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PUDs still OK for Lady Bird Lake development

Friday, May 1, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Council stood behind its ability to negotiate possible height variances to development on the shores of Lady Bird Lake through Planned Unit Developments (PUDs) last night, despite the strong objection of local neighbors, the Save Town Lake group and even members of the task force charged with reviewing the current ordinance.

Height always has been the crux of lakeshore development on Lady Bird Lake. The city’s 1986 ordinance, a codification of a 1985 task force study, designated 16 sub-districts along the shores of what was then called Town Lake.

In general, each sub-district had its own height limits. Proposed height limits, however, were stripped out of a 1999 rewrite of the waterfront overlay ordinance, leaving open the possibility that certain parcels along Lady Bird Lake could take advantage of “L” zoning, which would give them a height up to 200 feet. In testimony last night, neighborhood activist Jeff Jack said that 200-foot window was intended for a much smaller sub-district than designated.

Certainly, the waterfront overlay task force – led by Planning Commissioner Mandy Dealey – was firmly against any type of 200-foot exceptions on the lakeshore, be it zoning category or possible master-planned PUD developer. As Dealey and others noted, Lady Bird Lake was the crown jewel of Austin – no one disagreed with that – and its views should be preserved as a community benefit.

But the issue of the PUD remained. Planned Unit Developments exist in another chapter of city code. And, despite some derogatory labels such as “loopholes,” Council members agreed the PUDs should be granted in times when a developer can demonstrate superior development strategies.

For instance, a developer might cobble together 10 acres to create a boardwalk along Town Lake. Council still wanted to be open to the possibility that height – or a variance of that height — could be a bargaining chip – in discussion. The purpose of PUDs, as Shade noted, was to encourage superior development strategies.

Shade said it was disingenuous to suggest a PUD, development with special exceptions on parcels of at least 10 acres, should be considered a loophole. That implied circumvention of the code when the recent rewrite of the PUD ordinance was intended to give the Council more control over development, not less.

“I think it’s really important to recognize the whole intent of the PUD overhaul was to incentivize better development,” Shade told the objectors during the vote.

Those who expected a showdown between mayoral opponents Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken would have been severely disappointed by last night’s discussion. Council Member Mike Martinez dominated the discussion – Leffingwell and McCracken offered limited input – and the motion passed, 7-0.

Save Town Lake filed its lawsuit against the city on hold in the hope that Council would restore height limits along Lady Bird Lake. Director Scott Hendler promised Council the lawsuit would be in play again if Council stuck to exceptions for PUDs, which many labeled a loophole for eager developers.

“There are much more constructive solutions to solving these issues than a lawsuit, but if this process is unsuccessful then we’re going to be back where we started with a lawsuit,” Hendler warned Council. “Frankly, no one wants that.”

That did not deter Council, which took the Planning Commission recommendations to heart by proposing it as the Council motion, with a couple of additions. In making his motion on first reading, Martinez struck a requirement that administrative approvals go through the reconstituted Waterfront Overlay Task Force, which was expected to consider any height variances.

Those height variances, reviewed by the new task force, would be limited to the difference between the maximum height allowable under the zoning category and the maximum set for the particular sub-district in the waterfront overlay. It would never be more than the recommended sub-district height. That varies from 45 to 96 feet, depending on where the property is located along the waterfront, east to west.

In the final motion, Council Member Laura Morrison also added language, in a friendly amendment, that would begin the process of stipulating language to “set the bar higher” for any exceptions above the current 96-foot limit along the lakeshore.

Height, however, does vary by sub-district, and Council Member Randi Shade agreed it was probably time to revisit those height limits, with the possibility of raising maximum heights. A number of condominium owners, sandwiched between 96-foot-high buildings, protested at last night’s meeting, saying that the 45-foot limit under the current overlay robbed them of their entitlements.

The only real concession that objectors got was an agreement that height limits were a good idea, in general, and that property owners along the shore should be notified so they can participate in second reading on the ordinance on May 21.

The reconstituted waterfront overlay task force, which activist Mary Arnold said was struck in 1991 as a cost-savings measure, would consider any variances for development along the lakeshore. The Planning Commission hopes that panel will be appointed within two months of the ordinance’s final approval—but they did not consider the turnover in commissions that could well occur with City Council elections. As Martinez pointed out, August would be an appropriate time for such appointments. How long it will then take to develop bonuses for height variances remains an open question.

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