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Regulating Plan changes split Planning Commission

Monday, September 15, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Citing process concerns, the Planning Commission had no recommendations for amendments to the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan last week.

Because the 4 acres at 1500 South Pleasant Valley Road are within the ERC regulating plan, developers were asking for a series of amendments to the proposal, not a zoning change that is seen in other parts of the city.

Specifically, developers were asking for a change from a Neighborhood Mixed Use subdistrict to a Corridor Mixed Use subdistrict. They were also asking for an amendment that would include the property in a “hub” at Pleasant Valley Road and Riverside Drive, and inclusion in the city’s density bonus program.

The requests were the first such amendments to the regulating plan since it was adopted in May 2013. Because there was no majority, the case will go to City Council without a recommendation.

Commissioners voted 3-3 to approve the amendments, with Chair Danette Chimenti and Commissioners Jean Stevens and Nuria Zaragoza voting against. Commissioner James Nortey was absent.

Chimenti said she couldn’t support the change, and that the process of changing the regulating plan needed to be explored further. Staff reasoned that because the FLUM (future land use map) and the neighborhood plans weren’t actually changing, the neighborhood plan amendment process shouldn’t be triggered. But Chimenti said the changes were as big, or bigger, than a change to the FLUM.

“It’s only been a year,” said Chimenti. “A lot of people put a lot of time and energy into this plan. And here we are, a year later (or so) making what is a fairly major change to it.”

Commissioner Brian Roark supported the change, saying he understood the issues with process the neighborhood had, but that it was a “political issue, not a zoning issue.”

“If the neighborhood had substantive issues with whether this zoning was appropriate, I would understand that, and possibly act on that … but there doesn’t seem to be those concerns, and it seems like the zoning is appropriate,” said Roark. “Don’t punish this project because the city staff has decided to go with one process, not another.”

The East Riverside/Oltorf Combined, or EROC,  neighborhood planning contact team did not support the amendments but cited concerns about the process, not the project. Contact team chair Malcolm Yeatts said they had to oppose the proposed amendments because of the precedent they would set for rezoning procedures under the regulating plan.

Yeatts said that when the regulating plan was adopted, the neighborhood understood that any changes would go through the neighborhood planning amendment process. He said that process was being bypassed by staff. He asked for a postponement, and a determination from the city’s legal department about the standard rezoning process under the regulating plan.

EROC’s Toni House asked Commissioners to deny the developers’ request, pointing out that the property had been purchased after adoption of the plan. She said that if the developers wanted a piece of property that was classified as Corridor Mixed Use, that’s what they should have purchased. She said changes to hub boundaries should be considered only under extraordinary circumstances. House added that, though the neighborhood had supported the relaxation of compatibility standards in some areas, there was “apparently no point” to that compromise.

“If this application is approved, it’s going to open a floodgate of changes to the rest of Neighborhood Mixed Use properties within the corridor,” said House. “If this application is approved, the takeaway is that the only certainty to EROC residents is that the regulating plan was devised to further erode the EROC neighborhood plan, to reduce the adjacent single-family properties’ compatibility protections, and strip EROC permanently of traditional, single-family zoning within the corridor.”

House continued, “It also provides a stellar example of what the residents of Austin can expect from staff’s interpretation of CodeNEXT in conjunction with the Land Development Code rewrite.”

Currently, the property is ineligible for the density bonus program. If the changes are approved by City Council, developers could earn an additional 5 feet through the program. Drenner Group’s Steve Drenner, who was representing the development company, 1500 SPV LLC, said although affordable housing was only required as part of the density bonus program, developers thought it was appropriate to voluntarily include affordable housing for the height past 50 feet as well.

Drenner said they would make a voluntary donation of $168,000 to affordable housing. House responded that, though she appreciated the offer, residents wanted on-site affordable housing. They were told there would be none, nor would there be home-ownership opportunities within the project.

Drenner stressed that they were paying more toward affordable housing than would be required under code, and said that the idea of on-site affordable housing was still under consideration.

Though still in the initial stages, developers are planning to build about 350 residential units on the site, and would like 65 feet in height to do so. The Corridor Mixed Use subdivision allows for taller buildings, higher floor-to-area ratio and more impervious cover. Staff supported the change, pointing out that it was on a busy intersection. Before adoption of the regulating plan, the property was zoned Community Commercial (GR).

Drenner told Commissioners that the land was currently used for retail and redevelopment would benefit the area. He explained that, over the last 18 months, there have been about 480 emergency service calls, leading to over 120 police reports on the site.


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