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Commission takes no action on McMansion rules

Thursday, May 18, 2006 by

Arguments continue as report is unveiled

Opinions on developing Single-Family Site Development Regulations were sharply divided when the Residential Regulations Task Force was formed earlier this year, and the first public airing of its report last this week showed that battle lines are still drawn.

Members of the task force gave a report on their proposals to a special called meeting of the Planning Commission Tuesday night, outlining progress made in developing a new set of regulations designed to protect the character of the city’s older neighborhoods from outsized homes, or "McMansions."

Members of the public and Planning Commissioners raised concerns over the proposed regulations, ranging from the complexity of the regulations to concerns that they could negatively affect property values. In light of those and other concerns, the Planning Commission postponed making a recommendation on the report until May 23.

Austin Neighborhoods Council President Laura Morrison said the task force voted 13-1 last Friday to approve the latest proposal.

"We worked hard to find a compromise. We were able to almost get unanimous approval of the regulations, but we had one vote we couldn’t convince," she said. "The new regulations use FARs (floor-to-area ratios) and a building envelope as the primary tools to regulate the size of homes in the neighborhoods."

Morrison added that part of the compromise to gain support was a recommendation that the task force reconvene a year after its recommendations are adopted to study their effectiveness and correct any unintended consequences.

According to the report, the task force proposal applies to the SF-2, SF-3 & SF-4A zoning districts when adjacent to SF2, SF3, and SF uses in current Neighborhood Planning Areas or other areas identified by task force. Those boundaries have yet to be determined. As part of the compromise, factors such as minimum lot size, minimum lot width and the maximum number of units per lot will remain unchanged from current regulations.

Other parts of the current code that will remain unchanged include street side yard, interior side yard and read yard setbacks, as well as maximum building coverage and maximum impervious coverage.

Major changes from current city regulations proposed include the addition of a maximum FAR and a somewhat ethereal concept called the building envelope. In the report, maximum FARs are the greater of 0.4 FAR or 2,300 square feet. Morrison told the commission that the 2,300 square foot figure equals a 0.4 FAR on a standard 5,750 square foot lot.

The building envelope is an invisible "tent" placed over the property by measuring 15 feet high at the side and rear property lines and then extending inwards at 45 degrees.

The base of the setback plane is the same as that used for height calculation, oriented horizontally. Structures must fit within the envelope, with the exception of certain gables or dormers. The maximum height limit is lowered from 35 to 32 feet.

Minimum front yard setbacks have been changed from specific distances to the minimum specified by the neighborhood zoning district or the average of the two adjacent neighbors if it is less than the minimum required under the zoning district.

Morrison said the task force agreed that neighborhoods, through the planning process, could submit neighborhood-specific recommendations for setbacks, FAR, etc. for Council approval under the same process and schedule as the Neighborhood Plan Review Process.

She also said the task force is recommending the city establish a Design Review Process under which applicants may receive approval for up to 25 percent increase in FAR and setback plane protrusions. They recommend that the process should be simpler than Board of Adjustment variance process, with a commission of design professionals. Affected parties could appeal decisions to City Council.

Harry Savio, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, said the permitting process in Austin is already too cumbersome.

"We are strongly opposed to this," he said. "The original goal was to do away with the large, out of scale housing in some neighborhoods, but under these regulations, you can still build them. The amount of practical input was very limited."

David Arscott, a homebuilder, said the city must decide if it does—or does not—want to increase density in the central city.

"If you roll back density to a 0.4 FAR, it could have an adverse economic affect on many landowners," he said. "When you look at how Austin was developed, in contrast to other cities, it was almost all post-automobile. There are small houses in neighborhoods that weren’t designed to be pedestrian friendly."

Members of the Planning Commission had several concerns about the proposed regulations. Board Member Cid Galindo, who had the strongest objections, felt that use of the envelope and impervious cover limits would be better than FARs and that more study is needed on the economic impact. He also wondered where the regulations would apply, and might neighborhoods be given the ability to opt-in or out.

Others expressed concern over how duplexes and other affordable housing methods would fit into the regulations. Commissioners Jay Reddy and Matthew Moore said they wanted to see more study of the effect new regulations would have on the city’s goal to provide affordable housing.

The Planning Commission’s postponement of a recommendation will probably not affect the Council’s timetable for adopting the new regulations. Tina Bui, who staffs the task force, said that the Council extended the interim regulations at its last meeting, and will likely wait until June 8 to hear the task force recommendations.

Congress Condos face hurdles

Developer of 40-story tower faces a maze of city boards, regulations

Land on Congress Avenue is usually vacant for a reason, and the northwest corner of Second Street and Congress Avenue is no exception. Given the constraints on the land outlined at last night’s Downtown Commission, Austin-based Benchmark Land Development will have its hands full running the gauntlet of city boards and commissions to get its proposed 40-story Congress Condominium point tower competed.

Benchmark has acquired four lots on the northwest corner of Second and Congress, once owned by John and Jeff Wooley, formerly of the Schlotzky’s restaurant chain. To make the deal work, Benchmark had to acquire the land (somewhat easy); design a tower out of the Capitol View Corridor with the required 60-foot setback off Congress (a little bit harder); and figure out how to both maximize density and deal with a couple of historic structures on the property (even more difficult).

David Mahn of Benchmark, who has been working with downtown leaders for a number of months, presented preliminary plans to the Downtown Commission. Next week, Benchmark will take the project to the Historic Landmark Commission to try to incorporate a historic blacksmith shop and to the Planning Commission, where a request for CBD-CURE will be heard. Mahn is proposing a floor-to-area ratio of 25-to-1, which is only slightly less dense than the 30-to-1 proposed at Fifth Street and Congress.

One of the biggest tasks will be incorporating the blacksmith shop into the project. Benchmark has been working with historic preservationist Emily Little, who worked on the preservation of the Schneider Store near City Hall. In negotiations with City Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, Little and Benchmark have agreed that the façade of the blacksmith shop – possibly two brick sides of the building with the painted lettering – could be incorporated into the new project.

Architects on the project will be Ziegler Cooper of Houston. Ziegler Cooper has built some of the larger residential towers in Houston, such as villa d’este, 2727 Kirby and Montebello. The company also designed the commercial architecture at The Woodlands’ Town Center and designed additions to The Kinkaid School and St. John’s School.

Mahn’s preference is to move the historic walls to the opposite end of the lot, which would give the walls more visibility at the corner of Second Street and Congress Avenue and provide more space for a two-way alley and entrance-egress traffic on the property. Commissioner Daniel Leary, who serves on both the Downtown Commission and the Historic Landmark Commission, did not greet that suggestion with a great deal of enthusiasm, noting the fragility and wallpaper quality of most older brick.

Mahn was less inclined to go with the option that would keep the wall in place where it stood and incorporate a much smaller piece of façade into the project but said it was still early in the design process and he was open to all suggestions.

The site also suffers from other past constraints. The current alley dead ends into a portion of the property, which is actually the location the city negotiated for a depot with a local railroad company in the late 1920s. Mahn said it would be his preference to see the alleyway punched through to provide more east-west access.

The project will sit alongside the Austin Children’s Museum, but it sits tightly on its site, Mahn said. Much of the height will be focused in the one tower of about 250 condominiums. Because the tower will be tall and narrow, it should be fairly unobtrusive from the north and south, Mahn said.

The building site was so tight, in fact, that some members of the Downtown Commission were concerned that the project did not build all the way out to the corner of Second and Congress. Mahn acknowledged those concerns, said it was early in the process, and reiterated Benchmark’s commitment to the plans for the site. Parking for the project will be both above and below ground.

Mahn could not put a price on the condominiums, noting the fluctuating market prices on raw materials. He did note that the building would have dividers that can be added or removed on each floor as the market dictates. Sizes of the units would vary from 700 up to 2,200 square feet. Amenities will include a spa, deck pool and a top floor for community use so that all residents, regardless of rent, will have access to a view.

Benchmark is best known for its subdivision development. The group developed Plum Creek in Kyle, which has won a number of awards.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Austin Alliance sounded the alarm at last night’s Downtown Commission meeting, nothing that city staff had deleted a proposed $500,000 in funding to continue the restoration of the Susana Dickinson House, which now sits in Brush Square next to the Hilton Hotel. Executive Director Charlie Betts noted that the city already has spent $600,000 to move the home, one of the Austin’s most historic buildings. He urged the Downtown Commission to add its voice to those who will be addressing Council on Thursday night regarding the proposed bond package.

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

Lobbying or not ? . . . Former Mayor Gus Garcia and former Council Member John Treviño have joined up with development lobbyist Amelia Lopez-Phelps to push for Council approval of a zoning change to allow a 12-story condominium complex in northwest Austin. Garcia, spotted at City Hall, said he is not registered as a lobbyist because he’s not actually lobbying. "I’m not working for the developer," he explained, saying he’s just pointing out the positive aspects of the project known as both the Arboretum Tower and the Pavilion Condominiums. The item is on today’s Council agenda. Garcia, Treviño and Lopez-Phelps have been talking up the project with City Council aides. Neighbors are adamantly opposed to the height, which the ZAP rejected, sending the project to the Council with a negative recommendation. One aide speculated that the matter would be postponed today. The Council has several other contentious matters to keep them busy . . . Another hot development potato relates to a red-tagged building at 505 Deep Eddy. The owner, who evidently failed to understand some basics about refurbishing as opposed to demolition, is asking the City Council to waive current regulations to allow the construction. Neighbors are up in arms . . . Changes proposed for small and minority business regulations . . . Paul Saldaña, representing the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has protested the changes, which he says would adversely impact minority businesses . . . Bond hearing could go late . . . Advocates for open space, affordable housing, the downtown library and a host of other possible bond projects will no doubt let their wishes be known at tonight’s bond hearing, which is scheduled for 6pm. HousingWorks put out an email to supporters Wednesday, urging them to let the Council know that "affordable housing is policy priority for our community." Advocates hope to raise the recommended level in the package from $50 million to $67.5 million, as recommended by the Bond Election Advisory Committee. Open space advocates hope to raise their share from $30 million back to the $50 million recommended by the BEAC . . . Panel offers bond advice . . . The Downtown Commission voted to recommend, once again, its original package of bond proposals. The one point of contention was the Waller Creek tunnel. The commission still supports it, but the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is only willing to go as far as $25 million on the tunnel project, hoping that private-public partnerships would pick up the balance of any cost. The Downtown Commission – knowing how slim the chance was to get the project back into the bond proposal anyway – went ahead and endorsed the full $42.4 million needed to finish the project, rather than leave it half-done. They also supported funding for the Dickinson House restoration. They took no position on the Mexican-American Cultural Center, since their recommendations were limited to downtown and projects in the original proposal . . . Kim attends meeting in Houston . . . Council Member Jennifer Kim will be attending the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development’s national convention, which will take her away from today’s meeting before the bond hearing. However, she put out a statement urging bond supporters to speak their wishes at today’s meeting and promising to watch the hearing on tape. She noted that there will be a second hearing on the bonds next week . . . Downtown tower plans . . . Developer Tom Stacy unveiled the plans for Fifth & Congress at last night’s Downtown Commission meeting. The 47-story tower, with skybridge, will require rezoning from CBD to CBD-CURE with a floor-to-area ratio of 30-to-1. The Planning Commission endorsed that zoning change. Stacy noted many of the building’s details, including the interlocking plans for office, hotel, condominiums and retail. He added that the 12-story parking garage would be a preferred location for downtown parking, given that recent studies have shown that it’s not a lack of parking downtown but a lack of parking in the right location downtown that is the problem . . . On next week’s calendar . . . Clarion Associates, the consulting firm hired by the city to codify the Design Standards Policy Document, will be in town next week to present their work. They will make their presentation on Wednesday from 9-11am in the Boards and Commissions Room . . . Living Tour . . . This Sunday will be the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association’s 3rd Annual Living Tour. The tour will include 5 Fifty Five, Avenue Lofts, Brazos Lofts, Austin City Lofts, Plaza Lofts, AMLI Downtown, Rainey Street and Milago Condominiums. Tickets are available on site and at the DANA website, Proceeds will go to defray the cost of the Town Lake Trail Foundation landscape lighting project.

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