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No easy resolution for Rainey Street

Monday, October 25, 2004 by

Divided Council postpones action for two weeks

A philosophically divided Austin City Council has asked the staff of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department to provide more information about the consequences of proposals for rezoning the Rainey Street Neighborhood. The Council asked staff to return with information on how increased density in the area could affect possible financing for the Waller Creek Tunnel project and on a new option for saving some of the homes within the Rainey Street National Register Historic District on November 4.

Earlier this year, the Council asked staff for the proposal laid out at last week’s meeting. The plan calls for a major up-zoning of the land between Cesar Chavez and Town Lake near I-35, allowing for downtown style high-rise development on some tracts while limiting the height on others based on their proximity to Town Lake. The staff also came up with a list of incentives for developers to create a pedestrian-friendly environment.

During Thursday's public hearing on the zoning cases, several residents told Council Members that the conditions imposed by the staff's proposal would make it too difficult for developers to achieve the building heights normally associated with CBD, or Central Business District zoning. "We need to compete for the best developers by keeping requirements simple, avoiding any complex negotiations to buy building height with amenities. These are high-risk distractions that could add months to market deadlines and millions of dollars of interest," said Larry LeVieux, a resident of the Villas on Town Lake Condominiums.

"Having to buy building height and density actually could have the unintended consequence of discouraging the high-density that can be achieved only by building upward," LeVieux said, and he requested the Council to instead consider zoning the entire Rainey Street Neighborhood CBD. He suggested that developers would not need the city's incentives to create pedestrian-friendly projects that preserved the neighborhood's historic character. "Urban developers of the caliber we want have reputations they must safeguard in order to remain competitive," he said. "We will not need to coerce top-tier developers to design attractive streets and public plazas with trees and fountains, to emphasize energy efficiency, or to preserve views of Town Lake."

Developer Robert Knight, a long-time advocate for higher density in the neighborhood, joined him. "We all know the answer to sprawl is density. The southeast corner of downtown is the last available amount of land to bring the critical mass of residential that will make retail work without subsidies. We need to seize this opportunity because there aren't many like it in Austin," he said. "Under the staff's approach, the risk is that the developers we are looking for will be scared away by the prospect of spending all of their time and money before you and other boards and commissions."

Council Member Betty Dunkerley came out early in favor of zoning the area CBD without restrictions. "If I could adopt your plan right now, I would do it," she told LeVieux. "I do want density in that area. I think that it's an appropriate place for a very dense development, but I want a good development." She argued that unified zoning for the land would treat all residents equally, whereas an approach imposing more restrictions on certain tracts would result in dramatically different property valuations and a patchwork approach to development.

But other members of the Council feared that without the staff's conditions for reaching the maximum building heights, developers would not build the types of projects the city desires. "I don't think it's as easy as just saying 'everyone gets CBD', and that's it," said Council Member Raul Alvarez. "I think there are other goals we are also trying to achieve…protecting Town Lake…being sensitive about development along Waller Creek and around the Mexican American Cultural Center. We're closer than I think we've ever been to the zoning changes…but I believe there are a lot of different issues that are being balance here, and that we should try to figure out how, in good faith, to address those issues."

Council Member Brewster McCracken was more forceful in his argument against Dunkerley's suggestion for unified CBD zoning. He pointed to the original Council resolution, which had given the city staff instruction to return with the zoning proposal for the neighborhood. "We have six goals that we established in our previous vote," he said. "It appears from what I've learned this evening that we would not be able to achieve many of these goals, or perhaps none of them, if we go CDB without restrictions." McCracken reached his conclusion after a lengthy questioning of city staff about whether amenities such as the planting of street trees, preservation of existing trees, and construction of wider-than-normal sidewalks had been provided by other downtown developers without city incentives.

In February, the Council approved a motion asking various boards and commissions to “recommend a development incentive proposal for the Rainey Street area that promotes” five goals, the first of which was preservation of trees and the “unique and historic character of the area.” The Council also asked for “a strong, mixed-income residential component,” as well as a pedestrian-friendly environment, the use of green building techniques and “the use of urban design criteria that are typically included in the city’s performance-based economic incentive policies.” The same resolution noted that the Council had adopted a resolution more than five years ago directing the City Manager to facilitate discussions with Rainey Street residents “to develop land use objectives and priorities for the area.”

McCracken also called for more information on the impact that various levels of increased density of would have on property values in the Rainey Street area, and what impact those changes might have on tax revenues available for the proposed Waller Creek Tunnel project. He added, “I think we really have to get some more information on the potential of doing an historic enclave on parkland as opposed to on private property so that we don't burden some property owners disproportionately.” The staff's proposal called for creating an area within the neighborhood where historic buildings could be moved, but suggested two locations not owned by the city.

Among the five Council Members present for the discussion, only Mayor Will Wynn appeared to be solidly aligned with Dunkerley's desire for CBD zoning with few restrictions. "This is as rare an opportunity as this region is going to have to dramatically densify…and I will be very upset and disappointed if we lose this opportunity to take a swath of our downtown and densify it as best we can," he said. But Council Member Danny Thomas was more cautious, calling for further review. "The Mayor made a great point: it's a great opportunity and I don't think we should lose it," he said. "But I think we should also do it right. It's going to take some time and some meetings, and it's going to take some sacrifice from everybody to sit down and get where we need to get."

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman had to leave the meeting early, and Council Member Daryl Slusher abstained from the discussion because his brother-in-law's in-laws own property in the neighborhood. Any motion other than postponement would likely have failed, so, the Council voted 5-0 on Alvarez’ motion for a two-week delay and direction to staff to answer McCracken’s questions. Since the public hearing on the zoning cases has already been held, the items will be on the 4pm agenda next week along with other items from the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department.

Champions win ZAP support for removing trip limits

Commission also recommends more density

Last week, the Champion sisters were back before the Zoning and Platting Commission, winning approval for zoning changes on several tracts they own at the intersection of FM 2222 and Capital of Texas Highway. Those changes would allow the land to be more densely developed. The sisters' request involved the lifting of several restrictions the City Council imposed on the tracts in March of 2000 after a protracted debate with surrounding neighbors over the impact that developing the intersection would have on traffic.

The Council had decided on a limit of 6,500 trips per day for five tracts covering more than 200 acres. But attorney Michael Whellan of Graves, Dougherty, representing the sisters, told ZAP members those limits were both unreasonable and a violation of a settlement agreement the Champions have with the City. "We thought that over time we'd be able to demonstrate the validity of eliminating that trip limit," he said. "In the intervening four years we have had cases come and go on the consent agenda with little or no opposition up and down 2222."

The sisters attended last week’s meeting, with Josie Champion appealing to the ZAP to allow them to develop the land owned by their family for more than 100 years. "Our properties are now situated at the intersection of FM 2222 and Loop 360, a crossroads that is suited to—even designed for—intense development," she said. "The intersection is now a critical intersection in—rather than outside— the city, and demand for development in this area is great."

The Champions faced stiff opposition from surrounding residents and a negative recommendation from the city staff, which wanted an updated traffic impact analysis. The last analysis, said Case Manager Glenn Rhoades of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, had been done in 1999. "Because they are increasing intensity, we do need an amendment to the traffic impact analysis and that has not been done at this time," he advised. But Whellan pointed to the city's settlement agreement with the Champions and previous recommendations from city staff to support his contention that a new traffic study was not required. "In the absence of a new TIA, previous studies can provide a basis for an alternative recommendation," he said.

Neighbors pointed to the already grim traffic situation as a compelling reason to limit future development. "We've been struggling for almost a decade with what the Champions want versus the safety on the roadways our families must drive daily," said Lisette Schmidli. "The intersections at 2222 were rated as failing in the city's TIA as early as 1999, with approved traffic at 300 percent of capacity. Traffic has only gotten worse with new development since 1999." Other neighbors sympathized with the Champions' predicament, but urged commissioners to put the needs of the neighborhood first. "I don't blame the Champions for the condition that 2222 is in today. There's been a lot of contributing factors and growth for that," said Carol Lee. "I do think that the property the Champions control on all four corners of Loop 360 and 2222 puts them in a unique situation to either help, or make that situation worse. I just ask you to balance the request from the Champions…and the safety and concerns of the residents."

Commissioner Keith Jackson moved to delete the trip limit, which had been 782 trips per day, and eliminate a restriction on the amount of square footage devoted to retail on the first tract in question. His recommendation carried with it several conditions. The Champions will be required to update the TIA when a site plan is filed. They will also be required to provide an updated cost estimate of improving the roadways and post a fiscal surety bond at the time the site plan is filed or, in the case of single-family residential development, at the time of platting.

"Something has to be done to 2222 and 360," he said. "The codes and ordinances of the city require that developers, when that's identified, pay their money…pay their freight. In this instance, although the traffic problem is great, for these tracts…their contribution is very minor." Jackson's motion passed on a vote of 7-2, with Commissioners Clarke Hammond and John Philip Donisi opposed.

Jackson had similar recommendations for the other tracts, and those motions all passed on split votes of 7-2 or 6-3, with Commissioner Joseph Martinez joining Hammond and Donisi in opposition. For all of the tracts, the commission approved the addition of mixed-use zoning to the existing zoning categories. Whellan told Commissioners that townhomes or a retirement home would be options for the site. On one of the tracts, Whellan had requested a change from LR to GR, but Jackson’s recommendation was to keep the tract LR while adding the MU designation. While the commission agreed with most Whellan’s requests, with conditions, he was cautious in his assessment of the results. “We’ll have to evaluate what the ZAP approved and see how it meets the settlement agreement,” he said.

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Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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