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Planning Commission debates connectivity over rezoning application

Tuesday, October 18, 2016 by Joseph Caterine

Following a CodeNEXT presentation advocating for greater connectivity in Austin, the Planning Commission had an opportunity to emulate that theme in considering a rezoning application at its Oct. 11 meeting.

Applicant Brown & Gay Engineering, represented at the meeting by Steven Buffum, had filed a request that the zoning for 5016-½ E. Ben White Blvd. be changed from commercial to mixed use as a means of developing the lot, primarily for multifamily housing.

Malcolm Yates, the chair of the East Riverside/Oltorf Combined (or EROC) neighborhood-planning contact team and a resident of Sunridge neighborhood, which is adjacent to the property in question, told the commission, “This is one of those rare examples where the developers and neighborhoods have worked out a consensus before reaching the Planning Commission.”

The consensus is that neither the applicant nor the contact team wants Sunridge Drive to be extended south through the property to link with the Ben White frontage road. Currently, Sunridge Drive runs perpendicular to Ben White but ends north of the tract, before meeting with the frontage road. “Extending Sunridge will turn a quiet residential street into a major arterial,” Yates said.

The only problem with the developer and neighborhood’s plan is that, according to City Code Section 25-4-151, “Streets of a new subdivision shall be aligned with and connect to existing streets on adjoining property unless the Land Use Commission determines that the Comprehensive Plan, topography, requirements of traffic circulation, or other considerations make it desirable to depart from the alignment or connection.”

The case had been postponed previously in order to give staff time to consult the Texas Department of Transportation. TxDOT’s recommendation, according to case manager Andrew Moore, was that a traffic impact analysis should be conducted. Senior transportation planner Leo Xu, the city’s transportation reviewer for the case, said that TxDOT is impartial to whether or not Sunridge is extended; it is more concerned that Ben White would be the only access point to this development.

During his presentation, Buffum made the argument that the Sunridge Drive extension would be dangerously close to the Ben White on-ramp’s theoretical gore point – the place where the ramp’s two white lines meet – prompting drivers to cross lanes quickly in order to enter the ramp. Given this danger, a variance to the connectivity requirement should be allowed, he said. Alternatively, a smaller driveway would be “feasible just beyond the gore point,” said Buffum.

Commissioner Stephen Oliver suggested that the applicant likely does not want Sunridge extended because a street cutting through the property would limit the intensity of the development. However, the lack of a connecting road with the Sunridge neighborhood would unnecessarily inconvenience residents of the new development, Oliver said. “Wouldn’t you want people in your neighborhood to feel like they are part of a community rather than turning their backs to a community?” he asked.

Although the item on the agenda concerned whether or not to approve the zoning change, the possibility of a future variance request involving an extension of Sunridge Drive was discussed thoroughly, because there was some confusion as to whether or not the Planning Commission would get another chance to weigh in on the case. Commissioners finally concluded that if Sunridge Drive is extended, the case would come before the Planning Commission as a preliminary plan, and if it is not, the case would come before the commission as a variance request. However, if the case were to come as a preliminary plan, the commission would not have any discretionary power.

“The only risk of passing it on,” said Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza, “is if, somewhere between here and conversations with TxDOT, the applicant decides, ‘You know what? It’s easier for me to connect Sunridge.’ Then it’s outside of our realm of influence.”

Commissioner James Schissler posited that the commission was not, in fact, making a decision on the rezoning case but only making a recommendation to City Council. Schissler then made a motion to approve the rezoning with staff recommendations, which was seconded by Commissioner Patricia Seeger.

Commissioner Trinity White attempted to add a friendly amendment to the motion that would include a traffic impact analysis request in the recommendations to Council, but Schissler rejected the amendment.

The final vote was 10-2-1, with commissioners White and Fayez Kazi opposed and Zaragoza abstaining.

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