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Lakeside height limits could impact new developments

Monday, February 23, 2009 by Bill McCann

The seemingly endless debate over the maximum height that developers should be allowed to construct buildings near and along Lady Bird Lake is heating up again. Supporters of height limits are being bolstered by a recently released report from a City Council-appointed citizen task force.


Likely to be caught up in that debate is the South Shore Planned Unit Development (PUD) that a Houston developer, Grayco Partners, is proposing on 20 acres in the area of East Riverside Drive and South Lakeshore Boulevard in southeast Austin. The project calls for removing existing multi-family housing and a shopping center and building apartments, commercial and retail space, including two buildings that would be 90 feet and one that would be 120 feet tall. 


This time opponents of taller buildings and dense development near the waterfront have new ammunition in the form of a report from the Waterfront Overlay Task Force, a group of 15 citizen volunteers appointed by the council last year to take another look at the issue of waterfront development.


The task force presented its report to the council on Dec. 18 and the report is now making the rounds of city boards and commissions. It has some strong recommendations aimed at protecting the waterfront from overdevelopment. Among other things, the task force concluded that the original 1986 waterfront ordinance, which was developed after a long public consensus process, has been “significantly weakened” by subsequent changes, particularly a 1999 rewrite designed to put the entire city Land Development Code in “plain English.”


In that rewrite, building height limits established for various locations, or sub-districts, around the lake were dropped from the ordinance. (For example, the sub-district where the South Shore PUD is proposed, had a maximum building height limit of 60 feet in the 1986 Waterfront Overlay ordinance.) A major task force recommendation is that height limits established in the 1986 ordinance be reinstated and supersede any other provisions of the Land Development Code.


The Environmental Board, which is concerned about the building height issue, requested and received a report on the Waterfront Overlay Task Force Wednesday from Robert Heil of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department. Under questioning from board members, Heil said the intent of the 1999 rewrite of the waterfront ordinance was simply to make the language clearer, not make any substantive changes. The height limits were deleted in the rewrite, he said, because of apparent ambiguity over “bonus” provisions to allow a building to have added height in return for the project providing other benefits.


Board Member Phil Moncada asked Heil to provide to the board a list of projects that have been built in the Waterfront Overlay since the 1999 code rewrite. 


Neighborhood activist Jeff Jack, who is a member of the task force and has followed the issue closely over the years, told the board that the 1999 rewrite was sold by city staff as a cleanup of the language and sped through the City Council without a public hearing.


Jack, a member of the Save Town Lake organization, is opposing the South Shore PUD in part because of plans by the developer to construct buildings that are 90 and 120 feet tall. Jack told In Fact Daily that the city should require the PUD to comply with the 60-foot height limit of the 1986 Waterfront Overlay for that area of the lake.


“We are talking about one building that would be twice as high as the original height limit,” Jack said. “If it is built as proposed, the PUD would violate the will of the people. The original height limits were based on a lot of hard work and public consensus and should not be ignored because they were somehow left out when the code was rewritten.”


At the council’s direction, city staff is drafting new ordinances for the Waterfront Overlay based on the task force report. Drafts are scheduled to go to the Environmental Board April 1, the Planning Commission April 14 and to the City Council April 23 for consideration.


Meanwhile, a hearing on the South Shore PUD proposal has been postponed three times this year at the Environmental Board, including Wednesday, when representatives of the developer asked for a delay until the board’s March 4 meeting. In a letter to the city, Michelle Rogerson, a land planner with the law firm of Drenner & Golden Stuart Wolff LLP, said the applicant is continuing to work with city staff on updated information and needed more time. Previously, city staff and neighborhood groups had requested and received hearing delays.


The developer is requesting PUD zoning as well as several variances from the Land Development Code. In filings with the city, the developer has insisted that the PUD project will be superior to existing development at the site and will provide water quality protection and energy efficiency measures that are well above what is required. Staff officials from the Watershed Protection and Development Review and the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning departments are supporting the PUD, with conditions that have been agreed to by the developer.

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