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City studies limits on ‘McMansions’

Monday, January 30, 2006 by

Council sees threats to central city neighborhoods

The City Council has directed the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department to explore the use of floor-to-area ratios (FAR) and maximum heights to limit the encroachment of McMansions into Austin’s inner-city neighborhoods.

Neighborhood groups have tried a variety of measures, including the city’s historic preservation ordinance and water quality ordinances, to try to stop tear-downs from turning into large-scale super-duplexes. Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who co-sponsored the proposal with Council Members Brewster McCracken and Betty Dunkerley, said the McMansion problem is common to the neighborhoods closest to downtown.

“It’s a problem that is common to almost all the neighborhoods in the central city,” Leffingwell said after last Thursday’s Council meeting. “These McMansions are actually better described as dormitories, so we’ve been looking for a way for a long time to try to limit development in residential areas so that it complements or conforms to the existing architecture and massing in the neighborhood.”

The use of floor-to-area ratios in residential structures is the most straightforward way to limit density, Leffingwell said. Density can exist, but it works best when it’s done in conjunction with the neighborhood. The University Neighborhood Overlay plan is one example of neighborhoods working with developers to reach a compromise, he said.

Leffingwell expects the city staff’s work to take about three months. Dunkerley wants to make sure the final product is a balance between what maintains the character of the neighborhood and what gives the developer a chance to build something on a lot that is reasonable in size and structure.

Dunkerley expects the Council to introduce interim development rules, possibly as early as this week. The goal is not a moratorium, but some limits before rules are put in place. In the meantime, work will continue with both neighborhoods and developers.

“I think if the developers can help us design something, we can come to an agreement to find something that is reasonable,” Dunkerley said. “That’s what we’re going to try to do, to try to think of some reasonable approach to this issue.”

Commissions OK revised Maverick-Miller plan

Owner of historic home transfers development rights to get approvals for project

The next-to-last chapter was written last week on the controversy surrounding the Maverick-Miller House, as both the Historic Landmark Commission and Planning Commission recommended approval of scaled-back plans that are subject to a restrictive covenant with the Heritage Society. The home and surrounding property is three-quarters of an acre that is west of the University of Texas campus in the University Neighborhood Overlay area.

Two long-time members of the Historic Landmark Commission – Jean Mather and Julia Bunton – still were not happy with the compromise and voted against a base zoning change from single family historic to limited office on the property. The Planning Commission recommended the zoning change unanimously and without much discussion, except for a comment from Commissioner John Michael Cortez that the compromise was “much better” than the original plans on the house.

Plans for the Miller-Maverick House, at 910 Poplar, have been in play for almost a year: First, the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan team adopted the high-density University Neighborhood Overlay district in September 2004. In the spring of 2005, owners of the Maverick-Miller House proposed building a four-story condominium development on the back end of the property. Both the Historic Landmark Commission and the City Council voted to deny that request.

That was not the end, though. Last fall, after some negotiation between agent Mike McHone and the neighborhood planning team, the concept of transfer of development rights surfaced. McHone proposed taking 20 allowable feet off the top of the Maverick-Miller property and transferring those rights to another property owned by B&H Interests. The Council approved those changes – the transfer of development rights to a proposed 114-foot high-rise on 26th Street and the scaled-back development plans on the Maverick-Miller property – last October.

That leap-frogged over the traditional planning process and McHone had to return to both HLC and the Planning Commission this week for approval. Tina Bui of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, explained the history of the property to the Historic Landmark Commission and the fact that the commission would, indeed, be involved in a zoning decision on the property that amounted to more than either putting an “H” or no “H” on the zoning designation of a house.

The Council decision, in fact, required two commissions and two votes. First, the Historic Landmark Commission would have to vote to change the base zoning on the property from MF-4-H-CO to LO-MU-CO-MP. Then the Planning Commission would have to vote on the transfer of development rights – the height amendment – on the property.

The revised plan, negotiated between the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning team and McHone, would allow up to 2,000 additional square feet of space on the back end of the Maverick-Miller property. That space could be no taller than 40 feet – scaled back from the 60 allowable feet – and was limited to three or four uses under limited office, including art gallery, art workshop space or counseling services.

Linda Team, who represented the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning team, called the compromise the result of almost a year of work and a significant achievement on the part of historical preservation. The property’s owners have signed a restrictive covenant with the Heritage Society of Austin, pledging to keep the property intact and limiting the uses on the property. The compromise protected the historic house’s future but gives the owner some flexibility so the property could be economically viable, Team said.

One local homeowner, Royce Gorley, did protest the lack of notice on the height change. As Bui noted, under the current code, Gorley would be notified of a zoning change on the property. The changes in height are an amendment to the University Neighborhood Overlay, however, and do not require public notification. That would be no different than if it had been an amendment to a code regarding the definition of “mixed use” in the zoning code, Bui said. Instead, the city notifies local neighborhood groups of a change.

The final vote at the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday night was 7-2. The vote of the Planning Commission on Tuesday night was unanimous.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Non-political wages . . . Texas Weekly ( reported last week that Sherry Boyles, co-founder of the pro-choice PAC Annie's List, has left the organization and moved to Dallas. That’s not the meat of the story, though. As Texas Weekly noted, the group spent 80 percent of the more than $325,000 it raised last year on salaries, fundraising and administrative expenses, and only $7,000—about two percent—on direct contributions to candidates. Boyles, the group’s treasurer until this month, received generous consulting fees and a $10,000 bonus, according to documents filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. Kelly White, the group’s treasurer, told Texas Weekly she plans to spend the group’s money on candidates and training. Boyles did not respond to a request for comment . . . Cap Metro strike looms . . . Talks between StarTran and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091 failed to produce an agreement Sunday, meaning that some 900 union mechanics and bus drivers are likely to walk off their jobs at noon today. Both sides pointed fingers at the other after Sunday’s negotiation, with the major sticking points being increases in health care costs and a lower pay scale for new hires. Capital Metro says it plans to keeps slimmed down service on 12 of its high ridership routes, and special transit services for the disabled will remain available with a priority for those needing dialysis or other medical care. Further talks between StarTran and ATU 1091 have not been scheduled. . . . Wynn fundraiser tonight . . . Ted Siff and Janelle Buchanan are hosting a fundraiser this evening from 5:30 to 7pm at their home in the downtown area. For more information, call 657-5414. The Mayor is having his campaign kickoff Friday night . . . Eliza May fundraiser . . . Place 2 Council Candidate Eliza May holds a fundraiser at 5:3opm Tuesday night at El Sol y La Luna 1224 South Congress Ave. . . Charter amendment discussion . . . Members of the Save Our Springs Alliance will visit Save Barton Creek Association tonight to answer questions about the charter amendments SOS is proposing . . . Meetings . . . A subcommittee of the Environmental Board will meet in room 240 at One Texas Center to study a proposed amendment to the City/AISD Development Standards Agreement . . . The Arts Commission meets at 6:30pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . Chamber meeting today . . . The Greater Austin Chamber will hold its 128th Annual Meeting from11:30am-1pm today. Chairman Kirk Watson of Hughes and Luce, LLP, will report on regional progress in 2005 and pass the baton to in-coming Chairman Tim Crowley, President of Austin Community Banking Group, Frost Bank. Crowley will outline the chamber’s plans and goals for the coming year. With more than 900 attendees, the Chamber will also honor its Austinite of the Year, Pike Powers . . . More wind power on tap . . . The Irish renewable energy group Airtricity Holdings Ltd. plans to spend more than $300 million on turbines to accommodate increasing demand for wind energy in the United States. Airtricity says it will buy 450 Mitsubishi turbines over the next two years for wind farms in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. The wind generating properties are owned by Austin’s Renewable Generation Inc., a subsidiary of Airtricity. Airtricity purchased the subsidiary in December.

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