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Questions remain on Waterfront Overlay rules

Monday, December 3, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

In another couple of months a City of Austin citizen panel will be making its recommendations for new regulations for buildings along the shores of Lady Bird Lake, including allowed heights and density. And after three years of work the expected final report is: We need more work.

The Waterfront Overlay Advisory Board met last week to discuss the various aspects of potential waterfront overlay recommendations. Staff liaison Michael Simmons-Smith expressed confidence that the group would meet the January report deadline set by Council.

“We’ve been working with staff closely, moving through the existing waterfront overlay plan, sub-district by sub-district,” Simmons-Smith said. “Some sub-districts — like Zilker Park, Lakeshore and Fiesta Beach – we’re doing very little with. We’re ready to make changes in some areas, but only if there is some sort of community benefit. The current language is too vague.”

The sub-district process has exposed quirks in the overlay plan. Last week’s meeting concerned the concept of L-zoning, or lakeshore zoning, a category that predates current regulations and allowed 200 feet in height. While L-zoning has a limited scope, it does apply to a number of land parcels on the shore, including a piece of land adjacent to Joe’s Crab Shack site on Riverside Drive.

Michele Lynch, director of land use and entitlements at Metcalfe Wolff Stuart & Williams, represents the County Line, owner of the property in question. Currently, a two-story building occupies the tract. The city and the property owner face a conundrum because the base zoning allows for a maximum height above what the developer could get by asking for a density bonus.

Lynch expressed a desire for adjustments to the regulations on height and setback.

She noted that the impervious cover on the site is currently at 90 percent. However, code dictates that new development should not have more than 50 percent. With 50 percent, more height is needed in order to redevelop the property.

Commissioners grappled with what might be reasonable and returned with no firm vote. Robert Pilgrim said he would love to see a reduction in impervious cover. Eric Schultz, an architect, voiced concerns about design, with special considerations regarding “innovative approaches to water quality.”  Concessions in height regulations, he explained, could be an opportunity to address these issues.

The Lady Bird Lake waterfront overlay encompasses a greater breadth than many expect; from the vacant Treehouse night club site on Barton Springs to the construction of businesses along Rainey St, as well as neighborhoods to the south and in between.

At the meeting, Alyson McGee of the Historic Preservation Office presented the board with a proposed point system for Rainey St in an effort to provide incentive for the preservation of the historic houses there. The property around Rainey St is currently zoned CBD, or Central Business District, which has led to the demolition of much of the housing.

The board has agreed that due to waterfront overlay properties being so different each property probably needs to be examined individually in order to determine acceptable height recommendations.  This should factor in topography. 

Commissioner Cory Walton of the Bouldin neighborhood said he wanted more input from his neighbors.

“I really feel uncomfortable not having any input from neighborhood residents,” Walton, the former neighborhood association president, told his colleagues. “I think their input would have been highly productive.”

Commissioners also communicated a strong desire for a city commitment in the cases of major-scale projects, like the redesign around the Austin American Statesman in the South Shore Central District. Connectivity and public spaces are a key element in the project and neither will come to fruition without local government commitment.

The Waterfront Overlay Advisory Board continues to double up on meetings with the nearing January report deadline.

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