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Planning Commission OKs South Shore PUD on Lady Bird Lake

Friday, June 26, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The city’s new waterfront overlay ordinance grants flexibility to exceed height limits in planned unit developments, and that’s just what the Planning Commission recommended for the South Shore PUD in a 6-3 vote on Tuesday night.

The 20-acre South Shore PUD on East Riverside Drive, just west of the more intense approved 50-acre Lakeshore PUD and set back a bit more from the shore of Lady Bird Lake, does pre-date last month’s approved waterfront overlay ordinance and even the current PUD ordinance spearheaded by Council Member Mike Martinez.

Still, the South Shore PUD presents one of the first real tests as to how Council and commissions view lakefront development, as well as how often they might allow height variances in exchange for what is perceived to be true community benefits.

As objective as the new PUD ordinance tried to make such judgments – the statute outlines baseline requirements, plus ideal community benefits – the final judgment on what might be an acceptable benefit for additional height still seems rather subjective. As attorneys for the development pointed out, while not subject to the new ordinance, the project meets the vast majority of its requirements.

At Tuesday night’s Planning Commission meeting, a trio of commissioners – Mandy Dealey, Saundra Kirk and Chair Dave Sullivan –said they considered the height under the waterfront overlay ordinance to be the preferred height of any development, unless the development demonstrated values so outstanding as to justify height increases. That was consistent with the waterfront overlay task force’s recommendations, which Dealey chaired.

Jeff Jack, representing the Save Town Lake organization, calculated the $1.5 million the developer intended to provide for affordable housing and measured it against what he calculated to be $10s of millions the developer would make off the units created with additional height.

“We’re being asked to give up a community value in order for them to make that much more money,” Jack told the commission. “I’d say we’re a cheap date. They’ve got to bring something more to the table than a lot of little things together.”

Attorney Steve Drenner, who represented the PUD’s developer Grayco Town Lake Investments, disputed Jack’s calculations on the potential profit, saying Jack had failed to calculate much of the risk the developer assumed on a project.

Six of the commissioners, however, appeared comfortable with Drenner’s arguments about the benefits the project. Commissioner Gerardo Castillo, for instance, called the project a good benchmark for future PUDs. Benefits beyond a typical development, Drenner argued, would include: an incorporated road system that would improve traffic flow through the area; contributions to park land and affordable housing measures in the city; and a regional wet pond that would drain an additional 110 acres of storm water runoff. That area currently has no wet pond and the runoff flows directly into Lady Bird Lake, a fact that won over the Environmental Board.

The developer has also offered to provides 1,000 square feet of retail space, rent free for 25 years, to police/fire/EMS for a substation plus the same deal for a non-profit or community use.

Such improvements would not have occurred if the 20-acre triangular property had been parceled out, lot-by-lot, and developed with individual projects, he argued. Drenner, in his presentation to the commission, also said that the developer had attempted to address many of the concerns raised by staff, such as presenting a less intense massing of buildings along Lakeshore Drive.

In exchange, the PUD developer was asking that properties limited to 40 feet along Lady Bird Lake be brought more in line with the Lakeshore PUD. The property closest to the lake would be 60 feet, with three other parcels with additional setbacks being 90 feet in height. A parcel closest to the proposed East Riverside transit station would be 120 feet, which would be in line with what ultimately would be desired in terms of transit-oriented development in the area.

Opinion during public testimony was split between architects and developers in the area who appreciated the quality of the plan, which will replace a number of less-desired older apartment complexes. On the other side were members of the neighborhood contact team who argued that the neighborhood plan for East Riverside specifically discouraged additional multi-family development.

Commissioner Jay Reddy, in rather open-ended questions with the neighborhood association members, noted that while a walkable community – one where people live, work and play — was a laudable goal, this particular location on Lady Bird Lake probably was not ideal for commercial development.

In the end, the commissioners outlined, rather tightly, what they expected in exchange for the additional height. Dealey, in particular, wanted to pin down some of the public amenities promised by the developer. Among the recommendations:

Affordability on the fee-in-lieu deeper than the 80 percent MFI proposed;

Meetings with the city arborist and transportation director before Council hearing to address the tree and road plans, respectively;

A pervious pedestrian walkway parallel to Lakeshore Boulevard, across three of the six tracts, with at least one water fountain;

Opportunities for active pedestrian uses along the northern edge of the buildings that front the lake;

Three star green building standards, instead of the two star proposed by the developer;

Dealey’s motions to restrict impervious cover to 60 percent within the waterfront overlay failed, mainly due to the fact that current MF-3 zoning allowed 65 percent. Limits on heights to 60 feet for the majority of tracts also failed because commissioners who wanted to make a trade with the developer said such limitations would significantly change the balance of the deal.

Both those motions failed on a 6-3 vote, with Dealey, Kirk and Sullivan in opposition. A motion proposed by Dealey to determine height from lowest, or even average, grade was abandoned because commissioners were uncertain what the implication of such a decision would be if it were implemented.

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