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Design Commission ponders ways to encourage more open space

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Members of the Design Commission heard last night how some city goals—such as creation of more open space—may have been thwarted by pursuit of other goals, such as development of affordable housing.


Council approved a resolution last May asserting that the city needed to improve the functionality of public spaces and provide a more bicycle and pedestrian friendly environment in light of goals to make Austin a “Healthy, Safe and Family-Friendly City.”


Development Services Manager George Zapalac presented early work on the Council resolution at last night’s Design Commission meeting, updating the commission on progress to research existing ordinances and best practices, gather city code requirements and prepare a list of general staff proposals for Council to consider for ordinance tweaking.


What rose to the top in Zapalac’s presentation is that Austin’s incentives have not always encouraged open space. For instance, open space requirements often are waived for affordable housing projects, even though low-income families would probably be among the first to benefit from additional open space. Open space also was difficult for denser development and vertical mixed-use projects.


Zapalac made a point of clarifying the difference between open space and public parkland. Open space is the privately owned space within the project – be it a multi-family project or a single-family subdivision – that is devoted to public use.


It is different from parkland, and parkland dedication fees, which provide parks to the public, Zapalac noted in his presentation. One example would be the playground spaces at the Central Market on Lamar Blvd.


A survey by city staff noted that most recent development tended to exceed the minimal amount of public space required by the city, although Vice Chair James Shieh noted that quality, as well as quantity, ought to be the goal of city ordinance. He encouraged city staff to preface the ordinance for quality before devolving into the technical specifics of the ordinance.


According to city estimates, commercial design standards require about 2 percent open space. Multi-family standards, which vary based on density, provide about 3 percent common open space or 12 percent total open space.


Shieh, who had served on the Zoning and Platting Commission, had the most input on the topic. He was especially concerned with the lack of control the city had over open space on subdivisions in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction.


The city and county share a common code on subdivisions that made parkland dedication the same, either in the city or in the county, Zapalac said. Open space requirements, however, are limited to development inside the city.


Zapalac noted the city had new requirements for multi-family properties inside the city to provide parkland dedication fees. Other recommendations also were on the table for further discussion, including:


  • Combine multi-family and commercial standards;
  • Increase amount of common open space;
  • Allow personal open space to satisfy requirement if less than 10 units;
  • Allow parkland to satisfy requirement for affordable housing if within one-quarter mile;
  • Define standards for child-friendly amenities; and
  • Encourage trail connections.

Recommendations were referred to the Design Commission’s Urban Open Space subcommittee. 

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