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Connectivity concerns complicate Cooper Lane rezoning

Friday, October 9, 2015 by Jack Craver

A zoning change requested for 30 new condominium units on Cooper Lane prompted some hard questions for city staff at a Tuesday meeting of the Zoning and Platting Commission.

The panel voted overwhelmingly to change the zoning for the parcels at 7513 and 7603 Cooper Lane from Development Review (DR) and Single Family-2 to Single Family-6 along with a conditional overlay that restricts the development to a maximum of 30 units. Ron Thrower, the agent for the developer, estimated that the current zoning would restrict the development to 22 units.

Preceding the vote, however, were a number of pointed comments from neighbors and members of the commission over the development’s impact on infrastructure in the neighborhood.

“What’s really important for the commission to think about is this is the third development on a quarter-mile stretch of Cooper Lane,” said Molly Ogden, a neighborhood resident. “My plea tonight is for you to consider pushing a transportation study or a plan if we’re going to allow these large lots … to be converted to multifamily so that you don’t do this to such a small stretch with no road-improvements plan.”

Commissioner Jolene Kiolbassa, in response, asked staff whether there had been any traffic study for the development. Informed that there had not been one tied to the specific project, Kiolbassa wondered whether there was any study of the “cumulative” effect on transportation by recent development in a neighborhood.

Natalia Rodriguez responded that transportation analysis was typically tied to a specific project. The proposed project was not large enough to trigger a Neighborhood Traffic Analysis during the zoning phase, although one could be triggered during the site plan process.

But even a traffic analysis would focus only on the impact of the single project and make recommendations for improvements that the developer should make to infrastructure in order for the project to be approved.

“We don’t have a mechanism to look at the entire street because of one development,” said Rodriguez.

Commissioner Susan Harris responded. “That seems to be a pretty big flaw in the transportation world,” she said. “That’s not good governance, is it?”

“No,” said Rodriguez. “It is something that we’re having to figure out with our current code.”

Kiolbassa asked if there was a process by which planners could work with the transportation and public works departments to identify rapidly developing areas likely in need of infrastructural improvements.

“Not to my knowledge,” responded Rodriguez. “Typically, it’s as cases are coming in.”

Vice Chair Jackie Goodman commented on the lack of collaboration between transportation and planning officials. She suggested that the city was far from implementing the goals set forth by Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan.

“These condos are going to exist because we have a priority in Imagine Austin for density along transportation corridors and major arterials,” she said. “At the same time that we grant the land uses, we have to have the ability to tell somebody that we need to connect the two, land use and transportation.”

Chair Gabriel Rojas also expressed concern about approving developments without knowing whether the necessary transportation changes would be made to accommodate the increased density.

“It’s hard to know whether this is a good development when we don’t know what’s going to come in,” he said.

Commissioners seemed to accept that there was not much they could do to spur infrastructure changes, but they resolved to send a message to City Council by directing staff to attach a memo to the project’s recommendation outlining their concerns.

The panel ultimately voted to recommend the project, with only Rojas dissenting. Rojas explained that he wanted to require vehicular connectivity from the proposed subdivision to properties to its north, south and east, a condition that Thrower objected to. Instead, the commission voted to require bicycle and pedestrian connectivity between the properties.

This story has been corrected. Gabriel Rojas does support north and south connectivity, but not connectivity to the east.

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