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ZAP not happy with plans for Rainey historic district

Monday, October 11, 2004 by

Some CBD zoning recommended, but not for potentially historic homes

The Zoning and Platting Commission has endorsed most, but not all, of the zoning changes proposed for the Rainey Street neighborhood. The commission voted to support CBD (Central Business District) zoning to allow high-rise residential and office development, with conditions, on land south of Cesar Chavez on the shore of Town Lake near I-35. But the commission omitted a key section of the neighborhood from that recommended upzoning, recommending instead, that part Rainey Street itself, which is listed as a National Register History District, be zoned GR-MU (General Retail, Mixed Use). The commission also wants a study of those properties within the historic district that could be eligible for local historic designation and a freeze on demolition permits for the district while the study is conducted.

In a series of motions covering multiple tracts, the ZAP consistently supported CBD-CO zoning for a majority of the neighborhood. That action excluded tracts already zoned CBD-CURE. For most of the tracts, the ZAP also recommended development regulations consistent with those found in the DMU (Downtown Mixed Use) zoning category. Those development regulations, along with conditions and incentives suggested by the staff, would limit the height on buildings closest to the shore of Town Lake, preventing the creation of a canyon effect near the water.

Most of the commission's discussion centered on how to protect the potentially historic homes on Rainey Street, and what level of protection was desirable. Commissioner Joseph Martinez asked his fellow commissioners to make broad recommendations for the neighborhood without getting into a detailed discussion of individual properties that may or may not be historic. "We're concerned about what I see as a small section of the downtown urban core," he said. "It's adjacent to the largest interstate highway in the United States. This piece of land wants to be something, but its physical geo-political position is going to drive that. While I want to be respectful of the history of this neighborhood, we on the dais up here aren't responsible for where that neighborhood sits today."

The neighborhood, Martinez predicted, was poised for more intense development. "Look at what has already gone in that neighborhood. They didn't build single family homes in the past two years—they built a major institutional cultural center," he said, referring to the Mexican American Cultural Center. "Let's look at the big issues and have some global recommendations." Martinez disclosed prior to the hearing that he lives in a neighborhood directly east of I-35 and that he is the chair of a neighborhood association. According to the city web site, Martinez is chair of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan Team. Fellow members of the commission said they felt that Martinez did not have a conflict of interest.

At the urging of Commission Chair Betty Baker, however, the commission proceeded to address staff recommendations on separate blocks of land, while excluding properties within the boundaries of the Rainey Street National Register Historic District.

The staff had offered two options for protecting some of the historic structures in the neighborhood, which involved creating an enclave at one end of the district and moving historic structures to a new location within a neighborhood. However, neither option found favor with members of the commission. Commissioner Keith Jackson pointed out that of the more than 30 structures within the National Register district, at most eight of them would fit on either of the sites identified by staff. "Whether we agree with it or not, it's a National Register Historic District," he said, calling for an option that would preserve more of the homes there. Commissioner Clarke Hammond agreed. "I'm a lover of historic homes, although it's sad to see the condition some of them are in," he said. Still, he argued for a solution that would make it more likely they would be preserved. "I'm uncomfortable having my name associated with a bulldozer coming through there and cleaning it out," he concluded.

Baker at first made a motion to send all of the properties in the national district to the Historic Landmark Commission to begin the process of city-initiated historic zoning cases. Commissioner Hammond seconded the motion. "Let's identify them. Let's address them," Baker said of the potentially historic properties in the area. "Let's see if the zoning process works, see if the owner wants it, see if the Council overrules valid petitions. Let's see what happens." She argued that a comprehensive study of those homes would be preferable to the piece-by-piece review that would otherwise occur. "They're going to face it now or later when they come in for demolition permits," she said. "So we may as well address it."

Baker's motion appeared to have enough support to pass, but comments from Commissioner John Philip Donisi caused her to withdraw her request. "I respect all your wisdom and knowledge on this. Recognizing what's been the fate of city-initiated historic zoning cases lately, the city needs to use that power wisely," he said. "But I'm going to support you because I respect all your wisdom and knowledge on this."

His reminder about the controversy surrounding cases initiated by the city and opposed by the property owners prompted Baker to change her mind. “If I were to wager, I would wager that there would be valid petitions on all of them," she said. She then withdrew her motion and Jackson offered a new one.

"I think we should ask for the Historic Landmark Commission to review and recommend structures that they think would meet the criteria for historic landmark designation," he said. "They would be stopping short of zoning them historic. But there would be a public record…that these structures could potentially be zoned historic." That will involve the research on each individual tract as if they were being presented for historic zoning, without actually initiating a zoning case. City staff and the HLC will be able to do that research but notification to the property owners will not be necessary, since no case is being initiated and the owners' property rights are not being affected. That research could take between 60 and 90 days.

In the meantime, commissioners offered several different suggestions for zoning the National Register Historic District. Jackson first made a motion to establish an enclave large enough to hold all of the properties in the district. But Donisi made a substitute to zone the district SF-3. "It's a slippery slope if we start changing National Register Historic Districts because of economic and redevelopment pressures," he said. "It's zoned SF-3. There are houses there," he said in defense of his motion. But Baker offered her own motion to protect the district by zoning it GR-MU and prohibiting the issuance of new demolition permits in the district until the ZAP and the City Council receive the analysis of the district back from the HLC. "This area, if it is going to survive as a National Register Historic District, is going to have to be economically viable," she said. "I'm trying to find fairness for the property owners there to be able to sell their properties or to be able to live there if they wish." The GR-MU would allow historic properties to be converted to commercial or office use, which have a higher value, while still maintaining the integrity of the structures. Baker's motion passed on a vote of 7-2, with commissioners Hammond and Martinez opposed.

The commission kept open the public hearing on general recommendations for the neighborhood, such as incentives for developers to comply with the Great Streets Program. They postponed a vote until their October 19 meeting.

ACC parking lot passes final city hurdle

Despite complaints from community activists, Austin Community College will be able to move forward with plans for a new parking lot at its Eastview Campus. The 370 new parking spaces will be available for students at the new Health Careers building, scheduled to open in spring of 2005, and to handle increased enrollment. The City Council last week upheld the conditional use permit granted by the Planning Commission for the parking lot despite an appeal from PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources).

"This particular case did not go through the Govalle Planning Review Team," PODER Executive Director Susana Almanza told the Council during her appeal. "We want to make sure that if there is a neighborhood plan and team in place, that process is adhered to." She also criticized ACC for its plans to pave over the existing open space. "ACC really only needs 65 parking spaces to open this facility," she said. "They also have a contract with the Millennium Youth Center for ACC parking … but they don't enforce that. We know, too, that parking is needed. But if you go through every one of ACC's campuses, you'll find that parking is needed in every ACC parking lot. So I think that ACC needs to get together and form a long-range strategy team to see how they are going to address the whole issue of parking." Almanza suggested that instead of a parking lot, ACC could build a parking garage to minimize the amount of open space that had to be paved.

One neighborhood resident, Abe Louise Young, told Council Members she had a problem with students parking on neighborhood streets, and also supported Almanza’s appeal. "What the residents want is a street that is not full of cars," she said. "We want the street zoned for residential parking only … and we do not want that parking lot built. The lot at the Millennium Youth Center is sufficient for those parking needs."

New ACC President Dr. Roberto Aguero responded that students, especially the many female students enrolled at nursing classes at the Eastview Campus, needed to be able to park close to the school. "Approximately 80 percent of our students at Eastview are students who drive to campus," he said. "Of our 2,800 students, about a quarter of them indicate to us that they are coming to campus from work. While we would love for them to take the bus to the college, they simply cannot."

He also pointed out that ACC had worked with PODER over the summer to modify the plans for the parking lot to protect more trees. "I am here tonight because I truly believe that … concerning the future of Austin, concerning the big picture, I truly believe that this parking lot will benefit the Eastview campus and most importantly its students and its neighbors. Thus, it will benefit East Austin's economic development and, of course, the city of Austin as a whole."

Some residents lined up to praise the college and its impact on the neighborhood. "I have nothing but pride in what ACC has done," said Mae Leonard. "I look out at the people … people who had no hope except welfare in greater East Austin, they now have hope. ACC is a source of pride. As I look at the campus, I see nothing but assets." Other neighbors conceded that the number of students parking on neighborhood streets was a problem, but concluded that a new parking lot should help improve the situation. "We are very supportive of ACC," said Gilbert Rivera. "We do have a need for more parking … trying to get on Webberville Road is incredibly difficult these days. You've got wall-to-wall cars on both sides. Hopefully, the parking lot will alleviate some of that."

The Council voted 7-0 to deny the appeal and allow ACC to proceed with the parking lot. Council Member Danny Thomas made the motion to deny, with direction to city staff to work with residents on issues related to parking. "It's really great to see the neighborhood turn out to support ACC," said Council Member Daryl Slusher. "It really is inspiring to have ACC there. I also want to note that PODER's appeal did result in a better project and in saving a number of trees."

Posting error . . . Last week the Historic Preservation Task Force postponed its hearing on planned changes to city regulations governing the Historic Landmark Commission, historic designations, and tax abatements for historic structures. The postponement was due to a posting error, said task force Chair Betty Baker. Yesterday, the city website showed the hearing would be at 6pm Tuesday night—with one part of the site indicating that they hearing would be at Katz's Deli on Sixth Street and the meeting agenda on another part of the web site showing the hearing would take place at the Kirby Hall School Cafetorium, 306 West 29th Street. Baker said the Kirby Hall location is correct . . . Baker still pondering . . . Last week when In Fact Daily reported on a list of probable Council candidates, the only person still in the " thinking about it " category was Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker. Baker said last night that she is still pondering the matter . . . If Baker does decide to get into the race she is likely to be running a crowded field; Margot Clarke, Mandy Dealey, Jennifer Kim, and Jeff Trigger have all but announced that they will run for the seat that Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman is likely to vacate next year. Technically, no one can announce until November, given the city's peculiar regulations governing City Council campaigns . . . Meeting tonight . . . The Board of Adjustment/Sign Review Board will meet at 5:30pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center. The CAMPO Transportation Policy Board is scheduled to meet at 6pm at the Joe C. Thompson Conference Center, but this meeting should be calmer than the previous two, since toll roads are not on the agenda. However, that will not stop anyone who wants to wait for the end of the meeting to speak during the time designated for citizens to address the board. . . . Un-Columbus Day celebration . . . The United East Austin Coalition will celebrate Dia de la Raza tomorrow, holding their 19th annual celebration at Red's Scoot Inn Patio, 13 08 East 4th Street from 7pm to 10pm. Among those being honored are Marie Martinez, secretary of the Ballet East Theatre Board and president of the Metz Recreation Center Advisory Board. Martinez has spent the last 30 years volunteering and raising funds for community and school-based programs. Others honorees include the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters, Grande Communications, and Travis County's Strategic Housing Finance Corporation . . . ACC helps Meals on Wheels . . . On October 22 and 23, Altruistic Maniacs, a small group of Austin Community College students, in cooperation with Wheatsville Food Coop, will hold a food drive at the store benefiting Meals on Wheels and More.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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