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Panel responds to DAA's fear of codification

Tuesday, June 4, 2002 by

The city’s Design Commission, which championed the proposed Design Guidelines for downtown construction, pulled back last night from supporting codification of the guidelines. Perry Lorenz, co-chair of the commission, said he put the item on the agenda “because I have never been so rushed in my life as I have been by friends and acquaintances,” who are critical of the proposed regulations.

Charlie Betts, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), told the commission, “We don’t have problems with the Design Guidelines themselves. They have contributed to better-designed buildings. But we’re in favor of the carrot rather than the stick.” At a meeting of the group, he said, “the overwhelming view of the DAA was very much against codifying the guidelines.”

Betts said members of his organization voiced three primary concerns. Although they favor incentives—which the city has said may be suspended during the current economic downturn—turning the guidelines into requirements “will make developing downtown more expensive and cumbersome.” Betts also said that now is not a good time to suspend the incentives.

Commissioner John Patterson asked if there was any way to create incentives in the absence of funding. “Is there a hybrid carrot?” he asked. Planner Katie Larsen noted that staff had suggested waiver of annual fees for owners of businesses with overhead covers, such as awnings. Commission liaison and urban designer Pollyanne Melton said that staff had suggested expedited review for developers abiding by the guidelines. “But with the hiring freeze, that’s harder and harder to do.” She said that one additional idea was to grant development bonuses, allowing developers additional density in return for following certain recommendations.

Commissioner Phillip Reed said, “There seems to be a suggestion that we revisit our (positive) recommendation to the Planning Commission. There’s a fear that eventually all of the guidelines would become codified.” Only thirteen of the proposals would actually become part of the Land Development Code under the current recommendation. Those include a number of requirements that would replace regulations currently in the LDC.

The recommendations that seem to have drawn the most negative attention are an increased floor to area ratio (FAR), the banning of drive-through business services, and a requirement that ground floor space be occupied by retail businesses. Commissioner Gerard Kinney, who supports the guidelines, said he too has been hearing a lot of complaints about enacting the guidelines as code amendments. “Hearing what our partners at the Downtown Austin Alliance are saying—my basic feeling is it’s not going to happen right now. The codification is not going to go forward if the DAA is against it . . . I’m afraid that codifying these guidelines works against building downtown.” He also mentioned that developers building outside the central business district would be facing less stringent regulations than those choosing a downtown location.

Lorenz said the commission should work to bring incentives to the process rather than regulations. He appointed himself, Kinney, Reed and Patterson to meet as a subcommittee to consider whether to change the commission’s recommendation. Lorenz told Larsen to expect a new option on July 1.

Traffic generated by retail magnets worries residents

After spending two meetings focused on critics’ complaints about 14 zoning cases, the Zoning and Platting Commission task force encouraged residents of Southwest Austin to submit their final recommendations on those tracts, owned by Stratus Properties. The zoning changes are scheduled to go back to the commission later this month.

“This is your chance to tell us what you want,” Commissioner Keith Jackson said. John Larkin, representing the Cherry Creek on Brodie Lane Neighborhood Association, told commissioners the neighbors already have a list of proposed alternatives to the zoning changes in question and could easily present them along with their reasoning,.

Tuesday night’s meeting of the task force revealed the drastic differences that still remain between the zoning changes being considered and the preferences of a coalition of southwest residents and environmental groups. The task force continued the tract-by-tract review of the proposed changes begun last week. (See In Fact Daily, May 29, 2002) And like last week, concerns about the level of development and impervious cover to be allowed on the tracts dominated the evening’s discussion. Under the terms of the proposed settlement agreement between the city and Stratus, the company would be allowed to exceed limits for impervious cover on certain lots as long as it keeps the impervious cover well below SOS ordinance levels on the others. The city has a map of the tracts in question at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/news/02/images/cir_c_strat_small2.jpg.

Neighbors had objections to the proposals for tract 106 (at the northwest corner of Slaughter Lane and South MoPac) and tract 107 (at the southwest corner of West Slaughter Lane and Escarpment Boulevard). Both tracts are proposed for GR zoning. Tract 106 would allow for a gas station, while tract 107 is considered suitable for a grocery store. Neither of those proposed uses met with approval from neighborhood representatives. Larkin said his group would strongly object to a service station on tract 106, which is near the Longhorn Pipeline. “Putting a gas station here would be like piling another brick in the potato sack,” he said. Amy Rupp of the Circle C Neighborhood Association added, “We have plenty of places to buy gas.”

Rupp also voiced her opposition to the proposed GR zoning category on several tracts. That category, she said, would open up the land to “destination” retail outlets instead of the more neighborhood-oriented retail frequently found under LR zoning. “We do not need another attractor,” said Rupp. “We badly need neighborhood retail.”

Traffic was also a major concern for the proposed rezoning on tract 110, just east of Dahlgreen Lane. Rupp said she was concerned about access to the property. “We do not want Dahlgreen to become the collector for the development on tract 110,” she said. The proposed zoning would allow up to 750,000 square feet of office space, and would also allow the testing of microchips. That possibility sparked a vigorous debate among several citizen members of the task force who work in the high-tech industry. The full commission is scheduled to consider new rules for the location of chip-testing operations at its June 12th meeting. (See In Fact Daily, April 27, 2001)

Although task force members frequently returned to the subject of traffic, ZAP Commission Chair Betty Baker attempted to limit discussion on that topic because Teri McManus, a senior planner with the city’s Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department, had to miss the meeting because of illness. Baker said traffic issues could be addressed at the task force’s final meeting, scheduled for this Thursday. Larkin again requested a tract-by-tract traffic impact analysis. (See In Fact Daily, May 29, 2002)

While the ZAP Task Force studies the individual zoning cases, there are other meetings being held on the overall settlement between Stratus and the City of Austin. “It’s frustrating to us,” said Larkin. Neighborhood representatives called for a delay on the zoning cases until a master plan for the area was approved. “The deal is changing while we’re sitting at the table,” Larkin said. “We’re dealing with a fluid situation here. How can we make a recommendation?” Citizens will have the opportunity for more public comment on specific tracts, as well as the proposed settlement with Stratus, when the cases return before the full commission later this month. The rezonings are tentatively scheduled to go to the City Council for first reading on June 27th, but a postponement from that date is almost inevitable.

Candidates get ready for summer stump season . . . While it usually means vacations for most of us, for statewide candidates Kirk Watson, Carole Rylander, David Dewhurst, John Sharp and Rick Perry—as well as their opponents—it’s time to make speeches and ask for money. Former Mayor Watson has sent out invitations to his fundraiser on June 20 at the Four Seasons Hotel. If you missed out, try the web site: http:// www.kirkwatson.org Governor Perry, Comptroller Rylander and Lt. Governor candidates Dewhurst and Sharp will all make appearances at the Texas Public Employees Association annual meeting here at the Omni Hotel June 21-22. Perry is delivering the luncheon address. He follows public relations consultant Chuck McDonald, journalists Ross Ramsey and Harvey Kronberg and political consultant Bill Miller . . . Austin Energy’s “Plus One” program is in need of more donations. . . The city is asking utility customers to check the box on their bills to contribute to the Utility Assistance Fund, which helps people who are having problems paying their bills. http://www.austinenergy.com/billing/plus1.html Requests for assistance went up last year along with the city’s unemployment rate. Austin Energy also offers several programs to help customers reduce their bills by weatherizing their homes or installing newer, more energy-efficient air-conditioners . For more information, check out http://www.austinenergy.com/home/weather.html . . . At Zoning and Platting Commission tonight . . . The Pleasant Valley Sportsplex is seeking relief from a restrictive covenant that requires a zoning rollback from commercial to office if the commercial use ceases and a change to multi-family zoning. Republican County Commissioner candidate Gerald Daugherty owns the property, which has been the subject of some controversy. Daugherty is also seeking an office-to-retail zoning change on another piece of property. It could be an interesting case if neighbors show up to protest . . . Home Depot changes lawyers . . . When Home Depot sought a change in zoning on I-35 and Woodward, the company was represented by Richard Suttle of Armbrust Brown & Davis. However, Drenner Stuart Wolff Metcalfe Von Kreisler has signed up to seek the company’s zoning change at Slaughter and I-35 tonight . . . MBE/WBE meeting tonight . . . It’s not a heavy agenda, but new officers may be chosen.

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

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