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Design Commission wants to take on PUDs

Thursday, July 2, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Design Commission wants the chance to review planned unit developments, or PUDs, as long as the change won’t slow down the process or put an excessive burden on city staff.

With development downtown slowing to a crawl, the Design Commission is a board in search of a mission. At the turn of the decade, the group was busy creating and scoring the matrix for SMART growth, which generated early discussion of proper urban design guidelines. The boom of downtown development came so swiftly the commission had a several month waiting list to review projects, some as large and complicated as the Seaholm master plan.

Now, with the downturn, the Design Commission needs something to do, and it certainly has its share of ideas. Commissioners have now proposed getting involved in both PUDs, and the city’s ongoing comprehensive plan. Members of the Design Commission also want to weigh in on projects in the waterfront overlay, which comes close to qualifying as part of downtown.

Commissioner Bart Whatley brought the issue of PUD review to the Design Commission. He raised the point that the commission, to date, had been limited to review of downtown projects and their compliance with commercial design standards. The commission’s by-laws, however, presented a larger and more city-wide view of the commission’s role.

The Design Commission has been involved in reviewing PUDs before. As Commissioner Eleanor McKinney noted, the Design Commission specifically was requested to intervene in the East Avenue PUD, and the involvement of objective, outside experts broke the impasse between residents and the developer. The East Avenue PUD led to the demolition of Concordia University, and replaced it with high-density development along Interstate 35.

“We were requested by the applicant to come in and assist in that effort with the neighborhood,” recalled McKinney. “Our job was to get the two parties together, both sides, and have us help reach a compromise. A lot ended up shifting at that time. The developer and the neighborhoods started to hear each other and started to see mutual benefits.”

As Whatley noted, the sometimes-nebulous PUD zoning category is being used for significant development, whether its urban infill along Lady Bird Lake or development along SH 130, like Whispering Valley. One of the biggest benefits of a PUD project, Whatley noted, is the ability to use design principles to put together a cohesive development. It’s an exercise in urban design as well as a zoning case, Whatley said.

Design Commission is set apart from other commissions as one that is exclusively made up of professionals who deal in various aspects of design and architecture. While the decisions of other commissions made based upon city statute or gut intuition, the Design Commission’s comments often are based upon the experience and practice of design professionals.

Commissioner Joan Hyde volunteered to review the commission’s codes and ordinances for potential amendments. Long-time Commissioner and former Chair Juan Cotera cautioned against memorializing the role in by-laws.

“I have a bit of a problem with bringing this into the by-laws,” Cotera said. “That’s not the purpose of by-laws. By-laws are not intended to address the specific actions we should be taking. Nor does putting it in the by-laws really require the city to do anything about it. I don’t mind putting it into the by-laws, but I don’t think it will do any good to do that.”

Liaison Jorge Rousselin asked if the change was put into the Design Commission’s by-laws, would it force the city to change its PUD ordinance? That answer appeared unclear but unlikely, and it could take years to change the PUD ordinance.

Commissioners agreed to sign on to review PUDs, as long as it was not an inconvenience to staff. They also agreed to the possible drafting of a letter to Council on the issue this month.

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