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OCEAN opposes mixed-use development plan near I-35

Wednesday, September 3, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN) could mark one in the “win” column last week as the Planning Commission recommended rejecting a developer’s plans to put a mixed-use project on land adjacent to Interstate 35.


The developer wants to bundle three properties – two single-family lots and a multi-family lot that was zoned that way because of multiple structures on it – into one mixed-use property with two-dozen residential units.  The developer was even willing to preserve a historic house on one of the lots and push the development closer to the freeway and away from the neighborhood.


Attorney Alison Gardner told the Planning Commission that owner Stephen Petty had worked for well over a year to try to negotiate some compromise with OCEAN and the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association. The owner wanted a mixed-use GR-MU-CO-NP with a limit on units and trips in the conditional overlay. Staff Planner Robert Heil said the staff recommendation was a less intense LR-MU-CO-NP, given that the property abutted the historic Swede Hill neighborhood.


The three properties being proposed for zoning changes – 1506 Waller St., 908 E 15th Street and 807 E 16th Street — constituted one long strip about 70 feet wide that could be developed. Gardner said the owner had pursued a GR zoning for a variety of reasons: more density to create more affordable housing; more impervious cover; and a floor-to-area ratio that would allow sub-surface parking. The developer was even willing to take a GR zoning with LR uses, as long as the FAR was kept intact.


As Commissioner Jay Reddy noted at the time of the vote, he would have been inclined to support the rezoning on the property. This was a property with only the Texas Department of Transportation right-of-way between it and the frontage road of Interstate 35. It was surrounded by other commercial uses. In most cases, a re-zoning of the subject tracts would have been a slam-dunk for a developer.


Commissioner Saundra Kirk said as much, adding that she could see the logic of both the developer and the neighborhood. Here was a property that was across from a Denny’s and a hotel. It was across from a cemetery and near a company that made headstones, which was clearly a non-residential use.


“There seems like there is enough other kind of activity to provide a transition buffer for you all from the development,” Kirk said. “But the neighborhood does not see it as an acceptable buffer.”


Neighbors did come to protest with the typical reasons. This was a narrow street. The neighborhood had limited parking. The lots in question sat next to the tiny Swede Hill neighborhood.


But, in all likelihood, it was the clear-eyed cogent argument of neighborhood plan chair Mike Clark-Madison that turned the tide in the case.


Clark-Madison told the Planning Commission the neighborhood planning team had considered all the arguments being proposed by the developer. Was there a sufficient transition to create a buffer to development? Did this land, adjacent to a freeway, make sense as some kind of commercial development?


In the end, the answer was “no,” said Clark-Madison. The neighborhood chose to leave the properties zoned under current uses in the future land use map – with the opportunity to revisit those zoning categories – because no clear solution existed that could be satisfy a developer and preserve the neighborhood.


There was no Bennett Tract that protected the neighborhood from encroachment, Clark-Madison noted. And, as John Goldstone pointed out, the neighborhood plan had consciously pushed higher intensity development to 12th Street. In fact, 12th Street had plenty of space for commercial and mixed uses.


As Kirk had noted, other properties along 15th and 16th streets had other zoning categories, Clark-Madison admitted. The monument company was zoned for industrial use, for instance. Other homes served as businesses. However, for the most part, the zoning categories recognized an existing non-conforming use of a modified house at the time of the neighborhood plan. The neighborhood, a National Register Historic District, still maintained its single-family character.


And Clark-Madison noted that the placement of the hotel and Denny’s was no fluke. The orientation of the hotel – and even the placement of dumpsters – had been negotiated with the neighborhood prior to construction.


Gardner had pointed out that OCEAN had willingly said it would reconsider the zoning categories of the relevant lots when the plan was revisited. Commissioner Tracy Atkins asked Clark-Madison if anything had changed since the plan had passed to the point where he thought the neighborhood might support some kind of rezoning of the properties. Clark-Madison, after a pause, said “no.”


Commissioner Mandy Dealey moved for denial of the zoning change, which was seconded by Reddy. The vote was unanimous in favor of the motion.


“This is a remarkable, special neighborhood,” Dealey said. “It is a tiny neighborhood, a pioneer neighborhood, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. Any encroachment on it is going to change the character and nature of this area. I’m for development in appropriate areas but not at the cost of a historic neighborhood.”

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