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Three Domain-area rezoning cases win final approval

Friday, October 15, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Neighborhood activist Susan Moffat had to admit to Council yesterday that she was in the unaccustomed position of having to sign up “neutral” as she got up to speak on three rezoning cases for The Domain.


Moffat has been one of the most vocal opponents of the city’s tax subsidies for the toney north-side mixed-use development known as The Domain. Yesterday, however, Moffat’s offered no criticism. After hearing from her and getting the details of the agreement worked out between her, city staff and representatives of the Domain, Council unanimously approved changes to zoning and restrictive covenants on the property.


“I bet none of you ever thought you would see this day,” Moffat said of her position on the three Domain zoning cases,” so let’s just savor this moment.”


It wasn’t easy, Moffat told Council, but it did appear that language had finally been nailed down the particulars on the three zoning cases, restrictive covenants, heritage tree preservation, Capital Metro bus routes, and the timing and quality of the bike improvements, and accessibility issues (which Moffat thought might need some further resolution).


“This is great work. It was a struggle to get here,” Moffat told Council. “And I think there are some lessons we can take from this to work efficiently in the future on these kinds of cases.”


When a tax abatement is involved, Moffat said, the city is a literal partner in a project, to the tune of $37 million in this case. In such cases, Council should make sure the city is getting something in return for its concessions, she said, which should support Austin’s values as a community and benefit its taxpayers – not just the people who are going to make money off the project.


The Domain, as a large-scale multi-tenant multi-purpose property, already has completed two phases. Much of its ongoing development will require rezoning from industrial to multi-purpose, or planned, development. The three items on the agenda yesterday included additional multiple properties within The Domain and had various stipulations, from changes in zoning to the commitment of private parkland to the commitment to a Planned Development Agreement.


These cases, Moffat said, had dragged out too long, and she recommended that city staff provide a check list or chart in the back-up material on similar future cases, one that would clearly outline the concessions and benefits to the city.


Council Member Laura Morrison thanked Moffat for her work, saying it was her extended efforts that had gotten the concessions to a place where people could feel comfortable about the deal. She agreed with the concept of a chart, which Council Member Sheryl Cole also described as “intriguing.”


When Mayor Lee Leffingwell expressed support for the creation of a matrix by Morrison and Cole, Cole jumped in, laughing, saying, “That’s Council Member Morrison and Ms. Moffat.”


Attorney Steve Drenner told In Fact Daily after the hearing that he would support the idea of a chart to show which items were required of the developer under the old agreement and what additional things he must do under the new one.


According to the city’s Jerry Rusthoven, Simon Properties did not want to address the three cases. Rusthoven, however, did outline additional changes, preferred by Moffat and others, that were worked out in the lobby of City Hall before the hearing: parkland improvements would be spread out over a longer time frame, given the current economy; a bike trail would have a specific completion date, given the deferral of park land donations; and clarification of $4 million promised to complete park improvements across the property, including pocket parks.


Moffat’s work made approval quick and easy on all three items, which were approved separately by Council. One motion was approved as a big-box retail site, which Rusthoven said was approved in the planned development agreement, so it will not go through the city’s big-box site process. The Domain, Rusthoven read into the record, was approved by Council before large-site retail uses were carved out of the city’s zoning code.


“The only reason they can do this is that they have a PDA, or planned development area, which is a rather rare zoning category,” Rusthoven insisted. “This will not open the door to future big-box waivers and standards for zoning. That’s simply not allowed by the code.”

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