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Design Commission considers standards for downtown plan

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Downtown developers joined the Design Commission at a special-called meeting last night to consider design standards that would support the ongoing downtown Austin plan: amendments to the existing land use code that would accommodate central city issues of sustainability, use, and urban design.

 

The design standards are just one more deliverable that ROMA will produce as part of Austin’s downtown plan. Three existing design-related documents, consultant Jana McCann told the group, informed the recommendations: the urban design standards produced by the Design Commission in 2009; design standards that were created, but not used, for the Historic Sixth Street District in the 1980s; and the 1984 Capitol Preservation Plan guidelines that included the area north of the Capitol on Congress. Elements of those proposals will be incorporated into the overall plan.

 

“The urban design guidelines were not meant to be codified,” McCann said. “We’ve been able to lodge quite a bit of the ideas – many of the big ideas – into other products of the DAP, whether it was the transportation framework or the parks and open space master plan or the strategies and policies to sustain a creative culture.”

 

ROMA continues to work on stand-alone downtown design guidelines and the creation of historic preservation policies for downtown. The goal of the downtown design standards, which were presented in draft form last night, is to start the stakeholder input process for interested parties.

 

Even if the City Council approves the downtown Austin plan this summer, ROMA anticipates another year of work with the Planning Commission’s Codes & Ordinances subcommittee on the specific downtown Austin guidelines.

 

ROMA’s recommendations were divided into amendments to the existing land use code in the broad categories of sustainability, use, and urban design standards. The proposal with the most impact, it appeared, was a suggestion to zone all non-CBD and DMU property for denser mixed-used development.

 

Properties in the zoning categories GR, GO, MF-4, and CS would be rezoned to DMU-60, meaning mixed-use with 60 feet of height. Properties zoned LO, LR, NO, and MF-3 would be zoned DMU-40, or 40 feet tall, with a simple 1-to-1 floor-to-area ratio. Areas in the northeast quadrant, around the University of Texas, would be up-zoned to DMU-80 in most areas and possibly even DMU-120 along Waller Creek.

 

Such classifications would simplify development and cut the time it would take for a developer to go through the various boards and commissions for changes, McCann suggested. And it would get rid of CS zoning, which has not been considered consistent with downtown due to its potential for drive-through uses.

 

The proposal included a number of significant amendments: make cocktail lounges conditional use to control proliferation along certain corridors, loosen up signage regulations in places like Judges Hill for home businesses, regulate how the ground-level street frontage is developed for both high-rise and low-rise buildings, and provide for ways to separate, and accommodate, multiple towers on the same block.

 

Attendees had both their issues and their skepticism. Developer Mark Duggan, for instance, noted the inherent tension between the various code proposals. The standards, for instance, note a desire for raised stoops for residential development along the street, but that choice ignores ADA requirements. What ROMA saw as potential answers, Duggan still saw as a complex challenge.

 

“Those are the kinds of things we want to hear,” Jim Adams of ROMA told him. “We’re trying to find the appropriate balance.”

 

Among the comments offered by attendees:

 

·       Design Commissioners Richard Weiss and Juan Cotera were focused on garage space. That’s been a big-picture issue for the commission. Both Weiss and Cotera talked about the use and function of the new Parking Authority – how it should be configured for future use and whether the region can count on strong transit to avoid parking woes – during the discussion on building design. Weiss said he had problems with a parking cap downtown until it is clear that mass transit will function.

 

·       Alice Glasco, the one-time division head who now shepherds many of the biggest projects through the city system, had some sharp questions for how fee in lieu for Great Streets would be used. Glasco wanted to know if the fee will be dedicated to the Great Streets program. She also noted significant delays in the approval of permits and approvals for green building and Great Streets, which have often discouraged developers from participating in various programs.

 

·       Developers also raised the issue of how prescriptive the code might be for downtown streets. Under ROMA’s proposal, development could be catalogued by street type rather than zoned parcel. Adams said the goal of the code is to provide proper balance for uses along downtown streets. One of the examples he noted was Second Street, where a health club has take up significant frontage on the street with no consideration for the pedestrian experience.

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