Divided Austin City Council grants $7 million favor to state

5:55 p.m Thursday, June 22, 2017 Politics
Shelby Tauber
Two parking lots located east of Congress Avenue, the one shown here between 16th and 17th streets and the other between 18th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, would be replaced with office towers as part of the Capitol Complex project.

After a closed-door discussion Thursday, Austin City Council members agreed to waive $6.9 million in fees and provide other assistance to the state for a new Capitol Complex — a topic that had drawn wry skepticism during a council workshop earlier in the week.

The Capitol Complex is a planned $581 million three-phase project to convert North Congress Avenue between the Capitol and the University of Texas into a grassy pedestrian mall. The later phases will create new office buildings for state workers at 16th and 18th streets. Work is expected to begin this summer.

The 6-2 vote Thursday, with two abstentions and one council member absent, authorizes city staffers to draft an interlocal agreement with the state to waive fees for the first phase of the Capitol Complex project. It would also provide expedited permitting for the project, appointment of a city staff project team and an agreement that the city will vacate four blocks of North Congress Avenue and convert 16th, 17th and 18th streets to two-way traffic.

The state’s request for monetary and staffing assistance comes at a time when city officials are paused between two legislative sessions seeking to overturn city policies and enmeshed in two lawsuits with the state over immigration enforcement policies. During the discussion at their Tuesday work session, City Council members had salty responses to the state asking for such a large favor at such a strained time.

Council Member Delia Garza questioned whether the Capitol Complex plan would help “pump the smell of freedom into the air,” an aroma that Gov. Greg Abbott said earlier this month doesn’t exist in Austin.

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Council Member Leslie Pool objected to the state asking for money from Austin at the same time it was seeking to reduce the amount of money the city could bring in through taxes. She also raised concerns about two large heritage trees that the plan calls to remove. Trees have been another point of contention between the city and state, as Abbott is seeking to overturn cities’ rules protecting heritage trees.

Mayor Steve Adler responded during Tuesday’s workshop that city leaders should evaluate the state’s request in a neutral manner, without taking into account the ongoing tension. And advocates of the project, including state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the Capitol Complex would provide a great value to the city as a civic space for concerts and festivals.

The council discussed the issue during executive session Thursday.

Garza and Pool abstained from the vote to approve the agreement. Council Members Ora Houston and Ann Kitchen opposed it, with Kitchen saying she thought the agreement was rushed and the public should have a chance to weigh in on it. Council Member Ellen Troxclair was absent.