Cap Metro keeping lid on financial terms of Plaza Saltillo proposals

While the Capital Metro board is poised to decide next week who will develop 10.1 acres just east of downtown Austin, officials are keeping secret the financial terms proposed by four private groups vying for the deal.

An agency spokesman said those critical details wouldn’t be made public until a developer is chosen and the agreement is in final form months from now.

However, Capital Metro board Chairman Mike Martinez, an Austin City Council member and mayoral candidate, said he supports picking two finalists next week and, after those contenders refine their offers, making the amended proposals public before the board chooses a winner for developing the site, which is adjacent to Plaza Saltillo.

“That may be what the staff’s desire is,” he said of choosing a single finalist at the board meeting Monday. “But this is a policy decision by the board. … When we get down to the final two, I’m definitely going to urge that we put all information out there.”

Tuesday, the transit agency released only PowerPoint presentations from the competing companies detailing their experience and conceptual plans for the several-block tract bounded by Interstate 35 and East Fifth, Onion, and East Fourth streets — the heart of an emerging bar and restaurant district in rapidly transforming East Austin. The semifinalist groups are Saltillo Collaborative, led by Austin company Constructive Ventures; Riverside Resources; Endeavor Real Estate Group and Columbus Realty Partners; and Argyle Residential.

All of them in their conceptual proposals show the tract densely covered by low-rise residential buildings; two of the plans additionally call for a hotel.

Making the financial offers public, Capital Metro spokesman John Julitz said, would put the agency at a competitive disadvantage as it negotiates a final agreement with the winning bidder.

“We will not be releasing numbers until negotiations with the finalist are complete, as with any open solicitations we have had in the past,” Julitz said.

The public will get its say Wednesday at a hearing before the board about the development deal. The agreement would culminate a process more than a decade old, one that has involved other aborted attempts at a deal and extensive discussions with nearby neighborhood groups concerned about the effect of intense development at the mostly vacant, former rail yard site.

The board will hold a work session after the public hearing Wednesday. At that hearing, however, the public won’t have access to a core element of the proposals: money.

The 52-page “request for proposals” issued in October by Capital Metro makes it clear that while several elements of the proposals will enter into the board’s decision — including neighborhood concerns and the development’s effect on ridership of the MetroRail line cutting through the tract — financial considerations will be paramount.

“Capital Metro will evaluate the submission of proposals based on their potential to generate long-term revenue and maximize the value of the property,” the Oct. 1 solicitation says atop a page of “key objectives.” And on another page, listing “evaluation criteria,” the first one listed involves “proposed terms for the transaction structure, including allocation of returns to Capital Metro.”

Capital Metro acquired the Plaza Saltillo site in 1995 as part of a $9.3 million purchase of Southern Pacific’s 162-mile freight rail line from Llano to Giddings. Agency officials last year estimated the market value of the 10.1-acres was $40 per square foot, or about $17.7 million.

It was unclear Tuesday if the Texas Public Information Act allows Capital Metro to withhold the financial terms of the proposals, which could include an outright purchase of all or part of the 10 acres, a lease arrangement or perhaps some sort of revenue-sharing between the developer and Capital Metro.

Capital Metro last month referred to the Texas attorney general’s office an information request from former Austin City Council member and Capital Metro board member Raul Alvarez. Alvarez, who told the American-Statesman he had become concerned about the solicitation’s emphasis on financial elements of the deal, had requested documents showing how the agency planned to weigh various criteria.

The agency declined to release the information, citing a provision of the Public Information Act allowing withholding documents “that, if released, would give advantage to a competitor or bidder.” The attorney general’s office, in a May 8 letter, agreed with that interpretation.

The agency, as of late Tuesday afternoon, hadn’t responded to a Statesman public information request filed earlier in the day for the complete version of the four Plaza Saltillo proposals.

“Absent extenuating circumstances, this seems like the kind of information that the public information act was designed to make available to the public,” said Jim Hemphill, an Austin lawyer versed in open meetings and open records law who has in the past represented the Statesman in such matters.

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