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Panel rejects waiver of compatibility standards for DMU-CURE

Friday, June 27, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

After months of delay in considering the matter, the Planning Commission on Tuesday rejected a proposal to allow waiver of compatibility standards on DMU-CURE (Downtown Mixed Use Central Urban Redevelopment) zoning—a move sought last fall by developers who want to put a 25-story tower at 800 West Avenue.

Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley, who retired yesterday, expressed disappointment last week in the commission’s inability to hear the proposed amendment and pass it on to the Council before her retirement, preventing her from voting on a change she sponsored. (See In Fact Daily, June 24, 2008.)

Fortis Development’s plan for a 200-unit high rise on West Ave. triggered the request for change to the code. But the Planning Commission discussion is another in the series of conversations about just where density should begin and end in downtown Austin.

For many who live in the Old West Austin Neighborhood, even a proposal to put residential units at the front of the lot and the tower closer to Shoal Creek was too much to imagine.

Local residents and interested parties offered testimony. Some in the neighborhood thought they already had given too many homes over to offices and were losing the historic flavor of their neighborhood. Jeff Jack of Zilker Neighborhood Association in South Austin spoke of the original intention of the DMU-CURE zoning category – bringing preferred development into distressed neighborhoods – and how the requirements to meet that zoning overlay had eroded over the years.

Former Planning Commissioner Chris Riley, who originally supported the tower, addressed the commission in the “neutral” category on the project, noting that the place for the discussion of the overlay was probably the Downtown Plan process. The neighborhood, however, had not developed the kind of relationship with outside consultant ROMA to begin the discussion on the CURE overlay.

Riley said it might make sense to come up with a comprehensive look at just where development would go as had happened on UNO in West Campus. In that community, stakeholders designated compatibility standards and no project made it through the gate without meeting those standards.

“For the right kind of development, we’re going to have to articulate what we want to see, and if we do see that kind of development, we need to say, ‘Compatibility standards don’t apply with you,’” Riley said. “I think if you develop that set of standards, then people are pretty satisfied with the results.”

According to the City Code, a CURE combining district may be used:

  • for sustainable redevelopment of homes, multifamily housing, and small businesses;
  • to accommodate high priority projects that enhance the stability of urban neighborhoods including the development of affordable housing and small businesses along principal transportation routes that serve a neighborhood;
  • to improve the natural environment; and
  • to encourage high quality development with architectural design and proportion compatible with the neighborhood.

At the least, neighbors could probably agree to some type of mid-rise residential projects that did not disrupt the character of the street, Riley said. That would offer options on West Avenue, where the lots are deep enough for large development.

Laura Vaccaro complained that the agenda had no ordinance, no back-up material and no opportunity for citizen review before Planning Commission took action.

Vaccaro did not need to worry. Commissioners were not inclined to ditch the compatibility requirements on DMU-CURE. Waiving compatibility standards on the CURE overlay currently requires a variance before the Board of Adjustment and proof of a hardship. It is hard to argue a hardship when almost any large project would be considered profitable, said Chair Dave Sullivan.

Commissioner Tracy Atkins asked whether there was any move afoot to create a local historic district in the area in conjunction with the ROMA downtown plan. Riley said he was unaware of any such efforts in connection with the plan. Even the concept of downtown “districts” is more figurative than literal in the current plan, much less an effort to put together the intensive work toward a historic district.

Commissioner Saundra Kirk asked whether a motion in favor of CURE would attach it to any base zoning of DMU. Planner Robert Heil said it would not, and that the potential CURE overlay could apply to any existing base zoning district. The overlay gives the developer broad latitude on adjusting standards.

“Right now, if you have DMU zoning, and you apply and get CURE added, you can specify you would like to adjust setbacks, or set out allowable uses, what your height is going to be and what your FAR is going to be,” Heil said. “It’s built into the zoning of the property, so you can say, ‘I want DMU-CURE zoning with a maximum height of 200 feet.’”

Kirk was not enthusiastic about the idea of waiving compatibility standards.

“If this is moving in this direction, there needs to be some damage control,” Kirk said. “With that, I offer a solid Planning Commission denial on this.”

Commissioner Mandy Dealey agreed, saying waiving compatibility was a bad idea.

“I think this is a terrible idea that could have incredibly bad unintended consequences,” Dealey said. “I understand the goal, but there are so many wonderful historic properties in the northwestern part of downtown that I think we ought to do whatever we can to stop this. In no way am I comfortable with this.”

Commissioner Jay Reddy offered a motion, which was accepted, to call on Council to direct ROMA to engage the downtown community in a discussion on CURE. That was the recommendation of the Codes & Ordinances subcommittee.

If CURE did go forward, Atkins called on Council to consider redrawing boundaries on it, possibly Guadalupe Street to the west, Martin Luther King Boulevard to the north, Interstate 35 to the east and the existing southern boundary, which abuts the waterfront overlay. The current western boundary is Lamar.

Commissioners did not approve Atkins’ proposal, saying it sent a mixed message that the Planning Commission approved waiving compatibility. At the final vote, the denial, with the ROMA recommendation was approved on a vote of 7-2. Atkins and Commissioner Chris Ewen voted against the denial.

After the vote, Ewen said he did not want his vote to be construed as being in favor of CURE. Instead, he was simply saying the current language was not well-crafted. Ewen noted that he had opposed the Fortis project on West Avenue.

“I just think something like this needs to be more systemic,” Ewen said. “That’s what I would have wanted, something more systemic in nature.”

The Fortis zoning case and the amendment are scheduled to go back to Council at its next meeting on July 24. Richard Suttle, who represents Fortis, said Thursday that his client would likely pursue DMU zoning, without the CURE designation—which is what the Council granted on first reading of the case in November.

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