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Despite neighborhood objections, Planners OK zoning for convenience store
North Austin residents packed Tuesday night's meeting of the Planning Commission to tell stories of the prostitution and drug abuse plaguing their area. Residents were divided over whether those problems would be aggravated or alleviated by the addition of a new convenience store on a currently-vacant lot at 9117 Northgate Boulevard, less than 300 yards from an existing convenience store. The owner of the vacant lot, who already operates one convenience store in North Austin, was seeking a zoning change for the vacant one-acre tract from MF-3-NP to LR-NP in order to allow him to build another store.For the customers of the existing store, owned by Syed Asif Shamise, a new store at 9117 Northgate can not come soon enough. They complained about the closest store to the neighborhood, run by a competitor of Shamise's, which they said was poorly stocked, generated trash and litter, and had poor customer service. "I frequent the other store that this gentleman (Shamise) owns. The store is always kept clean and their trash is always picked up. Their items are stocked daily and priced reasonably for the consumer. The new store is going to be convenient for both morning and evening stops," said Gerri Delgado. "We have another store in the area, and it's hard to get in and out of. Not only that, but the store is very poorly kept. Their parking lot is always a mess." Other neighbors said the currently-vacant MF-3 lot targeted for a new store attracted some undesirable elements. "I was in an apartment complex across from this site prior to becoming a homeowner in this area," said Cheryl Hankins. "The property in question that is zoned multi-family has definitely turned into an infestation of women and drug use. There is a culvert there…there is a lot of dealing going on, there is an area where women can take people under that bridge…there are prophylactics, used needles, all these things scattered in this empty lot." Since most of the neighborhood residents focused their comments on their displeasure with the existing store in the area, along with problems with the vacant lot, it fell to agent Jim Bennet t to make the case to the commission on the technical merits of the zoning case. City staff had recommended against the change, as had the North Austin Civic Association Planning Team, on the grounds that it was not compatible with the NACA Neighborhood Plan ( http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/zoning/downloads/naca_np2.pdf) adopted in 2000. But Bennett argued that the MF-3 zoning for the one-acre tract was not feasible, as evidenced by the fact that the land was still vacant five years later. "You have an unusual site, and a lot of this site is encumbered by a drainage easement," he said, pointing out that nearly half of the lot is not available for development because it lies within the flood plain. "I believe…based on the overwhelming support of the surrounding property owners, and their desires to have an additional place where they may shop within a reasonable distance…that the zoning is warranted in the neighborhood," he said. Opponents of the zoning change asked the Commission to respect the MF-3 zoning adopted as part of the neighborhood planning process. "Nothing has changed since the great effort that went into that plan. You didn't hear the proponents tell you that anything had changed to put that hard work aside and just revamp this plan," said attorney Sean Breen, representing the owners of the nearby Sunrise Minimart. He pointed to two clauses in the NACA Neighborhood plan: one that called for the neighborhood association to oppose any zoning change that would allow for the sale of any alcoholic beverages unless they were at a general restaurant, and another that indicated the neighborhood would be opposed to any businesses operating between 6pm and 6am inside the neighborhood near residential areas. "It's not as if there's a great hardship or overwhelming need," he said. "I think that if you stick to what the NACA Plan was that was developed within the last 5 years, then this commission should reject the requested change." Some property owners also questioned the need for another convenience store so close to an existing business. "I don't think we need another convenience store," said apartment complex owner Ron Mills, who argued that the store, not a vacant lot, would draw in more of a criminal element. "In the nine years that I've owned my place, I've seen drug dealers and prostitutes…they like to hang around in areas of a convenience store because a lot of foot traffic and vehicles visit these stores. These dealers, they like the customers coming to them. They're constantly approaching people walking on the street. Also, with the trash issue, being right next door to a convenience store, I pick up a lot of trash. It's not the owner that's throwing the trash out there. It's the people that frequent these stores. I hate to see another street right next to us end up a litter bin." The commission sided with Bennett's arguments on the technical merits of the case. "Things change," said Commissioner Matthew Moore. "Even if nothing changes, things change. When we look at a site that's one acre in size, half of which is taken up by a flood plain, then the idea of building a multi-family project on half an acre doesn't seem very reasonable to me." Commissioner David Sullivan concurred that an active use was preferable to a vacant lot. "I think a lot in a developable area has remained vacant for that long is a change," he said. "It indicates that there should be some change to the plan to get that lot filled in." The Commission voted 7-0 to support a change from MF-3-NP to LR-NP, with a request to make sure the neighborhood notification for the case's hearing at the City Council includes the possibility of adding the MU (mixed-use) designation to the site. Bennett said his client would be receptive to suggestions from commissioners that he prohibit the sale of single cans or bottles of beer and limit the operating hours of a new store to between 6am and midnight. Most homeowners agree that cut-through traffic from Loop 360 is safety problem Travis County Commissioners are likely to have no problem voting unanimously to gate the upscale Rob Roy subdivision when the court takes a vote on the topic next week. On Tuesday morning, a broad contingent of supporters of the measure – those wearing the yellow badges with big check marks that said “ Yes to Safety” – asked Commissioners Court to gate Rob Roy to end the cut-through traffic from Loop 360. A much smaller group of homeowners, including attorney Michael Whellan representing American Statesman Publisher Mike Laosa, argued against the measure, saying it violated their property rights unless the vote to abandon the streets in the neighborhood was unanimous. Traffic management is one area where Austin and Travis County show contrasting philosophies. Austin leaders would consider gating a community unthinkable and would strongly lean toward traffic calming devices. Travis County, on the other hand, considers traffic calming devices to be less than desirable and gating a community preferable. In Commissioner Karen Sonleitner’s mind, the fate of Rob Roy was sealed when she made her own attempt to take a left turn from Pascal on Loop 360, at which point Sonleitner decided “this is the day that I die.” She drew sympathetic laughter from the audience, but she stressed that the public safety concerns were an undeniable issue. “If we have to pick one side or the other, the most persuasive to me is the side that is wearing the little yellow tags right now,” Sonleitner said. Those who favored gating the Rob Roy community said the traffic numbers had gotten out of hand, tripling since the community was built out in 1992. Jeff Connally, in charge of the traffic safety committee, said the trips were up to 3,914 per day, and it was the prevailing opinion that the increased traffic was speeding drivers who were frustrated by the traffic congestion on Loop 360. Connally said the community had considered four options: doing nothing; stricter enforcement; traffic calming; and, gating the community. County officials have not favored traffic calming in Rob Roy or elsewhere, considering the impact of those engineering measures sometimes lead to more accidents than solutions. Rob Roy residents have heavily favored the gating measure and voted to support such measures by a large margin, even assessing themselves the cost of maintaining the six miles of roadway that would come off the county rolls. Residents are willing to pay $2,000 apiece to cover the cost of the roadway maintenance. Opponents argued that the vote to abandon the roads needed to be unanimous. Supporters argued against that, saying the vacation of roads should be unanimous, but abandonment of roads did not require a unanimous vote. A number of homeowners who opposed the gating of the community questioned the additional liability associated with abandonment of the roads, spoke of the desire for an open community and questioned whether gating the entire community was a hyper-response to traffic issues on isolated roads. Homeowner Don Gilliam added that he had served on the traffic safety committee for 18 months and that half the tickets handed out during his tenure went to Rob Roy residents rather than those cutting through the neighborhood. County Judge Sam Biscoe said he was faced with two questions: “What can the county do?” and “What should the county do?” After an executive session with Assistant County Attorney Tom Nuckols to discuss options, the court agreed Commissioner Gerald Daugherty would attend a meeting on Thursday morning to try a final mediation between the two sides in the issue. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to delay this past next week,” Daugherty said. “I expect, as a commissioner, that folks are going to sit down honestly and try to deal with this. If not, I will be able to vote next week and hopefully we will get this done.” Daugherty pointed out he expected the support of the community to address the root cause of Rob Roy’s problems, which were traffic issues on Loop 360. The problem must be addressed with roads and not public transit, Daugherty said. “We have people who do not think (Loop) 360 has a major traffic problem,” said Daugherty, urging the community to support traffic solutions. “You must live on Jupiter if you don’t know that 360 has a problem and Bee Caves has a bigger problem.” ©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved. Soul of the City . . . The Save Our Springs Alliance is sponsoring its 15th Annual Soul of the City Concert and Community Gathering starting at 6pm Saturday at Scholz Garden, 1607 San Jacinto. A Town Hall meeting to discuss threats to the health of Barton Springs and the Edwards Aquifer begins at 6pm, followed at 8pm by singer/songwriters Shawn Colvin and Eliza Gilkyson, and the all woman drum ensemble, the Djembabes. Mr. Habitat will entertain kids during the Town Hall meeting. Tickets are $15, available at http://www.SOSAlliance.org or at the door. . . Meetings . . . The Downtown Commission meets at 5:30pm in Room 1101 at City Hall. On the agenda are presentations on the Neches Oak Tower, Red River Flats and 101 Colorado projects. . . The Environmental Board meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall. The board will consider several variance requests and will hear a proposal from the LCRA to expand a BCCP Utility Infrastructure Corridor for an electric transmission line in Barton Creek Wilderness Park. . . New name for courthouse . . . Travis County Commissioners voted yesterday to rename the Travis County Courthouse in honor of Heman Sweatt, whose University of Texas desegregation case was heard in its chambers five decades ago. The vote on the measure was 4-1, with the lone vote against the measure being Precinct 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who did not favor naming the courthouse for any person. . . . Jailhouse budget blues . . . A bump in jail population means the Travis County Sheriff’s Department is expected to run $960,000 in the red before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. That total includes an additional $350,000 to ship extra inmates to other out-of-county facilities and an extra $200,000 in utilities this summer, required when the county opened additional buildings to house extra inmates at its Del Valle site. To add to the bad news, Christian Smith of the Planning and Budget Office said the unexpected cost put the county’s ability to pass a budget this fall just 2 percent over the effective tax rate in doubt. . . Milago preview. . . Fairfield Residential and urbanspace are hosting a special lakeside happy hour for downtown neighbors to preview the construction of Milago, at 5 4 Rainey Street, from 6 to 8pm on Thursday evening. For more information, call 457-8884. . . Block grants on the chopping block . . . Community Development Officer Paul Hilgers says the next two days are crucial in the mark-up of the budget on Community Development Block Grants. Next year’s budget could be cut 25 to 30 percent. This year, the city lost $500,000 in CDBG appropriations. The cuts could be much worse next year, Hilgers said. Congressmen Lamar Smith, Michael McCaul, and Lloyd Doggett, have signed a letter opposing those cuts. . . Hilgers introduced Van Jones as his newest staff member in the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development department last night. Jones, as the Community Development Manager, will handle some of the duties formerly held by Greg Smith. Hilgers praised Jones’ intelligence and experience. . . Bring your own scissors . . . Austin will hold a " Red Tape Cutting Celebration” for the city's new One-Stop Shop for development needs at 10:30am today on the first floor of One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Road. The city has combined 13 departments into one location to streamline its development permitting, inspection and review services. The "red tape cutting” celebrates creating a user-friendly, efficient process for the developers and citizens of Austin. . . . Water planning meeting . . . The Lower Colorado Regional Water Planning Group (Region K) will hold a meeting at 10am on June 22, at Aqua Water Supply, 415 Old Austin Highway, in Bastrop. The public is invited to attend and provide input on elements of a future regional water plan that will map out how to conserve water supplies, meet future water needs and respond to future droughts in the Lower Colorado River Basin. For more information, check http://www.regionk.org.
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