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Council OKs VMU zoning for 18 tracts in Rosewood neighborhood

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Two items on last week’s Council agenda conspired to create confusion among Council members as they tried to parse out the subtleties of mixed use (MU) and vertical mixed use (VMU) in the Rosewood section of East Austin.

 

At issue were 18 tracts in the Rosewood Neighborhood Planning Area whose owners were applying for VMU rezoning from MU. Seventeen of those properties are located along the Core Transit Corridors in the Rosewood neighborhood, making them ideal for VMU rezoning. One property, however, tract 114, is located in the heart of the residential neighborhood, where Rosewood, McClain, and Webberville meet.

 

In order for a property to be considered for VMU zoning status when it is not located along a CTC, the applicant must “opt-in” and get the approval of a supermajority of Council members.

 

Unfortunately for James Wallace, the owner of tract 114, the Rosewood neighborhood planning team had recommended that his property not be granted VMU status. The Planning Commission, meanwhile, had recommended a sort of middle path that they believed would be beneficial to both neighborhood and property owner but merely served to confuse members of the Council.

 

The Planning Commission’s recommendation, to approve the vertical mixed use designation without granting the property any of the benefits that come from such a designation, set off a long discussion between Council members and staff. According to zoning guidelines, any buildings granted VMU status that satisfies certain requirements, like having particular heights for ceilings on first floors and having the proper proportion of commercial and residential units, would have certain entitlements, including extra square footage and less parking.

 

But without those benefits, Council Member Laura Morrison wondered, what would be the point in getting the VMU rezoning? “What does it buy you to have VMU with none of the benefits when you already have MU?” she asked. “It’s just a designation.”

 

George Adams, of the Planning and Development Review Department, admitted that with tract 114 already being zoned MU, there would not be much benefit to its becoming VMU. “It’s just adding an option with some additional standards,” he said. “It does have the requirement that the project must have mixed use, as opposed to MU, which could be all commercial or all residential. It’s not giving you any additional entitlements.”

 

Morrison was amazed at the idea that the Planning Commission would recommend a property owner voluntarily take on more restrictions without corresponding benefits. “So you’re allowed to work yourself into a harder project,” she said.

 

“Correct,” said Adams.

 

Mayor Lee Leffingwell shared Morrison’s concern, telling Adams that rezoning from MU to VMU would be of “no value to the property owner; in fact it’s of negative value because now he has restrictions that he didn’t have before.”

 

Adams responded by pointing out that those other restrictions would only apply should the property owner choose VMU. “They can choose to stay MU,” he said.

 

For his part, the property owner, Wallace told the Council that he believed that when he opted-in for VMU status that he was opting-in for all the benefits that generally come with it. He reminded Council members that VMU status is supposed to be an incentive to build densely. “The VMU was designed for developers to come into certain areas and put in affordable housing,” he said. “Our project is doing one hundred percent affordable housing. We want the VMU because in development you never know what other city requirements may come up that we have to face or adjust to, so having another option is good for us.”

 

But Morrison pointed out that the VMU designation was designed to encourage density and affordable housing along Core Transit Corridors, not inside residential neighborhoods. “That’s the idea,” she told In Fact Daily. “Let’s build densely where it’s appropriate: on the main thoroughfares. And then the neighborhoods have the opportunity, by ordinance, to come to the city and make recommendations that benefit their communities most.”

 

By a unanimous vote of 7-0 Council approved the ordinance amending the MU designations to VMU for 16 of the Rosewood tracts. They voted against the rezoning for tract 114 and voted to approve staff’s recommendation to keep one tract – currently home to a church – MU.

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