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Planning Commission recommends many tasks for overlay board

Wednesday, April 29, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Two weeks ago, a representative from the Real Estate Council of Austin suggested to the Planning Commission the Waterfront Overlay Planning Advisory Board would be unnecessary given that so many of its tasks overlapped with Planning Commission duties.

How wrong he was.

At a meeting last night, Planning Commission, led by Chair David Sullivan, spent three hours outlining, task-by-task, the many duties that could soon befall a reconstituted Waterfront Overlay Planning Advisory Board. While they resisted an attempt to require that the PUD ordinance be subservient to the waterfront overlay, the commission did say that the new board should look at the question.

The commission recommended addition of the overlay board to the city’s list of advisory bodies. Their specific task would be to deal with variances and exceptions for anticipated development projects in the 16 identified sub-districts along the shore of Lady Bird Lake that fall under the overlay ordinance. The current overlay stretches from Tom Miller Dam to Montopolis Road.

The proposed and reconstituted Waterfront Overlay Planning Advisory Board — like the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission — would be a specialized board that would hear specific cases specific to the singular waterfront overlay. Board recommendations would be passed along to either the Planning Commission or Zoning and Platting Commission – depending on whether the area along the lakeshore had a neighborhood plan or not — and then both recommendations would be referred to Council for consideration at the final vote.

A number of city commissions already have heard recommendations of the current task force, led by Planning Commissioner Mandy Dealey, to reconcile current language and original intent. That included the Parks and Recreation Board last night, which approved its recommendations on a vote of 6-0.

The ad hoc task force, appointed by Council and led by Dealey, was intended to review the language in the waterfront overlay ordinance, which has been the source of consternation and confusion during recent zoning cases due to a 1999 rewrite of the ordinance. For some, that rewrite marred the original intent of the 1986 ordinance drafted by the original task force and complicated by current events.

Neighborhood activists like Jeff Jack would have been happy to hear the Planning Commission intended the task force to be a strict constructionist, content to limit its activity to a narrow band of variances between zoning categories and height limits of each of the 16 sub-districts. That would limit almost all development along Lady Bird Lakeshore to no more than 96 feet.

Last night, however, the Planning Commission designated a long list of items the proposed Waterfront Overlay Planning Advisory Board should consider. The biggest challenge would be how to handle PUDs and PDAs – those zoning categories that tend to have no oversight at all — which are in a separate chapter of city code and exempted from many of the city’s current height and floor-to-area limitations, if approved.

Other issues on the list for the task force to consider, under the Planning Commission recommendations, would be the protection of view corridors; preservation of affordable housing issues; the consideration of the height under “L” zoning; the consideration of transit; and even the push to use 3-D plans to better understand various development projects.

New to last night’s discussion was planner Robert Heil’s chart that detailed those areas that still have some amount of “L” zoning: Auditorium Shores; East Riverside; South Shore Central; Red Bluff; and Travis Heights.

Those are the sub-districts that still have property in the intensive “L” zoning category, which gives developers the right to build up to 200 feet. The waterfront overlay, however, would constrain those buildings to no more than 96 feet in height.

In the area around Austin City Hall, for instance, the waterfront overlay has no height constraints. Buildings could be – and have been – as tall as necessary, Heil said in his discussion with the commission.

Dealing with developers with these issues would be a prime task for the new board, along with approval of site plans; consideration of zoning and re-zoning; amendments to the land development code; changes in the comprehensive plan, including the process of neighborhood plans; and the review of any administrative site plans that may occur within the overlay area.

Some current buildings, such as the RBJ Residential Tower on Waller Street, clearly are an exception to the current ordinance. As Commissioner Gerardo Castillo noted, the residential tower might be bulldozed someday, but its replacement would have to conform to the current waterfront overlay requirements of 60 feet in height.

The Planning Commission wants to give the Waterfront Overlay Planning Advisory Board the ability to consider and weigh many of the waterfront issues. That would be a far broader choice than groups like Save Town Lake would have intended, but it would be more in keeping with the spirit of the original task force report, which anticipated that development would occur, in some measure, along the shores of Lady Bird Lake.

Two weeks ago, much was made of Castillo’s attempt to set the vote on the overlay before the mayor’s election on May 9. Castillo is an appointee of Council Member Mike Martinez, who is a close ally of candidate Lee Leffingwell. Castillo asked for a reconsideration of the vote to delay the task force recommendation, saying it would be better to consider the decision sooner, rather than later.

Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the matter at 6pm Thursday. Look forward to plenty of discussion as to the role of the city and its commissions in lakeshore development.

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