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Planning panel to take a second look at YMCA parking proposal

Friday, November 5, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Unable to reach a definitive conclusion, the Planning Commission has rescheduled consideration of expanded parking for the Town Lake YMCA, The panel split on a vote, and rescheduled the issue for another hearing next week.


As for last week’s discussion, parking was one thing, but parking within the waterfront overlay district was clearly a different matter. In this case, the Waterfront Overlay Task Force had significant sway on the issue on two fronts: some of its members were vocal on the issue, and at least three members of the task force also serve on the Planning Commission.

Town Lake YMCA is located on five acres at 1100 East Cesar Chavez. Additional construction, including a plaza, will remove some parking spaces and add others. Parking spots will go from a total of 188 spaces to 216 spaces, which YMCA supporters did not consider unreasonable due to use of the trails on Lady Bird Lake.


Early on, Chair Dave Sullivan noted no opposition in terms of outside opposition to the proposed addition, meaning that it should have been a quick case. As the discussion progressed, however, Sullivan acknowledged the concern was broader than he expected, mostly from within his own commission.


Commissioner Danette Chimenti, championing the concerns of some Waterfront Task Force members, probed the applicants about the necessity of parking spaces that well exceeded the city’s requirements within the waterfront overlay. For Chimenti, the preservation of waterfront land was crucial.


Town Lake YMCA CEO James Finck said the facility has approximately 9,000 members, with an estimated 3,000 visits a day. But that was not the extent of the use of those parking spaces — for all intents and purposes, the spaces are a public amenity. Finck said that while the parcel was “a jewel and a gem,” its short-term needs and long-term plans didn’t always coincide.


“Everybody knows how many people use the hike-and-bike trail,” Finck told the commission. “We are a direct trail hit to the hike-and-bike trail so we get a lot of that use as well, not to mention anything that’s a downtown event that comes into our parking lot. So if you want to come down and sit for a day, you can sit and see the impact of this parking lot.”


He said the need was for parking included both the YMCA’s ball fields, expanded and otherwise, as well as the hike-and-bike trail.  Finck said a plan for more adequate entrances and exits to serve all users of the YMCA’s space might be needed in the future.


“But the need for parking, there’s no question whatsoever of that,” Finck said.


Chimenti searched for compromise, even within new spaces. She suggested that the YMCA and Finck could seek more pervious cover.


“This is a jewel of the city,” Chimenti said, echoing a phrase used by Finck. “You’re on the waterfront. Have you considered using those kind of design practices to increase the pervious cover, decrease the impervious cover?”


Chimenti went on to suggest specific techniques and current city policies that recommended landscape islands, buffers and strips. Finck said all available options would be considered, including environmental buffers.


The commission discussed what would be considered pervious and impervious parking spaces. Planner Sarah Graham said it was difficult to determine whether some of the alternatives – say a plastic grid that allowed grass to grow – would be considered pervious. That would be up to environmental reviewers to determine whether soil was being compacted.


As Commissioner Mandy Dealey noted, three of the Planning Commission members sit on the Waterfront Overlay Task Force. To know that many things, such as pervious cover or higher development standards, were “on the table,” was no comfort to the task force, Dealey said.


Dealey said it was important for her that higher standards were used and not simply on the table in cases such as the Town Lake YMCA. Engineer Greg Griffin said the intention was that the YMCA was going to be “proactive rather than just something that we can do.”


Chimenti pushed for “something other than this barren parking lot.” Finck said the overall picture of the area, and not just the parking lot, would note the Y’s commitment to various activities and the community. Parking was a small part of the full picture of what the YMCA intended to do.


The requested variance was to go beyond the city’s parking requirements. Concerned by his colleagues’ comments, Sullivan said he suspected the commission did not have the five votes needed to pass the motion.


Commissioner Jay Reddy said it was important to balance the concerns of both the city and the YMCA. It was clear, however, that as more people moved downtown, a greater demand would be placed upon the YMCA. While it appeared Reddy might support the YMCA request, he veered suddenly, recognizing the Austin City Limits music festival.


When push came to shove, people brought their bikes down to Lady Bird Lake. In fact, it was thousands of bikes. It wasn’t an unreasonable compromise.


He recommended denying the variance. Chimenti supported the motion, noting that nothing had been put on the table to hold the YMCA parking request to a higher standard, given its location in the waterfront overlay. Finck immediately requested a postponement, which was ignored.


The final vote on the denial was 3-3, which failed for lack of a majority.


Dealey, as a matter of compromise, suggested a two-week delay to allow the applicant to deal with the task force concerns, and be more specific in addressing those concerns.


The vote for a rehearing was 6-0. Sullivan apologized for the procedure on the case, saying it would have a full presentation and a full hearing on Nov. 9.

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