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Vertical mixed use runs into historic objection on MLK

Thursday, March 27, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Council members ran into some opposition last week in approving Vertical Mixed Use (VMU) zoning changes in three neighborhoods in the Opt-in, Opt-out Process. Rosedale, Judges Hill and the Downtown Neighborhood Planning Area were up before Council last week as part of the ongoing opt-in, opt-out VMU process. One other, the North Austin Civic Association, was approved on consent.


Neighborhood planners have been studying the city’s plans for designating VMU zoning along major corridors for the past few years. The neighborhoods recommendations are being brought to Council two or three areas at a time in a plan that will eventually give all of the city’s major planning areas a chance to have a say on how the zoning will affect them.


The Rosedale vote presented a dilemma. One tract in the area, which ran along North Lamar Boulevard, was under the auspices of the Rosedale Neighborhood Planning Committee, but was technically within the boundaries of the Allandale Neighborhood Association.


A number of residents who spoke during the consideration of the Rosedale VMU plan were all in favor of the Planning Commission recommendation for VMU on the tract. There was, however, a request from the Allandale Neighborhood for a postponement on the Rosedale plan. Council members rejected the request, noting that Rosedale was not asking for the postponement.


Bob Swofford, president of the Judge’s Hill Neighborhood Association, requested that Council remove two of four tracts slated for VMU status along MLK Boulevard because of a desire by the neighborhood to include them in a planned historic district. The buildings, including the Pearl Street Inn, sit on the south side of MLK at the point where it shifts from four to two lanes, about a block east of Lamar Boulevard. Removing them would have kept the area from forming a contiguous historic district.


Council voted 4-3 to remove two of four properties on MLK in the VMU overlay. However, because there was a valid petition on the properties—by the owner—there were not enough votes to deny the VMU. Six votes were needed to override the petition. Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Jennifer Kim, Brewster McCracken and Sheryl Cole voted to remove the two tracts, but were two votes short to prevail.


McCracken said he could see both sides of the argument.


“There were two different philosophies,” he said. “With the combination of McMansions  (ordinance) and the VMU overlay, we were adopting a policy of promoting density with affordable housing.  (In focusing the density) along the urban corridors and protecting single-family neighborhoods, we were aiming in large part to protect the places that Austin loves, so we were focusing density on places like dying strip centers.”   


On the other hand, he said, In line with Envision Central Texas, we have to find a responsible way to bring people to the urban core and this is one of our tools to do that and have affordable housing. We really do have to be consistent about that. I really did see both sides of that. I really thought this was a close call.


Today the Council will be considering VMU designations for the Barton Hills and Old West Austin Neighborhood Planning areas. The discussion on those requests will begin after 4pm.

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