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Council finally adopts East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan

Friday, May 10, 2013 by Michael Kanin

After months of debate, a few false starts, and much gnashing of teeth over the nearly 20 drive-though facilities scattered about the planning region, Austin City Council members finally moved to codify the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan Thursday. They did so in a series of complex motions that make a final tally somewhat difficult to analyze.


Council members dedicated the majority of their discussion to the question of drive-throughs, whether they should be allowed to remain as constructed, or even at all. In the end, an amendment to the plan from Council Member Kathie Tovo gave the drive-throughs seven years from the adoption of the plan to come into compliance with plan regulations. Tovo offered five years to start, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole countered with 10 years, and they settled on seven years.


A sub-amendment from Council Member Chris Riley made compliance possible, as opposed to a very technical distinction of compliant but non-conforming – a status that may have threatened drive-through businesses that had recently taken out loans.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Mike Martinez voted against even the altered restrictions on East Riverside drive-throughs. “I believe that the Riverside Corridor is a place where there is a place for drive-through businesses,” Leffingwell said. “It is not in downtown Austin, it is primarily in a residential area…people that live in that area are going to want to patronize (these) businesses.”


Council also approved an amendment from Council Member Bill Spelman that allows the grandfathered continuation of service stations already in the region, but prohibits the construction of such facilities in the future.


Now approved, the East Riverside Corridor Plan promises to transform the area into a walkable, dense, new-urbanist vision of development. It comes with a transit-friendly design that could support Bus Rapid Transit and/or Urban Rail.


The area of the city in question extends east along East Riverside Drive from IH-35 to Ben White Boulevard.


Despite what turned out to be a mostly positive approval from Council members, not everyone was so enthusiastic. In a March 1 email to Council members, Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team President and PODER member Susana Almanza wrote about her concerns.


Among other concerns, Almanza called for Council members to “give neighborhood contact teams the opportunity to approve and/or disapprove zoning changes within their contact plan area.” She also called on Council to “eliminate the prohibition on drive-through uses.”


“In general, for this district to be motivated to improve, the City should contribute significant dollars toward physical changes,” Almanza concluded. “The dollars invested by the City will stimulate real changes in a shorter timeframe.”


Concerns over the drive-through issue lingered until the last minute. Cis Meyers, who represents three drive-through properties along the corridor, reportedly had a valid petition against that portion of the plan that she was ready to introduce if her client was unhappy with the outcome. That would have forced Council members to approve with six votes. With Leffingwell and Martinez against the drive-through prohibitions, they would have likely failed.


A major concern about the drive-through issue was detailed in a letter from a lender. There, Omnibank informed a drive-through operating borrower that a change in the zoning that resulted in a non-conforming use could force a lender to call in a loan to an effected property before its term expired.


Austin Planning and Development Review Director Greg Guernsey told Council members that this situation was nothing unique. “There are many structures that are in a similar situation throughout the City of Austin,” he said.


Ultimately Meyers did not deliver the petition, and the compromise on drive-through regulations passed.

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