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Council looks to improve Barton Springs redevelopment ordinance

Thursday, December 20, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin is taking another look at the redevelopment exceptions in the Land Development Code, particularly in the Barton Springs Zone.


Last week, City Council unanimously approved a resolution that could make changes to the redevelopment ordinance, which has not proven very popular since its adoption four years ago.


The idea behind the redevelopment ordinance was to encourage redevelopment of existing properties with little or no water-quality protection and high impervious cover in the Barton Springs Zone. The city’s Environmental Program Manager Chuck Lesniak explained that it was meant to target sites that have remained dormant or under-utilized for decades and continue to create potential water quality problems.


“We think that it provides an environmental benefit, a significant potential environmental benefit. And if there’s something inherent in the ordinance that is preventing people from taking advantage of it, we think it’s a good idea to take a look at that,” said Lesniak.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who championed the original ordinance, explained that over half of the property impacted by the SOS ordinance was already developed when it was approved. He said that although the main ordinance is doing a good job, “it ignores a big hunk of the pie,” by addressing only new development.


“We’ve only had two properties go through that process and we really think that it’s time to take a look at why there haven’t been more properties that have taken advantage of this redevelopment exception,” said Lesniak, who added that they were not making assumptions about what those reasons might be.


Lesniak said that redevelopment regulations that apply to the city outside of the Barton Springs Zone are also under-utilized, and suggested it might be time to look at that broader policy as well.


Save our Springs’ Bill Bunch and Austin Sierra Club’s Roy Waley both asked City Council to slow down.


“I don’t feel like this is a stop, drop and roll situation. We’re not on fire. There’s no pressing need to move forward with this today,” said Waley, who advised taking slower, more cautious approach to something that might have major implications. Waley said that a more prudent approach would be to identify specific sites and their needs rather than “throwing the door wide open.”


Engineer Tom McDill said that he was thrilled to see that the city was still interested in redeveloping properties that had limited water-quality protections in place currently.


McDill spoke from personal experience, having attempted redevelopment on Southwest Parkway, which was ultimately rejected after a lengthy, costly and confusing process. He said that his project would make a good test case for tweaking the ordinance and seeing how it might be refined.


“I think that it’s important to emphasize that we’re not making any changes with this resolution. The resolution only starts the process,” said Leffingwell. “There may be no changes. I hope that’s not the case, but everything that we do will be the product of an inclusive process and ultimately approved back at this Council.”


An amendment by Council Member Kathie Tovo changed the process slightly, and proposed changes will now go through a stakeholder process.


Council Member Laura Morrison said the change was an important one. “What I could foresee and fully expect is that this is going to provide the opportunity to really diagnose what the problems are and come up with some alternatives,” said Morrison, who said that going through a stakeholder process prior to initiating any code amendments was a “far more efficient use of time.”

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