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Planning Commission splits 4-2 over Lowe's proposal

Tuesday, December 2, 2003 by

ZAP favors, Environmental Board says no to settlement

The message from the Planning Commission to the City Council on the proposed Lowe’s Home Center settlement is that the city “should have done better.”

Those doubts have been nibbling around the edges of Planning Commission member’s discussion of the Lowe’s settlement over a couple of meetings, a discussion that has been frequently punctuated by assertions from city staff that much of the key information requested by commissioners was subject to City Council’s attorney-client confidentiality.

Environmentalist Robin Rather crystallized the arguments in the discussion. Rather, who has been a facilitator between the environmental community and business interests, described the Lowe’s proposal as far from matching the Bradley and Stratus agreements.

Rather said the agreement should incorporate the following four criteria:

• Approaching the water quality protections of the SOS Ordinance.

• Giving the city the chance to save an adequate amount of open space.

• Supporting other important policy goals of the city, such as the desire to avoid building over the aquifer.

• Undergoing a vigorous public participation process.

“Under that standard and criteria, it’s an utter failure,” Rather told the commissioners. “It completely fails on all those counts.”

A settlement needs a minimum threshold to make sense, Rather said. Such settlements tend to set de facto standards for settlements on others sites in the future. The Bradley and Stratus deals found people on both sides of the fence, Rather said. The only people who appeared to be supporting the Lowe’s settlement was Lowe’s and those paid by Lowe’s.

“I think there is a deal out there that there that everyone could live with, but this isn’t it,” Rather said, adding that other settlements have shown more energy, more creativity and a better approximation of meeting the city’s goals.

Additional arguments by other speakers pointed out legal challenges to the Lowe’s application and a lack of concessions on Lowe’s part. When the public hearing ended, Commissioner Dave Sullivan made motioned to oppose the settlement agreement, which was seconded by Commissioner Niyanta Spelman.

Four commissioners supported the motion. Sullivan spoke to the need to include more stakeholders in the process, especially Sunset Valley. Spelman was disturbed that Lowe’s didn’t make more of an effort to reach out to the public. Commissioner Cynthia Medlin said the city could do better on an agreement, given the limited parameters she saw.

Acting Chair Chris Riley said he was not persuaded that “we’re getting enough out of this deal to justify resigning ourselves to 40-percent impervious cover.” That impervious cover figure loomed as the most important factor in protecting the environment, Riley said. Riley then pointed to an argument made by the Save Our Springs Alliance, which noted that Lowe’s had made further concessions at other locations to accommodate the neighboring community, such as the constructing parking garages in New York and Arizona.

On the other side, Commissioner Matt Moore said he would put his trust in the city staff, given the limited access to all the legal issues. Moore was also convinced that state lawmakers—who made it clear in House Bill 1204 that Lowe’s would happen—would come back and rectify the problem if city officials opposed the deal. If scientists could decode the human genome, surely they had the technology to handle Lowe’s run-off issues, Moore maintained.

Commissioner Maggie Armstrong’s preference was to send a statement of issues, rather than a recommendation, since the commission had limited knowledge of the legal issues. Armstrong assessed the settlement as the lesser of two evils: not as good as Austin’s water quality regulations, but better than Sunset Valley’s requirements.

The Planning Commission needs a majority of five to send a recommendation. With a 4-2 split, the commission agreed to send the vote to the City Council with no formal recommendation. Chair Lydia Ortiz and was absent from the meeting and Michael Casias has resigned .

Zoning change would undo 1984 site plan

Northwest neighbors not happy about proposed plan

Neighbors called it “zoning bingo,” but the Zoning and Platting Commission (ZAP) agreed last week to give a developer a second chance to develop his North Austin property. The City Council is scheduled to consider the case this Thursday.

Consultant Sarah Crocker, who represents Gerald Kucera, worked with North Austin neighbors at length to come up with zoning changes that both sides could support. Under the current approved site plan with Limited Office/General Office zoning, a five-story medical office building and 3-story parking structure would be permitted on the property.

A total of 227,177 square feet would be allowed on the property. That includes 525 parking spaces, with 479 of them inside the parking garage. The property—three different parcels that were combined for the deal—is on North Hills Drive between Hart Lane and Loop 360.

Northwest Austin neighbors were satisfied with the agreement, but that was five years ago. Without a deal closed, Kucera turned to what he could close, and that is now a smaller medical office building with a drive-through bank. The total square footage would be only 60,000 square feet of building space, with 299 covered/surface parking spaces, but it would require a zoning change to GR, which Crocker was willing to change to LR with some exceptions.

The new plan is not compatible with the gradual transitions in zoning planned when the surrounding master-planned community was developed, Bill Bradley of the Northwest Austin Civic Association told the ZAP. Bradley said surrounding neighbors could not support the zoning changes—the GR zoning in particular—because of the ingress and egress of the proposed drive-thru lane.

The new project, Crocker said, would be greatly reduced in mass and density. Neighbors were frustrated that so much work on a compromise was about to be reversed, but commissioners joked that some zoning cases last longer than many marriages.

Crocker said she didn’t want to reverse any of the grounds negotiated with the neighbors back in 1999. All she wanted was to make sure a bank could go on the property.

Chair Betty Baker relinquished her position to make a motion for LR-MU zoning with a conditional overlay. She suggested a trip limit of no more than 2,000 per day and allowing financial services as the only permitted LR use on the property, with the prohibition of food sales. Commissioner Keith Jackson seconded that motion.

Baker said her motion was only intended to change two things. First, it would allow the applicant to put financial services on the site, which Baker said she thought neighbors might initially oppose but would subsequently use. The second change would lower the height limit from 60 to 40 feet. The exclusion of food sales would prevent a convenience store from locating there.

Also, the ZAP recommended that the structure not exceed 765 feet above sea level on one part of the tract and 795 feet on another part, which was set because of the property’s topography. Vehicle access to the tract from Hart Lane also is limited to right-lane turn-in entry only.

After the motion passed unanimously, Jackson brought back the motion to restrict additional uses on the site. Those uses, part of the 1999 negotiations, included the prohibition of business support services, off-site accessory parking, general hospital services, private secondary educational facilities, campgrounds, personal services, restaurants and college and university facilities.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Clean Energy town hall meeting tonight . . . Representatives of Austin Energy will talk about the utility’s strategic plan, which includes provisions for increasing use of clean energy sources such as wind and solar power, in addition to conservation. Alternative energy advocates will make presentations and economic development specialists may also have time to talk about bringing such industries to Austin. Mayor Will Wynn and Council Member Brewster McCracken, among others, will speak during the meeting, which is being hosted by UT’s Clean Energy Incubator at the MCC Auditorium, 3925 West Braker Lane beginning at 6:30pm tonight. Austin Energy will be presenting its strategic plan at Thursday’s City Council meeting, with a public hearing at 6pm. Last night the Save Barton Creek Association voted to endorse the strategic plan . . . Temple Inland planning for expansion . . . Representatives of Temple Inland discussed their proposal to build a new building at the company’s corporate headquarters at MoPac and Barton Skyway at last night’s Save Barton Creek Association meeting. When the project was built in 1995, it was praised as the first commercial project to fully comply with the SOS Ordinance. Now, the company wants to add a second office building with a parking garage in the basement. Attorney Michael Whellan and Mike Shorter of Temple Inland talked about a proposal for various forms of mitigation they may offer to the city and asked for input from the group. Whellan said the company could buy additional land in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone and capture runoff from a nearby neighborhood that does not comply with the SOS regulations. Discussion on this matter could continue for months, but Whellan said he has already broached the idea with the city. He added that a restrictive covenant—as well as potential engineering problems—could prevent the company from adding additional stories to the building already on the site . . . Today’s meetings . . . The Saltillo district advisory group will meet at 11:30am in Board Room A of the Capital Metro building at 2910 E. 5th Street. They will discuss a draft report on options for disposition of the Saltillo district property. Both the Zoning and Platting Commission and the MBE/WBE Committee will meet at 6pm tonight. ZAP meets at One Texas Center and the minority contracting panel meets at the Department of Small and Minority Business Resources, 4100 Ed Bluestein Blvd., Training Room 1. The MBE/WBE committee will talk about a proposed change to the MBE/WBE Procurement Program Ordinance. The matter is on this week’s City Council agenda.

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