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Planning Commission throws in towel on West Austin property

Thursday, June 24, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The zoning at Elm Terrace confounded City Council two years ago, and it split the Planning Commission Tuesday night as they failed to come up with a zoning and future land use map recommendation on the two-acre property that lies on the western edge of the neighborhoods under the umbrella of the West Austin Neighborhood Planning Group.

 

The first plans were announced for the property at 3215 Exposition, but the neighborhood was leery because it was a piece of un-zoned property that once belonged to the Austin State School. Whatever this land became – and it was bought at a price tag of $2.4 million – would likely set a precedent for any future development of the un-zoned land in the area.

 

The fact that the zoning and ultimate use of the land could be revisited in a neighborhood planning process was a plus for Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan. This was the opportunity to take this tract, hammer out a compromise with the owner on higher density development, and keep the surrounding property zoned for future use at a less intense level.

 

Just how far the neighborhood should be willing to compromise, however, was a matter of dispute among the Planning Commission members. One subset of the commission – Clint Small, Danette Chimenti, and Kathryne Tovo, sometimes joined by Mandy Dealey and Saundra Kirk – was not predisposed to compromise as much.

 

Agent Alice Glasco argued for more density as a way to potentially provide a more affordable housing project. She dangled the carrot that would appease Tovo and Chimenti the most – a 10 percent set-aside for affordable housing – but the incentive was not enough to encourage the duo. Small scoffed at the concession.

“I don’t feel for the property owner that he may have overpaid at a time when the market was high and today it’s not, and that’s the situation that the owner is in now,” Small told his colleagues.

 

Sullivan noted that the concerns outlined by the neighborhood, such as traffic and driveways, might even be better served with the MF-1 zoning or the SF-6 proposed by city staff. Countering his arguments, local resident Vivian Wilson said up-zoning was hardly making the property more affordable if that affordability simply led to a property with $400,000 condominiums.

 

Local homeowners wanted to see their negotiations reflected in the final neighborhood plan. Figuring out how to codify those negotiations ended up being a bit more difficult that it might have initially appeared.

 

With Commissioner Dave Anderson off the dais – on safari in Africa, to be specific – the commission was deadlocked on a number of motions, motions that sometimes got so far in the weeds that even staff members were confused. Dealey failed to get a second on a two-week delay of the case in order to consider the specifics of the current compromise between the property owner and the neighborhood.

 

Jay Reddy suggested MF-1 zoning with a conditional overlay that included SF-6 density and all the elements agreed upon between the neighborhood and developer. The main difference between SF-6 and MF-1 is a five-foot height difference, which the developer promised to push to the back of the property. That failed on a tied vote.

 

Small proposed a zoning of SF-3, a type of “do no harm” directive that would force more negotiation between developer and neighborhood for any future up-zoning of the property. Commissioner Saundra Kirk agreed to SF-3 but proposed “higher-density” use on the future land map. That might have split the difference between the two sides, but it also split the commission. No go.

 

Kirk suggested the staff recommendation of SF-6. She called it “as close as we can come to a compromise” between the logic of higher density and the issue of compatibility with the neighborhood across Exposition Boulevard. Benjamin DeLeon, the newest member of the commission, liked this logic because it came closest to where the neighborhood and the developer had landed before Council sent them off for additional negotiations.

 

Tovo read many of the early conditional agreements between developer and neighborhood – on height, setback, articulation, and buffer — into the motion as a friendly amendment. Everyone agreed.

 

Then Small tossed out a 20-unit limit on the development site, which was said to be guidance from the dais during Council discussion. Both MF-1 and SF-6 would allow 27 units. That amendment failed on a 4-4 vote.

 

Small tried again with an amendment for a 22-unit cap. That passed on a vote of 5-3, with Tovo, Small, Chimenti, Kirk, and Dealey voting in favor. Kirk covered her face with her hands and, drawing laughter from the audience, said she agreed but that really the vote on the amendment was more like 4.5 rather than 5.

 

With that amendment added, the vote went down 4-4 again, with Tovo, Small, Chimenti, and Kirk voting in favor. Sullivan, Reddy, Dealey, and De Leon voted against.

 

Exhausted by the discussion, the commission agreed to send the property on to Council with no recommendation.

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