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Council tweaks McMansions ordinance

Tuesday, September 5, 2006 by

Council went through the process of replacing and modifying the McMansion ordinance on Thursday night, with much of the discussion focused on the issues of measuring height, especially when it came to commercial structures. In the end, they approved the ordinance on second reading and will return for final approval in a few weeks.

The original McMansions ordinance was intended to apply to super-sized houses that were beginning to crowd the ring of suburban neighborhoods around downtown. When the final rewrite was done and the amendments proposed for the Land Development Code, however, it was apparent that it would apply to commercial structures, too. On sloped property, using natural grade rather than finished grade becomes an issue.

Natural grade versus finished grade sounds like an obscure issue, unless you’re in the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, considering the redevelopment of the former Tree House nightclub on Barton Springs at Dawson Street.

As Cory Walton of the neighborhood association told the Council, loopholes in the current code give a developer the right to put a four-story parking garage onto the site, with the top of the parking garage hitting the top of the natural slope on the property. Then the developer could put another 60 feet of development on top of that. That would mean a five-story condominium on top of a four-story garage, Walton said.

"So now that the cat is out of the bag to the Austin development world, there is really no reason that we won’t see similar liberties anywhere else on any other sloped site anywhere in Austin," Walton said. "This is obviously a large concern to nearby residents and the neighborhoods and residents all over Austin."

Replacing finished grade with natural grade, however, was still an issue for developers, especially in the University Neighborhood Overlay. Mike McHone of University Area Partners showed an elevation of a project on Guadalupe, one that would lose a story of development because of the gentle slope of land across the property. He said a number of proposed projects – in the range of 50 to 65 feet – could be affected in the area.

That’s a problem, especially for projects that have committed to provide a percentage of affordable housing units. Those developments willing to offer affordable units were given height bonuses in UNO. McHone urged the Council to exclude UNO from the changes.

"We want to preserve and have the heights built in UNO that were approved in the neighborhood," McHone said. "We are now going back and changing the rules and this will result in buildings not having the full height."

Council appeared open to trying to come up with some kind of compromise before third reading on the ordinance. Council Member Brewster McCracken said it was clear that any kind of compromise should pass the common sense test.

"I think one of the problems that we’re having is, when you put a building on stilts and then pack dirt around it, and it is 100 feet up in the air – that is not a 60-foot building and that does not pass the common sense test," McCracken said. "So we need to have an ordinance that meets the public expectations that when you see something, it matches the law, as opposed to a loophole in the law."

Other aspects of the ordinance also were tweaked: additions to structures that did not meet minimum yard setbacks were limited; non-complying buildings damaged by flood or fire can be rebuilt, but only to the same footprint and gross floor area; and additions added to noncompliant structures cannot be greater in height than the existing structure.

Language, in line with concern over the demolition of historic homes, was added that clarified that a building permit did not authorize the demolition or removal of a structure. And language was added, mirroring current practice, that duplexes must share common roofs and that demolition permits are not required to modify interior walls.

District plans $2 million for mental health services

The Travis County Healthcare District is ready to commit $2 million a year for a crisis stabilization unit at Seton Shoal Creek Hospital in order to offer mental health services “on a true 24/7 basis,” healthcare district Executive Director Trish Young told commissioners at this week’s meeting.

The lack of mental health beds in Travis County – and proper mental health care for the indigent and those moving through the court system – was a key issue during the campaign to create the district. Probate Judge Guy Herman began his petition drive for the district specifically because of a lack of local mental health beds.

Since December, Herman and others on the healthcare district’s mental health stakeholders group – including the city, county and both major local hospital systems — have been meeting to consider the components necessary to create a mental health care safety net for the community.

The crisis stabilization unit will just be one part of the safety net. As Young told the court, Travis County MHMR also has agreed to co-locate its Nadine Jay Unit – for psychiatric emergency services – to the same floor at Seton Shoal Creek as the healthcare district’s crisis stabilization unit. Seton has agreed to renovate a full floor for the effort.

Stakeholders, Young said, would be meeting at a retreat this week to look at a detailed plan for how patients logistically would flow through the various programs at Shoal Creek. The crisis intervention unit would also include mobile crisis unit that would be a cooperative arrangement between the healthcare district and Travis County MHMR.

“Out of this design we should have a better knowledge of what will be required from the standpoint of total resources both for personnel, for operating and how the space should actually be configured and therefore what the capital costs might be to develop this proposal,” Young said. “In terms of conditions of participation, of course from the district's perspective, we’re willing to commit fairly significant funds to the ongoing operating costs of the crisis stabilization unit. We see it as very necessary that all elements of this proposal be in place.”

Clients for the healthcare district’s mental health services could be referred through the court system or the district’s clinics. Almost a million dollars — $800,000 from the St. David’s Health Care System and $100,000 from the healthcare district – is being pledged to ramp up mental health intervention at the district’s 12 community clinics.

“Additionally we have funds that are targeted in our enhancement line item in the proposed 2007 budget that will allow us to consider further expansions of the emergency program that would allow the clinics to treat a higher acuity of patients than they are treating now,” Young said. “So the district is willing to consider that proposal during the year as it's further developed.”

Council Member Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, who serve as some of the city representatives on the committee, also intend to propose a $1.3 million budget amendment to fund a housing component that will augment the transitional housing that currently is provided at Nadine Jay. Housing for those who are leaving crisis mental health situations also is likely to be part of the city’s bond proposal for affordable housing, Young told commissioners.

The district is asking Travis County to fund $400,000 for the proposed mobile crisis outreach team. Most of that money – about $350,000 – would go to hire four personnel that would ride with the unit.

The justification for the expenditure would be to treat mental health issues so that people who tend to end up in jail because of mental health and substance abuse problems are treated before they come in contact with law enforcement. The stakeholders group has estimating it can divert, in conservative numbers, 35 individuals from the jail system, which could save the county up to $11,500 per inmate in mental health treatment services.

County Commissioners will consider the proposal during the budget mark-up process in September.

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Celebrate Tejano heritage in September . . . The Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring a celebration of Tejano Heritage month from 9-11am on Saturday at the State Capitol. Attractions include music, free breakfast tacos, refreshments, and more. The month is set aside to further knowledge about the lives of Tejano pioneers. Beginning in 1690, Tejanos built the first roads, towns and ranches and enacted the first civil laws in Texas. Tejanos are the descendants of the first Spanish, Mexican and indigenous families on the Texas frontier. For more information, visit . . . Looking ahead . . . The agenda for next Monday night’s CAMPO meeting is out, and the item of interest – answers to Rep. Mark Strama’s questions about the cost of tolling and its alternatives – is likely to make the meeting lively…. Meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St . . . . The Williamson County Commissioners Court meets at 9:30am at the County Annex on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . . The Hays County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos. . . Kickoff Rally . . . With the theme, "True Blue Travis," Travis County Democrats are sponsoring a Kickoff Rally for the Travis County Democratic Party's 2006 Coordinated Campaign from 1-3pm Sunday at Saltillo Plaza, East 5th and Comal streets. Travis County Republicans are having their kickoff rally a bit later, from 6-9pm at Scholtz Garten at 1607 San Jacinto Blvd. The GOP theme is "No Blue Dots." If it in any way influences your decision to attend, the Republicans are asking for $5 at the door, but the Democrats soirée is free. . . . Gaming Conference set this week . . . Can’t get enough of video games? Want to work in the industry? This week could be your opportunity, as the Austin Game Conference is at the Austin Convention Center from Wednesday though Friday. Guest speakers include Michael Dell of Dell Computer, Rob Pardo with World of Warcraft, and Jon Landau, COO of Lightstorm Entertainment. Organizers note that the worldwide PC and Video Game market is expected to grow from $28.5 billion in 2005 to around $42 billion in 2010; the worldwide online game market will grow from $3.4 billion in 2005 to over $13 billion in 2011; and there are more than 60 game developers and related companies in the Greater Austin area. There will be a recruiting pavilion, where applicants can meet face-to-face with hiring managers from 16 of the hottest companies in the game industry including Sony, Microsoft Xbox, Electronic Arts, Activision and Intel. For more information or to register, go to

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