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North TOD area planning begins

Monday, July 10, 2006 by

It’s a neighborhood planning project for a part of Austin that does not fit the traditional definition of a neighborhood. The North Burnet/Gateway Planning Area is mostly commercial and industrial property, which—if city planners have their way—will become a showplace for Transit Oriented Development (TOD) in Austin.

The city last week kicked off the neighborhood planning process for the area with a public meeting in a northwest Austin hotel. The meeting was part of a series of charettes designed to get neighborhood input as planners prepare for growth in the neighborhood near US 183, MoPac, and Loop 360. The plan will cover 2,300 acres, an area larger than the Robert Mueller redevelopment.

The area is currently dominated by industrial and commercial properties, with a low population density and no single-family housing, The 2000 Census indicated a population of only 4,803 residents in the area. The planning team assembled by Carter and Burgess Consultants, which is leading the project team, is looking to change that.

In a presentation for about 30 people last Thursday, Gary Bellomy of Land Design Studio described the region as a "demographic sweet spot" for future growth. In addition to the confluence of three major highways, both Capital Metro's commuter rail route and the Union Pacific line, projected as part of an Austin-San Antonio rail project, run through the area.

A transit stop along that route will likely be the site of one of the city's TOD's. TOD zoning was created to encompass residential, retail, and office within walking distance of a commuter rail stop. City staffers cited a study done for a future Braker Lane transit stop that indicated a strong demand for "attached" housing near a transit stop, such as duplexes or condominiums. That same study also predicted that in the long term, overall property values could go up by nearly 200 percent in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the transit stop on Braker, generating significant new property tax revenue for the city

According to studies presented last week, the area is currently fraught with transportation problems. Planners point out that the area, with its predominance of commercial and light-industrial properties, is a very automobile-dominated region, with the prospect of increased traffic congestion without proper planning. Planners also noted that the area is currently neither pedestrian nor bicycle-friendly, with a lack of connected sidewalks and poor bicycle route connections.

Another major obstacle, planners say, is the major highways of MoPac and US 183 in the area, which effectively creates a barrier between the North Austin and Gateway areas and could potentially limit alternative modes of transit.

Those items are obstacles to the goals of TOD zoning, which seeks to increase development and population density near rail and bus lines, and to increase pedestrian access to area facilities.

While Austinites familiar with the Arboretum and the Domain shopping centers may consider the area to be already built-out, city staffers pointed out that there are several significant tracts ranging in size from 50 to 100 acres that are undeveloped. That vacant land, along with the fact that city utilities are already in place, will make the area a prime target for both new residential and retail development.

The group’s final charette is scheduled for 6:30pm Thursday at the Holiday Inn NW Plaza/Arboretum Area at 8901 Business Park Dr. Following that, the design team will develop a draft of an implementation plan, followed by a final plan. Planners say the process is several months from completion.

The planning team is working out of temporary offices in the Arboretum Shopping Center (suite 102) and has set up a web site at to provide updates.

Commission splits difference in Zilker zoning case

Developer David Ward has won a positive recommendation from the Planning Commission for a zoning change on property he owns in the Zilker Neighborhood to allow him to build four single-family homes and three duplexes on a one-acre lot at 2105 Goodrich Avenue. The commission also imposed some conditions on the change from SF-3 to SF-5 which were more restrictive than those Ward requested, but were less strict than those sought by the Zilker Neighborhood Association.

Ward, who until earlier this year served as an officer with the ZNA, said he had met extensively with neighborhood representatives in an attempt to come up with a set of conditions for developing on the lot which would be acceptable to both sides. "I’ve tried to work with them, but each time they come up with additional restrictions," he said. "At some point you have to say ‘This is what I’ve agreed to’ and sign it and move on. Every time I’ve come up to their standard, it seems they want a little more."

Zilker representatives told the commission that Ward had changed the proposed set-backs for the homes he planned to build on the property, and that they were skeptical of any developer’s promises after their experience with another developer who had failed to follow through on his commitment to the neighborhood. "I’m concerned about making sure that what has been shown to the neighborhood is actually what we’re going to get," said neighborhood activist Jeff Jack. "We have no surety until we see those things in writing."

The primary point of contention involved the set-back Ward proposed for the single-family homes and duplexes from the surrounding properties. He said he was willing to establish a set-back of 20 feet on the property’s southern boundary for the three duplex units, while establishing a set-back of ten feet on the northern boundary. However, he also volunteered to limit any development within 20 feet of the boundary to only one story, establishing a set-back of 20 feet for any development over one story.

Neighbors said they were concerned those proposals would not do enough to protect the privacy of nearby homeowners. They also predicted the additional impervious cover could change the flow of stormwater runoff and lead to increased flooding.

"We already have a tremendous amount of water that runs off of the Goodrich lot… it comes up onto my foundation," said Mary Fowler. "I have a huge concern about having three-story buildings looking into my backyard. That is a concern of privacy. He says he’s not interested in doing that, but we don’t have any assurance of that. It has to do with the quality of life for the Zilker neighborhood. I don’t want to see my home and my neighborhood turn into more of a commercial neighborhood than it’s already becoming. Somewhere we have to draw a line."

While city staff supported the SF-5 "urban family residence" proposal, some residents were skeptical that the homes allowed under that category would fit within their neighborhood. "SF-5 could offer some interesting possibilities for our neighborhood…but he seems to want SF-5 only so he can build an SF-3 project without those infrastructure improvements required by re-subdivision. Our area needs those improvements to support more housing, so we must make sure they are included those agreements," said Lorraine Atherton. "I’d like to compare this plan to other SF-5 plans in the area, but I can’t find any. I suspect that’s because SF-5 doesn’t offer any advantages over SF-3 on the small parcels with limited street access that dominate in our area."

Under the existing SF-3 zoning, Ward could build four duplexes on the lot, compared to the four single-family homes and three duplexes he is proposing. Some neighbors said they wanted conditions ensuring that the units closest to the street on each side of the lot would face the street in order to preserve the feel of the surrounding neighborhood.

Ward responded that he would be reluctant to impose a condition at zoning that could cause problems at the site plan stage.

"I would oppose having it dictated how it was designed. I’ve already built units in the neighborhood," Ward said. "On corner lots, I have two nice facing parts of my buildings. I don’t build straight walls with no windows. I think SF-5, what I build, will preserve the character and improve upon the neighborhood somewhat."

But neighbors argued that the conditions they suggested, not Ward’s, should be the ones that regulated any building on the lot. "Mr. Ward’s proposal gains him three things," said Jack. "He wants two more units than he could get from SF-3, he wants not to have to do a subdivision which costs him money, and he’s going to get a speed-up in the time that he’s going to get his product to market. My calculation, this is a net profit to him of $100,000," Jack said. He told commissioners that Ward could have used that money to draft an alternate plan for the site more in line with the neighborhood’s wishes.

Commissioner Cid Galindo offered a motion which adopted some of the conditions Ward had agreed to, with a larger set-back on the eastern property line. Those conditions call for a 40 foot set-back on the eastern property line, a 20 foot setback on the northern property line, and requiring Ward to build at least two additional parking spaces for visitors to the homes on the site. "Because there’s so little frontage on Goodrich that would supply parking for visitors," he said, "it seems reasonable you would want to provide some visitor parking." His motion to support SF-5 with conditions won unanimous support.

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

How many AMD employees does it take to screw in a light bulb? . . . Don't know, but it must be a lot—because it took 12 employees and four consultants to draft and review internal communications related to the company's opposition to Propositions 1 and 2 on the May 13 ballot. This information came to light last week when the company filed a correction affidavit to explain how it had spent $10,118.95 to oppose those propositions. Earlier the company had described that expenditure simply as "allocation of the employee and consultant compensation paid for assisting in an informational breakfast and working on internal campaign-related communications." However, Libertarian Arthur DiBianca filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission, one of a number he has filed pointing out a lack of specificity in various filings. The amendment names three employees needed to assist with the breakfast and 12 to "review and edit internal company communications." Also involved with drafting and reviewing internal communications were Martin and Salinas Public Affairs, Tate Austin, Waggener Edstrom and Glover Park Group of Washington, DC. The latter named firm got the lion’s share of the consulting money at $2,000. . . . Housing Voucher Program opens wait list . . . For the first time since May 2002, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin is opening the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) wait list. This program allows families to pay approximately 30 to 40 percent of their monthly-adjusted gross income toward rent, while the Housing Choice Voucher Program pays the remaining balance directly to the landlord. Since the last wait list opening, HACA's Housing Choice Voucher Program has more than doubled its number of available vouchers to 5,023, which has enabled HACA to decrease the time applicants spend on the wait list and significantly decrease the wait itself. Lisa Garcia, vice president of assisted housing, says after opening the Section 8 waiting list in April 2001, the list received more than 10,000 applications before closing in May 2002. New applications will be accepted from 8:30am to 4:30pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Center, 1156 Hardgrave St. The line will open at 5:30am on Tuesday and the Housing Choice Voucher (Section 8) wait list will not accept applications after Thursday. For more information, please visit . . . Meetings . . . The CAMPO Transportation Policy Board will meet at 6pm at the Joe C. Thompson Conference Center . . . The Board of Adjustment/Sign Review Board meets at 5:30pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Historic Landmark Commission meets at 7pm in room 240 at One Texas Center . . . The Urban Transportation Commission meets at 6pm in the Boards and Commission Room at City Hall. . . . Another high-rise going up . . . Construction has begun on The Monarch, a 29-story rental project at Fifth Street and West Avenue across from Whole Foods Market. The Monarch will include 305 apartments, ranging from 890 square feet to 2,400 square feet. In addition, the project will feature 9,000 square feet of retail space. The project headed by Orlando-based ZOM Inc. is expected to take two years to complete . . . Adopt-a-Stop . . . Capital Metro is rolling out a new Adopt-a-Stop program. They are encouraging local organizations and businesses to adopt a Capital Metro bus stop that has a bench or shelter. Adopting groups will be required to assist with the removal of debris at least once a week between Capital Metro scheduled cleanings and contact Capital Metro to inform them of graffiti or other concerns with the adopted stop. Groups can also add a unique touch to their adopted stop by incorporating elements that reflect the character of the neighborhood. Capital Metro will place a sign at the stop you choose to adopt recognizing your work. Contact Lamont Ross at 389-7434 or to apply and for more information about the Adopt-a-Stop program.

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