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The citizen task force studying the impact of historic zoning on gentrification in East Austin submitted its findings to the City Council on Wednesday. The group told Council members that gentrification was definitely taking place in East Austin, but differed with city staff on the role that historic zoning played in causing it.

Thursday, December 5, 2002 by

“Historic zoning, we felt, was a minor contributor to the gentrification,” said David West of the Historic Landmark Commission. “We felt it affected surrounding property values and that it could increase rehabilitation costs on surrounding houses . . . bringing up market values of the residential properties. On the mitigating side, it prevents demolition of existing structures and preserves the community’s history. It provides the potential for housing affordability and possibly triggers additional sources of funding for rehabilitation.”

The task force submitted eight recommendations to the Council regarding policies that could help prevent historic-zoned properties from contributing to gentrification. First on the list was creating a separate appraisal category for historic-zoned homes to prevent their values from influencing the appraised values of surrounding homes. The Travis County Appraisal District is already implementing that procedure. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 9th, 2002 .)

The task force also endorsed the creation of local historic districts that contain a property tax incentive. And the report calls for increased marketing and promotion of city programs to help people rehabilitate their homes and navigate their way through the complicated historic zoning process. That could include translating information about existing city programs into Spanish or other languages. “The bottom line is, we want to keep historic zoning as a tool to preserve the character and affordability of our East Austin neighborhoods,” said Planning Commission member Michael Casias. “I think that there are a lot of ways that we can combine the benefits of the historic zoning department, neighborhood planning, Smart Housing and a lot of national initiatives into a very functional package.”

While its 25-page report points to specific policies to minimize the impact of historic zoning on gentrification, the report from the city staff task force formed to study the issue concluded that the impact of zoning was negligible. The staff report cited overall real estate market forces as the driving factor in gentrification, noting that property values for non-historical properties in East Austin had increased at roughly the same rate as historical properties.

Council Members Danny Thomas and Raul Alvarez were eager to begin work on some of the task force’s recommendations. “We know that gentrification is occurring, and we know that the historical zoning does play a part,” said Thomas. “We’ve got a long way to go, and we need to move as quickly as we can because it is affecting homeowners.” One step that could be taken soon, Alvarez said, would be following through on the recommendation for distributing more information about the city’s existing programs to help homeowners. “There are some resources that are available that folks are not taking advantage of,” he said. “Whatever proposals we might put forward to help the residents, I think there’s going to be a fair amount of education.” Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman called for more information, specifically pointing to the need for a complete inventory of properties that were zoned historic or had the potential for historic zoning.

Z Development partners Robert Anderson and Steve Bauman presented their plans for El Nuevo Mercado project, a six-floor mixed-use development in near East Austin, to the Design Commission Monday night. They explained that they have the tentative approval of the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood for construction of the $50 million multi-level development.

El Nuevo Mercado, a multi-level development of retail, office and residential space, would cover an entire city block between Fifth and Sixth Streets . The project is bounded by San Marcos and Medina Streets, two blocks east of I-35.

The project is a combination of tiered, interlocking buildings designed by Cotera Kolar Negrete & Reed Architects. Early project plans incorporate almost 200,000-square-feet of retail, office and residential space. Commission Chair Juan Cotera and Commissioner Phillip Reed recused themselves from the discussion since their firm designed the project.

A green grocer and some retail has been proposed for the Fifth Street side, as well as leasing from Capital Metro temporary on-site parking across the street. Behind the building three levels of an underground garage would be built to serve the project.

A steep 22-foot rise between Fifth Street and Sixth Streets puts the Sixth Street side on a different level, allowing it to accommodate six levels of space. The first level would be smaller parcels of “user-friendly” retail space around a central plaza with plenty of green space, Bauman said. The uses targeted would include restaurants, a post office, a deli, a walk-up bank teller and small shops, but “not anything like The Gap,” Bauman told commissioners.

The second and third stories would each contain office and executive suites. Bauman said the developer had already turned away a tenant interested in 40,000 square feet of space. It was simply “too big,” he said. A business incubation and video conference center, about 14,000 square feet, would be built for local business and educational use.

The top three floors would be tiered office and residential space that developers are still configuring. Bauman said the residential units would range from 450 feet to 1,600 feet. Some units would be set aside for moderate income tenants, while others would be earmarked for elderly housing, with shared living spaces, he said.

The property is configured CS (commercial services) on one side and CS-1 (alcohol service) on the other. Z Development will need a number of variances to the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan build the project, mainly to increase its density.

The developer wants to build out to the property lines, getting rid of the 10-foot setback. They will also ask for a height variance to build up to 90 feet—30 feet above the height allowed under the neighborhood plan. Bauman stressed the façade on the street would be no more than 60 feet and the various buildings would stair-step up without interfering with the existing view corridors.

Z Development will also ask for a floor-to-area ratio variance of 5:1. The current neighborhood plan specifies a 2:1 ratio. And the developer will ask the city to allow small panel trucks to back into the green grocer on Fifth Street because the side streets alongside the project are too narrow to allow large trucks to maneuver.

The Design Commission assigned the panel of Commissioners Joan Hyde, Girard Kinney and Perry Lorenz to draw up a recommendation on whether to support the variances. The recommendation will be presented to the full commission at the first meeting in January.

On Thursday Anderson said, “If all goes well, I hope to begin the city permitting process in January.” He said that getting final approval from the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team and the Design Commission were prerequisites to beginning the site plan approval process.

The Zoning and Platting Commission this week reaffirmed its decision to endorse a zoning change that may help an airport area landowner convince a major pharmaceutical company to develop his 172-acre tract. The commission made some minor modifications to restrictions it recommended last week for the property on FM 973, but continued support of the basic change to LI (light industrial) zoning. Consultant Jim Wittliff is seeking the change to facilitate what the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce has dubbed ‘Project Atlantis’ to protect the name of the firm. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 20, 2002. )

Most of the conditions adopted by the ZAP would not affect development of the site if the pharmaceutical company acquires it. However, commissioners are concerned about the presence of such a large tract of industrial property should the company elect to locate its facility elsewhere. Last month, the commission outlined a lengthy and complex series of conditions for development of the property. “One reason we brought it back to reconsider it was that it was a very complicated motion,” said Commissioner Keith Jackson . “We brought it back so we could see, in its entirety, what was done.”

The original motion was to apply the set-back, cut-and-fill and landscaping restrictions established for the nearby Interport North PDA to the tract. Those conditions included a lengthy list of prohibited uses, which the ZAP amended slightly Tuesday night.

Equipment repair services would be permitted, as would construction sales and service and light manufacturing uses. The commission also voted to reduce the minimum set-back along FM 973 from 125 feet to 75 feet. Most of those changes came at the suggestion of Commissioner Diana Castañeda, who also had requests to change the restrictions on cut and fill and lift the prohibitions on certain other uses. While fellow commissioners declined some of her recommendations, Commissioner Melissa Whaley pointed out that the zoning change to LI would likely have been rejected without the prohibitions on uses such as auto rental, transportation terminals and personal improvement services. “After looking at such a big vacant piece of dirt, we were really uncomfortable,” Whaley explained. “Instead of sending them back for LI-PDA, we tried to improvise. I know that this may look pretty harsh, but it also saves him three months.”

Wittliff seemed satisfied with most of the changes, voicing no objections. While he left the meeting with an endorsement for LI, there had been some tense moments earlier in the evening. The commission took a recess for Castañeda to craft a motion out of her list of proposed changes. A comment from Jackson as commissioners filed out of the room prompted an angry outburst from Wittliff. But the two men then spoke calmly in the hallway during the recess and seemed to iron out their differences. It also appeared at one point that the commission was in jeopardy of losing its quorum. There were six members present, and Whaley had to leave during the meeting in order to care for a sick pet. Jackson also announced that he would have to leave shortly after 8pm, which would have dropped the total number of commissioners below the minimum of five. But Whaley returned and the commission was able to vote on the item and attend to other cases before Jackson’s departure.

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

Cars and noise . . . The issue of whether to adopt proposals for changing the way traffic flows on downtown streets rumble could take up a lot of time on tonight’s City Council agenda. That hearing starts at 5pm. As of late Wednesday, at least three Council members were favoring a postponement of a hearing on a new sound amplification ordinance. Council Member Daryl Slusher is hosting the regional summit beginning at 8:30am Friday, and several of his colleagues say they will attend, so they don’t want to stay up too late tonight . . . ZAP appointments today? . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission still needs two new commissioners. The panel has been hamstrung on several occasions of late because there are only seven members and the group cannot take action with less than five on one side or another. Danny Thomas may announce a new member today . . . Legislative changes coming . . . Harvey Kronberg wrote in last night’s Quorum Report that the halls of the Capitol are full of rumors about the addition of numerous new committees. He quotes unnamed folks who say that the new committees will allow the new Speaker to reward his large group of supporters . . . DAA votes for Intel site . . . The real estate news web site quotes Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance as saying that the Intel skeleton is the best site for the new federal courthouse. That’s not just Betts—the DAA has assembled a task force to tell the federal General Services Administration that the site overlooking Republic Square is the best of three under scrutiny. The other two have some pretty obvious drawbacks for local businesses. One is the Whole Foods site at 6th and Lamar and the other currently houses the popular Hoffbrau Restaurant on 6th Street. Betts and some of the task force will meet with federal representatives on Friday to give them the DAA’s opinion . . . Regional summit . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher and Hays County Judge Jim Powers will be hosting Friday’s meeting, which is expected to draw a large number of participants. Panelists giving an overview of various issues include Kent Butler (UT), Michael Aulick (CAMPO) Jim Camp (Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer District), Junie Plummer (City of Austin), Jeff Barton (former Hays County commissioner) and Robert Breunig (Wildflower Center). That’s just to start off the morning session. Bar-B-Que is planned for lunch.

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


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