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Planning Commission votes to recommend

Thursday, October 12, 2000 by

Mandatory grid pattern for subdivisions

Incentive approach not working, former commissioners say

The Planning Commission Tuesday night gave the green light to a rewrite of the city’s subdivision ordinance, reversing last year’s decision to use incentives to encourage developers to significantly change their approach to subdivision plats.

Former Commissioner Gwen Webb urged the board to make compliance mandatory. “Is this the Austin we want to plan? Is this the Austin we want to promise?” Webb asked the Planning Commission in her presentation. “Let’s make this the rule and not the exception. I think that’s desirable because there are powerful forces in favor of the status quo, and I think it takes a powerful body like City Council to commit to this.”

A trio of former commissioners—Webb, Rachel Rawlins and Dave Sullivan—led the presentation for the revised ordinance, which encourages grid-like neighborhoods, limits block lengths, discourages cul-de-sacs and prohibits gated communities. Rawlins described the new approach as a way to avoid the “disconnected pods” of suburban subdivisions and discourage congestion on the city’s arterial roadways.

“With this kind of land use already established at the subdivision level, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to support any kind of mixed use,” said Rawlins, pointing to a map of one self-contained subdivision on a main collector road. “This main road may be two lanes wide, or six lanes wide like Parmer, with no pedestrian-oriented main arterial. It’s not a pleasant place to walk.”

But Senior Project Manager Robert Long of Carter & Burgess, who also served on the subcommittee rewriting the ordinance, told commissioners mandatory compliance would discourage development in the city because of the financial burden it would put on developers. Estimates are the new requirements could mean an extra $2,000 per lot in Austin subdivisions. Commissioner Ben Heimsath said that was a “worst-case scenario.”

“You’re going to run a lot of people off and promote more sprawl in surrounding areas,” warned Long during a public hearing on the ordinance. “These kinds of radical changes in cost will just send people out to the suburbs.” (See also In Fact Nos. 196, 197 and 198, and In Fact Daily July 14, 1999).

Subdivisions in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction would be hit with a double whammy, Long said. Not only would developers have to meet city subdivision guidelines, they would also have to meet the county’s wider road regulations. This would inevitably cut into lot size, Long said.

Long asked that the city consider optional incentives. Commissioners, however, agreed they could think of few incentives the city could offer to dissuade developers from the using the popular “suburban-style” subdivision of winding streets and cul-de-sacs. Even expedited approval, Commissioner Sterling Lands said, would mean little, and over-work city staff if every case were expedited. The concept of interconnected pedestrian-friendly subdivisions, Heimsath pointed out, means nothing if one subdivision complies but the three around it do not. In that case, the new approach becomes an isolated experiment, rather than a city standard.

The extra cost of the new ordinance weighed heavily on the minds of Commissioners Silver Garza and Lands. Garza was concerned about the burden on developers. Lands supported the concept, but questioned the cost the changes would mean to first-time homebuyers in East and North Austin where the ordinance would likely be applied.

Because the lots affected by the ordinance are less than one-half acre, most of the affected subdivisions would be in the Desired Development Zone. Lower income neighborhoods would bear the heaviest burden. Lands said the city needed to find some way “to get rid of those dollars” in extra cost. When it came time to vote, it was 7-2, with Garza and Lands voting no.

Rawlins pointed out that many of the new stipulations of the revised ordinance were on the books but had rarely been enforced by the city. Commissioners had forgotten that limiting block length and the number of dead end streets had once served a purpose, she said. Cities that have returned to the grid pattern—like Orlando, Florida and Eugene, Oregon—have seen improved access for emergency vehicles, less costly trash pick-up, cheaper and more efficient water and sewage lines and less gridlock because more streets connect with arterial feeders.

Commissioners agreed with Webb that the optional approach hadn’t worked in the past and probably wouldn’t work now. Commissioner Robin Cravey said the city should enforce the preferable development guidelines, rather than allow “obsolete subdivisions to be foisted upon the city.”

Commissioners approved the ordinance as it was written with some minor amendments. Cravey added language that set parameters on the exceptions the director could make on street length or dead end streets. Commissioners also agreed to try to address the concerns of Garza and Lands before the ordinance is presented to the City Council. George Adams, of the city's Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department said the ordinance was likely to make it to the council agenda by late November.

Council Member Slusher's Statement

On Fortune 500 gathering in Austin

(Editor's Note: This letter was received by email from Council Member Daryl Slusher last night. We have chosen to publish the letter in its entirety, rather than attempt to edit or paraphrase it).

Thursday night I will attend a banquet of Fortune 500 executives where President-elect Vicente Fox Quesada of Mexico will speak. Before doing so I wanted to let my constituents know why I decided to attend and to share some of my views on corporate America. Also, as the conference is to be a discussion of moving into the future I offer the following for consideration of the corporate executives.

The invitation to attend the conference set off some serious deliberation on my part. I seriously considered declining the invitation as my way of protesting the ever-increasing grip of multi-national corporations on American life, on global life. I decided to attend, however, for three reasons. One, was the fact Mexican President-elect Fox Quesada will be speaking. The president-elect has created an historic democratic opening in Mexico and I am very interested in what he has to say. That was paramount in my decision to attend.

Second, the gathering is portrayed as a discussion among executives and others of how to best move into the future. This letter is my effort to participate in that discussion.

Third, although I disagree with many of corporate America’s practices it will take dialogue to change those practices. First, I want to acknowledge that corporate America has done some good works. Products have been produced that greatly improved the lives of Americans. Most American corporations now have decent medical and retirement benefits for their employees. Racial diversity has greatly improved at corporations although there is still serious imbalance at the upper levels. The Washington Post recently reported that investment in Mexico by the American garment industry is improving the lives of Mexican citizens by paying living wages. Hopefully, we will hear more on this issue from President-elect Fox Quesada.

Here in Austin several major corporations have finally begun to comply with longstanding city planning goals by locating in the downtown area and other areas of what we call our Desired Development Zone. Many corporations have joined the city electric utility’s green pricing program in which they pay slightly higher prices in order to receive a portion of their electricity from renewable sources. And, a group of banks recently advanced loan funds, to be backed by the city, for an affordable housing program.

These gains are real. In my view, however, the gains do not compare with the damage that multinational corporations are doing to our country and the world. In my view, there are two central problems. One is that many corporations prioritize profits over the public good. Second, and directly related, corporations must profit from, and reach into, every aspect of our lives. That includes the lives of our children. I realize that companies are in business to make money and that the economy is dependent on profits. There are plenty of profits to be made, however, without endangering public health and safety or the environment.

The corporate downside

Following are a few of the ways that I believe much of corporate America and corporations from around the world put the commitment to profits over the public good:

• the standing armies of corporate lobbyists maintained in Washington and state capitols; • record profits in the face of continuing poverty; • the obscene salaries of corporate executives while many go hungry and many corporate employees must work two jobs to get by; • a super-widening income gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of the nation; • lending practices that continue to shut out many minority citizens from home ownership; • lasting and uncompensated damage to the environment; • disregard for public health and safety by some of the largest corporations — as seen most recently in the Firestone and Ford scandal; • seeking to shape children’s minds early through advertising, in particular for unhealthy foods that can cause life long problems – not even to mention tobacco; • massive pushes for deregulation that continue to result in higher prices for our citizens, although it can result in lower costs for corporations; • genetically altered foods, with corporations not only altering our food, but opposing labeling laws that would grant Americans the basic decency of knowing what we are putting in our bodies — our children’s bodies; • continued dependence on oil and fossil fuels and the failure to turn to renewable energy sources; • squeezing out small local businesses; • forcing local governments to compete against each other for jobs; • the disregard for communities when corporations flood in as in Austin; • and then the disregard with which corporations abandon communities once they find greener pastures elsewhere.

The corporate downside in Austin Polluting East Austin neighborhoods

Our city deeply feels the impacts of these corporate policies. For example some 10 years ago several major oil companies shut down their tank farm facilities in East Austin after it was discovered that storage facilities were polluting the property of residential neighbors. This was a predominately low income, predominately minority, neighborhood as is often the case in corporate disregard for public health and safety.

Ten years later the oil companies have still not adequately cleaned up the pollution. Young children have grown into teenagers and young adults while the oil companies have still not cleaned up the pollution that could shorten their lives.

Lasting and Ongoing Damage to the Edwards Aquifer

Another specific and painful example of corporate disregard for the environment here in Austin was Motorola’s 1981 move to Oak Hill, in the beloved Hill Country — over the extremely environmentally sensitive Edwards Aquifer that feeds Barton Springs. The move went against a then recently approved city master plan, developed with the participation of thousands of Austin citizens. The plan, the Austin Tomorrow Plan, called for sparse development over the aquifer. It laid out huge “preferred growth corridors” in other areas of the city.

None of this mattered to Motorola. With a well-funded lobby campaign the corporation was able to win a four to three vote on the city council to go against the citizen master plan. Many citizens, and the council minority, warned at the time that the move of a major employer to the area would set off urban sprawl and pollution of the aquifer. That is exactly what has happened.

An employee locator map provided by the company two years ago graphically illustrated that reality. Motorola employees have flocked to the many subdivisions built in the area since 1981. Most of these densely packed subdivisions were built without complying with city water quality regulations.

In more recent years Motorola did agree to expand in the Desired Development Zone. It is also my understanding that the company has set aside a small piece of adjacent land that will not be developed. While thankful for these steps, I believe they pale next to the damage done by Motorola’s earlier reckless disregard for Austin and its environment.

They Came Anyway

This brings us to our most infamous local environmental battle, one that still rages unresolved today. I refer to the struggle over some 4,000 acres of land that Fortune 500 member Freeport-McMoRan purchased in the late 1980s. The land is not far from the Motorola site, and also over the Barton Springs Zone of the Edwards Aquifer.

Freeport and its CEO Jim Bob Moffett wanted to build a small city at the site. Thousands of citizens objected seeing the proposal as a threat to the survival of Barton Springs, and a horrible blow to sustainable growth. Nine-hundred people signed up to speak at a public hearing that lasted all night. At six in the morning the city council unanimously rejected the development.

Moffett then warned that if he did not get his way no Fortune 500 company would ever again come to Austin. He also threatened to “bankrupt the city” with lawsuits.

Refusing to bow to Moffett’s threats the citizens of Austin in 1992 passed the Save Our Springs (SOS) ordinance by a two-to-one margin of the electorate. It established strong water quality protections for the Barton Springs Zone. Freeport interests filed suit against the SOS ordinance and also went to the state legislature to win approval of laws exempting them from the citizen initiative. Freeport subsidiaries also bought even more property over the aquifer.

It is a story too long to tell here, but the results have been: state laws restricting Austin’s local control; millions of dollars in legal costs fighting to restore that local control — successful in many cases; and lasting environmental damage as Freeport and its successors built with virtually no environmental regulations while fighting raged in the courts. Presently the city is engaged in negotiations with Freeport offspring Stratus over what will be developed on these properties. The council has to consider a level of development that it would never approve if not for the bills the legislature approved largely at Freeport’s insistence.

It is ironic that Fortune 500 executives gather in Austin almost exactly ten years after one of their members threatened that none would ever grace Austin’s door again. It is also ironic that since this dire threat was issued Fortune 500 corporations have flooded into Austin. And, the city has experienced one of the biggest economic booms in its history, perhaps the biggest.

It is tragic, however, that ten years later the issue is still unresolved — ten years of environmental damage has occurred, and Freeport’s corporate successor is still seeking to avoid compliance with water quality laws passed eight years ago by a two-thirds majority of the Austin electorate.

What Corporate America can do

I have now compiled a fairly lengthy list of criticisms of multi-national corporations, of corporate America. I do not believe, however, in simply offering criticisms. I instead like to propose solutions. Consequently I offer some ways that corporations can address the problems listed above. My suggestions are almost entirely focused on how to deal with problems in the Austin area, as that is my realm of responsibility. I also concentrate on local issues because here there has been some success at changing corporate policies here and I believe many corporate leaders are interested in further progress.

• If you move to Austin or expand in Austin please locate in the Desired Development Zone. • Clean up all the tank farm pollution now with no further foot-dragging. • Local corporate outlets should increase charitable giving, in particular in the form of direct contributions to the Community Action Network– the local umbrella entity for social spending. • Undertake a major and immediate effort at environmental compensation in the form of mitigation land purchases. This could be a major factor in an equitable settlement of the Stratus situation and an historic step in preserving the hill country in and around Austin. Motorola and other companies should consider this possibility. A vehicle for such an historic and lasting approach is the non-profit Hill Country Conservancy. • Establish more reasonable loan standards for working families, especially minority citizens who still often receive inequitable treatment. • Undertake massive investment in renewable energy technology or at least don’t oppose government investment in renewables. • Join Austin’s renewable energy program, Green Choice, and/or support similar programs elsewhere. • When entering local communities work closely with local citizens to learn and address their concerns. • Stop or severely limit advertising directed at children, especially advertising of unhealthy foods. • Admit it when there are mistakes. Put funds into correcting the damage rather than advertising to convince citizens there was no damage.

What local folks can do Local residents can help to lessen the corporate grip on our lives as well as help to improve corporate business practices. The best hopes there are to: buy from local and small businesses whenever possible; research corporations and buy from those that best practice environmental protection and social equity (don’t rely on their commercials to find out); work with corporations when they are willing to hear and address local concerns; and encourage elected officials at every level to insist on more humane and responsible corporate practices.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to read this statement. I hope my comments are received in a constructive fashion. I will continue to work in that spirit on the local level.

Daryl Slusher Austin City Council Member

Urban Planner tells DAA to continue

Work on downtown revitalization

Retail necessary, but expensive piece of puzzle

Urban planner Michael Beyard told members of the Downtown Austin Alliance yesterday that retail stores want to move to downtown “for the first time in a generation.” He said making a great downtown requires retail—the last piece of the puzzle—but warned, “It’s not inevitable. It’s not easy, and it’s not inexpensive, to create an environment where people want to live, work and play.”

Beyard, vice president of strategic development for the Urban Land Institute, said the job of making a vibrant downtown is never done. “Cities can’t rest on their laurels. You can’t say we’re making progress. We’re successful. Now we can let the private sector take the ball and run with it. I wish it was that easy, but unfortunately, it’s not,” Beyard said.

Regional cooperation is the number one priority for revitalizing downtown, Beyard said. “Sprawl is not going to end. Growth is not going to end. And there are only two choices, he said, to continue sprawling across more and more countryside or densify the existing city. He reminded the audience, “density is a seven-letter word, not a four-letter word.”

Beyard said in order to attract people to the 24-hour downtown, every aspect of downtown should be entertaining. He said we’re living in the“Hollywood society.” Beyard praised Austin’s entertainment and culture and said great cities have to keep their unique landmarks in order to maintain their stature. The most interesting retail experience will be in what Beyard called lifestyle stores. For example, he said a kitchen products store should provide cooking classes and bookstores should promote their books through poetry readings. Health clubs should offer classes such as yoga.

A linkage between major downtown activities is critical to a successful downtown, Beyard said. He encouraged luncheon participants to work for pedestrian, bicycle, and other pathways throughout downtown, including buses. Beyard said he would not comment on the light rail referendum but added, “It would be great if there was a way to create a (rail) loop downtown,” rather than what has been proposed.

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

On being Texan. . . Columnist and author Molly Ivins, with sleek, white hair, was surrounded last night by a group of Japanese businessmen in the Four Seasons Hotel bar. She was overheard explaining American behavior to her audience. . . Down Cesar Chavez Street. . . In the Rainey Street neighborhood, families are making decisions about selling their land to developer Gordon Dunaway. Meanwhile, Dunaway’s representatives have been trotting out multiple scenarios for the area, including a new venue for the Austin Ice Bats. . . Tree lovers . . .Outgoing State Rep. Sherri Greenberg and her husband Cary Ferchill made an appearance before the Board of Adjustment Monday. They asked for a variance on a carport to avoid digging up some of their elms. It was all done with their neighbors’ blessing. The Board of Adjustment granted the request, voting 4 to 1, with Board Member Betty Edgemond voting no. . . More Austin winners. . . The Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities and the Hyatt Hotel have received awards from the Governor’s Committee for People with Disabilities. The Mayor’s Committee received the Martha Arbuckle Meritorious Service Award for establishing an Austin Business Leadership Network and hosting an employer breakfast to educate local business leaders about the ADA. The Austin Hyatt was honored as “ Employer of the Year” for hiring qualified people with disabilities. . . Pipeline bill dead. . . Congressman Lloyd Doggett, one of the featured speakers at next Monday’s anti-pipeline rally, sent an email to concerned constituents yesterday, noting the House of Representatives’ rejection of “legislation promoted by those who wanted to give the impression that Congress was responding to recent pipeline explosions without really doing anything meaningful.” Doggett said, “Despite loud objections of Central Texans who have said ‘Put your pipeline somewhere else,’ the Office of Pipeline Safety has been utterly useless.”. . .Round Rock housing. . . The Mayor and City Council of Round Rock received a pointed letter Wednesday regarding a proposal to ask the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to deny federal bond money to the Red Hills Villas Development. Robert Kelly, project developer for UT regent Woody Hunt’s company, told the Council that their resolution would be more aptly named the “Resolution supporting the attempted exclusion of persons earning less than $36,750 per year from the South Creek neighborhood.” Kelly warned that the resolution would not prevent building of an apartment complex on the site, but that a market rate project would be less visually attractive than the subsidized housing.

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

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