CapMetro exit, Rec Center restructure, Old Town development and potential City Hall move discussed at council retreat


What does it take to transform Leander into a destination that people will travel to visit? Is it having attention-grabbing businesses and restaurants? Is it fostering a stronger sense of community to create a distinct feeling place? Is it tackling burdensome regulations so more developers will bring projects to Leander?

The Leander City Council debated these questions and a variety of other topics during its annual retreat late last month.

During the retreat sessions, council members debated issues facing the city and considered potential big-picture discussion on ideas ranging from  looking into options for Leander to exit the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CapMetro) system to potentially moving City Hall to the Northline development to a possible public-private partnership in Old Town to halting negotiations with the YMCA for the Recreation Center and instead looking into a public-private partnership to meet those community needs.

During the retreat session, council members typically discuss issues facing the city and engage in big-picture discussions to gauge interest in possible future projects. Because the retreat is not a regular council meeting, the council took no actions and could not direct staff. However, staff attended the discussion to provide information for the council members’ questions, so going forward they can gather information about the discussed topics in the event the discussions are brought back up in future workshops or council agenda items.

CapMetro pull out considered

Council member Kathryn Pantalion-Parker present an item on Leander’s participation in the Capital Metro system, raising the idea of the city withdrawing from it and re-purposing the city’s annual contributions for other uses. She highlighted options ranging from using it to fund economic incentives to having it cover some city expense, giving the council options for reducing property taxes.

Back in 1985, voters in Austin and surrounding cities voted to create CapMetro. The public transportation system offers commuter rail, buses and other transportation services, with rail line stretching from the Leander station at its northernmost point to downtown Austin.

It is funded by a 1 percent sales tax levied by its service area members. The State of Texas only allows cities to levy up to a 2 percent total combined sales tax. Leander contributed $5.26 million in 2018.

She noted only about 500 people per day depart from Leander’s CapMetro station, meaning the city is spend an average of $10,000 per passenger per year.

“Regardless of what it is, we need to looking at options to get out, and possibly contracting services. We need to be looking at contracting those services instead of having them be mandatory,” Pantalion-Parker said.

Leander Mayor Troy Hill said the benefits of being linked with Austin through the rail hadn't materialized. He also pointed to Cedar Park being able to accomplish “huge developments” because they voted to pull out of the system in 1998 and were able to re-purpose their 1 percent sales tax.

Council members Michelle Stephenson and Pantalion-Parker both noted the biggest question with the idea is whether there is a significant cost for leaving the system and whether a departure would impact any planned developments in Leander.

Council member Christine Sederquist said they also need to learn when any fee for departing would become due if they leave, since the timing of any expense could impact city budget decisions.

The council will consider a consent agenda item during its Thursday meeting to authorizing Hill and the City Manager to negotiate hiring former Cedar Park city attorney Leonard B. Smith for the purpose of looking into options available for Leander to possibly vote to withdraw from the CapMetro system.

According to CapMetro officials, the Leander’s withdrawal must be approved by the city’s voters. If it fails, the city cannot put the issue on the ballot for 5 years. If it succeeds, CapMetro is legally required to immediately cease all busing and Leander rail station services.

Officials said Leander could potentially contract with them for services they would lose by leaving but it would hinge on whether the CapMetro Board of Directors would approve it.

Leander would be legally required to use its sales tax to pay off its outstanding obligations as a CapMetro member if it withdraws, according to officials. If Leander has withdrawn in 2018, its obligation would have been $9.8 million, meaning the city would have had to continue paying the sales tax for approximately two years without receiving any service.

Leander can hold an election vote to rejoin CapMetro at any time, although officials said the city’s admittance would depend on CapMetro Board of Directors approval and would likely carry additional financial costs for the city.

Ultimately, the council decided to table a proposal on the July 18 meeting agenda that would have seen the city hire an attorney to review legal issues surrounding a possible exit from CapMetro. 

At the meeting, Hill said he had been in contact with CapMetro officials about possible discussions to address his concerns over the city's continued participation in the system. Hill said he was optimistic about the relationship with CapMetro for the first time in a long time, and said he believes they could work together to lobby for changes that would make CapMetro's system "less burdensome" on small cities and address many of the issues raised by the council with the system.

Leander City Hall move to Northline discussed

One major project planned for Leander potentially impacted by a CapMetro departure is the 115-acre Northline development located south of San Gabriel Parkway between U.S. 183 and Toll 183A.

The City of Leander is in a public-private partnership agreement with the Northline development, including funding $15 million in public improvements, such as water infrastructure and parks, with a bond. The city’s funding for this portion of the project will be reimbursed through the tax increment reinvestment zone, or TIRZ, which will cover the annual bond debt service payment with any funds it generates. Any additional TIRZ funds beyond covering this cost could possibly go to the developer. Infrastructure costs not covered by the city will be paid for by the developer.

The Northline development is in Leander's transit-oriented development district (TOD), a 2,300-acre district planned around CapMetro’s future commuter rail system with the aim of encourage pedestrian-friendly residential and commercial development and eventually adding more than a billion dollars’ worth of value to the area.

In a June 20 press release from the city, Hill announced that a 1.3-acre urban civic space and park named the Leander Town Square would be part of the first phase of the Northline development. The space will be a park with a variety of amenities, according to Northline developer Alex Tynberg.

In the release, Hill said the space could be a possible future location for the Leander City Hall. Tynberg clarified in a follow-up interview that any possible location would be adjacent to the park.

“Leander Town Square will be the focal point of our new downtown,” said Hill in a statement. “This space could serve as the destination for a new city hall or other public function that could spur all kinds of new investment in our city.”

Hill argued Northline could become a great destination and a city hall would be a great accent, arguing it could improve government accessibility by being in a popular location, give the area distinct look and be a great location to hold city events.

In response to questions from council members, Hill said the city would likely purchase the land for the site from the developer, and city staff would likely have to utilize structure parking.

Pantalion-Parker also raised concerns about city staff potentially exacerbating potential issues with traffic in the development, noting how time it takes to visit the Apple store in The Domain without there being a city hall.

Council members and staff agreed the biggest question for any future city hall location will be whether it can handle to projected growth of the number of city employees that could potentially be housed at the location, which could reach several thousand at some point in the future.

They also agreed they would need to find out whether a city hall move would help or hurt the city’s efforts to revitalize the Old Town district where it’s currently located. City staff did note it was unclear whether Old Town had sufficient space for the city’s anticipated growth.

Hill suggested a public-private partnership involving having a developer building the new city hall in an effort to reduce costs, point to the City of Hutto trading land in the Co-Op District  in exchange for the developer building the new city hall. He also pointed to selling off the current city hall location during the process to offset the cost of building the new city hall.

Old Town public-private partnership debated

On the first day, Hill presented on Old Town District and outlined how he believes developing the area into a destination could be “transformative” for Leander.

He suggested several options to give the location a distinct look, from public art to creating murals to considering having residential home improvements included in the Old Town Incentive Program.

Several council members expressed interest in this idea and suggested their own ideas for turning the area into an art district.

Hill also presented on his idea for a possible public-private partnership to help build an two-story development with an open roof bar and restaurant between the Leander Chamber of Commerce and the Davis House. He argued a restaurant in Old Town, particularly the specific proposal he was suggesting, would be a “game changer.”

In response to questions, Hill said he had spoken with a builder about the idea, estimating the building could cost “slightly over $1 million.” He said the city would own the land but the developer would build and run the building. He said the city could try to find some method for requiring the building to always have some form of a restaurant.

Sederquist said they need to finally complete a Master Plan for Old Town before pursuing any potential projects so that way there is a clear plan for the district, instead of continue the city’s ad-hoc approach.

The council members also noted they need to discuss and draw up a plan for what they want to keep and what they want to change in the Old Town district in terms of architecture and other historic aspects.

At the July 11 council meeting, Hill introduced a proposal for an ad-hoc Old Town Committee but the item was ultimately tabled until a future council meeting while Hill worked on outlining details explaining the committee's specific purpose and goals.

Private company alternative to Rec Center considered

Leander voters approved the creation of the facility in a May 2016 by passing an $18 million bond, which would cover the acquisition of land, its construction and equipping it. In May 2018, the previous council approved a contract with the Greater Williamson County YMCA to operate and lease the facility from the city once it is constructed. The city is currently involved in negotiations with Austin Community College for plans to build the rec center on land the college will continue to own.

During a presentation on it at the retreat, Hill said, “I would like to halt any more discussion about a YMCA for a while and look at an option for the private-public aspect and see if we can come up with something better for a lot less money.”

Hill suggested having a private company build a facility instead, stating they could put out a request for proposals for his idea. However, he repeatedly and specifically talked about the Hill Country Indoors sports facility in Bee Cave as what he had in mind, mentioning the owner had told he that they were interested in building a second location and pointing to the facility specifically as an example of a business that would draw people to Leander.

The council held their first day of the retreat in a meeting room at the Hill Country Indoor facility and received a tour of the building.

“When we talk about how to make our city a destination, for me, a YMCA doesn’t do it. To me, this, “ Hill said, gesturing to the Hill Country Indoor’s website on a nearby screen, “absolutely is a game-changer.”

Hill objected to the fact the city would have to cover any costs the YMCA didn’t cover with its memberships. He argued a private facility was a better options because it would generate property taxes unlike a nonprofit option like the YMCA, noting he was told Hill Country Indoor’s building was valued at approximately $30 million.

Council member Michelle Stephenson said the point of the YMCA’s nonprofit model is so they are able to provide more affordable services, and so the YMCA has options for working with families that couldn’t afford a membership.

She raised her concerns about whether a private business would be affordable for most families, noting the Hill Country Indoor facility charges $95 per month for its base membership. The company’s website also offers $190 per month family membership for two adults and up to three children.

Hill questioned whether the council wouldn’t prefer a private facility over the alternative if it could be affordable. Stephenson said that was point of her concern – that a private facility might not have the option to make its memberships more affordable.

During the discussion, former Cedar Park mayor Matt Powell was asked about Cedar Park’s rec center. He said the city runs and operates the facility, although he noted it was a very different and smaller facility that doesn't have some amenities like a swimming pool.

Powell participated in the discussions throughout the retreat. He is the principal for the consulting agency Powell Municipal, which had a contract with the city to perform consulting work for the mayor and the city manager.

Another recent recreation facility similar to Hill’s proposal is the Round Rock Sports Center, a 82,800-square-foot facility featuring six basketball courts and 12 volleyball courts with 47,775 square feet of flexible, open, playable space. The city built and runs the $14.5 million center, which was funded through the city’s hotel revenue bonds, the city’s General Self Financed Construction Fund and cash from the hotel tax fund.

Community Engagement Initiative program pitched

Council member Christine Sederquist presented her idea for a Community Engagement Initiative, which would aim to increase the city’s proactive communication with neighborhoods while also seeking to grow people’s civic pride in their communities.

The communication aspect would focus on gathering a variety of discussion topics city staff or Council members could present while visiting neighborhoods regularly to talk with them first-hand about their needs and concerns. The presentation topics could range from how the city runs various operations to road safety to the city’s fiscal outlook for the next 5 years.

Sederquist argued it would help make people more confident in their city government and feel heard. She also argued it would save the city money by being able to utilize residents to identify community problems earlier, before they became a serious issue. She said these examples could range from organizing neighborhood clean-up days more frequently, so they don’t become a serious task at the end of year, or identifying an elderly resident with an increasing need for help and find solutions to their problems, such as find a neighbor to help mow their lawn so they don't get cited or find someone to pick up books for them from the library.

The other aspect of the program aims to get residents more active in their neighborhoods and more connected with their neighbors.

Sederquist said people are moving to Leander because they like the “small town feel” but that rapid growth can unwittingly diminish the interconnectedness of city. The program would help organize events ranging from block parties to friendly inter-neighborhood competitions, such as best holiday display, to get people out and interacting.

The council expressed positive interest in the proposal, mentioning a variety of ideas they have already had that could fall under this initiative.

Sederquist initiatives’ first year would focus on trying out a wide variety of different events while simultaneously gathering feedback from resident on what they would like to see in the program.

Other aspects of the initiative would involve various activities aimed to highlighting good work within local communities, such as an annual luncheon between various city department leaders and neighborhood representatives or annual awards for neighborhoods and local “Good Samaritans.”

She said the initiative’s second year would seek to take what staff learned from residents and use it when creating a city committee specifically focused on those goals.

The city’s Public Information department will request hiring a Community Engagement Manager in this year’s budget. Besides helping with public information work, the position could potentially help organizing work on the initiative in the future.

City-phones for council members

Sederquist also presented on a proposal to shift council members from using personal cell phones during council work to purchasing and providing city-issued cell phones, which would come with a program that automatically archives all text messages and other data that could be subject to an Open Records Request. She noted the program works similar to the city's email archive server, and would also be similar to Cedar Park's approach for council phones.

The agenda items note the cell phones could be obtained for free under the city's contract with Verizon, and the bill would be approximately $48 per month per phone. The archiving program would have a one-time installation fee of $500 and cost $2,280 annually to archive up to 10 phones.

Council members are legally required to maintain any text message or other public record pertaining to city business, even when it is created on private cell phones.

Sederquist said the program would make it much easier for staff to complete public record requests and would create a backup that would protect council members from facing possible legal issues if a text was accidentally or improperly deleted. She also noted council members could put these phones' numbers on their city business cards, unlike their private numbers.

“I don’t understand why we need the Barracuda software for the phones,” Hill said. “I have a city-issued phone and I just transfer the message to Dara.”

Stephenson said she feels this proposal is a safer approach given the recently passed state legislation that strengthened public records requirements for data on personal phones and created penalties for failing to maintain those records.

Other items

The council also talked about addressing a variety of regulatory issues causing problems for developers and businesses looking to open in Leander, often suggesting ways to reduce or cut regulations to make the city more responsive. The items included:

  • SmartCode - Council member Jason Shaw presented the item and urged the council to either repeal it or overhaul it because it was creating confusion for developers and making them reluctant to build in areas where the SmartCode was applied. The code is a Unified Development Code adopted by the city in 2005 to encourage denser, walkable development in the TOD, which is meant to fold all zoning, subdivision and other regulations into one code. Council members agreed it would be a good topic for a future workshop to determine whether the solutions was making the code clearer and easier to understand or replacing it with something simpler.
  • Gas station regulations – the council discussed repealing the city’s gas station regulations, which requires pumps to be placed away from the street.
  • Commercial Landscaping requirements – the council discussed finding ways to make the requirement less burdensome, particularly to business trying to open in Leander.

The rest of the discussion included a variety of items, including:

  •  Committee appointments – the council debated changing how they appoint city committee members, potentially shifting back to a format where each council member appointed one member each for most of the boards.
  • Masonry requirements – Hill proposed creating an incentive program to encourage commercial and retail businesses to include 100% masonry when they construct their developments, giving Leander a more distinct look.
  • Website – The council member and staff discussed revamping the city’s website to make it more responsive on mobile and more informative to residents and developers.
  • Fire districts in the ETJ – City staff presented on the need to address 775 land parcels that exist outside of the city limits in Leander’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, that receive fire department emergency services but don’t contribute financially to the system. The council decided to talk about it more in the future when a few more technical questions were answered, although possible solutions discussed included allowing those in the ETJ to join or to form an Emergency Service District.

The council did not take any action on the items they discussed because it was a retreat. However,  the council could bring the items forward in the future as a workshop or possibly as a council agenda item.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the city council's decision to table a proposal related to hiring an attorney to explore legal issues surrounding a possible exit from CapMetro at its July 18 meeting.