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Council sides with neighbors in map flap

Tuesday, June 27, 2006 by

Planning Commission had changed planning team’s map

Adopting a future land use map (FLUM) for the Dawson neighborhood became more than a formality for Council members last week, as last-minute changes by the Planning Commission brought a flood of criticism from area residents.

Dawson was the first neighborhood in the city to complete its Neighborhood Plan back in August 1998, but that was several years before the city also required a FLUM to go along with it. So Dawson’s Neighborhood Planning Team put a map together and submitted it earlier this year. That’s when the problems began.

"It was about 1:30 in the morning at the June 13 Planning Commission meeting," said Dawson Neighborhood Association President Myron Smit h. "They arbitrarily changed the map from what the city staff had approved."

The Dawson Neighborhood is bounded by Oltorf Street on the north, Ben White Boulevard on the south, South Congress on the east and South First Street on the west. Smith said the Planning Commission approved changing the zoning on some property along Ben White Boulevard from SF-3 (multi-family) to MU (mixed use).

"There’s a procedure to make those kind of changes available in February," she said. "They were trying to circumvent the city’s neighborhood planning process. It was very underhanded."

Smith was referring to the city’s policy of only allowing zoning changes to be made to Neighborhood Plans once a year, rather than on a continuing basis. Changes to the Dawson plan are scheduled to be considered in February.

After the Planning Commission’s action on the Dawson FLUM, the neighborhood protested the move to city staff, which arranged for the Council to consider three maps of the area when the matter came before than last week. Council members were given a choice among the Planning Commission version, the neighborhood version and a compromise version of the map.

Of the 13 people who spoke during the public hearing, all but one was strongly against adopting the Planning Commission’s proposed map. Development consultant Ron Thrower said it was best to make the change in the developable land along Ben White before the final FLUM was approved, rather than wait until February and go through the process again.

Council Member Brewster McCracken moved to back the neighborhood’s version of the map, which was approved 7-0 by the Council.

Smith said members of the Neighborhood Planning Team and others felt vindicated.

"They rejected the version that the Planning Commission recommended," Smith said. "We feel like they did the right thing by us."

Design Commission views plan for Concordia site

Last night, the Design Commission approved, in concept, an ambitious high-density mixed-use project on the site for the soon-to-be-vacated Concordia University campus.

The approval came only in the broadest terms as an initial nod to the concept of a Planned Unit Development scenario on the Concordia campus site. As consultant Alice Glasco noted, a PUD is more common for a suburban development on the outlying edges of the city, but the use of a PUD also offers an attractive amount of flexibility for a multi-use property in the inner city. While the Concordia campus is one piece of land with one owner being sold to one group of buyers, it will be broken into a number of component projects that include office, retail and residential space.

East Avenue IG, led by Andy Sarwal, is in charge of the redevelopment effort. Larry Speck, former dean of the University of Texas School of Architecture, serves as Sarwal’s visionary for a mixed-use high-intensity project in the city’s inner city. While concepts are still broad – and discussions with the neighborhood in the earliest stages — Speck describes the desire to create a high-density urban in-town neighborhood, while still preserving the character of surrounding single-family streets.

Altogether, the 23-acre Concordia site would be home to 1,100 apartment units, 300 condominiums, 400,000 square feet of retail and 150,000 feet of office space. The office space will serve medical offices primarily, catering to St David’s Hospital next door. An Olympic swim center – an early tenant rumored for the site – is more tentative right now than it was when the story initially broke, Speck confirmed.

Speck speaks of four key goals of the development team right now: the preservation of the historic trees on the site; improvement to the entrance and exits onto Interstate 35, with substantial on-site parking; good pedestrian circulation through the site; and a stair-step concept that puts the most serious density closest to the freeway. The five tall towers on the site will step back from the neighborhood, with the spires increasing from 40 feet to 60 feet to 90 feet so that the intensity is compatible with the neighborhood.

"Stepping back from the neighborhood is something that is being done quite a lot in San Diego and Portland," Speck said. "We actually step back from the neighborhood, with the buildings that kiss up to the neighborhood being 40 feet and then progressing taller as they get closer to Interstate 35."

Residents may be a bit frustrated right now because the developers are talking concepts rather than specifics, Speck admitted. Early input, however, was the developers’ goal, he said. That’s why the general concept of the mixed-used development came to the Design Commission earlier, rather than later.

The commission approved the project, in concept, but wants the project plans to return to them as design guidelines are created. Sarwal agreed to return the plans to the commission at the same time the PUD application is reviewed by the Environmental Board and before it goes to the Planning Commission for a fuller review. That would be early fall.

One of the Design Commission’s concerns has been that projects come too late to the commission. Staffer Pollyanna Melton noted that the timing of Sarwal’s presentation gives the commission time to offer input on broader land use issues such as how space and massing works, as well as how land use and transportation worked together, making sure that connectivity does work throughout the project.

"These are all key issues," Melton said. "Perhaps an even more important point is that the commission remain involved as the design evolves, to make sure it remains true to its intent, and that the commission should focus its reviews on that purpose."

Commissioner Juan Cotera also cautioned the group to avoid comments that were too specific or critical before fuller plans are returned to the board. Glasco, Speck and Sarwal agreed to keep the commission in the loop on the project.

The purchase of Concordia would be a two-phase process. Developers would buy the 23-acre tract, which would, in turn, allow Concordia to purchase the former Schlumberger site in Northwest Austin for the 1,200-student campus. That would be followed, in the second year, by the developers’ purchase of Concordia’s assets, or buildings, on the parcel.

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

Acuña named. . . Former broadcast journalist and press spokesman Gene Acuña has been named Director of Communications and Public Information Officer for the City of Austin. Acuña most recently served as the Managing Supervisor of Fleishman-Hillard overseeing Public Affairs Communications. Previously he has served on the communications staff for Governor Rick Perry (also when Perry was Agriculture Commissioner), as well as for the Texas Railroad Commission and the Secretary of State. He was a reporter for KXAN, Channel 36 in Austin from 1985 to 1995. He begins his duties on July 10 . . . Buses free today . . . Capital Metro will be offering free bus service to passengers on all routes today in conjunction with Central Texas’ eighth Ozone Action Day of the 2006 season. This year marks the 13th year Capital Metro has provided free rides to customers on Ozone Action Days, and is one component of the agency’s overall efforts to reduce emissions and improve the air throughout the region. On Ozone Action Days, Capital Metro sees an average increase in ridership by up to 8 percent . . . Meetings . . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Travis County Commissioner’s Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . . This week’s Williamson County Commissioners Court meeting has been cancelled. The Court will meet again on July 11 . . . Round Rock in cyberspace . . . The City of Round Rock has a new web site. It’s http://www.roundrocktexas.gov. According to city officials, it will be much more interactive than the previous one. It will give citizens the ability to pay utility bills online, hopefully shortening the lines at the City Hall drive-through lanes. Residents may also schedule appointments with some city officials, adopt pets and submit non-emergency service requests to the city. It will have a calendar of city events, a way to sign up for newsletters from city departments and other information . . . Take the week off . . . Make that the month. After last week’s lengthy meeting, the first for two new Council Members, several Council Members and their staff are taking vacations. It was unusually quiet Monday and there’s no reason to think that will change over the next 10 days . . . Dunkerley recuperating . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley is reportedly doing well after surgery on her knee. She was dialing her office regularly yesterday from Seton Hospital. Apparently she missed the memo everyone else read about taking it easy for the next month . . . July 4 is next Tuesday. In Fact Daily will take its annual summer vacation next week.

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