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Developers to seek exemption from Design Standards

Wednesday, January 14, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The developers of a new industrial park in southeast Austin will go to the City Council on Thursday to request an exemption to the city’s Commercial Design Standards. However, they will do so without the support of the Planning Commission, which voted against a zoning change on the site at 6800 Burleson Rd. that would lift the design standards.


The Planning Commission had heard the case last month, and requested the applicants to come up with a specific list of which design regulations they found unacceptable and which regulations they could follow. “We have looked long and hard at the Commercial Design Standards, and we have had a lot of discussions with stakeholders and the author of the standards, and we have come to the opinion and understanding that the intent was that they should never have been applicable to this style of project, an industrial park,” said agent Ron Thrower.


The Met Center II project is zoned LI-PDA, and under the city’s current regulations the design standards do apply. While purely industrial uses are exempt, industrial parks with 25 percent or more of the space for office use do have to follow the design regulations. According to the city staff, a working group is reviewing possible changes to the standards, including regulations for industrial properties, but those changes have not been reviewed or approved by the City Council.


Thrower told the commission that implementing the standards would be appropriate if the site contained other uses such as retail, residential, or a restaurant. “For a true industrial park-style development, we don’t believe the Commercial Design Standards should be 100 percent applicable to the property,” he concluded.


The commission had requested a list of standards that could be waived in exchange for some benefit to the rest of the community. “We have several miles of hike-and-bike trails incorporated into the development,” Thrower said. “More importantly, the community benefit that is prevalent in these economic times is that we are trying to bring jobs to the area.”


Neither of those responses satisfied a majority of the commission. “All we asked was just for a little give, and to repeat that you just going back to your original request is very frustrating to me,” said Commissioner Mandy Dealey.


Commissioner Jay Reddy moved to deny the applicant’s request to change the zoning conditions within the LI-PDA area, with a second from Commissioner Paula Hui. “I support what Mr. Thrower’s clients are trying to do here, but abandoning the design standards may not be the best planning principles for us to recommend here,” Reddy said. “We put the standards into place after what we’ve seen happen in Austin over the years…at Highland Mall and all of those big-boxes along Airport Boulevard. They were built in the 1970’s when they were outside the core of the city. Now, they’re in the core of the city and they sit there empty because they weren’t built to be flexible. It behooves us not to continue to follow that model.”


The commission voted 6-1 in favor of Reddy’s motion to deny the request, with Commissioner Clint Small opposed. “I believe that the applicant is correct in that these design standards should not be and probably were not intended for this type of project,” he said. “I certainly understand the reasoning for the design standards. But I think what is occurring out in this area, it’s not necessarily applicable.”

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