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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano
Council gets first crack at South Austin Plan
Despite an unexpected rescheduling of the public hearing, neighbors concerned about the South Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan showed up in force Friday afternoon.
City Council members took up the plan Friday, after making the unorthodox decision late Thursday evening to continue their overstuffed agenda to a second day. Because of the unanticipated rescheduling, Council held a public hearing on the South Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan on Friday, and will hold a second public hearing at its next meeting, with the understanding that those who spoke Friday will not do so again.
Even though there were about a dozen postponement requests from neighbors, there were still enough people on hand Friday to make up more than an hour of testimony.
Some South Austinites stressed the need to move forward, noting the amount of time they had spent on the plan and saying the current incarnation was a reasonable compromise. Others worried that allowing infill options in neighborhoods other than their own would spill over into their neighborhood through traffic, increased demands on inadequate infrastructure and other downsides linked to increased development.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell expressed frustration that the Planning Commission had not forwarded a recommendation to Council.
“It seems like it’s increasingly becoming a problem that the Planning Commission doesn’t give us any recommendation. I don’t know what the solution to that is, but it’s very helpful when we have a recommendation to balance staff recommendation with the land use commission,” said Leffingwell. “I think we ought to think about ways that we make sure to make every effort to get that recommendation.”
Though commissioners did not have a recommendation for Council, they were able to come to a consensus. Commissioners voted unanimously to forward the plan without a recommendation, citing issues of process. Commissioner Stephen Oliver explained that he could not support the plan at this stage in the Land Development Code rewrite process, which potentially could change the entire neighborhood plan in the next two years.
Neighborhood representatives have been working on the plan for the past five years, after Council officially initiated it in June 2012. The plan will combine the Westgate Neighborhood Plan, the Garrison Park Neighborhood Plan and the South Manchaca Neighborhood Plan according to the tenets of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan. All told, it covers an area bordered by Ben White Boulevard on the north, South First Street on the east, William Cannon Drive on the south and Westgate Boulevard on the west.
From the neighborhoods’ perspective, the planning process was relatively peaceful until April of this year, when the prospect of blanket acceptance of infill tools raised alarms with some. However, some neighborhoods would like to accept infill tools such as cottage lots, small lot amnesty, secondary apartments and urban homes. Other neighborhoods are adamantly opposed to their adoption.
Staff has worked to develop a compromise. Planning and Development Review Department planner Francis Reilly explained that over the past several months, the department had worked with the community to find common ground. As a result, the city has backed off its recommendation of sweeping infill changes and now is backing a proposal that creates subdistricts within the plan. Some of these subdistricts will adopt the infill tools and some will not, based on the preferences of the neighborhoods within the South Austin plan.
“I feel very strongly about the recommendations that we bring to you today,” said Reilly.
As it stands now, if Council approves the staff recommendation, small-lot amnesty would be adopted in South Manchaca and Garrison Park neighborhoods; secondary apartments would be adopted in South Manchaca and a subdistrict of Garrison Park; cottage lots would be adopted in a new “character district” in east Garrison Park; urban homes would be allowed in the east Garrison Park character district and a South Manchaca character district; and the corner store infill option would be adopted only in an eastern South Manchaca character district.
Reilly explained that the character districts were intended to preserve neighborhood character and direct growth to areas that were changing.
“I think through this process, we’ve heard a lot of concern about changes, and a neighborhood plan can’t stop change,” said Reilly. “But it can help manage it.”
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.
South Austin: South Austin is, very roughly, the portion of Austin south of Lady Bird Lake.