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Commercial design standards get support at hearing

Thursday, August 10, 2006 by

The low wattage of last night’s first reading of the city’s new commercial design standards was a testament to Council Member Brewster McCracken’s significant vetting and massaging of the ordinance before multiple groups of stakeholders in recent months.

Instead of fireworks – for example, those associated with the site selection for the city’s proposed water treatment plant – City Council was greeted last night with a calm series of endorsements for the new standards. One exception was the 2222 Coalition of Neighborhood Associations’ concerns about the interaction between the design guidelines and the Hill Country roadway ordinance. That is likely to be addressed with some additional dialogue.

"The Design Commission is very much in support of this ordinance," said Commissioner Girard Kinney, one of number of supporters who spoke Wednesday night. "From a design point of view, this ordinance is one of the most important things the city has ever done."

That doesn’t mean the work is over. The ordinance is broad, complex and will impact neighborhoods across the city. Even though Denver-based consultant Clarion Associates has been running various projects through the ordinance parameters, McCracken admits there will still be questions that remain to be addressed before third reading.

Council members did express concerns. Mike Martinez wanted to make sure small businesses were protected. Betty Dunkerley asked whether the affordable housing standards were economically feasible. Lee Leffingwell had questions about density in the drinking water protection zone. Mayor Will Wynn wanted to talk about downtown. And Jennifer Kim had questions about franchise agreements and the standards the city will impose on franchises such as Taco Bell and Wendy’s.

The biggest concern to emerge, however, was the strain the ordinance is likely to place on the staff of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department. Even Clarion admitted the complexity of the ordinance would be daunting, especially given the opt in-opt out provisions put in place to win neighborhood support.

"The other concern I have is the staffing, doing these rules on a lot-by-lot basis," said Dunkerley, after she lavishly praised the work behind the ordinance. "Just because we’ve had some experience with it doesn’t mean that we handled it well."

McCracken credited former Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman with suggesting the need for design standards a decade ago. The current ordinance is more than two years in the making and started as a way to address the noxious tendencies of big-box retailers. In the intervening years, however, the purpose has been broadened to find ways to encourage the higher-density growth patterns encouraged by Envision Central Texas.

In a nutshell, the ordinance directs development intensity to 44 miles of the city’s 16 core transit corridors, explained Chris Duerksen of Clarion. The rule of thumb is the bigger the street, the more intense the development and the higher the design standards. Those standards are site-based – setbacks, sidewalks and building placement – and design-based – glazing, shading and the encouragement of vertical mixed-use construction.

Duerksen said the point was for Austin to be on the cutting edge but not on the bleeding edge. The standards suggested under the ordinance are similar to those in cities such as Portland, Fort Collins and Denver.

As McCracken stressed a number of times, the standards would apply to new construction and renovation. Those areas with tailored zoning – like Mueller and the area in the Great Streets program – would be exempted, as well as smaller businesses and smaller lots. Owners also will be able to suggest their own alternatives to meet the spirit, if not the letter, of the standards in order to maintain maximum flexibility.

And while vertical mixed-use building is encouraged on major transit corridors, neighborhoods will have 135 days to choose whether they want to see more intense mixed-used buildings along the major corridors in their neighborhoods. Once neighborhoods choose density – or limit density – their choices will be folded into the neighborhood plans as a plan amendment.

East Cesar Chavez planning team member Lori Renteria urged the city the host small group discussions of the opt in-opt out standards in neighborhoods around the city. Renteria said a lot-by-lot assessment by neighborhood planning teams may be too difficult to complete in the limited time frame. She suggested that, perhaps, planning teams could choose density on a street by street basis.

Vertical mixed-use building would be encouraged in overlay districts along major transit corridors and in mixed-use combining district sites of more than three acres. The city would waive requirements on building coverage, setbacks and floor-to-area requirements for developers of vertical mixed-use buildings as long as the developers agreed to standards for first-floor pedestrian-oriented commercial use and affordable housing units. The height standards of the base district would not be waived.

Even at first reading, McCracken had a number of changes to propose: data centers would be treated as industrial, rather than commercial, properties; accessibility language will be added; impervious cover credit will be added for sidewalks and curbs; and neighborhoods will be able to create parking districts in the opt-out process. A new sign ordinance also is likely to follow the commercial design standards.

Answering Dunkerley’s question about the economic viability of the affordable housing provisions, McCracken said the new design standards offered a density bonus to developers who wanted to pursue mixed-use development. Get rid of the suburban-oriented density caps and a developer can put an additional 50 percent more units on the ground.

The ordinance suggests between 5 and 10 percent affordable housing units for vertical mixed-use developments. Affordable housing advocates have suggested even 12.5 percent would be viable, McCracken said. The ordinance also offers the city the chance to subsidize an additional 10 percent affordable housing units in a project, if it deems necessary. McCracken said the city would be closely monitoring the viability of the affordable housing, to decide whether subsidizing units would be necessary.

Recommendations of the SOS ordinance advisory group and the affordable housing task force also may be folded into the ordinance before third reading.

SWAC asks city to study recycling partnership

Rhodes not enthusiastic about public-private proposal

Plans are moving forward for the city’s Solid Waste Services to switch from a single-stream recycling collection system in 2008, but the question of whether the city should own and operate the plant that will separate the materials or partner with a private firm has yet to be decided.

The issue arose last night at the Solid Waste Advisory Commission when Steve Shannon with Allied Waste Services (formerly BFI) made a proposal for a regional Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) operated by a public-private partnership.

"The single-stream approach offers a rare opportunity to improve the economics of, and subsequently, the participation in recycling programs," Sherman said. "This economy of scale benefit can be enjoyed by not only Austin but the entire Central Texas community."

Single-stream recycling is a process where a single covered container is used for recycling all materials, which are collected by an automated vehicle that compacts the materials for efficiency. The materials are then separated at a high-tech MRF and sold on the recycled commodities market. A pilot program conducted in several Austin neighborhoods over the past 18 months has demonstrated a higher level of recycling at a lower cost to the city.

The idea of a public-private partnership MRF was received with interest by members of the commission, but with somewhat less enthusiasm by SWS Director Willie Rhodes. Commission members, fresh off of a briefing on the proposed SWS budget for 2007, said the city should at least explore a public-private MRF option.

"This is a critical time for us to cover every possible avenue," said Chair Gerard Acuña. "It’s our responsibility to look into it if it is means that the city gets a better deal."

Rhodes noted that plans for a city-owned MRF were already in next year’s proposed budget, and changing them at this point could throw the city’s timeline for changing to the new system off track.

In his presentation, Shannon said that a private firm could bring some economic muscle to such a partnership.

"The equipment to do this is very expensive, complex and has high per-ton operating costs," he said. ""But the net effect, if properly performed, is a reduction in the overall cost of recycling."

He said the keys to a profitable MRF are volume of materials, a strategic location for facility, economical operation and strong end use markets for the products produced.

"By soliciting involvement from the private sector, valuable opportunities for public-private partnerships are enabled," Shannon said. "The brief time and nominal cost of an RFP (request for proposal) process will ensure … that a broad view is taken and all due considerations are made to build a facility that may benefit all instead of a facility that will benefit a few while locking out many."

While Allied made last night’s proposal, several other solid waste management companies have expressed interest in such an arrangement.

SWAC members approved a resolution requesting that Solid Waste Services staff issue a request for information (RFI), which will then be used to develop an RFP for a public-private regional MRF.

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

Zonarama flops . . . The Austin City Council’s special called meeting Wednesday to deal with a backlog of zoning cases did not gain the Council much ground. Some cases passed on consent while several others were postponed, including potentially lengthy case of the East Riverside/Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Plan. A request for a change to allow construction of lofts behind the San José Motel on South Congress had to be put off because of a posting error. One case was brought forward for discussion, a requested zoning change for two lots on Pecan Springs Road, but the applicant was not present when the case was called. The Council heard from a neighborhood representative, tabled the discussion, then later postponed the case after the applicant contacted the staff to request a postponement . . . The new Nathan . . . Congratulations to Missy and Mark Nathan, who have welcomed a daughter, Ruby Davis Nathan, into their family. Ruby, who was born Tuesday, joins Eli Nathan, age 2 ½, Their dad served as a political consultant to five of seven sitting members of the Austin City Council, all but Council Members Brewster McCracken and Jennifer Kim . . . Can't stay away from City Hall ….Former Council Member Raul Alvarez has applied for a seat on the Electric Utility Commission . . . Development law experts to speak . . . Many familiar faces will gather at a one-day seminar on zoning, subdivision and land development law in Texas this Friday at the Capital Place Hotel. Speakers include Alice Glasco, Amelia Lopez-Phelps, Robin Cravey, Jim Nias and Brad Rockwel l. For more information, call 866-352-9539 . . . Firefighters Calendar contest . . . Austin Firefighters will compete at the Driskill Hotel today in hopes of being selected for the 2007 Austin Firefighter Calendar. The Austin Association of Professional Firefighters produces the calendar to raise money and awareness for the Austin Firefighters Fund. Local print, television and radio celebrities will serve as judges for the calendar competition. Firefighters will be judged on physical features as well as personality. The unveiling of the calendar will take place in October and will be followed by public promotions throughout the Austin area. All Firefighter Calendar proceeds benefit the Austin Firefighters Fund which provides immediate financial assistance to citizens of Travis and surrounding counties who experience a major catastrophe involving fire, flood, tornado and other natural disasters. The "Fund" also provides financial assistance to firefighters and their families impacted by an unexpected injury, illness, or death. The contest will be at 9:30am in the Crystal Room at the Driskill Hotel . . . Williamson tax rate . . . Rising property rates in Williamson County will mean larger overall tax bills for property owners, even though Williamson County Auditor David Flores is proposing that the tax rate remain the same for 2007. The current county tax rate is 49.9657 cents per every $100 of assessed property value. According to Public Information Officer Connie Watson, under the proposed tax rate that number won't change. Flores said the taxable value of property in Williamson County increased from $22.1 billion to $23.3 billion, a 5.4 percent increase. According to Flores, his tax rate proposal would cut the portion of the tax funding the county's general fund from 30.05 cents per $100 to 28.3355 cents per $100, a 5.71 percent change. The portion of the tax dedicated to repaying county debt goes up from 16.5657 cents per $100 to 18.4137 cents, an 11.16 percent increase.

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