Monday, August 28, 2000 by

City Council approves zoning

For Chestnut Neighborhood plan

The City Council last week approved on first reading a Neighborhood Plan Combining District for the Chestnut Neighborhood of East Austin. The area is bounded on the north by Martin Luther King Boulevard, on the east by Miriam Avenue to the railroad tracks, on the south by East 12th Street, and on the west by Chicon Avenue. Chestnut is the first neighborhood to gain zoning change approvals, a critical part of the neighborhood planning process.

Infill and redevelopment are big issues for the Chestnut Neighborhood. Council approved the small lot amnesty, which allows housing to be built on lots smaller than those specified in the Land Development Code. Landowners may also build cottages and detached garage apartments in the overlay area, if approved on final reading of the ordinance.A cottage requires a minimum lot size of 2,500 square feet. The proposal requires a minimum lot size of 7,000 square feet for addition of a garage apartment. The Council also approved a number of zoning adjustments for 30 tracts in the neighborhood, primarily to make exceptions to the new conditional overlay for existing businesses.

Longhorn Meat at 2411 East Martin Luther King was one of the smaller exceptions. The 30-year-old family owned company, now run by William Leach and his sister Janet Zapata, was looking for a designation that would allow the business to continue its modest distribution activities. The problem, however, was coming up with a zoning designation narrow enough to please the neighborhood, but broad enough to carry out the family business.

The Council approved exceptions but directed some friendly amendments to city staff, asking them to research the particulars of some of the zoning concerns. Civic leaders say the neighborhood plan is an ongoing process, one that continues to evolve.

"We can make amendments to the zoning in the area. Nothing is set in stone," said neighborhood planning leader Scottie Ivory after the vote. "I don't believe in excluding anybody from this plan. If anybody is dissatisfied, we're ready to dialogue and work through the problems."

Many businesses, however, did not come to the table during the early planning process, said Ivory. Ivory's own family has lived in Chestnut for generations and her father, who died at 100, founded the Mount Carmel Baptist Church on 14th Street. The Leach family opened Longhorn Meat in the Chestnut neighborhood 30 years ago.

The Leach family feared restrictive zoning would hurt them on several fronts. The original commercial zoning gave the business broad latitude. Strict zoning would prevent them from expanding or replacing their business in case of a fire. It would also prevent them from selling the business–already limiting by it fittings–to a broad range of businesses. “No one's going to buy a refrigerated building for anything other than meat or produce,” Leach said.

Still, the Leaches were happy to settle with a designation known as General Commercial Services-Mixed Use-Conditional Overlay Neighborhood Plan zoning (CS-MU-CO-NP).

"We're satisfied with the designation," Leach says. "There are still significant restrictions. We gave up a lot of freedom, sure, but we looked at it over time and we can understand the concerns. Our concern is really just that we can keep the family business going."

Featherlite Precast Corp. owns the largest tract of land within the district, according to Richard Suttle of Armbrust Brown & Davis, Featherlite’s attorney. Suttle said Featherlite, which has used its approximately 20-acre site for various industrial purposes, is also satisfied with the CS-MU-CO-NP. The property is currently zoned LI (limited industrial) and is for sale, Suttle said.

He said the new zoning designation would prevent “heavy industrial uses, but opens up the door to do some residential” on the tract, which adjoins the railroad tracks and a proposed historic site called “Emancipation Park.” Suttle said his client is satisfied with the new designation.

Carol Barrett, who is in charge of the neighborhood planning section of the Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department, told In Fact Daily, “This is a new process for the City Council and the public”. It was set up so that the rezoning would be approved on first reading, which “sets everything in motion but allows for the full process to occur. I think that that’s appropriate. Nobody wants to feel at the end of the day that there wasn’t plenty of opportunity for discussion and information to be exchanged.”

Requests for a high-level neighborhood advocate position at City Hall are getting a receptive ear from some council members, but it remains to be seen whether an old idea will gain new life in the next budget year.

Neighborhood activists Sabrina Burmeister and Cathy Echols presented a report to the Council Thursday outlining recommendations from participants in a May 20 workshop designed to diffuse conflict between the city and neighborhoods. The workshop featured more than 75 people from various Austin neighborhoods who divided into groups to generate the recommendations, which were then honed down and approved by the group as a whole. A "no whining zone" was declared, meaning that complaints about the city were forbidden and positive ideas for solutions encouraged.

Burmeister and Echols–both key negotiators in the Triangle development process during the last two years–said the main recommendation was for a neighborhood advocate housed in the office of the city manager or auditor. The advocate would serve assist in communication and mediation between neighborhood groups and city departments, particularly on development issues.

Several council members thanked the neighbors for the hard work put into the workshop and resulting from it, and they pledged to look at the recommendations closely. Jeff Jack, aide to Council Member Beverly Griffith, said both Griffith and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman were "highly supportive" of the advocate position and that making it part of the upcoming budget was a definite possibility. The idea for a neighborhood point person–called officer, ombudsman and other names over the years–has floated around from time to time, as has the notion of creating a specific department for neighborhoods.

The city's increased emphasis on neighborhood planning filled the need for neighborhood support to some extent, but staff at the Planning, Environmental & Conservation Services Department (PECSD) is mainly tied up working on neighborhood plans. The department has a lengthy list of requests for plans ahead of them. So the idea for a full-time neighborhood advocate with support staff has never gotten a complete go-ahead. Burmeister also stressed that putting the advocate inside the department would be a mistake, because the advocate could get caught up in the bureaucracy of planning without focusing on day-to-day development concerns. "In my opinion, it would be worthless," she said.

The advocate position also would be different from the job held by Cora Wright, director of the Office of Neighborhood Services. Wright said her main responsibility is to ensure that neighborhoods are getting adequate responses to requests for city services, such as police protection, garbage pickup and a variety of other tasks. Burmeister said the advocate wouldn't be involved in such requests. Neighbors concerned about a development going in next to their neighborhood would call him or her for assistance in monitoring the process.

The report from the workshop also recommended:

• A new neighborhood website that would monitor projects of concern to neighborhoods. • Funding to help with neighborhood communications, such as newsletter printing and mailing. • More money be devoted to neighborhood plans and interim protections from incompatible development for areas without plans. • A city effort to assist neighborhood-based businesses.

The council also heard a report Thursday from Austan Librach, PECSD director, outlining current neighborhood planning efforts, which include a goal to complete half of the 52 central city plans in the next two and half years. (See In Fact Daily, Thursday, August 24, 2000) Ten areas around proposed light rail corridors were chosen for staff assistance and resources for this year's plans. Echols said that although the Council greatly increased funding for neighborhood plans (from two plans in 1999 to a goal of 12 in 2000), residents feel they need plans as soon as possible to protect them from unwanted development. "Neighborhoods are being told it may be five years…The development pressures are bearing down now…so there's no surprise that there's a lot of frustration."

Echols and Burmeister noted that they presented only half of the report, since the residents involved were committed to offering recommendations on how they could improve their working relationship. "We also are working on comparable neighborhood actions to meet the city half way on this," Echols said.

The Planning Commission will convene Tuesday with the same group as last week, since the City Council could not come to a consensus on new appointments or reappointments last week. Diana Granger, former Austin City Attorney, withdrew her application on Friday. Granger, of Akin Gump, realized after applying that she could not take the volunteer job because she acted as a lobbyist two and a half years ago. City regulations prohibit former lobbyists from serving on the commission for three years after they quit lobbying. Last week another favored contender, Joe Martinez, withdrew his application for personal reasons. Martinez currently serves on the Electric Utility Commission. Commissioners Ben Heimsath and Susana Almanza have both applied for reappointment. The Bennett Tract, which has appeared on the Planning Commission’s agenda—and been postponed eight times since April 11–appears once again this week. The city is seeking a compromise from neighbors who want to retain the current zoning and those who want to make the entire area commercial. The area is a Neighborhood Conservation Combining District. Look later in the week for September’s issue of The Good Life. Ken Martin, former In Fact Daily editor, says he has written two mega-sized political stories, called “Green Power, The Mainstreaming of Austin's Environmental Values," and " Austin American-Statesman, No Friend of the Environment." The magazine is free and can be found at assorted locations throughout Austin. The state Republican Party has a new web site. You can visit it at texasgop.org..

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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