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Historical use clashes with CodeNEXT future in East Cesar Chavez zoning case

Tuesday, May 30, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

It was another episode of Whose Code Is It Anyway? during the limbo period before CodeNEXT, when it sometimes feels like planning is made up and zoning doesn’t matter. This time, the Planning Commission struggled at its May 23 meeting to weigh the precedence of historical commercial use for an East Cesar Chavez Street storefront against the imminence of CodeNEXT transect zoning for the neighborhood.

The two structures at 78 San Marcos St., across the road from Sanchez Elementary School, were built prior to the city’s adoption of its first zoning code in 1931. The lot was then zoned for single-family residential, but Heather Chaffin with the city’s Planning and Zoning Department said that, as far as city staff could tell, the storefront building has always had a commercial use.

When the most recent land use code was adopted in 1984, existing structures with non-conforming uses were allowed to continue, unless someone were to challenge the use.

“I’m trying to understand what the compelling reason is to rezone (this property)?” said Commissioner Karen McGraw.

“Financing is often a reason,” explained Chaffin. “Real estate transactions go smoother if you have the correct zoning on a property. If (the applicant) wanted to make any changes, we have regulations about changing existing non-complying structures.”

Applicant Carrie Altemus is requesting a zoning change from Civic to Mixed Use, and agent Ron Thrower said that the owner had no intention of modifying the buildings. “We’re trying to get conforming zoning on the property in recognition of the uses that have been there for almost a hundred years,” he said.

In spite of the heritage, the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Contact Team voted unanimously in opposition to the applicant’s request. In a letter to the Planning Commission, contact team chair Jose Valera said that its main concern was the property’s adjacency to Sanchez Elementary. “Any increase in commercial activity and associated traffic in such proximity to an elementary school would be inappropriate,” he wrote.

On the subject of compatibility, Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza reminded her colleagues that according to the current CodeNEXT map, this area will have transect zoning in the next couple of years. “The proposed compatibility is very different at this point,” she said.

Commissioner Chito Vela said that the property’s history mitigated his concerns about future compatibility. “I have a certain sympathy for preexisting uses,” he said.

With complete communities in mind, Chair Stephen Oliver said that it would be a missed opportunity to not maintain the neighborhood retail that already exists. “Most neighborhoods in Austin don’t have this luxury,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with these uses across from the school. If it’s redeveloped right over time, I can imagine parents using the (commercial) services while their kids are being dropped off.”

In the recent Facility Master Plan Update adopted by the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees, Sanchez Elementary was identified as a school with severe underenrollment that could face consolidation in the future if it does not increase its student count.

Zaragoza made a motion to approve staff’s recommendation with the additional conditional overlay of a two-story, 30-foot height max, seconded by Commissioner Patricia Seeger.

“At this point in time, with CodeNEXT approaching,” said Thrower, “frankly, I’m against any (conditional overlay) on a property, because how is that going to translate?”

Nevertheless, the motion passed 7-1 with McGraw dissenting. Commissioners Angela De Hoyos Hart, Jeffrey Thompson, James Schissler, Greg Anderson, Trinity White and Fayez Kazi were absent.

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

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