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Small lot amnesty excepted from sub-district ordinance

Monday, July 22, 2002 by

The City Council last week approved a plan to allow future neighborhood planning teams to create subdistricts within their planning areas with varying guidelines for development. Members of the Upper Boggy Creek and Central East planning teams first requested the additional flexibility last year. (See In Fact Daily, Oct. 9, 2001. ) The Planning Commission supported that request.

Neighborhood planning teams had expressed frustration that the size of the city-defined planning areas resulted in neighborhoods with dramatically different characteristics being grouped together for planning purposes. Because of the size and diversity of the areas, some neighborhoods would welcome infill development such as cottage homes or secondary apartments, but other neighborhoods in the same planning area would reject such provisions. That conflict could mean the entire area would be denied some infill options. “We found that the infill items did not all fit, depending on the character of the individual neighborhoods,” said Stephen Kreger of the Upper Boggy Creek Planning Team. “We shouldn’t have to force infill options on areas that don’t want or need them.”

City staff recommended against subdistricts on the grounds that they could be used to exclude or restrict urban infill instead of promoting it. “The current interpretation of infill options promotes housing opportunities for a range of incomes throughout the city,” said Sue Hounsel with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department. “Subdistricts may limit Smart Housing opportunities in some areas of the city.”

But given the desire of the Planning Commission, neighborhoods, and some Council members to allow the subdistricts, staff also prepared an alternate recommendation for putting them into place. Staff suggested that subdistricts be allowed for urban home, cottage lot, secondary apartment and corner store development. However, staff recommended against creating subdistricts specifically allowing small-lot amnesty.

While the Planning Commission had suggested allowing districts flexibility in developing lots smaller than the minimum size required by the Land Development Code, staff suggested that provision continue to be decided on an area-wide basis. “We think small-lot amnesty is unique, because there is a fixed number of existing lots and really we would be making those legal again,” said Hounsel. Council Member Will Wynn supported the staff’s position. “By not having small-lot amnesty as part of the subdistrict, it re-legalizes existing lots,” he said. Creating small-lot amnesty subdistricts, Wynn said, could result in some inequities. “Some folks’ lots will be re-legalized and others won’t be. I think, across the board, we need to make these prior legal lots legal again for a single-family home to be built on them.”

There are numerous lots in East Austin, as well as some in other parts of town, that either have homes on them or could have small homes but for their size. Under the amnesty, minimum lot size is reduced to 2,500 square feet and the width is reduced to 25 feet. Lots of 3,500 square feet or less are allowed to have 65 percent impervious cover—considerably more than larger lots.

The Council voted 7-0 to approve the staff’s alternate recommendation. That means neighborhoods still working on their plans can begin to create subdistricts. The Council will consider procedures in the future to allow existing neighborhood plans to be modified by subdistricts.

BookPeople owner says he will fight request for variance

The Sixth + Lamar project should be granted its height variance, the Downtown Commission agreed last week in a resolution to be forwarded to the Board of Adjustment. The project was first intended to be a large retail center with a Target and a movie theater but is now destined to become home to the new headquarters for Whole Foods .

The developers of Sixth + Lamar are seeking to increase the height of their seven-story building by 10 feet. The developer is seeking the variance because of the slope of the site, which is 17 feet from Lamar to Bowie. The Board of Adjustment is scheduled to vote on the variance at its next meeting. (See In Fact Daily July 11, 2001. ) Commissioner Perry Lorenz, the developer of the neighboring Nokonah high-rise, made the motion that all commissioners except Teresa Ferguson supported.

“I don’t think the difference between a 120-foot building and a 130-foot building is statistically significant,” Lorenz said. “I’m not going to be opposed to a building just because it’s tall.”

That didn’t mean the commissioners were equally pleased with the mix of tenants on the site. A number of commissioners wanted developer David Vitanza to assure them he would pursue a mix of both local and national tenants, given the unique character of the neighborhood surrounding Sixth and Lamar. Vitanza said he was committed to local tenants on the property and intended to protect independent booksellers like Book People—despite inviting in national chain book and music seller Borders.

When it came down to a vote, though, Chair Chris Riley limited the motion to the request of the developer, which was to take a position on the variance. That was enough to gain the support of all commissioners but Willenzik, who was opposed to the large project pushing out local retail.

Commissioner Stan Haas initially suggested taking no position on the height variance. But once Lorenz made a substitute motion to support the variance, Haas agreed to withdraw his proposal if the variance would apply to entire Sixth + Lamar tract. Vitanza warned that the placement of the buildings might not change unless negotiations with the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association (OWANA) changed. Vitanza’s agreement with OWANA is to avoid blocking views from the neighborhood.

Ferguson suggested Vitanza might do better to think “within the box” that was suggested by the zoning ordinance. Vitanza argued that the developer had already done a great deal of compromise and creative thinking on the project, such as limiting surface parking on the site and working with OWANA to compromise on the placement of buildings on the site.

On Sunday, BookPeople owner Steve Bercu said he plans to write a letter to the Board of Adjustment opposing the variance. He said Schlosser Development faces no hardship in developing the property. “ I don’t believe there’s any hardship whatsoever,” Bercu said. “They just want to do something different,” from the original plan which Bercu favored. Instead of a variance, he complained, Schlosser should be asking for a zoning change. “They didn’t move the ground around in the last 7 to10 years. How’s that a hardship?”

Bercu is worried about the impact that a Borders will have on his business, which has prospered at its current location next to Whole Foods since 1995. When the block was planned initially, Bercu recalled, Whole Foods wanted to expand into the space BookPeople now occupies and the bookstore was willing to move to Schlosser’s development across the street. However, when the plan to bring in a movie theater and make the area a pedestrian mall fell through in 1998, he said, BookPeople decided not to move.

Bercu and principals in Schlosser belong to the West End Austin Alliance, which has written a letter to the Board of Adjustment endorsing the height variance and praising the site plan. “The project has considerable appeal to our members with regard to its contribution to the development of a significant retail hub in Austin’s downtown and the addition of Whole Foods’ corporate employment base. We also believe that the reconfiguration of the parking garage to all subsurface allows significantly more retail on the perimeter streets . . .” wrote Melissa Gonzales, president of the WEAA. She added, “However, while we support the physical layout of the project, we have serious concerns about the developers’ consideration of the existing business mix within the neighborhood when trying to attract new tenants. The West End is full of uniquely Austin shopping and dining experiences and we deeply desire to maintain this character. We hope the city, in evaluating for Smart Growth incentives, uses the criteria of ‘Support Local Businesses’ as a highest priority. We are also trying to work with the developers in this regard.’” The BOA does not make recommendations on Smart Growth incentives.

Wednesday ,,

Sheffield back on regular beat . . . Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield is once again representing members of the organization on a full time basis. Sheffield was assigned to a sexual assault unit after calling for an investigation of the APD’s Mala Sangre drug operation. However, Sheffield reports that Chief Stan Knee told him two weeks ago that the reassignment was “just a misunderstanding.” Sheffield said he is officially still part of the sexual assault unit and would do regular police work should he be needed. But he is allowed to once again use the sick leave and vacation time donated to him by members of the APA to spend 40 hours a week on union business . . . City Council appointments . . . Last week the Council reappointed Deborah Hil l to the Telecommunications Commission and J.D. Porter to the Solid Waste Advisory Commission. Nkechi Eke was appointed by consensus to the Commission on Immigrant Affairs . . . Diez y Seis costs money too . . . In the past, the City Council has approved expenses of such community celebrations as the Diez y Seis de Septembre without mentioning the costs. But now that everything on the agenda has a price tag, the public knows that waived fees for the traditional Mexican independence celebration amount to $876 and in-kind services equal $4,300 . . . SOS continues the fight against Stratus . . . Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance is looking for volunteers to help him raise public awareness and pressure the Council to change their vote on the Stratus Properties settlement when it comes back for final consideration on Aug. 1. He writes, “While the 6-1 vote was both expected and depressing, we are making progress.” He suggests that the Council approve only the Bear Lake PUD zoning, withdraw the remainder, reject the fee waivers and other financial incentives and begin “an immediate planning effort to save Barton Springs . . .” On Jan. 17, the Council postponed consideration of the PUD at the request of neighbors. The matter eventually was postponed until Stratus could bring forth plans for all of the company’s Circle C property. Then Stratus removed some of the density from the PUD and put it on other tracts in response to neighborhood complaints. There is little chance that Stratus would now agree to zoning for the PUD alone.

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

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