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Planning Commission OKs VMU zoning for Burnet, Lamar corridors

Friday, August 14, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Brentwood is one of those neighborhoods, with houses carefully facing away from the major thoroughfares, where the use of vertical mixed-use zoning seems logical. And so it didn’t seem much of a stretch that the neighborhood was willing to submit 19 of the 20 properties along the Burnet and Lamar corridors for VMU zoning.

The vertical mixed-use zoning category was one championed by former Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken and a choice that is not likely to see fruition in the near future. Already, about two-dozen neighborhoods have opted into VMU zoning, and yet the landscape in Austin remains essentially unchanged.

At Tuesday night’s Planning Commission meeting, Planner Wendy Rhoades noted that Brentwood was willing to zone 19 of 20 eligible properties along Lamar and Burnet boulevards as VMU, with some exceptions in certain areas for parking requirements.

Commissioner Saundra Kirk praised the neighborhood’s progressive stance on VMU zoning, saying Brentwood was one of those places where place and design and planning all come together for the type of development supported by VMU.

“It’s a very natural fusion, in my mind,” Kirk said. “It’s very easy to support this on my own, and I appreciate the neighborhood for looking at how much land was actually involved, and how many tracts were involved, and looking carefully and seeing what would work and what wouldn’t work.”

Chair Dave Anderson, the most logical of city commissioners, also waxed poetic about Brentwood, using the “L” word for Brentwood. Brentwood, Anderson said, was a neighborhood he had known in 1988 and loved ever since, one he had pedaled through five mornings a week for many a year.

“I don’t hesitate to say that I love this neighborhood,” said Anderson who, although friendly, is completely logical about almost every zoning case. “I’m deeply vested in it, and I think this helps make a lot of improvements.”

The vote in favor of the VMU map was 6-0, with three commissioners absent from the meeting. New commissioners at their first meeting included Danette Chimenti and Kathryne Tovo. The recommendation will be forwarded to Council for final approval.

After the meeting, Planner Wendy Rhoades said that’s not entirely unexpected. The choice to opt in by neighborhood was intended to by a long-term strategy, one expected to encourage more cohesive – and less piecemeal – development among major transportation corridors. Instead of one developer after another coming to the Council, this set a basic framework for all development, one intended primarily to discourage dense development within single-family neighborhoods.

In some ways, the VMU zoning has become something of a zoning category placeholder, Rhoades admitted. It was created to direct the unwanted pressure of commercial and multi-family development from single-family neighborhoods to major transit corridors. Then the economy, and development, slowed down. Now the city must wait for the inevitable uptick that likely will make the mass zoning category of VMU worthwhile along various corridors.

The Brentwood neighborhood choices went by Planning Commission with little protest, except for commercial zoning on properties that included angled side streets. In these areas, residents were concerned access to major arterials might impeded by a street that attaches at an angle, a problem for local traffic.

Because it is VMU zoning, however, little will come to the city for approval beyond the site plan if a current or future owner chooses to pursue VMU development. The intention of VMU is dense development with zoning of at least two categories. Neighborhoods with rail stops were slotted for consideration after other neighborhoods, given that the zoning for transit oriented development, or TODs, is considered separately from “regular” neighborhoods.

A number of neighborhoods still remain to be considered for VMU zoning. Those include Central East Austin, which was put off at tonight’s Planning Commission meeting to the end of August in anticipation of a position letter on VMU by Huston Tillotson College, as well as Upper Boggy Creek and Rosewood neighborhoods. Neighborhoods along the potential rail were the latest to get VMU approval.

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