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Waterfront board members seek assurances on waterfront overlay

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The Waterfront Planning Advisory Board is going to start mark-up of its recommendations in the next couple of weeks, and members wanted to be assured last night their work would not be trumped by the Downtown Austin Plan.


Any recommendations of this or any board, of course, will have to meet with Council approval. The advisory board is charged with providing recommendations for excellence in design and harmonious intersection along the shoreline of Lady Bird Lake and the Colorado River. Eventually, it will be Council that voting on whether those recommendations are adequate.


Chair Jim Knight and his board members, however, have begun to question whether it is unwise that their work is not being done in tandem with the other two plans currently in process: the comprehensive plan and the downtown plan.


Planner George Adams presented an overview of the downtown plan, including some of the code amendments and zoning changes, at last night’s meeting. Board members questioned how these would interact with the waterfront overlay.


“We are working to come up with a set of rules and regulations,” Knight said. “Just for the purposes of discussion, look at Rainey Street. What if the floor-to-area ratio was 15-to-1, but we wrote a rule that would allow 16-to-1? Would the waterfront overlay prevail? Which one trumps the other?”


The waterfront overlay, Adams agreed, would trump other existing plans, including the downtown plan, as long as Council approves it. But Board Member Roy Mann expressed concerned that the waterfront overlay is not noted on the main map for the downtown plan. Wouldn’t it be easier, Board Member Dean Almy asked, if all the city’s various plans could eventually be combined?


“This is a hypothetical, but what would it take for the overlays and all the plans to be embedded into one single document instead of saying one is trumping the other?” Almy asked. “Couldn’t we just knit them together to have one document?”


Like the stakeholders on the downtown plan, the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board has been setting out conditions, setbacks, heights, regulations, and rules along the waterfront, Almy said. The board just happens to be doing it on a smaller, more insulated stage.


In his reply, Adams noted that the comprehensive plan was intended to be a 10,000-foot view of development goals in Austin. It likely will be an additional five years before city code is brought into conformance with its goals. Knight said he wants to make sure variances are minimized in the waterfront overlay.


And then, of course, there’s the pesky job of getting the plan passed. Knight noted that the city has created a number of comprehensive plans since the Austin Tomorrow plan passed. None has passed muster at Council.


Knight and board member Brooke Bailey seemed particularly concerned about getting a possible firm legal opinion on how the plans relate.


“If and when Council passes it, we need to know the waterfront overlay rules will supercede and override anything in that comprehensive plan or downtown plan document,” Knight said. “If not, we’re chasing squirrels right now.”


Adams said it is his opinion that the comprehensive plan, in and of itself, would not trump the waterfront overlay rules, unless that was a specific decision of Council. The guidance of a comprehensive plan is not the same as code, Adams said.


Adams assured the committee that existing overlays would not be not lost, but with 8 to 10 overlays, it would be hard to lay out all the new information on the map without confusion. He used the Capitol view corridors as an example: No, they aren’t on the map in question, but they were discussed in the plan, and no one was making plans to ignore those corridors in future development.


Knight expects to cobble together all the work of his two subcommittees – Design and Development Framework and Design Criteria and Bonus Provision – at a work session on March 28, possibly starting with a blank matrix that could allow the board to lay out options, sub-district by sub-district, along the waterfront.


Almy had previously requested an update on how the commercial design standards would apply to the waterfront overlay district, another concern of the board. But Almy had to leave before the presentation was made to the board. Knight postponed the discussion to April 11.


Senior Planner Susan Kirby said she had already sat down with board members to discuss how commercial design guidelines would impact the Barton Springs and Riverside core transit corridors.


Knight reiterated his design to make sure that the board’s ideas on density bonuses and design criteria line up with ongoing work on other city boards, with the hope that the waterfront board’s decisions would make sense within a greater context. He also noted his respect for the $600 million already invested in downtown and expressed a desire to balance the wishes of local neighborhoods and ongoing downtown development.

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