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Design Commission sets up Park PUD task force

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The proposed Park PUD on Barton Springs Drive, the cause of so much ongoing contention between the property owner and the Bouldin Creek neighborhood, took another twist Monday night as the Design Commission began its work to weigh in on the case.


This kind of Design Commission attention, suggested by Council, is highly unusual. Focused mostly on downtown, the Design Commission rarely considers planned unit development, or PUD, cases. In this particular situation, the charge from Council to review the case was rather nebulous, leaving the commission to flounder a bit on its purpose.


Chair Bart Whatley eventually found his footing on the design specifics of the proposal. After 20-minute presentations from each side, the commission meandered through project specifics and intended community benefits before Whatley attempted to pin the neighborhood down on how the project does or does not meet the design standards set out in the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Plan.


“Certainly the uses are consonant with the neighborhood,” Cory Walton of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association said of the development along one of the neighborhood’s three major corridors. “You obviously have a vibrant street presence, but we’ve seen that on Congress Avenue with buildings that were one or two stories tall and increasingly on South 1st Street, with buildings that are one or two stories tall. We did have an excellent example of that on South 1st Street, next door to El Mercado, and that’s the sort of vertical mixed-use development we want.”


Attorney Steve Drenner argued that the 61 plat notes on the Park PUD constrain the project to the point where the neighborhood has greater control over the final project than it would in a typical zoning case. Zoning Manager Jerry Rusthoven, asked to weigh in on the plat notes, said that city staff never intended to agree to the PUD so, unlike other cases, the plat notes are not necessarily a negotiated agreement between the developer and city staff.


Bouldin Creek was represented by a trio of Austin Neighborhoods Council presidents: current President Steven Aleman of the Chestnut Neighborhood Association, past President Walton of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood, and past President Jeff Jack of the Zilker Neighborhood Association.


Jack argued that the waterfront overlay’s silence on building heights in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood was a sin of omission, not commission. Two decades ago, when the plan was created, building heights were added along the lake corridor where buildings exceeded preferred heights. At the time, no one contemplated that a PUD could drive 30 extra feet in additional height.


“There’s never been a doubt of what the intent was in the waterfront overlay,” Jack said. “Are we going to give it up for bike racks and landscaping? You have the comparison of a lot of little bitty things, compared to what the community has been trying to protect for 30-some-odd years now.”


Neighbors argued the use of the PUD for this lot violates many precepts set forth in prior approved PUDs: excluding base zoning, violating compatibility standards, applying PUD to a single building, adopting the PUD without the support of the neighborhood association, and agreeing that PUD is a good step when existing zoning could easily get the job done.


Monday night’s vote was complicated by the fact that two commissioners were absent, which meant all four present needed to vote the Park PUD recommendations up or down. After some discussion, it was apparent that was not going to happen, despite some general support from the group on density in urban infill.


Commissioners were clearly torn. Jeanne Wiginton, for example, considered density in the lot to be appropriate as part of the urban core. And Richard Weiss noted that the city’s toolbox gives small lot owners in the urban core few options when it comes to deciding how to tackle urban infill.


“One of the problems is that it’s difficult for small urban sites to realize their full potential,” Weiss said. “This is a hard case because, right now, there’s a gap in the street, snow cone stand aside. It’s a challenging site and it’s close to downtown and it has tremendous opportunities. But it also has tremendous challenges and no mechanism that you can point to for the city that allows you to meet the PUD requirements for something under 10 acres.”


Whatley, who sat on the city’s task force that revamped the PUD requirements, said he understood Weiss’ concerns but still saw PUD designation to be too clumsy and unwieldy for the project in question.


“The whole idea of a PUD is that it’s always been for large and complex development,” Whatley said. “It’s not for small infill sites. I think this project is mismatched with the PUD tool, even though a lot of good things are proposed.”


At the point of a decision, Commissioner Juan Cotera made a motion to support the project. Whatley made a substitute motion that avoided the support of PUD zoning but outlined the various urban design guidelines that the project meets, such as quality construction, incorporated civic art, and mixed-use development.


The commission, dissatisfied with the option, tried a third, which was to send the project off to a project task force for review. In order to meet Council’s deadlines, the task force, chaired by Whatley, will meet immediately. The commission also scheduled a special meeting to come up with a recommendation before Council reviews the case on second reading in early- to mid-February.


Wiginton and Cotera were also assigned to the project review task force.

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