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Council tentatively approves East Riverside Corridor Plan

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 by Kimberly Reeves

The East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan made it through Council on first reading last week after almost six long years of debate over competing priorities.

Changes were already under way in the corridor back in 2007, and with the rumor of light rail afoot, it made sense to start the master planning process, said city planner Erica Leak. She described a dated “automobile-centric” corridor with a need to provide residents with safer walking paths, more mixes of use and the consideration of both light rail and open space.

The public hearing was closed on the corridor regulating plan, and its related neighborhood amendments, so Leak got quickly down to business, starting with the regulating plan and grouping potential amendments into four areas: corrections on existing code citations; amendments recommended by staff and Planning Commission; potential amendments raised at last November’s public hearing; and more recent suggestions from commercial property owners.

Of those amendments, one of the most controversial was the grandfathering of drive-through locations, even if the property redevelops. A windshield survey of the area noted 19 drive-through businesses between Lakeshore and Montopolis.

When and if those properties are redeveloped, the buildings would have to be designed to ERC design standards, which would require a two-story minimum height and a building pushed up to the street, Leak said.

“I want to make sure you guys are aware of that,” Leak said. “And then the other that’s come up as part of the discussion is about other automobile-oriented uses, and so there are another approximately 11 properties that have auto-oriented uses right now, and there isn’t an amendment to grandfather those uses. I just wanted you to be aware of what’s there now.”

Mayor Lee Leffingwell, upon questioning Leak, noted that drive-through lanes could be grandfathered, but that Council could go back at any time and change that. Increasing the number of drive-through lanes also is not grandfathered, he added.

All seven Council members could agree to the portions of the regulating plan determined before the most recent hearings. Council Member Kathie Tovo, however, would have to recuse herself from the final votes, which took almost two hours of discussion to resolve.

There were several issues where Council members were not united.

Among them, Council Member Laura Morrison noted that the fee in lieu was being waived. Developers proposed 50 cents per square foot for buildings taller than 90 feet in the corridor. Affordable housing advocates wanted to waive that fee in favor of a fuller discussion with downtown density bonuses.

“I just would hate to have a project be ready to go and we have no fee in lieu in place,” Morrison said.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole wanted more of a rationale from affordable housing advocates. Leffingwell was ready to rely on a friendly amendment that indicated the fee would be calibrated based on the Downtown Austin Plan. The rationale, it appeared, was a desire for a better starting point for negotiation.

Morrison also was concerned about site plan exemptions that would allow those who remodel to ignore new design standards. Concerns were raised that it might over-complicate the code – Leffingwell described it as “complicating the code on steroids” – but Morrison limited her concerns to large remodels. The mayor said such motions ran counter to Imagine Austin’s imperative to simplify the code.

Leffingwell suggested additional drive-through lanes at existing facilities be considered a conditional use permit. He left the final decision up to Council, but he noted that additional lanes would be subject to a rigorous review process. It would not be a cakewalk, he promised. Council Member Chris Riley saw the amendment as a chance to improve design, such as moving drive-through lanes from the front to the back of a facility. Morrison and Tovo considered other ways more desirable, leading to a 5-2 vote.

Light rail to Austin Bergstrom International Airport, the wish of many transit advocates, is still up in the air. Morrison noted that Imagine Austin would be reviewed every five years. What about the potential for rail? For now, Riley noted, the plan is for rapid bus service along the corridor.

Once past the regulating plan, Council moved on to specific rezoning for parcels. Tovo recused herself on two items “out of an abundance of caution” because of her interest in a property near, if not on, the corridor.

Council reaction to contested properties, even when it included additional height, was fairly favorable, especially when it involved community benefits. A property north of the HEB site, wanting additional height, passed on a 5-2 vote, with Morrison and Tovo in opposition due to concern over density bonuses. Council Member Bill Spelman also was inclined to favor higher density for corridor properties, based upon the need to create nodes of activity closer to proposed transit stops along the corridor.

A motion to rezone a large swath of land in the 5600 block of East Riverside for multi-family development was vehemently opposed by the neighborhood. Tovo noted neighbors had been eloquent about the historical and cultural importance of the area where rezoning could impose an impediment. Council Members Mike Martinez, Tovo and Morrison failed to stop the rezoning.

Two more readings are required for final passage.

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