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CodeNEXT failure, scooters and developers lead to new look at downtown plan

Thursday, October 4, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

The Downtown Austin Plan, conceived in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis and approved in 2011 as Austin’s commercial real estate market was kicking back into high gear, is going to get a hard look under the hood.

Last month, the city’s Downtown Commission voted 6-3 to recommend City Council direct the city manager to assess the DAP and possibly amend it to ensure it is best suited to the downtown of 2018. That decision, which saw commissioners Megan Meisenbach, Wardaleen Belvin and August Harris vote against, followed a report from city staff on the plan’s implementation and discussion about growing interest from developers to increase density near the historic residential portions of northwest downtown that had negotiated exclusions from density bonus considerations.

The status update also found that 81 percent of the plan’s recommendations are not yet underway or are incomplete, in part because many pieces of the plan were linked to the now-scrapped CodeNEXT plan to rewrite the city’s land use code.

Jorge Rousselin, the Development Services Division’s manager of urban design, said city staff has seen an increasing number of “piecemeal” requests to adjust or update the plan. Rather than make those changes, he said staff is moving ahead with Council’s existing directive to implement the plan as it was adopted.

“When you open up one portion of the DAP, you really open up all portions of the DAP,” he said. “We would caution piecemealing portions of the DAP. There are things we do need to re-evaluate and take a look at, and we do so through commissions like this, Planning Commission or even the Council itself to get policy direction. You want to be diligent and careful as to how those changes start getting made. When you make one change you really do have a ripple effect that affects many of the contexts of surrounding properties.”

The possibility of amendments or other changes to the plan that guides Austin’s most attractive commercial district brought concern from commissioners who argued the city could decide to renege on agreements that protected certain residential areas downtown from growth pressures.

“Rather than having a revisit of the plan itself with the challenges that presents us, we ask Council to ask staff to identify the resources they need to complete the execution of the existing plan,” Harris said. “These were intended to be longer-term plans, and there may be an opportunity to adjust those plans going forward, but going back and revisiting the entire plan and bringing up issues that were part of a carefully negotiated product is very problematic.”

Of particular concern was the consideration given to the Judges Hill neighborhood that limits building heights south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and allows a gradual increase in building height in the blocks along its eastern border.

“We were asked to support the DAP by the city. We did, and as a result we were assured as to how it would be implemented in our small area. We are looking to you to see that that promise be honored,” said Paul Gosselink, vice president of the Judges Hill Neighborhood Association. “One of the issues that arose out of the CodeNEXT process was the value and reliability of working out agreements with the city, and could they be counted on in the future? With respect to Judges Hill, other neighborhoods are watching us and waiting to see what happens here.”

With the city’s land use revision process in question and the area being vastly altered by ever-higher commercial buildings and the emergence of dockless scooters as transportation options, the commission decided that it’s time for the city to consider if the plan is still adequate.

“We should be looking forward instead of backward, and a lot has changed since that was started and adopted. This is not 2008 when it was started or 2011 when it was adopted,” Chair Joel Sher said. “There are things that have happened since the plan was created that were way outside the original plan, and to put blinders on now is a waste of time and effort.”

Photo by Zereshk at English Wikipedia (Zereshk at English Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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