Wednesday, November 15, 2000 by

Planning Commission agrees with

Vignette requests on zoning, density

Even opponents say they like company's plans

The Planning Commission unanimously recommended zoning changes and variances for Vignette last night allowing the company to build one 750,000 square-foot building, and one 400,000 square-foot office campus at Red River and Cesar Chavez. A third building is planned for later occupancy. Neighbors in the Villas of Town Lake said they were satisfied with assurances the software company had given them. The agreement was incorporated into the recommendation.

After listening to a skillfully orchestrated presentation, which began with environmentalist, Robin Rather the commission had few questions.

Attorney David Armbrust cited Vignette as “an example of Smart Growth in action. Vignette will serve as a model for how growth in Austin should work; an example of what can be done by private sector and the public sector working together to reduce pollution and traffic.” Vignette, Armbrust said, would “serve as a catalyst for a neglected area.”

Traffic continues to loom as a problem for everyone downtown and Commissioner Robin Cravey wanted to know exactly how Vignette was planning to solve that problem. Don Bosse, who is assisting Vignette in planning and public presentations, recommended that a turn lane be added to Cesar Chavez. In addition, Rather said the company would be announcing a plan to discourage employees from driving downtown, including subsidies for employees who opt for mass transit.

Charles Sansbury, senior vice president of Vignette, noted that the company was founded in Austin in 1995 with two people. The company now has 2,300 employees in five buildings along North Mopac. The company has $2.3 billion in total assets, he said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done. What’s different about us is we’ve tried to maintain the true to character of Austin. We’ve supported feedback from downtown, neighborhood and environmental constituencies and reflected those concerns in our project. We’ve tried to do this the right way.”

Laurie Sneddon, who signed on the Planning Commission roster as opposing the requested variances and zoning changes, said she liked the conditional overlays Vignette has agreed to incorporate. However, as a resident of the Villas, she said she was concerned because Brigid Shea had said the development would be “an opening to the development of Rainey Street. One of the reasons we liked Vignette was because it wasn’t bars.” Sneddon said she has lived at the Villas for the past eight years. Shea, the former Council Member who lives in the Rainey Street neighborhood, told In Fact Daily that she and more than 80 percent of her historic district neighbors have signed letters of intent to sell their property as a group. Developer Gordon Dunaway has mailed contracts to all the perspective sellers. Shea said those contracts must be signed by Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving.

Shea said, “We view the Vignette project as very compatible with our vision of Rainey Street.” Shea carried letters to the commission from members of the negotiating team in support of Vignette. Eighteen persons signed up in support, including Maria Elena Bernhardt and Robert Velasquez, co-presidents of the neighborhood and Jimmy Nassour, attorney for the Rainey neighbors. In their letter to the Planning Commission, Bernhardt and Velasquez said, “Last March, the homeowners in the historic Rainey Street district, voted overwhelmingly to pursue a dense, mixed-use urban redevelopment of the neighborhood (only one homeowner voted for a low-density scenario). Our vision included high-rise offices, housing and commercial and retail uses. We are in the process of selling our aggregated single family lots for a redevelopment plan similar to Vignette’s.”

Shea said that when she and her husband first moved into the neighborhood they were opposed to changing Rainey Street from residential to commercial. But after they learned that 90 to 95 percent of their neighbors wanted to sell, “we decided not to fight.”

Architect Craig Nasso, one of the few Rainey Street holdouts, said he liked the pedestrian improvements that Vignette has proposed for the area. He still wants everything to be put on hold until there is a master plan for the neighborhood, however.

Gene Sanchez, another member of the negotiating committee wrote, “I would also like to bring to your attention that currently 80% of the property owners in the Rainey Street district have already signed letters of intent for a redevelopment deal and more are anticipated to sign after their concerns are answered. . .making it an overwhelming majority of property owners in support of this type of development.”

Vignette is seeking a zoning change for property between Cesar Chavez and Town Lake, from GR ( general retail) and CS( commercial services) to CBD ( Central Business District). In addition, the company wants to build at a density of 10: 1, rather than 8:1, which is standard. The case is scheduled to come before the City Council on Nov. 30.

Slusher says Council should end

Executive sessions on Stratus

Council Member still wants to talk about Mueller

Council Member Daryl Slusher has called upon his colleagues to hold all further council discussions on the proposed agreement with Stratus Properties in public. In an email to the Mayor and Council Members, Slusher said he cannot support the level of development that is currently being proposed. “The development proposal is much too big, yet the developers have claims under state law that are too real to responsibly ignore.

“There are leaders in the environmental community who say the only problem here is that council members just ‘don’t have the courage to say no.’ At some simpler time in history (such a statement) might have made a nice quote. Now, however, we face not just protesting what we oppose, but also the momentous task of governing—and in doing so seeking to determine the best decision for our city and its future generations.

“This being such a complicated and historical decision I believe it is important to have as wide a discussion as possible,” including opening talks to the possibility of swapping some of the development over the watershed for development at Mueller Airport.

If Slusher can get three other members of the Council to agree, only an unforeseen new legal development would necessitate another executive session on Stratus, Slusher said. In addition, Slusher challenged environmental, neighborhood and development groups to open their meetings to the public and the press.

Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, told In Fact Daily it would be “completely fine” for members of the public to attend SOS Alliance board meetings. “The real issue is a public body making decisions in a back room,” Bunch said. He said the Council should pass an ordinance making meetings with interested members of the public mandatory “before (a developer could) file anything. That would put an end to the divide and conquer strategy” used by some developers, he said.

The environmental leader attended last night’s Planning Commission meeting to comment on the Stratus settlement proposal. However, the commission assigned the task of analyzing the proposal to a subcommittee of Commissioners Robin Cravey, Ben Heimsath and Silver Garza and postponed consideration of the matter to Nov. 28. Bunch criticized meetings outside the public eye. Chair Betty Baker interrupted Bunch to tell him that the subcommittee’s meetings would be open to the public, but it was not really clear whether Bunch was referring to the commission or the City Council.

Richard Suttle, attorney for Stratus, said he would not object to future City Council discussions of Stratus being held in public.

Planning Commission offers

Compromise for historic homes

Portion of West Avenue properties must remain residential

Two historic downtown homes owned by the Mueller family will be zoned for office space on the condition that a portion of the properties be set aside for residential use.

The Planning Commission gave the two houses—the Mueller-Danforth House at 1400 West Avenue and the Mueller House at 1308 West Avenue—a LO-MU-CO-H designation (limited office mixed-use,conditional overlay Historic).

The Historic designation, recently recommended by the Historic Landmark Commission, was obvious. Rudolph Mueller, chairman of the board of Calcasieu Lumber Co, built the Mueller-Danforth House, a Colonial Revival, in 1927. The home replaced the haunted Glasscock mansion. He was the older brother of airport namesake Robert Mueller. The Tudor Revival Mueller House was added three years later as an addition to the Mueller homestead.

The initial zoning proposed for the two properties was Downtown Mixed Use Historic, consultant Sarah Crocker said. After some discussions with the neighborhood, however, the Mueller family agreed to go with Limited Office Mixed Use. The additional conditional overlay is based on a proposed agreement with the neighborhood that would maintain a residential use of the properties.

“The residents of this neighborhood are interested in hanging on to the residential component of the community,” said Chris Riley of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association. “This neighborhood represents the closest thing we've got to a genuine mixed-use environment, even though that area is facing a significant threat from Central Booking right now.”

A number of homes on the northwest edge of downtown—north of Sixth Street and West of Guadalupe—have been converted from residential to commercial zoning in recent years, Riley said. In some recent zoning cases, such as 805 West Avenue, 900 Nueces, 905 Nueces and 1200 San Antonio, developers have agreed to devote a percentage of space to residential use. That percentage has varied from case to case, Riley said, but the average is around 15 percent.

The LO-MU-CO-H designation, changed from SF-3, also was closer to staff recommendations. City staffer Glenn Rhoades, in his review, suggested the DMU was too high-intensity for the area. DMU, he wrote, is intended to be a transition zone from the Central Business District, (CBD) zoning designation. Rhoades said the surrounding area was a mix of low-intensity office space, as well as multi-family and single-family residences.

Downtown residents and the developer must still hash out the details on the residential component before the zoning designation reaches the City Council. Crocker said the DMU designation was chosen because of its allowance for additional parking at the site. Instead, downtown neighbors now have agreed to support a variance on parking for the site.

The zoning change was approved unanimously, with Commissioner Jim Robertson absent. Commissioner Robin Cravey said ultimate approval should be based upon the two sides reaching an acceptable compromise on a residential component for the property.

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

Fine Arts fundraiser . . . The Texas Fine Arts Association invites everyone to La Zona Rosa Saturday night for a show by Vallejo, and a John Lennon Tribute led by Austin musicians Stephen Doster, Andy Salmon, Tommy Taylor, and more. The band is complete with strings and the sounds of Lennon and the Beatles. Doors open at 8 p.m. For more information, call 453-5312. Tickets available from Star Ticket outlets or at 469-SHOW . . . Street stories . . . The city says utility work and re-paving of 15th Street, Rio Grande and Nueces should be completed in January. Until then, we can expect lane closures and delays . . . The Planning Commission granted a zoning change to Temple Beth Israel last night, after the congregation worked out an agreement with neighbors.

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

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