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Complaints surface over proposed changes to PUD ordinance

Thursday, May 22, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Hoping to avoid a repeat of the painful twists and turns that came with the plans to redevelop the Concordia University property, among others, three Council Members are proposing major changes to the city’s Planned Unit Development ordinance. But it is running into numerous questions and some opposition as it makes its way through the city’s boards and commissions.


Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez and Brewster McCracken all participated in a stakeholder process that started more than a year ago. Tuesday night, a Planning Commission subcommittee heard a brief overview of the 15-page rewrite of that portion of the zoning ordinance. Last night, the Environmental Board heard the proposal. Other panels that will study the proposed ordinance include the full Planning Commission, Zoning and Platting Commission, Community Development Commission and, eventually, the City Council.


The revised PUD ordinance would mean a number of new requirements for developers. The requirements are meant to deliver additional public benefits, such as affordable housing and the inclusion of locally owned businesses. The revised ordinance is less flexible with respect to density and heights, and proposes a residential and commercial bonus system for developers who have met certain requirements.


Committee to make initial decision


One major feature of the revised ordinance is a new Council committee that will initially review PUD applications. The subcommittee will be made up of three rotating members chosen by the Mayor and will determine if a proposed PUD merits further consideration by various commissions.


At Tuesday’s hearing, the Real Estate Council of Austin noted its opposition to the rewrite in this form. Julia Kalderman described the final product as rushed, without the buy-in from the real estate community.


“We do appreciate the concerns,” Kalderman said. “However, we’re really not supporting it right now in its entirety. We’re concerned that the intentional flexibility is being taken away by some of the components of the ordinance. We’re also concerned about a process where a three-member committee – and not the full Council – could stop a project before it even gets started. We think it’s too early to deny a project.”


Martinez said the early review would keep the process from getting bogged down at the staff review phase.


“It doesn’t bind those committee members to any particular vote on the zoning,” he said. “We’re (as committee members) not voting on the zoning; we’re voting on whether this request possesses the values that we believe should exist in a PUD.  I envision the committee deciding then and there. It would be a public meeting, but not a public hearing. That’s not what this part of the process was designed for. The public process occurs during the boards and commissions hearing.”


Martinez said the current process is flawed. “What we want is the requester of the PUD coming directly to the Council saying what they think makes this project superior,” Martinez said. “What’s happening now is they’re going out and meeting with neighborhoods and coming and meeting with us and they’re trying to see what can we do.”


In the case of Concordia, it eventually required facilitators to hammer out a final agreement between the neighborhoods and the developer. Planner Jerry Rusthoven told the Planning Commission subcommittee the aim was to add some specifics to the PUD ordinance, which, in essence, gave developers a blank piece of paper in exchange for a development that was vaguely described as “superior development.”


The scenario is not unusual these days. In most cases, a developer would take the piece of property – a parcel that was 10 acres or larger – and propose to rezone it as PUD. The goal, in almost every case, was greater height or more density. The argument would be that a PUD would provide more cohesion to a plan, especially when multiple buildings would be involved in one overall development.


What is superior?


The problems crop up when it comes to defining “superior development,” Rusthoven said. The second question is what benefit the developer will offer in exchange for that additional benefit in height or mass. As Planning Commissioner Tracy Atkins noted, that is often difficult to make a judgment on that exchange when dealing with competing public values. Some neighborhoods may want green space; others may want affordable housing.


According to Rusthoven, when a developer proposes PUD zoning, that zoning will have to meet a minimum threshold of Tier 1 requirements: open space; green building and environmental preservation; provide for appropriate transportation and mass transit connections; be consistent with the relevant neighborhood plans; and exceed minimum landscaping; and meet the city’s commercial design standards.


“This is the baseline, and we’re creating the baseline,” Rusthoven said. “The only reason they’re asking for a PUD is because they want to go beyond that baseline. There was a proposal that we set the baseline as the existing zoning. We decided that was too restrictive, especially when you look at a place like Concordia, with SF-2 zoning. That means you couldn’t build anything above 30 feet.”


The rotating three-member Council subcommittee would determine the designation of “superior” development. Every PUD development would be required to meet a minimum threshold. Then the concept of “superior” development would be gauged against a separate set of Tier 2 proposed community values, or concessions. Those requirements cover areas such as open space, environmental regulations, art, Great Streets, community amenities, transportation, building design, parking structure frontage, affordable housing, historic preservation and accessibility.


Commissioners agreed that day care and non-profit uses should be included under desirable uses in mixed-use developments. The subcommittee also discussed turning units over to non-profit organizations for development as affordable housing.


The brief discussion at Tuesday’s meeting centered on affordable housing. Rusthoven explained the standards set out would have violated state law if they had been set out as “requirements;” instead, these additional requirements in affordability are tied to exchanges in additional height or density or other benefits.


Commissioners Mandy Dealey and Saundra Kirk were not keen on “fee in lieu” of affordable housing units. Dealey said she was ready to strike the fee from the code altogether. Kirk acknowledged the benefit the money could bring, but she also was leery of a developer that deliberately set his property apart from integrated income levels.


Environmental Board concerns


Members of the Environmental Board were concerned that the plan’s Tier 1 requirements did not contain enough environmental requirements. Chair Dave Anderson said that the environmental content of a PUD proposal was one of the most important elements, since the developer is essentially creating his own standards.


Anderson said for any PUD to be superior, it would have to exceed the baseline environmental standards on items such as Green building, impervious cover levels, critical environmental feature mitigation and other factors.


There was also some criticism of the three-member subcommittee approach to “pre-approving” a PUD Application. Board member John Dupnik noted that if a group of Council members has already given its blessing to a PUD proposal, it would make it much more difficult for city staff to negotiate with the developer.


Today’s Council agenda includes an item to set a public hearing and take action on the proposed ordinance at 6pm on June 5.


— Additional material for this story was contributed by In Fact Daily staff

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