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Wednesday, October 31, 2018 by Alyx Wilson

Planning Commission balks at neighborhood VMU

At its Oct. 23 meeting, the Planning Commission found itself reeling at a request for vertical mixed use on a rezoning case in Windsor Park at 6203, 6205 and 6207 Berkman Drive. The applicant presented two options that were agreed upon by the property owner and the neighborhood planning contact team, but that agreement did not match staff’s recommendation.

“When the applicant and the neighborhood contact team agree on something, I do think it’s a bit paternalistic to come in and say no, we’re not going to allow you to have this thing that everyone else wants,” said Commissioner Conor Kenny, defending one of the applicants’ requests.

Commissioners recommended a Community Commercial-Mixed Use-Conditional Overlay (GR-MU-CO) zoning over the more controversial Vertical Mixed Use (LR-V-MU-CO) zoning proposition. Staff recommended a zoning change to Neighborhood Commercial-Mixed Use zoning (LR-MU). The recommendation passed in a vote of 8-3 with commissioners Patricia Seeger, Tracy Witte, and Karen McGraw opposed. Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart was absent.

“I usually go with what the neighborhood wants, but in this case it is just too dense to put it in that area,” said Seeger. “When you go from LR to GR, things get hacked; you only need half the site area for those dwelling units.”

Seeger said that the zoning would be inappropriate in the mostly single-family residence neighborhood. Witte felt uncomfortable with approving the GR zoning without knowledge of how neighbors immediately adjacent to the property would feel about the development.

Kenny, who lives six blocks from the property in question, was present at the meeting between the neighborhood planning contact team, and said that between 25 and 30 neighbors also attended, including one who lived 300 yards south of the property in question.

“I am the immediate past former chair of this neighborhood contact team, and to come in and say we know better than you who live in the neighborhood, it makes me really question what (the commission’s) role is in this process,” said Kenny. “And I think it is not kind or respectful to the members of this neighborhood.”

The case also raised concerns of CodeNEXT issues coming back up with the possibility of a change in vertical mixed-use zoning.

“In the middle of a block, you could have a building that was built right up to the property line on the streetside,” said ex officio Commissioner William Burkhardt while clarifying the implications of the requested zoning.

The commission was cautious about VMU zoning because it is generally used for sites on transportation corridors. Jeffrey Howard, who was representing the applicant, said this wasn’t necessarily a requirement.

“We think that’s allowable even though it’s not on a core transit corridor by virtue of Section 4.3.5B5, which allows for subsequent applications by a property owner to ask for V designation,” said Howard.

Howard showed examples of where vertical mixed-use zoning was used in other parts of the city that were not on transit corridors. He explained the zoning would allow developers to build up to 50 units total, and VMU requires that 10 percent of those units be affordable units at 80 percent median family income.

With the decision to go with GR-MU-CO, the commission essentially gave up the requirement of affordable housing that came promised with vertical mixed-use zoning.

Map courtesy of Google Maps.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

Vertical Mixed Use (VMU): According to the city's website, "A vertical mixed use building contains a mix of residential and commercial uses. Typically, commercial uses (i.e. retail shops, restaurants, offices) are located on the ground floor, while residential units (condominiums or apartments) are located on upper levels."

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