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Goodman, Alvarez, Slusher have different reasons for no votes

Tuesday, May 20, 2003 by

Proposed changes to the neighborhood plan amendment process took a step forward with first passage of an ordinance allowing a slightly easier procedure for changing plans, even though Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman thwarted final approval by spotting a clerical error.

City Clerk Shirley Brown told the Council that the action—a 4-3 vote for the ordinance—was final approval on third reading. But Goodman challenged the ruling, saying her memory put it still at first reading. A lengthy review of past proceedings by the clerk showed Goodman to be correct. Council Members Daryl Slusher and Raul Alvarez joined Goodman in casting the “no” votes against the ordinance.

The ordinance has gone through several changes before the Council since November, including a host of revisions on March 20 and a flurry of behind the scenes negotiations between Council Member Betty Dunkerley and Goodman that failed to pan out and ended in a contentious exchange at the previous Council meeting. (See In Fact Daily May 12, 2003) Goodman wanted provisions to ensure amendments weren’t too easy to add after neighbors had spent significant time and resources developing consensus on them, while Dunkerley proposed several ways to get exemptions to time rules for when an amendment can be filed.

The ordinance generally prohibits submission of zoning changes and/or changes to the neighborhood plan during the first year after a plan is adopted and only during a specific month in succeeding years.

However, an applicants—such as a property owner seeking a zoning change amendment to a plan—can seek exemptions from the rules if: the regulations imposed an undue hardship; city staff has made an error in the plan; the development is a Smart Housing project for affordable units; the project provides environmental protection superior to that of existing regulations; the development creates 100 or more jobs; or the application is approved by the Neighborhood Planning Team (NPT) for the area.

Also axed from the ordinance are two provisions that Goodman said would provide some mechanism to prevent too many unnecessary or unintended changes from the exemptions pushed by Dunkerley. One required three Council members to sign off on allowing an application for an amendment that falls outside the time regulations, while the other would have required a super majority vote of the Council to override objections to amendments by NPTs.

“People give up their lives for two years for these plans,” Goodman said after the vote. “If (the planning teams) are in opposition, they should have something more than a 4-3 Council vote to rule against them, so a super majority provision (requiring six votes) was there.” She added that she and Dunkerley had agreed to the provision allowing an amendment out of turn by approval of three Council members as a possible compromise, but Dunkerley ended up voting against the idea. “I think the three Council members (approving) was a pretty minimal requirement,” Goodman said.

Slusher and Alvarez had expressed concern about the environmental exemption, since it could end up as a loophole for developers claiming environmental improvements. However, the city’s environmental officer, Pat Murphy, defined superiority as a development currently exempt from current standards because of HB 1704 that promised to abide by new, more stringent standards. The Council accepted the definition.

Slusher said his main opposition to the ordinance was based on giving too much power in the process to the NPTs. “I’m going to stick with where I’ve been all along,” he said. “I still think we are delegating government powers to a non-governmental group.”

A new addition to the ordinance seemed to get a nod from all on the dais, however, a requirement that NPT members submit financial disclosures if they are part of an application for an amendment that affects a property in which they have significant financial ownership. Slusher had requested the provision previously to make the power of NPTs more palatable, but he remains opposed to the idea of giving power to unelected and unappointed citizens’ groups. The item is on this week's agenda also.

Only 13 of hundreds would be proposed as part of city code

Of the hundreds of Downtown Austin Design Guidelines offered by the city for development, a whittled down list of 13 was presented to the Planning Commission last week for recommendations on which should be codified into law by the City Council.

City staff had scoured the guidelines for those that would best be suited as binding codes, and the Codes and Ordinances Committee examined the issues in depth and presented recommendations to the full Commission. For some commissioners, details on the list were paramount, deciding everything from what kind of light to block from within parking garages to floor heights on required retail components. But Commissioner David Sullivan, who voted against four of the measures, said potential cost to business owners and developers was a chief reason not to add any additional requirements that might be cumbersome.

“I’m for all of these, but I just don’t feel this is the time to impose these restrictions,” he told Commission members.

Only one of the items on the list failed entirely to get Commission support—a requirement for minimum floor to area ratios (FAR), which theoretically would have required denser development.

The remaining 12 passed with various levels of support from commissioners. A host of other different constituencies also weighed in on the possible regulations, including the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA). Will Shepherd—a developer for CarrAmerica representing the DAA—told the Commission that the existing process of using guidelines worked well, since Smart Growth incentives for following recommendations, review by the Design Commission and market forces requiring quality developments all created an atmosphere where developers followed guidelines on their own. “Frankly, I didn’t see a reason to change things,” he said. “We’re going to start fixing things until they’re broke.”

Seven boards and commissions, along with six business and professional groups, gave recommendations on which guidelines to codify, ranging from none to all 13. Most agreed that two guidelines—waiving license fees for awnings and other overhead hangings and requirements to build to Austin Energy Green Building one-star ratings—were good and would not burden developers.

In addition to the FAR provision, the most debated requirement was for “secondary spaces” to add ground-floor retail to new developments. If codified, the guideline could help rid downtown of new “permanently dead” spaces, such as parking garages with no other uses, said Commissioner Chris Riley.

“This is one of the most important ones to move from guidelines to code,” added Commissioner Maggie Armstrong. However, Sullivan countered, “This is too prescriptive . . . especially at this point in our economic history.”

Shepherd said that the market should define where retail would work. He said if requirements for secondary spaces had to be there, at least take out the details on how they need to be built, such as street frontage requirements and other height, depth and width guidelines. Instead, he said the city could require the developer to submit a professional engineer’s drawings on how space could be adapted to retail in the future when the market would support it.

The City Council is expected to address the guideline recommendations on June 12.


raises questions about firm's minority experience

The Capitol Metro staff will go ahead with negotiations with the ROMA Design Group to develop Master Plan for the redevelopment of the Saltillo District. However, board members of the transit authority made it clear on Monday they want more information about the company and a lower price than the one the firm quoted for working on the plan for the 4th and 5th Street corridor in East Austin.

Capitol Metro staff listed ROMA ( as the “most favored” company responding to the Request for Proposals the agency put out for the redevelopment project. But that evaluation was not completed until immediately prior to Monday’s board meeting, leaving board members requesting more information about the other firms in contention, in addition to the selection process itself.

“Normally, we would have a lot more time to read as to why this firm was selected, instead of just having a few minutes,” said Board Member John Treviño. “I have no idea who was competing and how they rate compared to the other folks. I guess I want to know how ‘preferred’ they are compared to the others.” Treviño also wanted to make sure the firm selected by Capitol Metro would be able to deal with the different constituent groups that would play a role in the future of the 11 acres. “I want to know their background, their experience, what they’ve done, where they’ve done it,” Treviño said, “particularly (in) areas that deal with specifically with minority communities.”

ROMA has worked in Austin on the redevelopment of the old Robert Mueller Airport, the Seaholm Master Plan, planning for the Town Lake South shore corridor and for the 2nd Street retail district, and on other urban redevelopment projects in Seattle and San Francisco. Staff members will prepare additional information for board members about the firm’s history, along with the other firms that were finalists. “We put tremendous amount of pressure on staff to be ready for this meeting,” said Board Chairman Lee Walker. “If there feels a sense of urgency and haste, it was because they were doing their best to try to make this meeting.” After discussion, board members decided to allow the staff to continue negotiations with ROMA and then to take up the item at their next meeting.

Prepared for combat . . . Richard Suttle, who represents Wal-Mart in its quest to place a store at Slaughter and MoPac, came to speak with members of the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) last night wearing a flak jacket. As a result of the meeting, SBCA is going to put together a committee to discuss pollution of the aquifer with Wal-Mart. In spite of the mitigation measures that are being planned by Endeavor Real Estate, which is selling the property to Wal-Mart, environmentalists hope to persuade Wal-Mart to choose another site. Suttle promised to bring Wal-Mart representatives to meet with the committee . . . Runoff time . . . Brewster McCracken and Margot Clarke, the two candidates still standing after the May 3 election, hope you won’t forget there’s still one space to fill on the City Council. Early Voting starts Wednesday. Bruce Walcutt and friends are hosting a party for McCracken beginning at 5:30pm tonight at the County Line on the Hill, 6500 W. Bee Caves Road. For more information, call 328-4055. Clarke is throwing a party on Wednesday, beginning at 6:30 pm at the Lazy Oak Inn, 211 West Live Oak. McCracken is also holding a runoff rally on Thursday from 5:30-8pm at B.D. Riley’s Pub, 204 E. 6th Street . . . Anti-smoking fight . . . Bill Aleshire, attorney for groups opposing Austin’s new anti-smoking law as well as the one enacted by Dallas, said the plaintiffs have withdrawn their request for a temporary injunction. That hearing had been scheduled for today. The groups, which include the American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, will instead be concentrating on getting the ordinances declared unconstitutional, he said. In addition, an ordinance recently enacted by Round Rock may be the subject of a challenge also. Currently, the plaintiffs expect to go to trial on July 21. The Austin City Council is scheduled to take up the matter on second reading this week . . . Discussion of Seton at Mueller tonight . . . A subcommittee of the Mueller advisory commission will meet at 6pm tonight to talk about Seton’s request to rezone 49 acres at the old airport for a Planned Unit Development to accommodate the proposed Seton Children’s Hospital . . . Zoning and Platting Commission . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission has a short but potentially interesting agenda.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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