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UT area plan gets commission's stamp of approval

Monday, May 3, 2004 by

Five or more dense projects await Council approval

The ambitious proposal for the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) is the result of almost two years of work from the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Planning Team.

Depending on who is asked, UNO is either a well-reasoned response to the pent-up demand for student housing in the West University area or an ill-conceived notion that will bring a high-density community choking local neighborhoods with unwanted traffic.

The Planning Commission’ s positive recommendation of UNO, along with three other neighborhood plans from the Central Austin area, is ready for City Council consideration.

These plans—and some surprising concessions to area developers—came with the Villas of Guadalupe. The upscale apartments on Guadalupe near 30th Street spurred the Central Austin Combining Neighborhood Planning process. But as Eastwoods neighborhood leader Lynn Team explained, the neighborhoods came in to take on the “rapacious and greedy” developers around the university as the “selfish nervous NIMBYs” in the homes around UT. City planners, they believed, were not to be trusted when it came time to sit down and negotiate.

Before it was all over, the neighborhoods figured out the city’s Neighborhood Planning and Zoning staff was competent and fair. And the developers, to the neighborhood’s surprise, also had some creative ideas for resolving the area’s problems, Team said. The result was a common vision and commitment for West University.

Under UNO, neighbors agreed to waive some height and impervious cover restrictions if developers were willing to offer 10 percent affordable housing, street-level retail, step-back buildings, pedestrian scale lighting and hidden trash dumpsters. The area also has its own design guidelines, developed by Cotera + Reed Architects.

Developer participation in UNO will be strictly voluntary. If all the guidelines are followed, high-rises could climb up to 175 feet in West University. That’s still a number of stories less than The Castillian, at almost 240 feet. A portion of the parking requirements will be waived, as they are in downtown, and impervious cover may be increased.

The West University area is poised for redevelopment. If the City Council approves UNO, at least five projects are on the drawing board for construction in the area. Don Wukasch, who owns property along Guadalupe and plans an 11-story high-rise in West University, participated in the planning process and urged the Planning Commission to adopt the guidelines. Wukasch would like to build a 120-unit condo project that is 130 feet tall.

Jeff Heckler represented the newly formed West University Neighborhood Association at the hearing. The new neighborhood association primarily represents existing property owners in the area. Heckler called the new density allowances “excessive” and said that the area around the UT already is clogged with congestion.

The Planning Commission unanimously supported UNO with some conditions. Those conditions included a reduction in parking requirements to 40 percent of the current requirement if the developer provided a car share program. The commission also requested some additional measures for affordable housing; an option to lease residential units with or without parking; and a 60 percent parking requirement for all other projects in UNO.

The plan, along with three other neighborhood plans, is scheduled to go to City Council for approval this week. Individual zoning cases within UNO – those cases where the owner disagreed with the city’s re-zoning designation – are still up for discussion. The Planning Commission worked on its recommendations for the area during a meeting that ended shortly before 2am last Wednesday

Board studying Robinson Ranch annexation

Plans include protection for critical water quality zones

The Environmental Board has assigned a subcommittee to review the city’s proposed annexation of the 6000-acre Robinson Ranch. The city is proposing to annex more than the family-owned land in Northwest Travis County and is working on a plan to control development in the area and protect critical environmental features.

The city’s proposal calls for a limited-purpose annexation to allow city regulation of zoning. But the owners would not begin paying city taxes until individual tracts are brought into the city’s full-purpose jurisdiction. That would occur on a tract-by-tract basis as the land is developed, which could take decades. The Robinson family has told city representatives their desire is to continue running the ranch along with several rock quarry operations.

At last week’s Environmental Board meeting, city staff outlined plans for protecting water quality as the land is developed. Much of the ranch is within the Desired Development Zone. The city’s plan includes protections for the Lake Creek Watershed, the Rattan Creek Watershed and the Walnut Creek Watershed. The proposal would prohibit development on any land within the Critical Water Quality Zone and effectively prohibit any development in a Water Quality Transition Zone. While development within a WQTZ is normally allowed at 30-percent impervious cover, the city proposal is to permit no impervious cover in those areas. Overall, the city plans to require that 30 percent of the land be preserved as open space. Much of that will come through protection zones around creeks and wildlife habitat areas.

From a zoning standpoint, the ranch is being treated as a Planned Unit Development, or PUD. That will allow for the clustering of development near key transportation points. City staff predicts that even though about 70 percent of the land in question could be developed, the actual impervious cover will be 47 percent. The staff also prepared a worst-case scenario in which all the land was developed under commercial standards. That scenario would yield 60 percent impervious cover under the proposed agreement. However, staff predicts that about 45 percent of the land will be residential, potentially housing 35,000 or more people.

A key provision of the proposed agreement provides for extra protection for larger environmental features while eliminating protection for smaller features. “The largest, most significant caves will be preserved. The agreement will protect caves with two acres of drainage area and 150 cubic feet of void space,” said Joe Pantalion, director of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department. That protection includes a setback of 300 feet upstream and 100 feet downstream around those features.

“The smaller features and the sinkholes are not protected as a trade-off for dedication of open space,” he said, referring to the proposal to keep 30 percent of the land undeveloped. “When you think about the benefits of the transition zone, that reduced impervious cover, the headwaters protection and the FEMA inundation (flood-prone) areas that will not be developed or modified . . . that is essentially the give-and-take in this agreement as far as the smaller features or sinkholes not being protected.”

That aspect of the proposal drew the most questions from Environmental Board members. They also had concerns about the long-term nature of the agreement between the city and the Robinson family. “This essentially locks us in . . . If they’re still building out 50 years from now, they would be essentially grandfathered in to 50-year-old rules,” said Karin Ascot.“There’s not really going to be any leeway to tighten up restrictions. If this proves to be insufficient levels of restriction, it’s too bad.”

The board’ subcommittee to review the proposal has already held its first meeting, and a meeting of the full Board has been scheduled for Wednesday of this week to allow for a vote on a recommendation to the City Council. The proposal will also go before the Zoning and Platting Commission. The Council will hold a public hearing on Thursday and is expected to hold another hearing later this month before voting on the annexation in June.

Fire department making strides in minority recruitment

A new group of Austin Fire Department cadets begins their training today. Of the 73 cadets in Class #108, 41 percent are either female or minorities. Department officials are attributing that percentage to AFD’s aggressive efforts to improve diversity.

“In the recent past, we have had a hiring process that was part of the Meet and Confer contract. This is the first class that we have hired under civil service law,” said Assistant Chief Rene Garza. “We had a fairly strong recruiting process. It did take just short of a year to recruit and process this group.” The contract arranged under Meet and Confer allowed the department some leeway in the hiring process, but since firefighters are currently working without a contract the department has reverted to state Civil Service law. That includes much stricter hiring procedures based on standardized tests.

The department sent its recruiting team to college campuses, military bases, community events and job fairs across the state. AFD also advertised on radio and television stations, and in newspapers and a national magazine targeting African-American customers. More than 3,600 applications came in and the department administered the Civil Service written examination to more than 1,800 applicants.

Fire Chief Gary Warren praised the department’s recruiters in a memo to Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman. Garza also pointed out the work done by existing firefighters. “The number one recruiters we have are the firefighters themselves that are out there in the field, who are proud of the work they do and the career they’ve chosen . . . they’re the voices that are out there recruiting individuals,” he said. “And right now, the way the economy is, there’s probably a lot of individuals that took a turn and recognized that a career in the fire service is stable; and it’s rewarding work.”

The current class has eight African-Americans, including the first African-American female applicant to be hired since 1979, along with two other women and fourteen Hispanic cadets. Of the six previous cadet classes recruited under the alternative rules allowed by Meet and Confer, only two had an equal or larger percentage of minorities and females.

Mitigation meeting . . . The Watershed Protection and Development Review Department will be hosting a presentation of its proposed mitigation policy from 4pm-6pm today in Room 104 of Waller Creek Plaza, 625 E. 10th St . . . Music options . . . Connie Wodlinger, of the managing partner Austin Music Partners, will address the Music Commission tonight about her plan to take over the Austin Music Network. She told a Council subcommittee last week that her associates would be willing to pump $25 to $30 million into the station within the next five years, if the city agrees to sell the station. (See In Fact Daily, April 29, 2004.) They will meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . Design Commission . . . Members will hear updates on a number of issues, including several items relating to Brush Square. Commissioners have expressed their disapproval of placing the historical Susanna Dickinson house on the same square as the O Henry Museum. They will meet in the 8th Floor Conference Room of One Texas Center at 5:45pm . . . More on Hamilton Pool Road dispute . . . Representatives of the LCRA will address members of the Save Barton Creek Association from 7-9pm tonight at Vinny’s on Barton Springs Road. The agency is considering extension of water service to the area. The plan has generated support from some landowners and opposition from others. The board of SBCA has not taken a position on the matter, but a number of members have expressed fears that the line would spur additional development in a sensitive area of the Barton Springs watershed . . . Early voting continues. . . After a weekend break, early voting polls will open from 7am to 7pm today at most locations . . . As of the close of day on Friday, fewer than 3100 voters had cast ballots in the election. The ballot includes a proposal to create a Travis County Health Care District and a proposal by firefighters to be allowed to engage in collective bargaining with the City of Austin. The Austin Association of Professional Firefighters gathered signatures to have a referendum on the issue. There appears to be no organized opposition to the proposal, but the American-Statesman has editorialized against it, claiming that it will hamstring the city in negotiations and cost more money than the Meet and Confer process, which is the current method of negotiation. Firefighters began a door-to-door campaign in support of the measure this weekend.

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