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Redevelopment issues arise in design standards debate

Tuesday, June 17, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

As Council Member Brewster McCracken continues to meet with stakeholder groups in the hopes of whittling down and working through issues surrounding commercial design standards, the policy conversation has narrowed to three main topics:  connectivity; redevelopment; and amenities, which include certain infrastructure standards.

At a meeting last Friday, developers, architects, agents and neighborhood representatives talked about interconnectivity between and among lots.  One of the stakeholders, Melissa Hawthorne of Austin Permit Service said the redevelopment issues are key. For the first time, Austin is dealing with properties that are on the cusp of being redeveloped, rather than developed for the first time.

The Northcross Mall site is one good example of why developers and neighborhoods are concerned that lots are primed not only for development but for redevelopment, said Hawthorne, who also serves on the Urban Transportation Commission. 

In the case of Northcross Mall, the owner was not someone who anticipated ever redeveloping the site. And as stores in the mall failed, he began to sell off various pieces of the property, including pad sites. That has made the ability to reconfigure the property – or even choose new orientations for buildings – quite difficult.

“You want to make sure that the infrastructure in these places is in place, should you later want to put another building on the property,” Hawthorne said. “When you want to reorient something, the connectivity and infrastructure has to be there to make sure it can happen.”

The ordinance started as purely the exterior of buildings, a demand to make sure new development and big-box buildings were not some kind of cinderblock building with a concrete floor and tin roof. As time has gone on, the goal has evolved to include what will be anticipated in not only this generation, but also in future ones.

A lot of the talk among the stakeholder group is either how a developer might inadvertently shut down options or intentionally game the system.

Developers often subdivide a large piece of land. What type of action could guarantee that a connectivity plan was part of the planning process, possibly at the point the site plan is presented.

Of course, that led to other questions. What if the lots are adjacent to each other but only one owner wants to develop? Would that trigger an easement on one property or on both properties? Would it trigger a connectivity plan for one property, or both? And when would the connectivity plan be filed: at the point of the site plan? Or as a restrictive covenant or note on the property deed to be filed at the courthouse, rather than lost in a file somewhere where site plans go?

For every proposal, there was an exception. Often, it involved someone going up to the white board and scribbling a couple of blocks to demonstrate a point. For instance, the group ran through various scenarios for what would constitute a block face, and when that block face would trigger a connectivity plan and who might do the plan if the landowner declines to complete the work.

No consensus emerged from the group. McCracken, for his part, stood firm, reading and re-reading the aspects of the ordinance: the definition of a block face; the need for a connectivity plan; and exceptions that could be set out by the NPZD director if some kind of plan or exception was deemed necessary.

“From an urban planning standpoint, you better get the roadways right,” McCracken said. “You can overcome a lot of things… Buildings are going to be much more transitory than your roadway system. We’re sitting on a roadway system downtown that was developed in the 1800s. This block (the City Hall site on Second Street) has had several buildings on it over the years, but the streets remain the same. Our streets are the structure – the foundation – of our commercial design standards ordinance.”

Two groups of stakeholders continue to meet with McCracken on various issues. The next stakeholder meeting is scheduled for June 23.

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