Monday, February 7, 2000 by

Smart Growth traffic impact plan set for review by commissions

Neighborhood planners to steer traffic studies

The Planning Commission is scheduled on Tuesday to consider a bundle of changes to development ordinances designed to make Smart Growth ideas easier to implement. One of those ordinance amendments governs requirements for traffic impact analyses (TIA), which the city now requires only on projects determined to generate more than 2,000 vehicle trips per day. The Urban Transportation Commission is set to hear about TIA changes tonight.

George Zapalac, principal planner with the Development Review and Inspection Department (DRID), explained that under current regulations, early developers can claim–correctly–that there is enough capacity on a street to accommodate their projects. If there is sufficient capacity, then the city does not plan changes, such as widening the roadway or constructing turn lanes. Owners of existing projects are not required to pay for subsequent improvements. However, Zapalac said, "One project can eat up all the capacity." When that happens, the city requires subsequent developers to pay for roadway improvements, but only if their projects generate more than the magic number of 2,000 trips per day.

The proposal would not have immediate impact on outlying areas of the city, such as Loop 360 and FM 2222, but has been drawn to reduce traffic-generated problems within Smart Growth Corridors and Smart Growth Nodes. A Smart Growth Corridor is defined as an area "adjacent to a major arterial, freeway or expressway" within both an adopted neighborhood plan or corridor plan and the Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan. Smart Growth Nodes must be identified as such by both the neighborhood and the area transportation plan.

Zapalac said, "We're now looking at traffic corridors throughout the city, which would be identified in the planning process. We would look at the corridor and develop a land-use plan that would be consistent with the capacity," of the roadway.

These Smart Growth changes would allow developers to put their projects closer to the street, for example. Offices and residences would be put on top of retail, and development in general would be less dependent on automobiles in Smart Growth Corridors. Zapalac mentioned Burnet Road as a prime candidate for redevelopment under a Smart Growth model.

Currently, developers hire traffic planners to study areas being considered for development. Those planners meet with DRID staff, but neighborhood planners and representatives are not part of the process. If the proposed ordinance changes were approved by the City Council, then neighborhood planners would be consulted in determining what areas to include in a TIA.

Zapalac said traffic consultants would be figuring out how much additional development could be accommodated in each Smart Growth Corridor, and what sorts of improvements might be needed to accommodate that traffic. City staff would do the analyses or, more likely, contract to have them done. "As developments came in, as long as they were consistent with the (corridor) plan, they would be approved" in terms of traffic impact, "and they wouldn't have to do another, independent traffic study for each project," Zapalac said. "If (developers) wanted to do something different from what was included in the corridor plan," Zapalac said, "they would have to do their own study and get the plan amended before they could develop."

One of the big problems the city faces now is that developers often pay nothing for traffic improvements. That will change, at least in Smart Growth Corridors, Zapalac said, when new procedures are adopted. "Even if the development was consistent with the plan, we would have a method of allocating costs for improvements, so that everyone would participate in costs," he said.

Of course, some neighborhood plans have already been completed, but the city has not yet done any Smart Growth Corridor TIAs. In the early stages of the new process, Zapalac said, anyone who proposes a new development would still have to do a TIA. Currently, city staff meets only with a developer's consultant to work out the scope of each traffic study. "What we want to do is involve the neighborhood early in the process and have them help us define the scope of the (traffic) study. They can sit down and give us their ideas about what they think impacts would be," Zapalac said.

Harry Savio of the Texas Capitol Area Builders Association said he had not looked at the amendments in their current form. However, he said the changes would seem to give neighborhoods veto power over new developments in areas where a neighborhood plan has been adopted.

Richard Maier, who served on the city's Smart Growth Task Force, said, "What (the city is) really trying to do is incentivize Smart Growth." If ordinance changes offer some consistency in development standards along the corridors, then that will benefit Smart Growth, he said. However, Maier, who helped author the Real Estate Council of Austin's complex city initiative, is not happy with the way this ordinance has turned out. He said he wished the city would allow the task force to come up with master planning guidelines for corridors like Burnet Road. "If you turn over a 12-mile corridor" of the road "to a plethora of neighborhood groups," the result will be the same hodgepodge as currently exists, he said. "I think the bottom line is ultimate authority for Smart Growth has been downloaded to the Neighborhood Planning Process," Maier said, so that Smart Growth ideas are jeopardized.

Vista Ridge PUD vote delayed as Watson and Griffith argue procedure

Extra week gives neighbors time to examine new site plan

After a 40-minute discussion last Thursday, the City Council voted 7-0 to delay for a week instead of voting on third and final reading for zoning of the Vista Ridge Planned Unit Development (PUD). The 51 acres of land in the PUD are owned by Austin Two Tracts ( Mike Pruitt). The PUD had been approved on second reading Jan. 6 with six conditions. The extra delay stemmed from the fact that Terry Irion, attorney for the PUD, presented a modified site plan that neighbors with a valid petition had not seen and did not support. To override a valid petition requires six votes of the seven-member City Council.

Irion said compliance with all six conditions set forth under second reading was not possible within the topography of the land. The proposed alternative under the new site plan would reduce the total number of lots from 47 to 45 and reduce overall impervious cover from 14.9 percent to 12.08 percent, he said.

Vista Ridge PUD is located on the east side of Loop 360, adjoining the north bank of Bull Creek. Vista Ridge PUD was formerly known as Hilltown PUD and was approved by the City Council Feb. 21, 1985. The PUD modification requires City Council approval because of changes in the lot configuration and street layout.

Council Member Beverly Griffith said she had visited the site with city staff and she objected to changes from the compromise previously worked out between the developer and neighbors. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said while a valid petition is a neighborhood tool, in this case, "The issues are purely environmental…."

Audrey Baxter and Kay Kurio of the Northwest Civic Association said what had been approved by the council in second reading would be acceptable to satisfy the valid petition, but they had not seen the modified site plan.

Mayor Kirk Watson and Griffith argued back and forth for some time about procedure, with Griffith saying it would be improper to approve a radical change from what the council had approved on second reading and the mayor saying that was a normal procedure. "My point is it's posted adequately for the council to vote on it and have information to vote on third reading," Watson said. "If it's the council's will not to vote tonight because the neighborhood needs time, let's do it on that basis and not on posting (technicalities)."

Council Member Gus Garcia moved to delay the vote on third reading for a week so the neighbors could examine the new site plan, and Council Member Bill Spelman seconded.

Goodman said, "There's no question but the PUD here is more neighborhood friendly and more protective of Bull Creek…It's turning more environmental and that's the critical issue for me."

In Fact Daily previously reported on the Vista Ridge PUD on Dec. 10 and Dec. 17, 1999.

Advantage Rent-A-Car’s taller sign spurned by City Council decision

Decision keeps company's sign off the horizon of motoring public

The City Council continues to value scenic views over the appeals of individual businesses for taller signage. At last Thursday's meeting, the City Council heard and rejected the appeal of Advantage Rent-A-Car presented by Jack Day of Chandler Signs Inc.

Advantage Rent-A-Car's office at 8606 Research Blvd., like many other businesses, was made less visible by construction of the elevated freeway lanes. The company sought to raise its 35-foot-tall sign to 55 feet, so that it could be seen by passing motorists.

Greg Guernsey, principal planner in the Development Review and Inspection Department, told the council that increases in sign height had been allowed in some other instances in the vicinity of Advantage's office, including a 50-foot sign for International House of Pancakes, a 47-foot sign for Charles Maund Oldsmobile, and a 45-foot sign for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. These approvals had been granted by the Sign Review Board, not the council. (The duties of the Sign Review Board are performed by the Board of Adjustment.)

Day said the 55-foot height would be the "bare minimum to get visibility." The Sign Review Board had voted 3-2 to deny the 55-foot height on Sept. 13 and then voted 3-2 on Oct. 11 to deny the request for reconsideration.

The appeal before the council was opposed by Angela Baker of the North Austin Civic Association and Girard Kinney, president of Scenic Austin, a nonprofit group devoted to preservation of scenic resources and opposed to the proliferation of billboards and high-profile signs.

Baker said her group has been working on a neighborhood plan. "One strong action item in the plan is to reduce visual pollution," Baker said. "There are very few signs in this area and it's a pleasure to look out over the city." She saw denial of Advantage's request as a place to start addressing these concerns.

Kinney said he had compassion for the business but saw this as a "wonderful chance with the upper decks to preserve the views created." He noted that last year he had recommended the city consider a "municipal logo system," in which exit ramps could be marked with signage such as is becoming common on interstate highways, to note services available. "We could do that in Austin for a good alternative to signs like this," he said. "I understand equity with competitors and those are serious issues but we have a chance to get rid of signs and the visual pollution they represent."

Day rebutted, saying the requested sign was far more pleasing than some of the banners being in the area, which were erected because businesses could not get signs approved.

Council Member Bill Spelman moved to affirm the Sign Review Board's decision and it was seconded by Council Member Willie Lewis. The council voted unanimously to approve the motion.

The City Council previously denied a similar appeal by Red Lobster at 109 W. Anderson Lane to raise its sign from 35 feet to 60 feet. (See In Fact No. 153, July 1998.)

SH 130 route protest…A press conference is set for noon today for elected officials and community activists to voice opposition to the proposed western route to State Highway 130, which opponents say would cut through neighborhoods and parks. The rally is to be held at Northeast District Park on Loyola Lane, about one mile east of U.S. Highway 183. Among those confirmed to be attending are State Representative Dawnna Dukes; Council Members Gus Garcia, Beverly Griffith and Willie Lewis; Travis County Commissioners Ron Davis and Margaret Gomez; and City Council candidate Raul Alvarez. The protest comes just as two public hearings are scheduled on SH 130 this week. The first is tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the Texas Senate Chamber on the second floor of the State Capitol, hosted by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Policy Advisory Committee. The second is Thursday night's hearings by the Texas Turnpike Authority, which begins at 6 p.m. at Barbara Jordan Elementary School, 6711 Johnny Morris Road. Simultaneous hearings will be held in Round Rock and Seguin… Correction…Friday's newsletter stated that Waller Burns lost out in the 1996 council race, in which ultimately Daryl Slusher bested Jeff Hart. Actually, Burns ran in Place 4–not Place 1–and Burns lost out to Beverly Griffith, who ultimately bested Rick Wheeler in a runoff… Speaking of Wheeler…He still hasn't got the council bug out of his system. Rick Wheeler tells In Fact Daily he's thinking about running again this year. It all depends on what happens in his business venture, he says… Lawsuit heats up… Jeff Heckler and Brigid Shea of the PIPE Coalition have been subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit brought by Longhorn Partners Pipeline LP against Holly Corp. and Navajo Refining Co. Navajo, a competitor of the oil companies seeking to run gasoline through the Longhorn Pipeline, has provided funds to the PIPE Coalition, which has rallied opposition to the project. Shea said, "The thing I find really offensive is it looks like Exxon is acting like the bully that they are, threatening environmental activists." Shea, a former Austin City Council member, said she has been subpoenaed to testify on Feb. 23.

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