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Commission rejects changes for Riverside at I-35

Monday, August 30, 2004 by

Recommendation would leave corner single-family, local office

Last week, the Planning Commission rejected pleas from the owner of property at the southeast corner of Riverside and I-35 for a positive recommendation on his request to change his single-family zoning. J ohn Schuler was seeking a zoning change for 1405 and 1415 E. Riverside, which are currently zoned SF-3 and LO and contain some single-family homes and an insurance office. Schuler requested a change to GR-MU to allow the construction of shops at street level along Riverside and approximately 60 apartment units.

Agent Ron Thrower told commissioners that the time had come to allow Schuler to upgrade the property at one of the city's busiest intersections. "SF-3 is not right for property that has frontage on 75,000 vehicle trips per day," he said, referring to Riverside Drive. "It's also within 500 feet of 175,000 vehicle trips per day. We have a quarter-million cars within 500 feet of this property."

Although neighbors argued for keeping the existing zoning or allowing a maximum upgrade to LO, Thrower said that any construction done under the guidelines for the LO zoning category would likely wind up closer to the property line, potentially interfering with the views of neighboring homeowners.

"Anything less than GR-MU for this property is not going to warrant the excavation for the development," he said. "If it's going to be LO-MU, it's going to be built at grade and that's going to be a much more intrusive development to the neighbors up on the hill." The added density and uses under GR-MU, he said, would economically justify the excavation needed to "push the development as far way from the neighbors as can possibly be achieved."

But neighbors lined up to oppose the project for several different reasons. The hill at Riverside Drive, they said, helped buffer their neighborhood and they did not want to see any changes to the bluff. Although the address for the tracts is on Riverside, said Artoush Ohanian, "It is not on Riverside, it is actually above Riverside. That height insulates it from the street traffic of Riverside and joins it with the rest of the nighborhood, so it feels like the rest of the neighborhood."

While Thrower provided diagrams of how the development, with some excavation, could be positioned to avoid interference with the scenic views of nearby residents, neighbors were not convinced. "It is my belief that if this rezoning succeeds, it will be the catalyst for the neighborhood's demise, with further encroachment leading me and my neighbors wondering what happened to our quiet oasis," said William Jackson. Several other residents supported his view, including Dawn Cizmar, who complained about the potential traffic problems for the surrounding neighborhood if the Riverside and I-35 intersection had any more cars. "The traffic is already so bad in this area, that doing anything that would jeopardize it would affect all of Austin," she said. "It is not good for Austin. It's not appropriate for this area, which is historic, scenic and one of the few remaining jewels of the Austin Hill Country."

Thrower countered that his client was committed to preserving the neighborhood's views of the city, while trying to obtain a reasonable return on his investment in the property. "As far as the enjoyment that everybody has and the scenery, that serenity costs my client $50,000 a year in taxes," he said. "It's time to provide for some level of development for the property to get some revenue."

For Commission Chair Chris Riley, Thrower's proposal and design had merit. He urged neighbors to consider the design and to continue to work with the property owner. "I think if I lived in this neighborhood it would be very appealing to me," he said. "The neighborhood is currently involved a very intensive neighborhood planning process, and I remain naively optimistic about the prospects for some fruitful discussion between the neighborhood and the developer." The commission discussed postponing the case until the beginning of 2005 to allow for more time to work with the neighborhood, but that idea was ultimately rejected.

Commissioner Cynthia Medlin moved to deny the zoning change, and urged the property owner to consider a design that would not require excavation of the bluff. Commissioner Jay Reddy seconded the motion, with support from Commissioner Matt Hollon. "This is a super-intensive area. I'm very pro-pedestrian access, but I don't see this as losing an opportunity to anchor something along Riverside Drive," he said. "To think that we have to excavate back into the hill, essentially wipe out all of the natural assets of the site, to create a pedestrian-friendly environment is jarring to me."

But Commissioner Cid Galindo offered a substitute motion to support the zoning change. "While parts of the bluff are beautiful . . . the first impression of that corner when you approach from I-35 or the west side of riverside is really unsightly. If we're not committed to the excavation of the property to put something at the pedestrian level, we’re never going to get a pedestrian-friendly environment on Riverside. I think it's a black-and-white choice," he said. "If we want a pedestrian-friendly environment at the gateway to Riverside, we're going to have to excavate part of that bluff."

Commissioners Matthew Moore and John-Michael Cortez agreed. "I'm really convinced we do need to be promoting more mixed-use projects such as these in the urban core," said Cortez. "I know we want to be pragmatic about all of these things and take into account all of the circumstances. But I'm committed now that we need to see more of this kind of development, so I'm going to have to do something that's not going to be comfortable for me all of the time and that's go against what the neighborhood wants."

But the substitute motion to approve the zoning failed on a vote of 3-5. Medlin's motion to deny then passed on a vote of 5-3. Final approval or denial of the zoning change is reserved for the City Council.

ZAP chooses retail mixed-use for South Lamar

The Zoning and Platting Commission has voted to unify the zoning on several tracts along South Lamar. City staff recommended that the 3.8 acres between South Lamar, West Mary Street, and Evergreen Avenue be zoned CS-MU-CO. But the ZAP decided instead that the less intense retail mixed-use category (GR-MU-CO) would be better.

The ZAP initiated the case earlier this year after agent Jim Bennett requested an upzoning for one of the tracts to CS on behalf of a client. That request prompted a review of all of the tracts in the immediate area. ( See In Fact Daily, April 13th, 2004.) Following that review, staff supported the CS-MU-CO zoning with conditions for all of the tracts, which are currently zoned SF-3, CS-CO, and CS-MU-CO. "The site is located along a major arterial roadway," said Sherri Gager with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department. "The CS-MU-CO will allow the site to redevelop with mixed-use; providing additional office, retail, and residential uses in a heavily traveled area of the city."

Bennett also spoke up in support of the staff's suggestion. "The CS would make it more compatible for redevelopment," he said. "A lot of the property that's there is not current development, if you will. It's a lot of older stuff. I think, perhaps, it might entice someone to do a better overall development at the site. CS certainly appears to be appropriate when you look at the overall zoning pattern."

But Commission Chair Betty Baker pointed out that most of the existing uses on the tracts in question could be accomplished under GR, even though several tracts had the more permissive commercial zoning. Businesses in the area to be re-zoned include an auto repair shop, a printer supply store, an insurance office, beauty parlor, sign shop, pizza restaurant, and a tattoo parlor. "We're really doing them a favor, aren't we?" Baker said of the proposed unified up-zoning. Commissioner Melissa Whaley Hawthorne instead moved to zone all of the tracts GR-MU. "It's just so over-zoned that GR would really be more appropriate," she said. There is one existing CS use on the site that would be grandfathered if the change to GR is approved by the City Council.

The Commission voted 7-1 to support Whaley Hawthorne's motion. Commissioner Keith Jackson was opposed, and Commissioner Clarke Hammond was absent due to illness. Just before the close of the meeting, Bennett asked for a re-consideration of that decision. Bennett told In Fact Daily that while there was no opposition from property owners when the case was posted since it involved up-zoning or maintaining their current zoning, they would likely be opposed to a down-zoning from CS to GR. But the Commission declined to rescind its previous vote and reconsider the case.

Linda Curtis responds . . . In Fact Daily reported last week that Linda Curtis, who is heading up the petition drive to recall Mayor Will Wynn and Council Members Brewster McCracken and Danny Thomas, had asked fundraiser Alfred Stanley to join the team, despite their unfriendly history. ( See In Fact Daily, August 26, 2004.) Curtis sent the following email, “Since Alfred Stanley has apparently decided to communicate through In Fact his answer to my invitation to join me in the recall campaign of Will Wynn, I thought a response through In Fact was in order. When I called Alfred, he said he was extremely busy and couldn't get back to me until this weekend. He must have called you the minute he hung up! I was going to tell him that I thought that he must have been angered by Wynn's lone council vote against entering the county's lawsuit to stop the redistricting that harmed Democratic icon, Lloyd Doggett. ( See In Fact Daily, November 7, 2003.) I also knew that Alfred worked tirelessly against the proposed redistricting plan for many months. Likewise, Independent Texans, which I chair, worked very hard against the redistricting plan—an affront to 2/3rds of the voters in this state—indys and Dems. I thought this would possibly make Alfred and me "strange bedfellows" against Wynn. I guess I was wrong. But that doesn't change the fact there are many angered Democrats in Austin over Mayor Wynn's decision to side with Republicans on redistricting—who will work with us on the recall. Mayoral assistant Matt Curtis said his boss is the biggest one-time donor to the Travis County Democratic Party. However, since being elected Mayor, Wynn has made a big point of saying he is an independent . . . Today’s meetings . . . The Capital Metro board is scheduled to meet at 4pm today in Room 1.110 of the Joe C. Thompson Conference Center. The board chose to hold its meeting in a space larger than their own board room because they are expecting a larger than usual turnout for the meeting. Expect downtown rail boosters and those who want to see a spur for Robert Mueller to urge the board to extend the starter rail they are sure to approve to Seaholm and the RMMA area. In addition to the November commuter rail referendum, the board is set to talk about Cap Metro’s long-range transit plan . . . The Historic Preservation Task Force is scheduled to begin its second round of meetings at 5:30pm today in Room 240 of One Texas Center. They are set to consider “strengthening criteria, for historically-zoned properties, which means making it more difficult to win the designation. In addition, they are being asked to reconsider what criteria the city should use for tax exemptions for residential properties. The group, which will meet again Wednesday night, may also reconsider incentives for proposed local historic districts and try to come up with a formula to reduce residential tax exemptions without causing the elimination of historically-zoned properties . . . Also meeting today . . . The Electric Utility Commission’s Committee on the Holly Power Plant is set to meet at 6pm tonight at Town Lake Center . . . Speaking of energy . . . Public Citizen of Texas Director Tom “Smitty” Smith, Russel Smith, Executive Director of the Texas Renewable Energy Association and Walter Hornaday, president of Cielo Wind Power, are holding a press conference at 10am today to talk about the need for adopting a new federal renewable standard and how that would benefit Texas. The press event will be at 10am in the Speakers Committee Room at the State Capitol. For more information, call “Smitty” Smith at 477-1155 or Eric Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC at (202) 223-6133.

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