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BOA sides with neighbors

Thursday, July 12, 2001 by

In rejecting small lot for home

East Cesar Chavez neighbors win battle

On Monday, neighborhood activists won a battle at the Board of Adjustment that could set a precedent for building on substandard lots in East Austin. Responding to impassioned pleas of neighborhood residents, the board denied a variance that would have allowed development of a single-family residence on a 2,224 square foot lot on Waller Street. The area is zoned SF-3, which normally requires a lot of 5,750 square feet.

In April, the board denied the minimum lot size variance, as well as two others relating to setbacks. Greg Pitzer of Zemex International represented property owner Casey Caballero in requesting the variance for undersized lot at 208 Waller St. Since the original denial, Pitzer had met with members of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team to work on modifications to the proposed design, but those changes failed to sway neighborhood representatives.

Joseph Martinez, a member of the leadership team, told board members he appreciated Pitzer’s work with the neighborhood over the past several months but still opposed the lot size variance for the site because it could set a precedent for development in the area. “The concern isn’t just for this one house,” said Martinez. “If you grant the exception for this one lot, there are approximately 41 other lots that would be able to be built on.”

Martinez said the possible uses of these lots, generally smaller than 2500 square feet, had been the subject of much discussion during the drafting of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan. “We knew we would be cutting out the possibility of building . . . but we thought that there were other avenues for buildings still to go up there. We support the ideas and principles of Smart Growth, but I don’t think that Smart Growth means putting up something on any size lot just because we want to increase density.” He noted that the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan allows cottage homes to be built on lots of 2500 square feet. That is the minimum size lot the neighborhood would accept, he said.

Board Chairman Herman Thun asked Martinez what he felt should happen to smaller lots. Martinez suggested that adjoining property owners could buy up the undersized lots and develop them with “garage apartments.” Thun seemed doubtful that this plan would succeed.

After further discussion of the history of the neighborhood plan, Board Member Frank Fuentes stepped in to convince other board members to deny the variance. “East Austin is a neighborhood that has consistently been told what to do by the powers that be,” Fuentes said. “For the first time in history they have taken the time to do a plan. They have debated this issue in detail and here they are before us asking us to respect that particular plan.” Fuentes, who is among the toughest questioners of applicants regarding their proposed hardship, moved to deny the variance. “I struggle with the fact that in the past, I looked at findings of fact. The findings of fact that I see before me are good findings, but at the same time I respect what the neighborhood has done. So tonight I just can’t support this particular variance.” The vote was 5-0 to deny the variance request.

Planning Commission can't

Agree on Dawson zoning

Contentious hearing ends in 4-4 vote

The Planning Commission was unable to reach a consensus Tuesday night on dozens of proposed rezonings that are part of an update of the Dawson Neighborhood Plan in South Austin. The measure will be sent to the City Council without any recommendation from the commission after two split votes on urban in-fill and fairness to small business owners. Commissioner Ben Heimsath, who had argued in favor of the zoning changes when the commission held a public hearing last month, was absent from Tuesday night’s meeting. (See In Fact Daily, June 27, 2001)

Although the public hearing on the zoning changes was technically closed, commissioners heard plenty of comment from neighborhood resident Kelley Smoot. She loudly voiced criticisms of both the impact of the rezoning and the overall neighborhood planning process from her seat in the audience, and was occasionally asked to step up to the podium by Commission Chair Betty Baker. “I’ve been involved with the Dawson Plan process from the beginning, and I have not been adequately informed . . . that the plan was planning a massive rezoning for the entire neighborhood,” Smoot said. “This has not been an open process at all and no-one has known anything about it.”

Smoot’s primary concerns about the plan, aside from the impact of rezoning on a tract near her property, were with the adjustment to impervious cover limits and a provision that would allow special uses like cottage lots, urban homes and secondary apartments. “Anytime you increase the impervious cover of land, you are going to increase its value because you can do more with that land,” Smoot said “It may be an unintended affect, but now that it’s been brought to your attention, we need to address that because it’s not making anything more affordable. It’s making it more expensive,” Smoot concluded to applause from the audience.

Smoot’s concerns found sympathetic listeners in Baker and Commissioner Sterling Lands. “I believe that the process has to be reviewed, revisited and revised if necessary,” Lands said to another round of applause. Baker addressed her remarks to the issue of impervious cover, noting that while the commission may have had good intentions, “Sometimes the result is that the very people you are attempting to assist, you make their homes unaffordable. Looking at the impervious cover, I’m very dismayed.”

Although the issue of a conditional use overlay that would affect some businesses along South First and South Congress had received the lion’s share of attention at previous meetings, it was not discussed at length Tuesday evening. Baker reiterated her concern that existing businesses wishing to expand could face extra expense because of the need for a conditional use permit. She requested changes to the conditional use overlay, but was not able to muster enough support to modify it.

Commissioners had to vote twice on the rezoning associated with the plan. Commissioners Silver Garza, Ray Vrudhula, Baker and Lands voted against the zoning changes, while Commissioners Jim Robertson, Lydia Ortiz, Robin Cravey and Jean Mather voted in favor. The tie vote means the proposal will be sent to the City Council with no recommendation. “We agreed not to agree,” Baker told the audience.

Levy tells Philadelphia story

To Downtown Austin group

Stick to the basics for downtown revitalization

Cleaning up litter on downtown streets is easy, one urban planner told the Downtown Austin Alliance yesterday. The hard part is managing growth once the crowds arrive.

Transforming downtown Philadelphia into a vibrant center city over the last decade was speaker Paul Levy’s topic at the DAA quarterly meeting. Levy, executive director of the Center City District and Central Philadelphia Development Corporation, outlined the step-by-step process his group took to address Philadelphia’s downtown slump.

“Cleaning up litter is easy,” Levy told the luncheon crowd at the Four Seasons. “The challenge is when people say, ‘Enough. We don’t want any more crowds.’ Then it becomes managing the growth in the broader regional economy.”

In 1990, Philadelphia’s problems were a shrinking population, a growing suburbia, chronic graffiti and a reputation for crime, as well as a lack of clout on the state and federal level. Saying you hadn’t been downtown in 10 years—or even 20—was a badge of honor, Levy said. There was “the pride of avoidance.”

The Center City District—technically authorized as a municipal authority—started with a budget of $6.5 million, which has almost doubled in the last decade. Early efforts included diligent cleaning efforts on downtown streets and the creation of a downtown community services patrol that works hand-in-hand with the Philadelphia police force. As a result, serious crime has decreased by more than 33 percent and auto theft by more than 70 percent, Levy said. The district also worked with the city to address homelessness, cutting the numbers on downtown streets from 800 to 90.

Evolution of the group’s mission has meant projects such as sponsoring a Wednesday evening arts event to bring people downtown. Other ventures have included a matching grant program for improving street facades, tracking and reporting commercial real estate trends, encouraging the city to offer abatements on the conversion of historic buildings to residential space and recruiting professional jobs to the city core to counterbalance the recent decline in the city’s financial services base.

Some factors worked in the revitalization effort’s favor, Levy said. The addition of a new convention center and arts venue, as well as landing the Republican National Convention, “put the winds at our backs,” he told the crowd.

Downtown Philadelphia has 10,000 hotel rooms, 310,000 workers and 38 million square feet of office space in two square miles, Levy said. It is smart growth. The effort to spur downtown residential growth has doubled the number of people living in Philadelphia’s downtown core to an estimated 6,500.

The keys to downtown revitalization are simple, Levy said. Groups must pay attention to the basics, sustain their efforts and continue to focus on the quality of the public environment. Downtown retail in Philadelphia—like retail in Austin—can never compete with the regional malls, but it can market an exciting nightlife, historic buildings and cultural venues.

“Those are assets that cannot be produced in a regional mall or office park,” Levy said.

Philadelphia’s downtown is three times denser than its suburban outskirts, Levy said. Efforts to bring people downtown after dark are now so successful the downtown district has launched its own initiative to promote public transportation. When he reports to groups, Levy says he is fond of saying density without planning or management will lead to congestion and conflict downtown. Growth cannot come without planning.

Levy told the group that the cost of the district fell most heavily on commercial buildings. Office buildings pick up 87 percent of the district’s budget, an average of $175,000 a year apiece. By comparison, hotels in the district pay an average of $25,000 and smaller retailers pay between $1,000 and $2,000. The district’s services have become so popular that some of its cleaning services are provided to surrounding residential neighborhoods on a fee-for-service basis.

©2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Mr. Smart Growth retiring . . . After 23 years of city service, Stuart Hersh of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs is stepping down. Hersh said he would continue to consult for the city and hopes to return to teaching. Hersh has been the point man for bringing Smart Growth affordable housing to the city . . . Water use rises with temperatures . . . Chris Lippe, director of the Water & Wastewater utility, said city water usage exceeded 201 million gallons/day on Tuesday for the first time this year . . . Houston museum offers Latin movies . . . Starting Friday, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is offering a panoply of recent movies from Argentina, Chile, Cuba, Mexico and Portugal, as well as films by two Texas Latino media artists. Argentine director Rodrigo Moscoso’s 73 Model (Modelo 73) is scheduled to run at 7 p.m. Friday. San Antonio director Jim Mendiola will appear on July 20, when his film, Come and Take It Day, will be showing. On July 21, Austin director Hector Galan will be at the museum for the showing of his film Accordion Dreams. Singer/songwriter Tish Hinojosa narrates this exuberant look at the “squeezebox” trailblazers of Tejano/Conjunto music. For more information, check the web site . . Committee members chosen . . . Senator Gonzalo Barrientos has selected three neighborhood representatives to serve on the Steering Committee for the Loop 1-US 183 Corridors Study, Phase 1E: Systems Analysis project. Allan McMurtry of Allandale Neighborhood Association, Ian Inglis of West Austin Neighborhood Group and Sid Covington of Old Enfield Homeowners have the dubious honor of serving on the CAMPO special committee. The first meeting of the committee is expected to be Friday, July 27, from 2- 4 p.m.

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