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Planning panel denies request to change neighborhood plan

Wednesday, October 3, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission shot down a request to change the Brentwood/Highland neighborhood plan last week to allow for a 158-unit multifamily development, siding with the neighborhood and the sea of people wearing blue “I (heart) Brentwood” T-shirts who filled the meeting room.


Changing the Future Land Use Map (FLUM) would have paved the way for the residential development at West 49th Street and Grover Avenue. But the commission voted 7-1 to deny the request, with Commissioner James Nortey voting against the motion to deny and Commissioner Richard Hatfield absent.


The matter will now go to the City Council, where it will need four votes, not the six a contested zoning case with a valid petition from neighbors would require.


Consultant Alice Glasco, who represented the owners of the three-acre property slated for use in the proposed development, the board that a proposed 60-foot height of the development, which the neighborhood feared, would never happen because of compatibility standards. The standards limit the height of any development to 40 feet tall on most of the property and 50 feet on a small section, regardless.


Glasco clarified that the difference in the floor-to-area ratio (or FAR) of the structure was the real advantage to the development, telling the commission that the change would allow 10 more extra units on the site, for a total of 158 units. A change in zoning would also alter the allowed impervious cover. (FAR is a measure of how much square footage can be built on a given piece of land; a higher floor-to-area ratio allows for more density on a given lot. Austin’s limit is 40 percent.)


Commissioners struggled to understand why the developers would make such a big effort to seek a change to the neighborhood planning map for just 10 more units, as well as the absence of a request to change the zoning.


“I am having trouble wrapping my head around what is going on here,” said Commissioner Danette Chimenti. “Ten units doesn’t seem that much for what they are trying to do. The commercial design standards and the increased density along the core transit corridors like Burnet Road is exactly what we wanted, and exactly what I see in their neighborhood plan, but this is kind of flag lotting that back into the neighborhood.”


Richard Brock, chair of the Brentwood neighborhood planning contact team, told the commission that they had voted to oppose the change to the future land use map.


Brock noted that the current zoning on the property would allow the construction of a multifamily development as it was, and they had designated the zoning as Limited Office intentionally, as a transition from the high-density corridors of Lamar and Burnet to the residential neighborhood.


“We’re looking at the impact of all these projects in Brentwood. It’s the scale and scope of all of them combined, and the impact that it has on the community. We don’t see a need to get all the density all at once in one place,” said Brock.


Despite neighborhood opposition, staff supported the change, saying that it was in line with the city’s density, transportation and land use goals, and Brentwood’s willingness to embrace mixed-use development.


But neighborhood opponents drew a thick line between development on Lamar Boulevard and Burnet and the development in the interior of their neighborhoods.


“Developers are finding a little frontage on one of the other two major roads, and then trying to ‘upzone’ the areas east and west into the neighborhoods behind them to increase their footprint, height and profit at a loss to the neighborhood,” said Brentwood homeowner Jay Long. “The city’s gift of a FLUM amendment and an increase in value to the applicant would come at a direct loss to affected adjacent property owners and the neighborhood.”


Glasco told the commission that developers wanted to ensure that the FLUM was changed before asking for the zoning change, using the reasoning that it costs more to file them concurrently. She said that they were unsure what zoning change the neighborhood would support.


The Planning Commission did not embrace the technique.  


“So, we’re not talking about the zoning, but we kind of are talking about the zoning?” said Chimenti, who stated that the commission was used to seeing neighborhood plan amendments in concert with zoning changes. “That kind of gives the neighborhood, and the folks who worked so hard on their plan, a little bit more to work with,” said Chimenti.


“Having the change of the FLUM, if that passes, then who’s to say what would be developed?” asked Commissioner Myron Smith, who said that if the change was granted, the neighborhood would have no idea about what zoning would be requested and what development plans would look like.


The lone vote against Chimenti’s recommendation to deny the changes came from  Commissioner James Nortey, who worried that the commission might be “jumping the gun” by worrying about the building that would be constructed in the future, when all they were asked to consider was a change to the map.  


The neighborhood saw the change as much more than that.  


“All of the east-west corridors in our neighborhood run from Burnet to Lamar. I’m wondering if something has changed with the city where they’re looking to have increased density along these east-west corridors. Because this is just the start. This would just be the start if you approve this change,” said neighbor Kay McAllister.

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