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Oak Hill frustrated in push for Town Center at ‘Y’

Friday, July 11, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Planning Commission has circled a proposed town center in Oak Hill – a long-time wish of neighborhood activists — and decided to give the parcels a designation of “major planned development” on the Oak Hill neighborhood plan’s future land use map.

It may not be the best decision for the land at the intersection of US 290 and SH 71 – referred to as the “Y” – but it was an expression of the frustration both the commission and the neighborhoods noted in discussing how the neighborhood plan could move along the concept of a master-planned town center.

The problem, of course, is that Oak Hill is not Leander. Leander Mayor John Cowman, a real estate developer, brought the various landowners within the Leander area together on a town center proposal before passing the zoning category at a Leander City Council meeting.

In the case of Oak Hill, a number of the properties are combined as part of the proposed 130 Westpark planned unit development. Attorney Dowe Gullatt noted that the PUD developers had been in conversations with neighbors for a number of months. The wishes on the balance of the property owners’ is still a question mark, no matter how much local leaders want to turn back the blight which has left the “Y” with spotty development, closed stores and heavy congestion.

“We cannot make property owners participate in a cooperative plan,” said Carol Haywood of the Neighborhood Planning  and Zoning Department. “Part of the comprehensive plan for the whole city will be to identify areas like this that can be town centers where growth should be… We’re kind of limited in what kind of cooperation we can demand of property owners.”

The major planned development was a step forward from the recommendation of local leaders, who wanted to see the properties noted with no designation on the FLUM. As members of the neighborhood planning contact team, including Chair David Richardson, explained to the Planning Commission, giving the properties “CS” zoning would give the neighborhoods no leverage in negotiations.

“I happened to speak to (property owner) Rudy Belton and suggested a town center. He has responded by creating a mixed-use development appropriate for the broader area of the “Y,”” Richardson said. “This is an ongoing conversation, but we need to determine — either through a station area plan or from an overlay district or some other mechanism – how to find a way to plan this area coherently.”

Gullatt, who represents Belton, expressed a bit of discomfort over local leaders’ reaction to the proposed “CS” in the Oak Hill plan: to propose an area with no designation until a better zoning category could be determined. Gullatt assured the commission his client would continue to work with the neighborhood to create a town center project, regardless of the outcome of the FLUM and zoning.

However, as Richardson pointed out, Rudy Belton was only one property owner.

And while the broad definition of “major planned development,” as read by Planner Maureen Meredith, appeared to cover the multi-use multi-modal multi-zoning plan that might emerge on the town center, questions still remained. Haywood admitted she was not even certain what zoning categories might be applicable under the major planned development category.

Commissioner Jay Reddy, who was chairing the meeting in Sullivan’s absence, brushed aside that concern, saying that the Planning Commission could make a recommendation and staff could bring back more information before the final recommendation was forwarded to Council.

Contested properties on the FLUM were considered in groups of two and three. The town center property was paired with 23 acres across US 290 owned by Oak Hill United Methodist Church. Attorney Nikelle Meade spoke on behalf of the church, noting that the property needed to be zoned commercial in order for the church to enter into an interim co-sharing arrangement with Capital Metro.

Capital Metro approached the church to ask to share a parking lot that the church already was constructing on the site. Meade said the existence of the parking lot was not in question – it would be built under current or proposed zoning – but that sharing the surface parking lot with another user required commercial zoning.

The use of the parking lot is temporary and based on a surge of demand in the area, Meade said. Ultimately, the goal would be to build a more permanent facility in the area. Of course, neighborhood leaders would prefer that be at the potential town center, which is intended to be a “live-work-play” development, Richardson said.

The parking lot issue led Commissioner Saundra Kirk to comment that the use of the commercial zoning category appeared to be too broad – and too overused – in plans. She noted that the Oak Hill plan had provided two issues of fodder for Planning Commission: how to address co-sharing without opening up the zoning category to all sorts of uses under “CS” zoning; and how to designate a town center category in a way that would require developers to seek neighborhood input.

If the Planning Commission – and Council – were to simply designate all the properties around the proposed Town Center as “CS,” then nothing in the zoning would require developers to return to work with stakeholders on a plan.

At the final vote, the Planning Commission unanimously approved commercial zoning on the Oak Hill United Methodist Church property and the major planned development zoning on the Oak Hill FLUM.

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