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‘Snoopy PUD’ wins first-round approval

Tuesday, April 3, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Council approved a complicated set of Planned Unit Development regulations at their March 22 meeting for the piece of property at Riverside Drive and South First Street currently occupied by a Hooters and a surface parking lot.

As Planning and Zoning Assistant Director Jerry Rusthoven explained to Council, “We have renamed this PUD the Snoopy PUD,” because Charles Schulz, the creator of the cartoon “Peanuts,” once owned the property. It is directly across the street from One Texas Center.

The PUD zoning won unanimous approval on first reading, with Council members Ellen Troxclair and Leslie Pool absent. At Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo’s request, the public hearing will remain open so citizens can comment when the item comes back for second and third reading.

Developers plan to provide $3.6 million in amenities and cash in return for the 195-foot height and the floor-to-area ratio they want for the office tower.

The South Central Waterfront Plan, which includes the property, has been adopted, but the accompanying regulating plan is still in the adoption process. That very ambitious urban landscape plan would provide many public amenities, including 20 acres of park area that do not exist today.

The PUD developers would be required to provide $3.1 million in amenities under the waterfront plan’s regulating plan, but since the regulating plan has yet to be adopted, if they want to move forward with the project now they need to do it under PUD zoning.

Rusthoven said, “I can tell you very specifically the applicant is complying with the South Central Waterfront Plan. They’re using the PUD to get there. However, they are also doing additional things above and beyond the plan,” which count toward the superiority of the development.

Proposed amenities include green infrastructure, rainwater capture, wastewater reuse, and $600,000 of transportation improvements “above and beyond what is required by the plan,” Rusthoven told Council. In addition, the developer plans to pay a $1.1 million fee-in-lieu for affordable housing. There is no on-site housing because this is an office building.

Richard Suttle of Armbrust & Brown represents Ronald A. Nelson, the property owner. He told Council, “My client started looking at this about three years ago before the plan was even adopted. At the request and advice of the city staff, he was advised, ‘Why don’t you sit tight until the plan comes through,’ which he did. The plan came through, the Council adopted it. He redid his forms to conform to the south central plan and we’ve been going through the review process and the negotiation process on the PUD with the city staff in the last couple of years. And we’ve also been through an extensive board and commission process.”

Molly Alexander of the Downtown Austin Alliance also urged Council to approve the PUD, saying, “I think it is an opportunity as you look to approve this PUD to move forward on the regulatory plan, the TIF financing plan, and also think about a new governance model to accomplish the very ambition of the plan.”

In counting credit for the amenities, some were mandated by the South Central Waterfront Plan and others were part of the developer’s argument that the plan should be approved because it is superior and should be rewarded with the PUD designation.

Although staff determined that the developer was providing $3.6 million worth of total public benefits, Rusthoven said, they were only providing $2.9 million worth of items required by the waterfront plan, about $176,000 short of the plan’s requirement. As a result, the developer will pay an additional $176,074 in cash.

The other city development regulations that make the developer’s plan more complicated are the Downtown Public Improvement District, known as a PID, and the associated Tax Increment Financing, known as a TIF.

The regulating plan mandates that the property become part of the public improvement district and a certain percentage of property tax money will go into a fund to pay for public improvements, such as park space. But, Rusthoven noted, there is no point in having tax increment financing before the regulating plan is adopted. “Once the regulating plan is adopted you want to do that TIF as soon as possible so you can lock in the current value – so as much of that current entitlement you capture with the TIF would be spent within the district, and only in the district for the amenities contemplated by the plan.”

Rusthoven said Monday that staff has been asked to take the steps to add the Snoopy PUD into the downtown PID. The developer will pay into the PID, which is operated by the Downtown Austin Alliance, for things like trash pickup and keeping sidewalks clean.

He said he expects the items to be on Council’s April 26 agenda for the required public hearing. Once the regulating plan is adopted, then Council can take action to create the TIF.

There is at least one more wrinkle. Normally, the regulating plan would be adopted and it would become part of the city’s zoning regulations. Staff is not sure that it is worth the effort to do that because of the imminent possible adoption of the new code, known as CodeNEXT.

Although Council Member Jimmy Flannigan proposed adoption of the staff’s recommendation on the new zoning ordinance, Tovo proposed an amendment to adopt the Planning Commission’s recommendation, which is lengthier and more complicated. Rusthoven told Council that some of the things proposed by the Planning Commission probably could not legally be part of the zoning ordinance.

Rusthoven responded to a question from Mayor Steve Adler about Tovo’s amendment by saying it would be all right to pass the motion about the commission recommendation, but added, “just understand that everything that they put in the (Planning Commission) recommendation are not things that I can put into the zoning ordinance. So there will be things that will not be in there.”

Tovo said, “I think that I would be more comfortable operating from that position because then hopefully the staff can work as creatively as possible to see how they can accommodate those and in what forms.”

She added, “I have significant concerns from my constituents in this area.” Specifically, she said the affordable housing calculation needs to be adjusted upward. Tovo also said she would be seeking “more concrete language on how the (public improvement district) will operate in this area to really focus on the waterfront.” Finally, she said she expected staff to report on the legality of holding back building permits “or some other methods until we have the (tax increment financing) in place.”

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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