Rojo said.

According to Leffingwell, the need for increased communication with the public is also a major concern for the city. 

“How do we get information out in a way that’s simple and direct that everybody — even the lowest common denominator — will understand?” Leffingwell said. “Some issues are extremely complex, and to get the message across takes a lot of talent.”

Public relations freshman Alexandra Mascareno said she thought the lecture provided a good look into how the government deals with complex issues.

“I never realized everything that goes on, particularly [with] the communications aspect, [with the] state government,” Mascareno said. “It’s crazy: the amount of things the city deals with, especially as its population grows so much.”

The lecture was part of a week-long celebration by the Moody College of Communication, featuring local leaders who advocate for innovation and the public good. Past speakers have included South By Southwest co-founder Louis Black and Mark Strama, head of Google Fiber in Austin and former state representative.

Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell declared the city a “state of disaster” Monday in response to last week’s flooding events, which severely damaged Austin neighborhoods. 

Three people were found dead in Onion Creek in addition to at least two other flood-related deaths. 

In the declaration, Leffingwell said hundreds of Austin residents have been displaced, businesses were damaged and the city government is incurring extraordinary expenses as a result of the widespread severe flooding and high winds. 

At the peak of the flooding events, there were more than 1,100 evacuated homes, with 15 deemed uninhabitable, according to a City of Austin press release.

The mayor sent a letter to Gov. Rick Perry outlining the flooding’s impact and emphasizing the critical need for additional state and federal support to begin recovery efforts. 

UT Facilities Services spokeswoman Laurie Lentz said the University did not face any remarkable damage from last week’s severe weather.

“[With] heavy rains, sometimes water comes under doors or there’s spot leaks here and there, but there weren’t any kinds of exceptional issues during the flooding that affected other parts of Austin,” Lentz said. 

The declaration will remain in effect for seven days until it is ratified by the Austin City Council. The last time the city was involved in a state of emergency, the city helped provide housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2006.

The council will also consider approving an ordinance waiving permitting and development fees for homes damaged during the flooding events.

The council is scheduled to meet Thursday.

Media representatives from around Austin take a ride in a MetroRapid bus during a media preview of the new form of public transportation.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Future students may bypass cars, buses and bikes in Austin and take a train to class that could leave them right in front of the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

The city of Austin, Capital Metro and other interested parties have partnered together to look into Urban Rail, a train system officials say will move people around UT, the Capitol and downtown areas. Officials hope to link the system to MetroRail, which runs between Leander and Austin.

In June, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell convened the Central Corridor Advisory Group, which represents different organizations focused on developing Austin’s transportation footprint, to determine whether the city should move forward with the project.

A preliminary map released by the city shows there are at least four train stops near UT, including one at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, San Jacinto Boulevard and Dean Keeton Street.

At a May meeting of the UT System Board of Regents, architecture professor Lawrence Speck presented a campus master plan that featured an urban rail built along San Jacinto Boulevard close to the new Dell Medical School. 

Speck said the University prefers the line be built along San Jacinto Boulevard. 

“After much study, that seems to be most convenient and least disruptive,” Speck said. 

Regents unanimously approved Speck’s plan. Some students, however, have said they prefer the rail be built along Guadalupe Street. 

UT Student Government passed a resolution in April suggesting the initial rail line be built on Guadalupe Street, where it can serve students living in West Campus.

Architecture senior Andrew Houston, a student government representative, said he and other representatives hope students will be involved in the Urban Rail planning process.

There are currently no students serving on the group convened by Leffingwell.

“We thought that the Urban Rail should be where people are already, not where they are projected to be,” Houston said. “What we are advocating for is an open, public process in terms of determining where the Urban Rail should go and that students be involved in that process. We are [a] group that is going to use it.”

If an agreement is reached soon, Austinites could expect to see the project implemented by 2021. However, local bodies must also be willing to invest about $275 million and receive federal matching funds.

Julia Montgomery, a member of the Central Corridor Advisory Group, said the group will eventually determine whether the city should go forward with the project.

“By forming the group and the new public involvement plan, the Project Connect staff and the mayor have acknowledged that we really need to step back and do an open evaluation of where the next high capacity transit investment is going to go, whether that is Urban Rail or not,” said Montgomery, who is also a member of a separate Urban Rail advocacy group called Austinites for Urban Rail Action.

Although initial proposals from the city’s transportation department suggested the line be built along San Jacinto Boulevard, close to the future Dell Medical School, Montgomery said a final decision would not be made until more public input is heard.

“[AURA was] happy to hear Mayor Leffingwell and the Project Connect staff repeatedly emphasize that any of the maps that had already been drawn and put out on the website are just conceptual,” Montgomery said.

The group’s next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 16 at 1:30 p.m. in City Hall.

Karla Villalon, spokeswoman for the city’s transportation department, said the city and Capital Metro will be opening the discussion up to the public in the fall, as early as September. Villalon said the project has been a long time coming.

“The idea of rail for Austin has been around for 30-plus years,” Villalon said. “Right now we’re looking at the Central Austin area and how rail could work through downtown.”

Although the city has recently moved closer to building Urban Rail in Austin, Villalon said there’s still a great deal of work ahead for the project.

Google Fiber coming to Austin, city officials confirm

Officials from the city of Austin and Google announced Tuesday morning that Austin will be the next city to receive Google Fiber's ultra-fast gigabit Internet service.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell made the official announcement, and said the city has continued to work toward receiving the service after applying to be the first city to receive it last year, ultimately losing to Kansas City, Kan. Leffingwell said city officials realized many Austinites worked hard to be heard during the original application.

"We heard you," Leffingwell said. "It's a resource that can help make our city even more innovative. Google Fiber will change how we live and how we work in ways we don’t even know about yet."

Milo Medin, vice president of access services at Google, said pricing rates for the service in Austin are still to be determined. The service will be implemented in several communities called "fiberhoods" around the city, and will provide free public service in educational areas such as libraries and schools.

"We build where you want us to," Medin said. "Instead of us trying to figure out where we should construct the network, you – the citizens of Austin – will tell us. Austin and Texas as a whole has a legacy of inspiring other cities and states throughout America, and we know that you will use your creativity with this gigabit service."

Austin City Council member Laura Morrison said the Internet service will be central in continuing to make Austin a hub of innovation. Google's dedication to providing free high-speed Internet service to public areas of the city is very much in line with Austin's goals for its citizens.

"Our city is committed to digital inclusion for all of our residents, a goal we share with Google," Morrison said.

Gov. Rick Perry said receiving the service was a group effort between the city and the state, and the service will go along perfectly with the continued innovation of the Austin area. 

"Way to go, Austin – you are changing the world," Perry said. "Central Texas is a perfect fit for Google Fiber. The things that have been going on in Austin over the last few years have been nothing less than world-changing."

 

Mayor Lee Leffingwell delivers the State of the City Address at the Four Seasons Hotel Tuesday afternoon. Leffingwell talked about issues such as population growth, transportation, UT’s medical school and adaptability.

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

With the University’s upcoming medical school and the city’s rapid expansion in several major industries, Mayor Lee Leffingwell spoke of Austin as being in a “golden era” in his State of the City address.

Leffingwell spoke Tuesday at a luncheon hosted by the Real Estate Council of Austin at the Four Seasons Hotel. He touched on issues such as population growth, transportation, UT’s medical school and adaptability. 

Leffingwell said Austin’s population, which grew by 20 percent over the last decade, has made the city the 13th largest in the nation. Still, he said the 5 percent unemployment rate continues to stay 3 percentage points below the national rate.

“I believe, wholeheartedly, the state of our city today is the strongest it has ever been in our 173-year history, and it’s getting stronger every day,” Leffingwell said. “The big question for us is obvious: How do we keep it that way as long as possible, and for as many of us as possible?”

With this rapid population and job growth, the city intends to act soon on issues that plague Austinites, such as transportation. Urban rail transit, particularly in the central business district, is a long-discussed issue that Leffingwell said will soon become a reality.

“I will work on this issue every single day while I am mayor and with the goal of having a public vote on urban rail before I leave office,” Leffingwell said. “I know we’ve been talking about urban rail for what seems like a very long time, but now, it’s time to act.”

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said Leffingwell’s long-term goals for Austin’s transportation infrastructure won’t have any immediate repercussions in this legislative session, but transportation is ultimately one of the most important issues regarding Austin’s growth.

“Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and more and more we’re more interconnected with San Antonio in terms of our growth and economy,” Rodriguez said. “It’s more important than ever that we do something to ease the congestion on I-35.”

Leffingwell said the addition of a medical school to an already prestigious university gives depth to Austin’s growth and will open the door for the city to become a leader in medical research and development. He said the school is projected to bring 15,000 new jobs and $2 billion in annual revenue to the city. 

“Obviously, the easier and simpler thing would have been not to do it — not to risk failure or rejection from people who believed that it was too much to ask,” Leffingwell said. “But ultimately, the vision of what a medical school would mean to Austin’s future made that risk worth it.”

Leffingwell urged Austinites to continue being creative and adaptable while the city’s population expands further, and to not get too comfortable in the current upswing.

“I think we should be extremely careful about believing too much of our own good press,” Leffingwell said. “If we want to protect what we’ve got, if we want to stay who we are, if we want to remain the envy of other cities around the world and enjoy a truly special quality of life over the long term, then we must keep changing.”

Published on February 6, 2013 as "Leffingwell praises Austin in State of the City". 

City and transportation officials released a transit plan intended to unite the Central Texas region Friday.

At a press conference Friday, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said within 15 years, the city will link Austin to Georgetown, Round Rock, Leander, Oak Hill, Kyle, Buda, San Marcos and San Antonio through commuter, urban and regional rail lines.

A portion of the planned urban rail line will run along San Jacinto Boulevard, cutting through the UT campus. Another portion will run along Guadalupe Street with stops at Dean Keeton Street and near the West Mall. The rail will also provide service along East Riverside Drive and South Congress Avenue.

The transit plan also includes express lanes for motor vehicles on MoPac Boulevard and Interstate 35.

“The plan is attainable. Now, we have to make it happen,” Leffingwell said. “We must make this a priority.”

The plan was created by Project Connect, a regional collaborative organization that includes the city of Austin, Capital Metro, the Lone Star Rail District and Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, known as CAMPO.

Formed in 2011, Project Connect’s purpose  is to implement a portion of CAMPO’s 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, which aims to address Central Texas’ public transportation needs as the population grows. The Transit Working Group, a subcommittee of CAMPO led by Leffingwell, advised Project Connect on the plan.

John Langmore, board vice chair of Capital Metro and the Transit Working Group, said the region’s transportation infrastructure is not keeping pace with its growth.

“Every time you travel in your car, you become painfully aware of that,” Langmore said.

The Austin metropolitan statistical area’s population grew from about 1.25 million in 2000 to 1.7 million in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Population is expected to grow to 2.3 million in 2020 and 3 million in 2030, according to projections provided by the Texas State Data Center.

Langmore said city leaders do not have a total estimate of how much the transit plan would cost, but that the urban rail project would cost about $550 million.

According to Langmore, the city and Capital Metro would apply for federal grants to help pay for construction costs.

Langmore said many elements of the project have differing completion dates. He said Capital Metro’s rapid bus project will be completed in 2014 with routes on South Congress Avenue, North Lamar Avenue and Guadalupe Street. He said urban rail with service to the UT area would open during 2020 at the earliest.

Published on February 4, 2013 as "Regional urban rail to link nearby towns".

City, transportation unveil transit plan to meet growing regional needs

City and transportation officials released a transit plan intended to unite the Central Texas region Friday.

At a press conference, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said within 15 years, the city will link Austin to Georgetown, Round Rock, Leander, Oak Hill, Kyle, Buda, San Marcos and San Antonio through commuter, urban and regional rail lines.

A portion of the planned urban rail line will run along San Jacinto Boulevard, cutting through the UT campus.

The transit plan also includes express lanes for cars on MoPac Boulevard and Interstate 35.

“The plan is attainable. Now, we have to make it happen,” Leffingwell said. “We must make this a priority.”

The plan was created by Project Connect, a regional collaborative organization that includes the city of Austin, Capital Metro, the Lone Star Rail District and Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, widely known as CAMPO.

Project Connect is charged with implementing a portion of CAMPO’s 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, which aims to address Central Texas’ public transportation needs as the population grows.

The Austin City Council voted to postpone the implementation of a new regulating plan for development in the East Riverside Corridor at its regular
meeting Thursday.

Citing the late hour and council members’ multiple concerns with the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan, Mayor Lee Leffingwell suggested at 11:35 p.m. the council postpone taking action on the plan until the Dec. 6 meeting.

Among the council’s concerns is a provision in the plan that prohibits the construction of new businesses that use drive-thrus.

Leffingwell said the provision would discourage economic development along the East Riverside Corridor. He said businesses such as pharmacies, fast food restaurants and dry cleaning services would not seek to reside along the East Riverside Corridor and would take their business elsewhere.

“It’s an economic development killer to put this [plan] in the corridor,” Leffingwell said.

Erica Leak, a planner in the Austin Planning and Development Review Department, said businesses would not be able to construct buildings with drive-thrus because it would encourage automobile usage, which the regulating plan seeks to discourage.

“Having new drive-thrus takes away from a pedestrian environment,” Leak said.

Leak said the regulating plan requires developers to construct buildings closer to sidewalks, which she said would encourage pedestrians to frequent businesses occupying those buildings. She said because drive-thrus tend to occupy a large amount of space on a property, pedestrians would be discouraged from frequenting businesses with drive-thrus.

Leak said the plan ensures existing establishments with drive-thrus would be able to keep their drive-thrus or remodel their buildings to eliminate the drive-thru.
Leffingwell also raised concerns that the plan would limit the number of lanes on East Riverside Drive.

“There’s no way I’m going to support that initiative to reduce the number of lanes on Riverside Drive,” Leffingwell said.

Leak said a study conducted by the city’s transportation department found Riverside Drive would be reduced to two lanes running in each direction if the proposed urban rail project is constructed in the corridor. She said the reduction in lanes planned for the corridor’s anticipated prioritization of urban rail usage over automobile usage is not related to the regulating plan.

The second phase of the urban rail project proposed by the city would extend into the East Riverside Corridor, providing a route from downtown to South Pleasant Valley Road along East Riverside Drive.

Printed on Friday, November 9, 2012 as: Council delays decision to regulate East Riverside