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S. Congress plan wins Council approval

Monday, August 22, 2005 by

Unusual zoning will allow 10-story buildings

Since there was no opposition—an extreme rarity with neighborhood plans—the South Congress Combined Neighborhood Plan sailed through the City Council during a relatively brief public hearing last week. The Council approved the plan and the associated zoning changes with a unanimous vote.

The plan covers the area south of Ben White, west of IH-35, north of William Cannon, and east of South First Street. “The vision for South Congress is for change. The participants in the planning process have said they would like to see South Congress become a more walkable street, a vibrant street, with human-scale and mixed-use development, with a decidedly more urban feel than what is there currently,” said Mark Walters with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department.

While those involved in the planning process were open to some change along the major thoroughfares, they also wanted to preserve the sections away from busy streets like South Congress or Ben White that are predominantly residential. To that end, the plan includes prohibitions on front yard parking and front yard paving. The plan does have some provisions to allow for increased density, including small-lot amnesty and permitting secondary units on smaller lots in certain portions of the planning area.

One significant change under the plan will be noticeable even to those who do not live in the neighborhood. Members of the neighborhood planning team agreed to a series of zoning changes along Ben White Boulevard between IH-35 and South Congress that will allow for buildings up to 10 stories tall. Regulating the height of redevelopment along the busy corridor while taking into account existing impervious cover on many of the lots in question called for a creative application of the city’s zoning code. Instead of the CH “Commercial-Highway” zoning commonly used at major highway intersections, Walters said they instead zoned several tracts LI-PDA. By prohibiting most of the industrial uses that would normally be allowed under the LI zoning, Walters said they were able to specifically tailor other regulations relating to height and impervious cover as allowed under the “planned development” portion of PDA.

“Manufacturing and resource extraction were prohibited, and all the commercial highway uses were put in instead,” Walters told the Council. Since the LI-PDA tracts also include the option for mixed-use development, Walters said that could lead to residential development in the area. “The thinking was now that the interchange at IH-35 and Ben White is nearing completion, this might actually be a good location for some apartments, some hotels…because if you’ve taken the flyover from IH-35 to Ben White, the view of downtown and St. Ed’s is quite striking, so it would provide some very nice views of the city down there.”

Herbicide recommended for sewer roots

Under orders from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to sewer overflows, the Environmental Board has voted to recommend a pilot program by the Austin Water Utility to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of using a root control herbicide in the sewer system.

A presentation by Gopal Guhthikonda, manager of the Austin Clean Water Program, and environmental consultant Brigid Shea demonstrated that tree roots are a major cause of sewer blockages, which has resulted in a large number of sewer overflows. Guhthikonda said the city has tried several other methods of removing roots with spotty success.

“The herbicide to be evaluated is Diquat Dibromide, which is a plant growth regulator,” he said. “It acts quickly on contact, causing the plant to dry out at the application point. Over time, the roots decompose and are carried off with the sewage flow.”

He added that Diquat has been used successfully for years in other environmentally sensitive communities such as Portland, Ore.; Boulder, Colo.; and Milwaukee, Wis., with no ill effects to landscape or trees.

Because of a series of sewer back-ups and spills in recent years, the city in under an EPA Administrative Order imposed in April, 1999 requiring it to eliminate sewer overflows by December 31, 2007 or face fines of $27,500 per incident per day.

Shea told the board that prior to proposing the pilot program, AWU officials met with a variety of stakeholders, including environmental groups, community groups and others back in 2001.

“The first thing we did was a comprehensive survey of other cities to see what worked,” she said. “We took the idea of using Diquat to these outreach meetings to see if they found it acceptable.” She said there was some concern raised about what effect the chemical might have on one of the major by-products of solids waste – Dillo Dirt.

Shea said they performed a series of coordinated tests in 2002, and the chemical was “non-detected” at every stage of the process.

The pilot program was established through a dialogue with affected City Departments ( Watershed Protection, the Utility's Biosolids Manager and the Utility's Industrial Waste Treatment Department) as well as the Austin/Travis County Health Department., she said, adding that a complete outline of the pilot program has been submitted and written approval has been received from all the groups.

According to the presentation, the Diquat foam will be introduced into the sewer by the herbicide contractor at a location specified by the city as having a serious root intrusion problem. Once the foam is introduced, a team from the Austin Clean Water Program will take daily samples at the wastewater treatment plant for the influent, effluent and the sludge over a period of five consecutive days. The samples will be analyzed, and the results reported back to the city.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who served as chair of the Environmental Board before he ran for a Council seat, addressed the board to provide background on the testing program and to advocate for it.

“I was on the board when the issue first surfaced, and we looked at the issue thoroughly,” he said. “At first, we were reluctant to put chemicals in the sewer system, but it turns out to be the best solution because of the severity of the problem.”

The board voted 4-0 to recommend the project, with Board Member Phil Moncada recusing himself and Karin Ascot and Mary Kay Maxwell absent. Part of the board’s motion included instructions that the results of the test be brought back to the Environmental Board for further review.

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

Citywide initiative . . . Austin Mayor Will Wynn will join elected officials and community leaders at a news conference at 11am today to unveil a community-wide initiative that the city is calling a model for cities across the nation. The initiative is designed to help address escalating gasoline prices, automobile pollution that is the largest contributor to Austin’s air pollution and America’s over- dependence on oil imports. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Travis County Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Chair Kirk Watson and representatives of the environmental community will gather with the Mayor at City Hall. . . . Meetings . . . The City Council Land Use and Transportation Subcommittee will meet at 3pm at City Hall in the Boards & Commissions Room . . . The Austin Telecommunications Commission will hold a special meeting at 7:30pm tonight in Council chambers. They will discuss and consider making a recommendation to Council regarding the public access television management services contract. . . The Historic Landmark Commission will meet at 7pm in room 325 at One Texas Center and faces a lengthy agenda. . . The Capital Metro Board of Directors meets at noon at 2910 East Fifth Street. Board members will hear a presentation on proposed route changes for January, and an update on contract talks between the drivers union and StarTran.. . Emissions testing help . . Beginning September 1, all vehicles registered in Williamson County will be required to pass an emissions test as part of the annual vehicle safety inspection before being granted an inspection sticker. Low-income vehicle owners whose cars fail the emissions test can receive assistance through the AirCheckTexas Repair & Replacement Assistance Program, administered through Williamson County. Eligible vehicle owners may receive up to $600 for vehicle repairs or up to $1,000 for vehicle replacement through the program. A vehicle is eligible if it is two to 24 years old and has failed the emissions test, it is currently registered in Williamson County, and it has been registered in Williamson County for the past 12 months. To apply for assistance in Williamson County, call 1-800-978-1766 or e-mail Andrea Ybarra at aybarra@wilco.org. . . Candidate to announce . . . Don Zimmerman, an Austin software engineer, who bills himself as a "taxpayer advocate, " will announce his campaign for Texas House District 50 this morning. Zimmerman plans to run against one term House member Democrat Mark Strama. Zimmerman will also announce that Republican consultant Royal Masset has joined his campaign team. Zimmerman said, "I'm looking forward to standing up for taxpayers, especially in House District 50, and doing all I can to stop runaway tax and spend government that threatens the future of Texas.”. . . Meet the “Jughandle” . . . Starting this Saturday, the northbound IH-35 frontage road traffic at 51st Street will be permanently re-routed through the Mueller site to improve congested traffic conditions and accommodate the future additional traffic that will be created when the area is completely redeveloped. Drivers heading to westbound 51st Street, eastbound 51st Street and Cameron Road from the northbound IH-35 access road will now use the new roads in the Mueller site. This new traffic pattern is nicknamed the "jughandle" because of its shape. The Texas Department of Transportation created the jughandle design and it has been extensively reviewed by the affected neighborhoods, the City of Austin, an independent roadway design consultant and the developer of the Mueller site, Catellus.

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