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Council votes for controversial Barton Springs PUD on first reading

Friday, January 14, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Despite opposition from residents of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood, yesterday City Council voted 6-1 on first reading to rezone the Park property on Barton Springs Road as a Planned Unit Development (PUD), allowing the owners of the property to put up a building of 96 feet on the old Filling Station Restaurant site.


At the beginning of the hearing, 50 speakers had signed up in favor of the zoning change and 18 in opposition, showing a remarkable level of organization on the part of supporters.


Those in favor included George Cofer, Jon Beall and Mike Blizzard. Attorney Steve Drenner of Drenner & Golden Stuart Wolff led the team working for the zoning change.


The new zoning, if it wins final approval, would allow a building that exceeds the height limitations laid out in the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Plan by 36 feet. Only Council Member Laura Morrison voted against the change, which requires a supermajority, because the Planning Commission voted against the application.


It’s that height difference, between 60 feet and 96 feet, that has neighbors fuming and that caused both city staff and the Planning Commission to not recommend the applicant’s request.


If Thursday’s initial vote was any indication, the property owner, energy company Texas American Resources, is well on its way to PUD status.


Drenner, speaking on behalf of the applicant, told Council that the Park PUD is an “unusual opportunity,” a mixed-use office building along a transit corridor in the urban core. Currently home to several mobile food trailers, the Park project will feature both a restaurant and a café on the first floor, structured above-ground parking, and office space. Drenner said such mixed-use development meets the standards laid out in the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Plan.


“If you look hard at what’s in the neighborhood plan, the height limitation … comes in a category where the goal that’s mentioned … is to manage growth by encouraging development on major corridors and in existing higher-density nodes,” Drenner said. To create such high-density development is the very reason why PUD zoning exists, he said.


According to Greg Guernsey, director of the city’s Planning and Development Review Department, “(PUD districts were designed) to preserve the natural environment, encourage high-quality development and innovative design, and ensure adequate public facilities.”


But opponents of the rezoning see the project as both an affront to the neighborhood plan and an example of inappropriate development for a residential neighborhood.


Stuart Hampton, a member of the Bouldin Creek Planning Team, told Council, “(We) care about one thing: not to allow any more inappropriate, out-of-scale Central Business District buildings in the neighborhood. They belong downtown and north of the river. Simply put, are you going to allow for a Central Business District building to be placed in a residential neighborhood when the plan says no?”


It’s that perceived indifference to the desires of the neighborhood that bothered several speakers at yesterday’s meeting. Brad Patterson, design chair for the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, won the approval of many in attendance when he told Council, “Passage today will definitely send a message to the citizens. The message to the neighborhood planning teams is that their efforts don’t matter and that the plans they produce are viewed as optional by City Council.”


“Maybe it should be ‘Make love, not neighborhood plans,’” Patterson added, “because the city does not value your work and will not hold up your plans.”


Seeking some measure of understanding between the two sides, Council Member Bill Spelman pointed out the many “community benefits” accompanying the project – concessions made by the owner in return for the PUD designation. Those include contributing $225,000 to the Austin Parks Foundation, providing free office space to a local nonprofit organization, and providing overflow parking to the Palmer Events Center.


“This is a good deal for the city of Austin to exchange this list of benefits for 36 more feet,” said Spelman.


Council Member Chris Riley also came out in favor of the project, arguing that the higher design standards that come with PUD designation would be welcome in what he called a “special neighborhood” that has yet to reach its full potential.


“The site we’re talking about is significant in several respects. Not only is it on a major transit corridor … (it’s) in the midst of a mixed-use, very significant area where we want a high level of pedestrian activity, where we really want to see better quality of design than we have in recent years,” Riley said.


But Morrison condemned her colleagues’ willingness to ignore the will of neighborhood groups. “What I’m hearing today is, ‘Heck, if we have a good design … let’s go ahead and add 96 feet all along Barton Springs Road.’ That’s not the way to do planning. I don’t blame people for getting frustrated when we approach things like this,” Morrison said.

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