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Simplified Rainey St. plan wins support

Thursday, March 24, 2005 by

The Planning Commission agreed this week to support a proposal by Council Member Brewster McCracken to set only a handful of parameters on the zoning for Rainey Street properties.

Zoning for the downtown neighborhood is expected back before the City Council for second reading on April 7. On first reading, all property not already zoned Central Business District was zoned CBD, with the idea that there would be some tinkering before second reading. The current waterfront overlays also would apply, where applicable in the neighborhood.

A subcommittee of the Planning Commission considered and approved the McCracken proposal, which sets basic parameters on the CBD zoning in the neighborhood. Basically, all property would be zoned CBD and projects would be limited to an 8-to-1 floor-to-area ratio (FAR). Requirements would include a minimum building height of 50 feet and flexible ground-floor construction. Garages would have flat floors, with a minimum height to support possible conversion. Drive-in services would be prohibited and historic structures would be preserved on-site or relocated to city-owned property in the area.

Those projects meeting Great Streets standards would be permitted 12-to-1 FAR, although that density would be highly unusual. For example, the new Frost Bank building is only 10-to-1 FAR. The commission also approved a proposal by Council Member Raul Alvarez to require sidewalks of not less than 10 feet in width on both sides of the street along the two major entrances into Rainey Street.

In a presentation to the Planning Commission, Alvarez said developers would have to meet minimum standards to earn 60 feet in height and then additional density if the developer could earn 65 points on a 100-point scale of various options.

Alvarez did touch on one of the key issues for the commission, which was the inclusion of affordable housing in multi-family projects. Alvarez’s requirement was 10 percent available at 80 percent of median family income. He also recommended current waterfront overlay regulations, a minimum 10-foot setback along Red River Street with building base wall height limited to 45 feet and 15-foot setback at maximum base wall height. Within 50 feet of the right-of-way of River Street, the height would be 50 feet.

The option standards on the 100-point system include flexible ground floor space, Green Building standards, open space, proper orientation and underground parking.

After some discussion, the Planning Commission favored the less stringent zoning requirements. Part of that probably came from the fact that Chair Chris Riley also served on a Downtown Commission when they made zoning recommendations for Rainey Street. The Downtown Commission abandoned more rigid requirements on CBD zoning when developers said that building was all but impossible under such constraints.

Area property owner Perry Lorenz, who serves on the Downtown Commission but recused himself from the Rainey Street discussion, said that the sheer price of the property along Rainey Street – which may end up being $100 per square foot – would drive owners to find the best use for the property. No developer would put up a high-rise without some consideration of Great Streets and tree and street treatments.

“You need to rely on people’s good sense,” Lorenz said. “We have a lot of good projects downtown with wonderful wide sidewalks and street trees, and that was an entirely voluntary Great Streets Program.”

The commission agreed to maintain the 10 percent affordable housing requirement after some discussion of various options at various heights. Principal Jamil Alam of Trammell Crow said maintaining any level of affordable housing in a high-rise property is difficult, given the cost of construction and limitation of the pool of buyers.

“Austin is untested but it’s not a real deep market,” Alam said. “Miami can put in thousands of high-rise residential units because there’s a market that supports that type of product in a very meaningful way. In downtown Austin, we’re still very untested.”

The cost of 10 percent affordable units in a high-rise – and not simply the basic garden-style apartment property in the market – has to be passed on to the 90 percent of the market-value units on the building. Those that do not want to provide the units can pay a fee that would be equal to 50 cents per square foot of rentable space in the property.

Green groups say city should swap with Stratus

Block 21 and/or Seaholm for Barton Creek Properties

Three local environmental organizations have asked the City Council to consider exchanging land or development rights in Block 21 and/or Seaholm for land owned by Stratus Properties, one of the bidders for redevelopment of both tracts.

Chris Lehman, chair of the local Sierra Club, Harold Daniel, president of the Save Barton Creek Association, and Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance sent a letter to the Mayor and Council Wednesday, making their case for linking the goals of saving the Barton Springs watershed and creating a dense, mixed-use downtown. They expressed special interest in Section N of Barton Creek Properties. That tract, the letter says, “is important to protecting the Barton Creek greenbelt. Sycamore Creek and other tributaries in Section N drain to Barton Creek above the Sculptured Falls and Twin Falls swimming holes. The environmental community is concerned, lest planned commercial developments and golf courses be built on Section N and seriously degrade Barton Creek downstream.”

“While perhaps offering additional complexities to the downtown negotiations, pulling off an exchange of downtown properties for Barton Creek land or conservation easements would be a bold move to make true “smart growth” a reality,” according to the three environmental leaders. They also argued that the land swap “could speed up progress on building a quality downtown project,” by sparing Stratus the need to invest money up front. “Bringing these projects on line faster would speed up the new tax base and jobs that the downtown plans represent. This may ultimately do more for the City’s long-term financial picture than a one-time infusion to the City’s General Fund would do in the short term. At the same time, the City could add a new crown jewel to the Barton Creek greenbelt affordably, with no cash outlay.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher said late Wednesday, ““I think they make some good points. I’ll look into it.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said, “It’s a legitimate issue.” However, she said it might be very difficult to evaluate the value of the Barton Creek property. She recalled that SOS had originally opposed making an agreement with Freeport-McMoRan, which owned Barton Creek Properties before Stratus. That agreement would have included setting aside some of the same land for mitigation purposes, she said.

In addition to Stratus, AMLI Residential Properties and Zydeco Development Corp., also made proposals on Block 21 in February. Four groups made proposals for the Seaholm project, including Seaholm Power, Faulkner, Stratus/Trammell Crow, and Seaholm Venture Group. All of the proposals are available for public viewing at City Hall from 8am to 5pm weekdays and until 8pm when the City Council, the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission are meeting. The city has not made a decision on whether to sell or lease the property. Last summer, Cypress Real Estate Advisors, Inc., the landowner developing Rock Creek subdivision in northern Hays County, offered to trade some land to the city for Block 21, but their bid was considered “non-responsive.” ( See In Fact Daily, August 23, 2004, August 25, 2004.)

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Music Network blues. . . Austin Music Network GM Louis Meyers told the Council Committee for Telecommunications Infrastructure yesterday that the city's decision to delay the start-up of the new music channel run by the Austin Music Partners (AMP) is creating more headaches for ACTV, which is programming AMN on Channel 15. Since the City has granted the privately-run music network an extension on its start date until June 1st, Meyers said, money that the AMP had agreed to pay ACTV is also on hold. "We were quite dismayed to find out after the fact that the $100,000 that ACTV had been expecting by March 1st has been delayed," said Meyers. "ACTV could really use that money." . . . Candidate dropping out? . . . One forum organizer has told In Fact Daily that Place 1 candidate James Paine indicated to her that he plans to withdraw from the race. Paine has not actively campaigned or made an appearance at any of the forums or endorsement meetings. The active candidates are Lee Leffingwell, Casey Walker, Andrew Bucknall and Scott Williams . . . Today’s forum . . . The Austin Area Human Services Association will hold a City Council candidate forum at 11:30am today at Nuevo Leon on East 6th Street . . . City sued . . . Stefan Wray is the lead plaintiff in a suit filed against the City of Austin that relates to allegations of police brutality during an anti-war demonstration. Wray and others say their constitutional rights were violated when they were sprayed with Mace or a similar chemical as they filmed the demonstration. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing the plaintiffs . . . Council meeting . . . City demographer Ryan Robinson will report on Austin’s African-American Scorecard and APD will discuss a plan of action relating to recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum at 2pm . . . Zoning West Austin . . . The Council has approximately 15 cases today from the Old West Austin Neighborhood. Even though the Gables at Westlake is listed on today’s agenda, the parties have been talking and are expected to ask for the cases to be postponed. No one is wildly optimistic that the two sides will actually reach an agreement on allowing apartments in this upscale neighborhood . . . The 6pm public hearing on design standards will be put off to April 14. . . Oops, not here . . . It seems the upscale, spacious, media-friendly Council Chambers in the new City Hall has spoiled some members of the city’s Environmental Board, as well as at least one member of the news media. Last night’s Environmental Board meeting was scheduled at One Texas Center on Barton Springs Road—the board’s regular meeting site for several years—because of a scheduling conflict in the new building, where they have held their last two meetings. However, at least two members of the board, as well as a usually reliable In Fact Daily reporter, showed up at City Hall just about 6pm, only to be told they were in the wrong place. A quick trip across the bridge found the rest of the board members meeting in a somewhat cramped room on a floor under renovation, complete with strong paint fumes and the sound of power drills periodically drowning out the meeting. Makes us wonder how we ever got along without the new City Hall.

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