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More than 5000 Austinites weigh in on commercial design

Thursday, April 15, 2004 by

McCracken enthusiastic about possible design standards

City planners have seen more than 5,000 responses to a website survey on possible design standards for commercial properties.

That makes the online survey the most popular survey the city has ever offered. Planner Katie Larsen won’t reveal the results until the survey is completed, but says the survey got a range of responses from both the real estate community and residents. Today is the deadline for taking the survey, which can be found at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/planning/cd_intro.cfm.

Council Member Brewster McCracken presented an upbeat speech on design standards to the Real Estate Council of Austin earlier this week. He said Austin had the lowest design standards in the region, behind both Leander and Round Rock. He added that design standards would be a victory for the business community and residents. McCracken did his best to shoot down some of what he called the myths on commercial design standards:

• Design standards would make everything look the same in Austin. Far from it, McCracken said. By upgrading design standards, the city can have more interesting and unique building designs, not unlike Rollingwood. It would also guarantee that buildings could be re-used after the original tenants move out.

• This is the City of Austin’s effort to ban big box stores. Nonsense, McCracken said. Design standards are more about the form of the building rather than the user that will go inside the building. The city is trying to achieve buildings that have value beyond the current users, with a focus on the structure of the building itself.

• Design standards will drive national retailers out of Austin. If that were true, then national retailers would be avoiding Round Rock and Cedar Park. Both McDonald’s and Wal-Mart are currently running ad campaigns that tout their community-friendly buildings.

McCracken said that Austin design standards, if approved by the Council, would constitute the best practices of design standards around the country. They would reflect the character of Austin without compromising profits, he said. The City Council is scheduled to make its decision on whether to allow the institution of design standards by the end of May. If the idea of standards is accepted, McCracken wants to invite planner Robert Gibbs to town to create “top-flight design standards that make economic sense.” Resulting proposals would then be taken back to the Council.

McCracken is enthusiastic about the city’s efforts to create corridor plans, citing a corridor plan in Arlington, Virginia, for the Columbia Pike that led to $300 million in new permits. The city will select three corridors this fall for such planning.

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor reported that developers would accept higher design standards only if the community insists they do, McCracken said. The city’s job is to set those standards.

Planner Scott Polikov joined McCracken on the dais. He is working with Leander to upgrade its design standards. Polikov told the audience that Austin must do a better job of designing the city’s built environment. For instance, he called requirements for first-floor retail shortsighted. Instead, a city should require usable space. Polikov showed examples in Southlake, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina. He said that each city must set standards that recognize and meet opportunities. “One size fits all” does not fit when it comes to design standards, Polikov said.

Casa de Luz wins parking variance at BOA

After months of discussion, debate and delay, the Parkside Community School and Casa de Luz restaurant received a parking variance from the Board of Adjustment (BOA) on Monday. The board’s decision means the school and restaurant will have to find 47 off-site parking spaces to go with the 2 spaces on-site. While that’s a decrease from the 60 spaces required by City Code, it’s significantly more than any of the previous proposals put forth by the Shambala Corporation, which operates the school and restaurant combination. The motion approved by the board allows the spaces leased by the school to be farther than 1,000 feet away, which is the upper limit normally allowed for off-site parking under the city code.

The board heard a recap of the long-running case before taking its vote. Kent Butler, an Associate Professor at UT, represented Parkside. He told board members that the school’s failure to comply with parking regulations was inadvertent and posed no significant threat to the surrounding neighborhood. He also argued that the school and restaurant would not need the number of parking spaces specified by code, since the families who visited the facilities run by the Shambala Corporation tended to use alternative transportation in accordance with the ecological values embraced by both Casa de Luz and the Parkside Community School. “It is an opportunity for many organizations to spend their time in a collaborative way and for their patrons to come in and enjoy sustainable lifestyle practices,” Butler said of the complex at 1701 Toomey Road. “The dining facility supports local organic farming. Many of the people that travel there take bicycles or the bus. It is a clientele that is oriented toward sustainable living, toward urban living with pedestrian and bicycle modes of transportation.”

The mission of Parkside and Casa de Luz drew enthusiastic support from Board Member Frank Fuentes. “One, they encourage bicycling. They encourage people not to drive,” Fuentes said. “We get parking variance requests all the time. We grant them all the time. This is an organization that’s non-profit that encourages people not to drive. We should be looking at something like this for a model,” he concluded, announcing his support for the variance.

Although the school had hundreds of signatures on a petition in support of the parking variance, and Butler told Board members they had received email from thousands of people backing their request, some of the closest neighbors along Toomey Road have consistently opposed it. Sarah Crocker, representing commercial property owners along Toomey Road, told Board members that parents visiting the school and customers dining at the restaurant definitely did have an impact on the neighborhood. “To say that what’s happening at Casa de Luz doesn’t affect adjacent property owners is simply not true. It is an inconvenience and a problem and a safety issue for everyone who is around here,” said Crocker, who presented pictures of the surrounding area as evidence of the congestion caused by parked cars. “This is a situation that can be fixed. It can be addressed. The way to fix this is to either purchase or lease property adjacent to the school and build a parking lot. It’s pretty simple. We don’t have a problem with Casa de Luz at the school. Nobody wants them to go away. We want them to come into compliance and relieve the congestion and the problems that are occurring.” Representatives of the Zilker Neighborhood Association also opposed the variance, telling Board members they believed the school should not receive favorable treatment over other businesses in the area.

Board Chairman Herman Thun agreed that both the school and surrounding property owners should receive fair treatment. “I do think it’s important that everybody in the city try to do their level best to uphold the rules and regulations of the city. If we don’t, we get anarchy,” he warned. But he also noted that providing relatively minor variations to those rules was the reason the BOA existed. “Here’s a case where somebody has made a reasonable effort to overcome what they did not do right over a period of time,” he said, adding that he was satisfied that the parking spaces arranged by the school were satisfactory even though they were more than 1,000 feet away. “I think 49 (parking spaces) in lieu of 62 . . . we’ve done a whole lot worse than that.”

When Thun paused to make his findings of fact to support the variance, supporters of the school erupted in applause, prompting a rebuke from the Chair. “I really dislike the applause, because I’m on both sides of this one. I think the people who spoke in opposition spoke eloquently about some real issues here. I don’t think anyone can deny that this very good program has grown, but it has grown in spite of the rules and regulations of the City of Austin.” Thun also warned that the variance granted to the school would likely generate similar requests from other landowners in the area.

The vote in favor of the variance was 4-1, with vice chair Betty Edgemond opposed. “There’s probably three or four thousand people that will be really happy as soon as they find out,” said Kent Butler. “This is a remarkable community that represents a large segment of Austin that’s trying to do the right thing, and some of the rules can be a little rigid. Tonight was a step in the direction of making the rules work for people instead of against what Austin is all about.”

However, the long-running debate over parking in the neighborhood may not be over. Crocker told In Fact Daily her clients were strongly inclined to appeal. Either side in the dispute has 30 days to file for a reconsideration of the BOA decision. That appeal would then go back to the board. Under state law, any subsequent appeal is handled at the District Court level.

Design Commission offers services

Panel ready to help with successor to Smart Growth

The Design Commission would like a role at the table when the city fully implements the incentive program that will replace Smart Growth.

Last week, commissioners drafted a letter to Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office Director Sue Edwards. In the letter, the Design Commission expressed its desire to serve as a resource for any future incentive program. The Design Commission’s philosophy is that good design contributes to the economic value of a project. And the city is currently shopping two projects where design will be crucial: the development of Block 21 and the redevelopment of the Seaholm Project. Both projects are intended to go before the Council in the coming months.

A new matrix for incentives—actually two matrices—will go to the Council in May. The matrices will present the new focus for the city, which is to provide incentives to those companies and projects that generate new jobs for the city.

The overall framework for the city’s new economic development program was approved last June, Edwards said. Under the framework, the city could use either performance-based economic development grants or tax-increment finance districts. Both would yield abatements when a project performed, in terms of either jobs or tax value. Smart Growth, on the other hand, focused on the projects coming into the city’s core. Points on the matrix were weighted more heavily toward design.

The Domain’ s agreement was approved under such an arrangement, using a draft copy of the matrix, Edwards said. Tax dollars would flow to the city and be returned to Endeavor Real Estate when The Domain meets the criteria set out in the agreement with the city.

The plan that will go to the Council in May will focus on larger companies, those “big gets” the city might want such as a Toyota or a Motorola. That matrix will focus on the number and type of jobs the company would bring to Austin. Other broader concepts, such as involvement in the community, will also be measured.

The second matrix will focus on development projects, specifically mixed-use development projects with a residential component. These are not the everyday retail projects that come to Austin, Edwards said.

“We can’t give it to everybody,” Edwards said. “What we’re really looking for is a new kind of mixed-use development, one where they put money into landscaping and into infrastructure, something that’s significant to the city.”

Edwards said she could see the Design Commission playing some role under the development project matrix.The Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office has already forwarded a copy of the matrix to Austan Librach, director of the Transportation Planning and Sustainability Department. Edwards expects certain design criteria to be incorporated into the matrix: a “destination feel,” coordination with a transportation mode, wide sidewalks and exceptional lighting and landscaping.

Bank robbery news conference today . . .The Austin Police Department, the FBI and the Attorney General’s Office plan to talk to the media about the rash of bank robberies in Austin. They’ll be at the LCRA building at 10:30am . . . Today’s City Council meeting. . . The usual assorting of zoning and purchasing problems are listed, although nothing looks like it would generate a big crowd. The Council will hear a three-year financial forecast at 2pm. At 3pm Council members are scheduled to hear about proposed revisions to the city’s Cultural Arts Funding Program . . . Council Member Raul Alvarez has been working hard on this one behind the scenes to make sure that groups currently receiving funds do not face a drastic reduction next year. In order to do that, he has made three basic recommendations to the Council. Those include increasing the maximum request for project support from $50,000 to $75,000; increasing the amount which applicants for “institutional support” can apply for from 25 percent to 35 percent of their overall budget; and stipulating that no arts group may win more than a 15 percent increase in any given year. The latter recommendation, he believes, would safeguard against drastic cuts for other funded projects. Alvarez told In Fact Daily that the new system is supposed to streamline the funding process and eliminate some of the politics . . . Notes from the Planning Commission meeting . . . A hearing on the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan, scheduled for this week, was rescheduled for the April 27th Planning Commission meeting at the request of the neighborhood. The Central Austin planning area is bounded by 38th Street and 45th Street to the North, and Dean Keeton Street, 27th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to the south. Lamar Boulevard is the western boundary and I-35 is the boundary on the East . . . North Loop neighbors who showed up to protest plans for a mixed-use development on East 51st Street were disappointed at this week’s Planning Commission meeting. A posting issued forced the city to reschedule the matter to May 5.

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