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Proposed South Shore PUD tests goals of new ordinance

Friday, September 25, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

As hard as Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez worked to make the new Planned Unit Development ordinance as predictable and objective as possible, the final decision on any PUD still comes down to one question: Will this project help or hurt?

The South Shore PUD was on the table last night for Council’s inspection, the first PUD that has offered to meet the city’s new ordinance standards, although it was in the pipeline before Council passed the new ordinance. Surprisingly, given the strong efforts of Save Town Lake to publicize the event, only 17 people signed up to speak.

Cathy Echols, a low-income housing advocate, hit the core of Council’s eventual concerns, which were how to replace lost affordable housing units.

“We need to retain affordable units in every redevelopment of a property,” said Echols. “The residents in this area need to reap some of the benefits of this development. We have 5,000 affordable units in the Riverside area in danger of redevelopment, and we’re desperate for a comprehensive housing preservation policy with a full range of options that could leverage every source of funding.”

Nothing in the ordinance requires South Shore to offer affordable housing – it’s considered to be a Tier II requirement — although the developer has landed on a fee in lieu amount between $1.5 million and $2 million. Interpretation of the calculation, and whether it’s based on full or partial square footage, is still up for review, as discussed in a memo presented to Council.

Other local residents – who typically described themselves as living on the “low end” side of Riverside – were angry that even more multi-family units in a mega-apartment project were being added to Riverside when the neighborhood plan clearly stated that additional multi-family housing should be discouraged. Others simply disliked the precedent that the South Shore PUD presented.

“If we allow PUDs, we’ll see PUDs on every tract of land,” said activist Jeff Jack. “We’ve all worked on a waterfront overlay and we expect this thing to be used, but if we’re just going to go ahead and allow PUDs, in a sense we have no guidelines, except through negotiation, tract by tract.”

And Gail Goff said it was impossible for city staff to defend its position in favor of the South Shore PUD, given how many existing plans it violated, be it the neighborhood plan, the current corridor plan or even the waterfront overlay plan.

“It does not meet the requirements of the waterfront overlay task force,” Goff said. “The waterfront overlay is not just a set of restrictions; it’s a statement of conforming principles and goals for the waterfront.”

Goff went on to note many of the goals of the waterfront overlay to preserve the appearance, assets and view of the existing waterfront.

The affordable housing component was the aspect that appeared to capture most of Council’s attention, and although the first reading on the PUD passed 5-2, it came with directions from Council Member Sheryl Cole for more definitive options for affordable housing on second reading.

Council Member Laura Morrison, saying she wanted to get her arms around the issue, questioned attorney Steve Drenner carefully on the entitlements he wanted for his client’s property. Under current zoning, about 675,000 square feet of construction would be allowed. The new zoning would give them 1.2 million.

Drenner provided a long explanation why Grayco needed to pursue a denser, more sophisticated project. In essence, to demand the rents necessary to justify development on that corridor, it would have to stand apart from existing apartment projects as denser and higher end than existing local properties.

The beauty of a particular PUD is in the eye of the beholder. Some on Council – specifically Randi Shade and Chris Riley — saw a tremendous opportunity to open up the lakeshore with high-quality development that offered plenty of access to the lake for bikes and pedestrians. Riley, a cyclist who bikes past the area frequently, noted all he ever saw when he pedaled past the property was asphalt and gates.

While Mayor Lee Leffingwell saw a project that took away from the shoreline, Shade saw a new development that added something to the community.

“Lady Bird Lake, as the crown jewel of our city… We want to support improvement of it,” said Shade, who went on to address Leffingwell and Jack’s concerns. “The whole point of allowing PUDs is that it does mean lots and lots of long nights and the rehashing of ideas. That’s the point of having them.”

Some speakers thought other PUD developers had been far more generous in their concessions than Grayco in terms of setbacks and neighborhood amenities.

The new property, while heavy with apartment units, will have an interconnected web of bike lanes, improvements along the water and a straight-line view to shore.

Cole, who made the motion in favor of the PUD on first reading only, saw the project as being true to the city’s core goal of increased downtown density.

And Council Member Bill Spelman, ever the professor, was even more pragmatic, leading Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Executive Director Margaret Shaw through a series of questions that would indicate this 40-year-old property was too old and problematic for the city to spend money renovating it. He also provided a list of specific directions to Director of Planning and Zoning Greg Guernsey on the options he wanted returned to Council regarding the potential for affordable housing units.

Many who addressed Council saw the project as an encroachment on the waterfront overlay, a project that would take out 600 affordable housing units and one that was so heavily weighted to multi-family that it didn’t come close to being mixed use.

Leffingwell and Morrison voted to oppose the project. Leffingwell said the project had not met the threshold of excellence he expected to make an exception to the waterfront overlay. Martinez, who was off the dais for most of the discussion due to illness, pointed out the PUD ordinance was created to allow Council the flexibility to bend the rules. He specifically mentioned Leffingwell’s own rewrite of the SOS ordinance to incentivize redevelopment.

Morrison outlined a number of reasons for opposing the ordinance: the burden of shifting enrollment it would place on the local elementary school; the people living in affordable housing at the existing housing project would displace; and the fact that the neighborhood plan was in place as a guiding document long before Grayco made its plans.

Drenner said about 400 units still exist on the property. A total of 200 units have been demolished. New development would displace about 400 residents.

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