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Board declines to endorse environmental features for South Lamar PUD

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Even with a strong statement that they would look only at the environmental aspects of the project, members of the Environmental Board opted last week not to endorse a proposed South Lamar Planned Unit Development.


By a vote of 4-2, the board rejected the proposed environmental treatments, with Board Members Bob Anderson and Mary Ann Neely throwing their support behind the proposed environmental features. Chair Mary Gay Maxwell and Board Members Robin Gary, Marisa Perales and Jennifer Walker voted no.


Board Member James Schissler was absent.


The project is planned for the site of what is presently a Taco Cabana at 211 South Lamar Blvd. Developers are seeking Planned Unit Development, or PUD, zoning which allows them 96 feet in height, as opposed to the current 60 feet allowed under CS zoning.  In return, they are proposing a number of environmental benefits for the community.


Board Member Robin Gary methodically read a list of proposed environmental features, commenting on the relative value of each, in terms of the overall “superiority” of the project.


“In the end, I give this a ‘B,’ which doesn’t sound exceptional to me,” said Gary.


In making her motion of support for the project, Neely said that the proposed treatments follow or exceed environmental requirements, meeting Austin three-star green building requirements. Neely also noted sustainability design features included in the project, such as rain gardens, native plantings, rainwater harvesting, water-quality treatments and tree preservation.


Board Member Marisa Perales said that she had trouble with the lack of information about what “superior water quality facilities” were to be used.


“I’m not sure we even know what the water-quality facilities are, really,” said Perales.


Perales also expressed concern with the proposed open space of the project. The board discussed whether open space, as a proposed community benefit, was something they should evaluate. The answer remained fairly murky.


“I didn’t think that open space would be such a big deal, but now we are hearing that we only know for sure that a minimum of 3,000 square feet of open space is going to be provided (and) 5,681 is what is required by the ordinance, and we don’t know how that is going to be achieved,” said Perales. “There’s nothing in here that tells us how they are going to get to that number. To me, they just haven’t given us the information.”


Earlier, Perales pointed out that an on-site water quality pond should not be counted towards open space. Lesniak called that observation a “good catch.”


Winstead attorney Steve Drenner explained that under the current zoning, developers could build a marketable project, but it would not be as special as what can be done under PUD zoning.

When completed, the building will be home to ground floor retail, a public plaza and up to 175 condominiums.

Though they tried to limit their discussion to the environmental aspects of the project, the board struggled with not addressing zoning in what is, essentially, a zoning case.


Gary noted that the property just to the south – the Bridges Condominiums – is bordered by the same constraints as the new project. The developers say those constraints explain why PUD zoning is appropriate on the smaller lot. Traditional PUDs must be 10 acres or larger, though that requirement can be waived.


“It seems that they were able to develop the property under existing ordinances, and I think that it would be unfair for this property, with the same exact situation, to be considered exceptional,” said Gary.


“This is not the discussion,” said Maxwell. “We’re trying to stick with the environmental superiority.”

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