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Monday, June 17, 2002 by

Flexible neighborhood plans

If approved, change would allow for subdistricts

The Planning Commission has endorsed changes in the City Code that would allow the creation of sub-districts within neighborhood plans. Members of the Upper Boggy Creek and Central East Austin Neighborhood planning teams had requested the option of creating sub-districts last year (see In Fact Daily, Oct. 09, 2001 ) to allow different parts of a planning area to have different regulations on infill development. Council Member Jackie Goodman endorsed the idea. City staff has recommended against changing the rules to allow for sub-districts, although staff has developed a proposed set of guidelines and criteria for creating sub-districts if they are approved by the full City Council.

Under the staff proposal, sub-districts within a Neighborhood Plan could have different rules for the development of cottage homes, urban homes, secondary apartments or corner stores. But staff is still recommending against allowing those sub-districts to have their own rules regarding small-lot amnesty.

Planning Commissioner Silver Garza said the Codes and Ordinances Committee had endorsed sub-districts for all of those infill possibilities, including small-lot amnesty. “We should have all five options available to the neighborhoods,” he said. Commissioner Maggie Armstrong said the variable infill rules would help neighborhoods. “Instead of limiting the tools for infill, we should expand them,” she said.

Supporters of the idea hope that allowing different development options for different parts of a Neighborhood Plan will encourage infill in parts of town that might otherwise rule out those urban-style uses. And such development could increase the amount of housing available in the city and could also be more affordable than construction of a new home.

But Commissioner Sterling Lands pointed out that the sub-district rules could be abused to limit infill development instead of promoting it. “Are we setting ourselves up where a neighborhood could use this as a means of preventing affordable houses from coming into their neighborhood? Until we address this, we can’t be serious about trying to pass this particular recommendation,” he said. “I’m in a state of unreadiness to address this issue. I don’t believe that we’ve had enough time to really interrogate it to the point we can say we believe that we are not setting reasonably-priced housing back.”

Commission Chair Ben Heimsath urged fellow commissioners to approve the new rules. “People are looking at the detrimental effect, the negative impact, that some misapplication of these more intensive densification tools might have,” he said. Heimsath argued that the rules would give larger neighborhoods more flexibility. “I want more affordability. I want those opportunities to be available in more places for more people. We’re fighting inertia here, and the inertia is to ‘just say no.’”

The commission voted 6-2 in favor of the sub-district proposal with the condition that commissioners work with city staff on criteria for implementing those sub-districts. Lands and Commissioner Dave Sullivan were opposed and Commissioner Cynthia Medlin was absent.

Staff has already proposed six general guidelines for establishing sub-districts. Those include following natural physical boundaries, having a minimum size, surveying watershed conditions, taking account of architectural features and studying the area’s potential for infill development. Staff also recommends against allowing sub-districts that appear to be based on demographics such as income, age or race.

If the City Council eventually approves the creation of sub-districts, it could open the door for the amendment of existing neighborhood plans. That would require prioritization by neighborhood planning department staff based on neighborhood requests. The City Council is tentatively set to hear the sub-district proposal on June 27th, but the item could be postponed if recommendations from the staff or commissioners are not finalized.

Few surprises revealed at City Council swearing-in

Goodman re-elected as Mayor Pro Tem

The three Austin City Council members elected last month took the oath of office in a special Council meeting Saturday night at the Austin Convention Center, surrounded by an audience of campaign supporters, city employees and family members. Returning Council Members Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman pledged to put any campaign-related hostilities behind them during their remarks to the crowd, while new Council Member Betty Dunkerley used her speech to address some of the specific issues she had raised during her campaign. Mayor Gus Garcia and Council Member Raul Alvarez did not attend. Garcia is in Germany on a sister cities trip.

While all Council members agreed that balancing the budget for fiscal year 2002-03 would be a top priority in the short term, Dunkerley laid out some additional priorities. “I think one of the things I’ll recommend over the next year is . . . let’s try to lower the utility rates for our small businesses, so that they can stay in business and develop the jobs that we need,” she said, generating a round of applause from the audience. Dunkerley also said she would turn her attention to making health care more available for low-income residents. “Our clinics are bursting at the seams. Our emergency rooms are crowded. And I’m going to recommend and support that we add a 24-hour health clinic to our system to help resolve the problems of primary care patients that have nowhere to go except our emergency rooms.”

Slusher and Goodman both focused on working with people or organizations that have criticized them in the past. “My New Year’s resolution, as it were, is to put aside the great joy that I get from the occasional fight and instead take great joy in moving us toward a sound, economic, environmental, educational and equitable stage of Austin’s development,” Goodman said. Slusher, who has had a contentious relationship with the leadership of the SOS Alliance in recent months, also stressed the need for building consensus. “I invite all the citizens of Austin to be involved, no matter which side they took or which approach they took in the most recent election,” he said. “Those who share the same goals but sometimes differ on how to get there should not tear each other apart over these strategic differences.”

Like the other Council members, Slusher also touched on the importance of the current budget discussions. But he spent much of his speech addressing larger issues, including the pressure that the rapid growth of the 1990’s placed on Central Texas. “Austin is clearly a city in transition,” Slusher said. “The city has changed . . . it’s no longer the same place that it used to be. Our responsibility is to shape what the new city will be. Many of us don’t like the changes that have occurred . . . but still we’ve been able to retain much of what Austin was.” Slusher said. “I think that’s especially true of the spirit, the character and the tolerance that make Austin such a special place.”

The Council took only one official action Saturday, unanimously electing Goodman to continue as Mayor Pro Tem. The first full meeting of the new Council will be June 27th, after a work session on the 26th.

Dueling meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission Task Force, the Environmental Board and the Urban Transportation Commission will all hold meetings tonight on the proposed Stratus settlement agreement. The task force meeting begins at 5:30pm and the Environmental Board and UTC meetings begin at 6pm. City staff and representatives of Stratus and various organizations may be racing between the three meetings, but at least they will be in the same building— One Texas Center. The Environmental Board will be in Room 325 and the ZAP group will meet in Room 500. The UTC, which is scheduled to consider land use and traffic issues, will be in the 8th floor conference room. Although the Environmental Board and the UTC may take action, ZAP will not do so until Tuesday’s meeting . . . SBCA also meeting tonight . . . The Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) will hold its regular meeting from 7-9pm at The Filling Station, with an update by Margaret Russell & Michael Adair, city staff for the Splash! into the Edwards Aquifer Exhibit in Zilker Park . . . Also tonight . . . The Arts Commission is scheduled to meet at 6:30pm at the Dougherty Arts Center on Barton Springs Road. They could have an interesting discussion on a number of Art in Public Places items, as well as funding for the 02-03 budget year . . . Hidden talent . . . Cora Wright, director of Neighborhood Services for the City of Austin, performed The Star Spangled Banner beautifully at Saturday night’s City Council ceremonies . . . Mayor Pro Tem has kittens . . . In thanking the many groups that supported her re-election bid, Jackie Goodman mentioned animal activists, among others. Then she said she had rescued four kittens, all in need of a permanent home. Goodman and her husband Jack, have several dogs and cats in their home.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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