Effort to save utilities building still going

Published 1:01 pm Sunday, March 13, 2016

With public forums at noon and 7 p.m. on Tuesday for the community recreation center approach, the effort to save the old Austin Utilities plant is still going strong.

The city of Austin and Vision 2020 are moving ahead on a plan to acquire the former Austin Municipal Plant as the site for a proposed $35 million rec center.

But early this year, Quin Brunner and Austin City Council member Janet Anderson formed a Facebook group, penned a letter and started a Change.org petition to call for the parties involved to slow down and give the community more time to discuss potential uses for the downtown plant and potential locations for the rec center.

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The group is nearing 200 signatures on a petition on Change.org and broke 300 likes on Facebook, as they’ve heard a lot of people voice their concerns.

“We’ve got a really large and active following in terms of people who support our efforts here and people who want to see the utilities building saved and reused and want to see the rec center built elsewhere,” Brunner said. “There’s going to be lots of folks getting out there to make their perspectives heard, telling the folks at Vision 2020 this isn’t what the community wants.”

Though the Austin Utilities Board approving a conditional $2 million purchase agreement last week to sell the plant to the city of Austin, Brunner said they’re comfortable with where they’re at.

“We feel that our perspective holds some weight and that’s really the only way we’re going to win something like this,” Brunner said.

He said their initial push, or phase one, was getting out information to the public and letting people sift through it on their own. They posted a letter online explaining why the former plant shouldn’t be torn down, a frequently asked questions document, and asked at a city council meeting to have the purchase agreement made public. The agreement was made public late last week.

“That’s not really an opportunity that was given, this whole thing kind of being shrouded in secrecy,” Brunner said. “They haven’t worked out all the kinks yet and that’s part of the problem, they’re trying to go forward with this process, just telling everyone to trust them when I don’t think they have answers to some of these questions. That’s why we really need to have this discussion.”

The second push was shedding light on what Brunner says wasn’t a totally transparent process. Before the utilities site was chosen as Vision 2020’s top choice for the rec center, other sites were also being considered such as the space between the Post Office and Oakland Avenue, space near Riverland Community College and other sites. But those locations were eventually dropped in favor of the downtown plant site.

Before it became Vision 2020’s preferred rec center site, the plant was the center of another Vision 2020 committee, also one of the initial 10 goals. One proposal called for converting the space into a blend of apartments and retail space.

But according to Vision 2020 Director Greg Siems, that idea was tabled after three years of feasibility, environmental and housing studies found it “just wasn’t a viable option.”

“These are the economic realities we have to deal with, and we want to be sure we can create something instead of having a liability just sit there,” Siems previously told the Herald. “We respect other people’s opinions and wanting to have a conversation, but based on the evidence that Vision 2020 has seen and parts of the previous studies utilities has done, it’s just not a possibility.”

However, Anderson and Brunner said they haven’t seen enough information to convince them such redevelopment plans for the downtown site aren’t feasible and potentially lucrative.

They argued the plant redevelopment committee was disbanded rather suddenly, and they argued the initial ideas for mixed retail and residential space merit more discussion and research.

Brunner said he’d like to see another chance for other options than demolition for the former downtown plant.

“So we need the major stakeholders back at the table. We need to reconvene the Vision 2020 Utilities Building Committee,” Brunner said. “That’s our ideal situation because we want those folks to recognize this is still a need in the community and this is something they have the potential to address and they have the potential to give to us and we’d love to have The [Hormel] Foundation back at the table, so we can have a dialogue about what we envision happening and the way we can make it happen.”

In a perfect world, Mayor Tom Stiehm said he’d prefer to find a way to build the rec center at the Austin Post Office site and a few surrounding blocks while developers came forward with plans for the plant.

“None of those things are happening,” he said. “It’s not a perfect world.”

Along with a lack of developers interested in the plant, Stiehm said the cost of acquiring properties for the post office site made him change his mind.

He said he wouldn’t support the estimated $3.5 million the city would need to spend to acquire properties to make room for the rec center.

Besides the location of the rec center, an operating agreement due to be made public early next week calls for the city to pay $200,000 a year for 30 years for the YMCA to operate the public portions of the rec center, and many wonder where that money will come from.

Anderson said it would make sense for the city council to find out how and where that money will come from before even looking at a lease.

City Administrator Craig Clark has said that money could likely come from the general fund, which is largely tax dollars.

Brunner said they aren’t against the rec center, but only the location.

“We still support the rec center. I think a rec center would be a great thing for this community and my only qualm is that it’s being built on top of that utilities building,” Brunner said.