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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Commission tells Public Works to solve Manor Road operation problems
Monday, July 8, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano
Siding with disillusioned neighbors, the Planning Commission has asked the city’s Public Works Department to find a better solution to an ongoing problem at 3511 Manor Road.
The department purchased the property in 2009, but has been using it since 2003 as a maintenance and service facility for its Street and Bridge Division. This is not a permitted use under the zoning of the property, which is GR (Community Commercial.)
A fed-up neighbor finally called Code Compliance in March of 2012, shortly after learning that the use was not allowed. Neighbors have had ongoing concerns with the operation, and its noise, dust and truck traffic.
To rectify the situation, the Public Works Department has proposed changing the zoning to (CS) Mixed Use. Kit Johnson, who is an architect with Public Works presented the plan, which he said “could become a template for other city properties.” The concept plan combines an office, a meeting space for the neighborhood, and ground-floor shell space for retail. Additionally, the plan includes open space, a rain garden, and tentative space for affordable housing.
The open space, explained Johnson, could be used by children for play as well as providing a space to store materials for road maintenance emergencies (like ice storms.)
Though the Planning Commission wasn’t against the plan per se, members asked that Public Works return in 60 days with a written plan guaranteeing they will leave the site within a set time period.
Previously, Johnson had explained that Public Works liked the location of the office. He also said that relocation could be complicated.
“We love the site,” said Johnson. “We’ve tried to be very clear with the neighborhood that the only way we could vacate is that if we were able to find another site that enables us to service the city the way we are servicing from this place; we have the money to move… and we would also need to have Council approval. We can’t make any promises to when we would move.”
“That’s a long explanation for ‘never gonna happen,’” said Commissioner Brian Roark, who noted that they were trying to get a zoning that was “completely inconsistent with the original plan for the property.”
Though the proposal has earned some support, the neighborhood currently has a valid petition against the project which stands at 38.97 percent.
Commissioner James Nortey said that he was concerned that if the commission approved the zoning, they would be giving the city a “free pass” and setting a bad precedent, despite the merits of the proposed solution.
Neighborhood advocate and ex officio member Jeff Jack said it was clear that the neighborhood wanted the operations to eventually move, whether they were for the rezoning or against it.
“That is fundamentally what they desire,” said Jack. “On the other hand, we are about to invest 4 or 5 million dollars in rehabbing this facility and site… What is your game plan for actually meeting the neighborhood’s long-term goal that this become their neighborhood urban center?”
“This could be here forever,” said Jack.
Johnson explained that the building would be designed as a mixed-use building that could be used by someone other than Public Works, saying they were putting the pieces in place now for what could be an urban center later.
Johnson said the SF-6 zoning was meant to address trust issues with the neighborhood, and give them some assurance that affordable housing would be part of the plan. He acknowledged that aspect of the plan was fairly new, and there were a lot of details to be worked out.
“We’ve met with the neighborhood, we’ve heard their concerns and we believe that we’ve addressed those concerns. They are very valid, and I can understand the reason why that petition was out there. We haven’t been good neighbors, and we’ve heard that loud and clear,” said Johnson
“We really see no reason moving forward why this needs to be obnoxious activity to the neighborhood, and why we can’t be good neighbors,” said Johnson. “Every concern we’ve heard – dust, noise, hours of operation – all those things are easy fixes.”
Not everyone was so sure this would be the case.
“If we do change the zoning, I don’t think much is going to change,” said Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez. “I think the neighbors are going to continue living with dust, debris and noise… I find it very hard to believe that whenever the city acquired that property that they didn’t know that the zoning wasn’t appropriate.”
Commissioner Danette Chimenti pointed to a series of emails provided by one of the neighbors that seemed to show this was the case, and the city was aware of the zoning problem.
Planning and Development Review’s Heather Chaffin told the commission that if the rezoning is not approved by City Council, the case will be turned over to Code Compliance.
“The reason the zoning has been submitted is in response to a violation on the property, and it was intended to, hopefully, resolve the situation. But if it does not succeed, it does not resolve the code violations,” said Chaffin.
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