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Design Commission backs more downtown standards

Wednesday, July 30, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Design Commission will recommend broadening the city’s downtown commercial design guidelines to give the standards more teeth and apply them beyond downtown to all areas of the city where density is desired. 

The commission – faced with the departure of long-time members Perry Lorenz, Girard Kinney, Phil Reed and Calvin Chen – is in the midst of transition. One of founding member Reed’s last, and biggest, gestures has been the attempt to push through the Council-requested update of the design guidelines. The update will go to Council on August 7.

Reed, a partner with Juan Cotera in Cotera + Reed Architects, said that it is time for Council to give more serious consideration to the design guidelines as an integral part of the city’s push for density.

“Right now there’s nothing guiding anything for development,” Reed said. “The only time we hear from them is when we’re dealing with the 8-to-1 FAR, and it’s still, ‘Let’s make a deal,’ which I think should have been shut down a long time ago.”

The earliest incarnation of design guidelines came with the SMART growth matrix, which the Design Commission used to weigh the earliest projects in the latest wave of downtown development. Developers took those guidelines seriously, commissioners said, even when the fees defrayed were token in nature.

Commissioners criticized the proposed design of the Austin Museum of Art as a prime example of where developers go wrong under the design guidelines. Monday night commissioners expressed myriad concerns – from the placement of curb cuts to the inclusion of design elements discouraged by the commission to the presentation of a site plan – that all seemed to fly in the face of the typical Design Commission presentation.

Outgoing Chair Girard Kinney noted that since design standards were not mandatory, it was difficult to face such a significant civic building that appeared to break just about every major rule set out by the commission.

“It will be quite unfortunate if that project goes forward without meeting most – if not all – of the guidelines that are provided in what is now called the urban design guidelines,” Kinney told his colleagues and new members sitting in the audience.

Developer Lorenz said he had no problem making the design guidelines mandatory, saying that what once seemed onerous is now taken to be de rigueur for almost every development downtown. Awnings, trees, wide sidewalks and street furniture were once seen as exceptions; now those measures are commonly accepted additions.

Kinney noted the guidelines had a profound influence on any number of efforts being done by the city, from transit-oriented development to Great Streets to vertical mixed-use development.

Kinney said that the choice of groups such as Downtown Austin Alliance was to make the design guidelines voluntary. Over time, however, those guidelines appeared to be automatically accepted by developers. Given that, it would make sense to make the guidelines track density wherever it goes in the city.

Reed said he believed that the guidelines that made sense downtown should be mapped over or against any future density-related plans in the city.

The Design Commission wants the revised guidelines – which will be presented by Interim Chair Richard Weiss on August 7 – to apply to all areas of the city aimed at denser development. According to the material presented to the commission on Monday night, the intent is to provide broader coordination.

“The guidelines provided a missing tool of urbanism during a period when economic viability was just starting to be linked to the quality of the pedestrian experience,” Reed wrote in the document presented to fellow commissioners. “Individual properties were developing with little coordination or concern for others around them. Retail development was suffering from a lack of critical mass. Properties that disallowed retail at the ground floor – parking garages, services or non-public uses – created difficulties for other properties on the streets, as shoppers – used to front-access parking – would not travel the additional distance on foot.”

Reed said property owners resisted the guidelines, often intensely. The reason for such resistance, he said, was that although they meant well, property owners wanted their property values to increase but were afraid of the additional requirements and regulations required of new development.

“They had the right to feel the way they felt, but what we tried to show – and what we emphasized at every breath – is that we needed to look at the collective,” Reed said. “When you talk about urban planning, a block that refuses to develop along pedestrian guidelines had an impact on the blocks on either side of it.”

Over time, design guidelines and their benefits to the economic viability of an area have become more apparent, Reed said. A broader and larger commitment to the guidelines has raised the value of all properties, he said.

Lorenz said the elephant in the room – the most challenging change to the guidelines – was a requirement to wrap retail or other development around the initial floors of a parking garage to avoid dead space at the street level of parking garages. Such a proposal will be expensive for developers to implement, but commissioners agreed the measure was desirable.

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