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Planners seek to put off vote on East Riverside Corridor plan

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 by Michael Kanin

City of Austin planning staff plans to call for a delay Thursday in the long-debated East Riverside Corridor plan. If approved, the pause could result in the postponement of a Council vote on the matter until April.


That prospect brought concern from a handful of City Council members on Tuesday. At the first regular scheduled pre-meeting work session of the year, Council Members Kathie Tovo, Laura Morrison, and Bill Spelman worried that the potential four-month delay was too much.


“Let me quote Nike,” said Spelman, who had earlier offered a more grim literary allusion, one that involved a fast-approaching hanging. “Just do it.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Chris Riley argued that the April vote was the best option.


Assistant Planning Director George Adams told Council members that staff had requested the delay after fielding a set of late-breaking concerns from area stakeholders. Adams was initially coy about specifics.


However, when Tovo pushed for details, Adams told Council members that “a number of issues have come up.” These, Adams continued, include regulations on drive-thru uses, the grandfathering of those uses, and when the new East Riverside regulations might kick in for parties who remodel their property.


According to Adams, some portions of the new Riverside code would grandfather existing drive-throughs into the plan. However, Leffingwell pointed out that any remodeling of the facilities in question could trigger code provisions that would bring in new regulations – and prohibit drive-throughs as a use.


“The complexity of these regulations is at the root of a lot of our problems,” said Leffingwell.  


Tovo registered her concern that – with a delay until April – the public input portion of the East Riverside Corridor project would be compromised.


“Once you get to the point where it’s gone through the boards and commissions process, and here we are at Council – we’ve already had the public hearing. And now, suddenly, there’s a whole new group of, really, not public meetings, really targeted discussions with a certain very narrow group of stakeholders. I think that really does damage to the public process,” said Tovo. “I’m really concerned about delaying it until April.”


Morrison was also clearly nonplussed about the idea of a delay. “We held our public hearing on Nov. 8, so it’s already been two months,” she said. “I’m just pretty stunned that all of the sudden there’s this need – and discovery – that there have to be stakeholder discussions.”


For his part, Riley noted that the source of concerns did not come only from drive-thru operators. “I think the issue of drive-throughs is obviously a matter of continuing concern, but that in itself wouldn’t warrant a postponement of several months,” he said. “I do think there were other issues raised that do require some more time – in particular, we heard a lot of concern about relying on rail as a catalyst for development on this corridor.


“Rail may be a long time coming, and we ought to be prepared for some interim measures that would encourage appropriate transit-oriented development in the meantime, until we have rail there,” Riley continued.


As part of ongoing efforts to define an urban rail system for Austin, city transportation planners have suggested that the project reach Austin-Bergstrom International Airport via East Riverside Drive. The corridor, as it stands, has been designed with some form of rail in mind as an anchoring feature.


Later, Tovo pitched the idea of a delay that would bring the item back on Feb. 28 instead of April 11. None of her colleagues offered their input on the idea. However, most – including Riley and Leffingwell – seemed ready to embrace the notion that a delay in approval of the East Riverside Corridor should trigger the reopening of the public hearing on the matter.

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