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Design standards' evolution continues

Tuesday, April 19, 2005 by

Charrette planned for Thursday

One more draft of the commercial design guidelines was completed on Monday, giving the Design Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission another chance to review changes before Council Member Brewster McCracken’s community charrette scheduled on Thursday.

Design Commission Chair Richard Weiss and Commissioner Girard Kinney served as stakeholders representing that panel in the drafting process. Weiss chaired the subcommittee on building standards. Kinney has been active on the sign standards issue. Weiss stressed the flexibility of the building standards portion of the recommendations, which would give the Design Commission, among others, the authority to recommend more flexible treatment of building design if there were “compelling design issues.”

Weiss called it “giving the benefit of the doubt” to those buildings that comply with the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law. Kinney said such flexibility gave latitude to those buildings that might fail to meet one aspect of the design guidelines because of a need to meet others.

Weiss also stressed the flexibility of the code in its “good” for “bad” design trades. Those who drafted the design guidelines wanted to encourage good design rather than “force you to follow any set of rules in terms of design,” Weiss said.

To that end, the commercial design guidelines outline “discouraged” design standards that are assigned negative point values by the city. A developer can address those negative points by offering to do a combination of things that are “preferred” by the city. It’s trade-offs rather than prohibitions.

Design guidelines apply to commercial non-office projects of greater than 10,000 square feet. Among the “discouraged” design modes are facades of more than 200 feet without an entrance every 75 feet; one-story buildings more than 20 feet tall from floor to ceiling; commercial retail pad sides; false fronts or parapets used to house a corporate logo; concrete block used on more than 25 percent of the façade visible to the public; individual uses of more than 100,000 square feet; and the use of EIFS, or synthetic stucco, material on the ground floor.

Those options, of varying values, that could balance or negate the “discouraged” design modes would include Green Building designs; improved storefront appearance; compliance with neighborhood design guidelines; and improved façade articulation. The use of vertical mixed-use projects could add a total of three points.

Architect Phil Reed said the exclusion of office buildings was a major sticking point on the commercial guidelines proposal. Office users did not consider themselves invited to the process and, hence, those standards were struck from the regulations.

Members of the Zoning and Platting Commission serving on a special task force also got their first look at the revised Commercial and Retail Design Standards last night.

"The staff has done a great job," said Commissioner Joseph Martinez after reviewing the newest proposals. "There's a lot of good work here." The full ZAP Commission is scheduled to receive a presentation on the changes to the proposal tonight. The proposals are still in the form of a policy document, not as new ordinances, and those items eventually approved by the City Council will need to be sent to the staff and the city Legal Department for drafting and legal review.

While commissioners were generally impressed with the amount of work put into the new proposals, they also had some questions and concerns. Commissioner Melissa Whaley Hawthorne suggested that the city could provide stronger incentives for developers to comply with the new guidelines once they are adopted. She also requested ways for the city to prompt national retail or restaurant chains to avoid using their standard designs.

Agent Ron Thrower also attended the meeting, requesting clarification on several points, including how the new guidelines would impact development projects already underway. Staff's response was that projects already in progress would not be subject to the new guidelines.

George Adams with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department told commissioners the latest revisions were the result of feedback from stakeholders and the various boards and commissions that had reviewed the proposal over the past few weeks. "It's obviously more permissive," he said of the new document. "There's more flexibility. There's been a lot of compromise."

The city is planning a charrette on the new proposals this Thursday from 1:30pm to 5:30pm in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall. City staff will present a series of "what if" scenarios, including several actual site plans, to see how they would fare under the new guidelines.

Aquifer board OKs rainwater demo system

Common sense, low tech approach described

With the unusual abundance of rain in the last few months, area lakes and aquifers are full right now. But those who live in Central Texas know that another dry spell may be just around the corner, and when it comes, they’ll wish they had saved up some of that water when it was plentiful.

That’s the theory behind the Barton Spring-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board’s approval last week of plans to install a rainwater collection system at its headquarters building in Manchaca. Board members hope to demonstrate the value of rainwater collection to conserve water—as well as money—and convince homeowners and businesses within their purview to consider installing one.

The board heard a presentation from Bill Coons, who has been installing rainwater collection systems for 20 years. “It has been the sole water source at my house for 20 years,” he told the board, “but you need to know how to do it. You can use the water collected for yard watering or your entire water supply, depending on how you set up your system.”

Coons said there are a number of variables in how a system is set up that can affect the cost. “You can have an engineering firm set it up based on a formula calculating how much water you will need during a drought period, but that can get very expensive,” he said, noting that some systems can run $10,000 or more. “I prefer to use a common sense, low tech approach that accomplishes the same thing but at a much lower cost. Many homeowners find that $10,000 to $20,000 for a system is cost prohibitive.”

The demonstration system that Coons proposed would collect rainwater from about 20 percent of the roof area of the BSEACD building, which is very similar in size and construction to a single-family home. “The larger systems may call for a 3,000 to 5,000 gallon tank, but the most efficient size, costwise, is between 1,100 and 1,500 gallons,” he said. Coons said a basic system utilizing the 1,500-gallon tank costs about $800.

“That system uses a polyethylene tank, which isn’t pretty, but is very durable,” he said. “It won’t break, and it’s much cheaper than the Fiberglas models that some engineers recommend. They’re trouble free with zero maintenance, and they are relatively vandalism-proof.”

Coons’ cost figures assume that the house already has rain gutters, and that a metal roof will eliminate the need for expensive filtering systems. “Composition roofs don’t work well at all,” he said. “The texture tends to trap dirt and other particles, and there can also be a petroleum residue.”

In order to keep contaminants out of the system, a $75 spring-loaded valve will bleed off the first 100 gallons after a rain, then opens, allowing clean water into the tank.

A group of about 20 volunteers will help install the system at the BSEACD office, under Coons supervision. Board members approved the project 5-0.

Design paper addresses new urban concepts

Group addresses affordable housing as part of monograph series

Urban design concepts such as transit-oriented development and community land trusts create options for affordable housing in the city’s urban core, according to a draft of a monograph the Design Commission currently is reviewing.

The Design Commission will produce a series of position papers on the urban environment as its major work product this year. The monograph on affordable housing, still under review, stresses the need to integrate affordable housing into the urban core. Themes of the monograph include increased density in the urban core, with regulations and incentives applied uniformly across the area.

The monograph supports ideas such as transit-oriented development and the inclusion of two-family residential units on single-family lots. The commission also supports mixed-use projects that promise residential units closer to other uses. Commissioner Girard Kinney said the most promising method was the community land trust.

“They can become sustainable,” Kinney said. “The methodology is using a non-profit, owning the land and keeping the land, only selling the unit.”

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez’s (D-Austin) House Bill 525, which won approval from the Urban Affairs Committee last week, creates a homestead land trust in East Austin. A tax-increment finance district would purchase the land and provide seed money for development. The land bank would purchase foreclosed properties in the East Austin neighborhood. Rodriguez said the bill has been sent on to the Calendars Committee for consideration by the full House. (See In Fact Daily, April 6, 2005.)

In the monograph, the Design Commission says the subsidy required for affordable housing remains its biggest obstacle, an increasing challenge given the shifts in federal funding to support affordable housing initiatives. The commission encouraged the city to develop incentive programs to defray the escalating cost of development in the urban core.

Commissioners also support the concept of sustainability, the need to support higher-quality construction. “Sustainability in the built environment has become critical as our resources become scarcer, and affordable housing quality is often a casualty of this cost dilemma,” according to the three-page monograph.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Downtown zoning . . . Schlosser Development, which built the new Whole Foods at 6th and Lamar, is seeking a zoning change from CS (Commercial Services) to PUD (Planned Unit Development) at the same location. The change would allow Broadcast Financial Services Inc. to move in . . . Zoning change requested for aquifer tract . . The Zoning and Platting Commission is scheduled to consider whether to recommend rezoning for the Murphy Tract, 5029 Southwest Parkway, tonight. The land, which is over the recharge zone of the Edwards Aquifer in the Barton Springs watershed, is currently zoned DR (Development Reserve). The applicant is asking for GO (General Office), LO (Limited Office) and RR (Rural Residential), with only a small portion to be residential. The tract nearly surrounds another tract with office zoning and is across the highway from Travis Country. Staff notes indicate the property is subject to the SOS Ordinance and within an endangered species survey area . . . Wal-Mart at Rock Harbour . . . Although the matter is scheduled for a hearing this evening, attorney Richard Suttle says he will ask for a postponement on his request for a positive recommendation for cut-and-fill variances for a Wal-Mart at 8201 N. FM620. The commission will meet at 6pm tonight in the City Council chambers . . . Other meetings . . . The Planning Commission Codes and Ordinances Committee will meet at 6pm in Room 2017 of City Hall. They will discuss proposals for commercial and retail design standards and rules to implement the University Neighborhood Overlay . . . The Resource Management Commission will meet at 6:30pm in Room 1101 of City Hall . . . Keeping up with the candidates . . . Three candidate forums will keep those running for the City Council busy on the eve of the first day of early voting. They will be asked to discuss arts issues at a community candidate forum at 5:30pm at Nuevo Leon. Then, at 7pm, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) will host a forum at Zavala Elementary School, 310 Robert Martinez. At 8pm, the Milwood Neighborhood Association will hold a candidate forum at the Milwood Library at the intersection of Amherst and Adelphi. Early voting starts Wednesday. . . . Round Rock ISD forums. . . Voters in the Round Rock Independent School District will have several chances to hear the candidates over the next two weeks. Forums are scheduled beginning at 7pm tonight in the Round Rock City Council Chambers (221 E. Main St.), hosted by the Round Rock Leader; 8:30am Friday at Forest Creek Elementary (3805 Forest Creek Dr., Round Rock), sponsored by the Forest Creek PTA; 7 pm on April 25 at Ridgeview Middle School (2000 Via Sonoma Trail, Round Rock), sponsored by the PTAs/PTSAs of the Stony Point Learning Community; and 7:30pm April 26 at Forest North Elementary School (13414 Broadmeade, Austin), sponsored by the Round Rock Talented and Gifted Association. Go to for more information.

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