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In lieu of Imagine Austin update, Planning Commission recommends mixed-use project

Friday, April 14, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

The city’s comprehensive plan is starting to show its age. On Tuesday, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve a mixed-use zoning request, against staff’s recommendation, for three commercially zoned properties on the border of one of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan’s “Job Center” nodes in Montopolis.

Applicant John Stratton is requesting that 2507, 2509 and 2511 Montopolis Drive be rezoned to accommodate a multifamily residential development of around 200 units. Maureen Meredith, who is a senior planner in the Planning and Development Review Department, explained that staff’s recommendation to deny the request was based on the guideline that there should be a commercial buffer between residential and industrial zoning districts. To the south of the parcels lies the Austin Energy System Control Center, a semiconductor chip lab and a Praxair Distribution, Inc. facility.

Praxair produces industrial gases and has above-ground storage tanks on-site down the street from the properties in question. The Austin Fire Department has recommended a 1,000-foot buffer between the tanks and any residential units.

Leah Bojo, the agent representing the applicant, said that they were happy to comply with the safety requirement and assured the commission that the neighborhood wanted residential in this area, despite Imagine Austin’s intention of making it a job center for businesses not suited for residential or environmentally sensitive areas.

“The neighborhood contact team voted unanimously to support both the rezoning and the (Future Land Use Map) amendment,” Bojo said. “They also specifically requested that the parkland dedication money for the residential project go towards fixing up existing parks in the area rather than an on-site dedication.”

Among the commissioners, the case became a question of which direction, in terms of land use, the area was going, and if it was too late to turn back. The parcels north of the applicant’s are zoned mixed use, and a SMART Housing project is in development to the east. Senior planner Andrew Moore clarified that staff approved that project in 2011 before Imagine Austin was adopted, and that if the application was put in front of them today it would be denied.

“It seems as though (mixed use) is being scrutinized more than it had in the past,” said Commissioner Patricia Seeger. “Is there a change in direction in putting (mixed use) wherever we can put it?”

“I’d say we’re trying to be more selective and take a more analytical approach (to) where we’re locating it,” Moore responded.

Commissioner James Shieh addressed the commission’s responsibility to upholding Imagine Austin versus the responsibility to increase the housing stock. “We’re supposed to be the stewards of Imagine Austin,” he said, “but things change. Maybe there needs to be an update.”

Adopted in 2012 by City Council with the presumption of being reviewed every five years, the comprehensive plan is due for an update this year.

Commissioner Greg Anderson moved to approve the applicant’s request, with the conditional overlay to enforce the 1,000-foot buffer but without the parkland dedication waiver. Commissioner Tom Nuckols seconded.

Later in the meeting, Nuckols moved to reconsider the case, based on the apprehension that conditional overlays might be done away with in the implementation of CodeNEXT. That motion was seconded by Seeger.

Commissioner James Schissler thought that was unnecessary. “We just recommend to Council, he said. “Legal decides what’s best.”

“Having worked in the city attorney’s office,” Nuckols responded. “I think it’s better to have a (conditional overlay) because enforcement is easier.”

With the status of the mechanism up in the air, however, Nuckols made a motion to enforce the buffer with a conditional overlay and a public restrictive covenant, just to be safe. Seeger seconded once again. The motion passed 8-2 with Schissler and Anderson in opposition. Chair Stephen Oliver was absent.

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