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VMU designation means property owners have more choices

Thursday, May 21, 2009 by Austin Monitor

As Council Member Brewster McCracken leaves Council, his imprint on the city’s urban design principles remain, including individual neighborhood choices to either opt-in or opt-out of the vertical-mixed use (VMU) option along major corridors.

The East Cesar Chavez neighborhood, which adopted its neighborhood plan a decade ago, is one of the latest to bring additional choices on VMU. At last week’s Planning Commission meeting, East Cesar Chavez picked nine properties on seven tracts near the Saltillo Plaza station to have the possibility of VMU.

Two of the properties on Clermont Street required changes to the future land use map, or FLUM. The balance of the properties required a “V” zoning overlay.

The two FLUM changes were to properties on Clermont Street, which were both designated as “open space” in the current land use map. The FLUM would change that designation for future preferred development to “mixed-use.” The Clermont Street lots are bounded, roughly, by Waller Street and East Riverside Drive.

The remaining seven properties required zoning changes. Most of these properties, beyond the current VMU overlay, were on the East 5th and East 6th street corridors. As Planner Jacob Browning pointed out, additional properties that might have been added to the list already had been carved out as part of the Plaza Saltillo transit-oriented development overlay, which anticipates more intense development around the future commuter rail stop at Saltillo Plaza.

According to the background provided by staff, these zoning changes have been in process for at least two years. The new proposed VMU standards also will carry required uses on the ground floor and a 60 percent median family level of affordability for the applicable units within the VMU properties.

In a letter submitted by contact team leader Joseph Martinez to Planner George Adams back in 2007, the neighborhood planning team had some specific ideas of residential development in the area such as pawn shops, the local soup kitchen and the various lots with existing auto-related uses, especially used car lots.

Given that context, it wasn’t surprising that the owner of one of the target lots in question, on East Cesar Chavez Drive, was at Planning Commission to protest VMU. The owner of the used car lot at 1500 E Cesar Chavez, which has been in operation since 1988, was concerned that the “V” on his property could stop him from selling his land to someone else who might want to keep the current use.

The current zoning on the property is CS-MU-CO-NP. Once the property is under the vertical mixed-use overlay, it would be CS-MU-CO-NP-V.

What came out of the Planning Commission discussion was that the “V” did little to change the current “CS” zoning on the property. The car lot was a legal conforming use. The land was zoned legally and properly.

“This is the permitted use,” said Planner Joi Harden, who was at the meeting and asked to advise on the impact of the proposed zoning change. “Auto sales is a permitted use in ‘CS.’ Just putting vertical mixed-use on that doesn’t change that. He can continue his auto sales, and if it went out of business – unless there is a conditional overlay that prohibits future auto sales – that would continue to be a permitted use. This doesn’t change that at all.”

The fact that the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood wanted to see the lot converted into mixed-use was immaterial until the point at which the current owner might sell.

At that point, the new owner would have more – not fewer – options on the table. The owner could continue in the current legal use or choose to develop a vertical mixed-use property that might be more lucrative and certainly more desirable to the neighborhood leaders who would like to direct future development.

Planning Commission approved the overlay changes on a unanimous vote. That recommendation will be forwarded to Council.

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