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ZAP case triggers discussion on affordable housing and transit in North Austin

Monday, July 8, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Northwest Austin is developing quickly. Many of the large tracts of developable land in the far reaches of the city’s jurisdiction, by Farm to Market 620 and Texas State Highway 45, are outside the city limits, which makes it difficult to regulate how development is rolling out. Such was the case at 14310-15700 N. FM 620 Road.

A request to change the zoning for the 27 acres of property – from limited industrial services, development reserve and community commercial to community commercial-mixed use – came before the Zoning and Platting Commission at its July 2 meeting. However, that acreage was only a fraction of the total 156-acre land tract.

As Jeff Howard, an attorney with McLean & Howard who was representing the applicant, explained, the intention for the entire property is to create a development that has commercial uses fronting the arterial highway, with housing set farther back on the parcel.

To better understand how the development would be phased in and incorporate city housing initiatives, Commissioner Jim Duncan asked when the rest of the land would be submitted to the city for annexation. He explained that this development was a prime piece of property, and when developed, would be an asset to the city in terms of taxes, affordability and connectivity.

The tract of land is two miles from the MetroRail Lakeline Station, a transit artery that leads directly into the city center. Commissioner David King pointed out that concentrating dense development around a transit hub is not only in line with city goals, but a logical choice for the future development of transit infrastructure.

Howard said that there are no plans to annex the remaining acreage into Austin.

“I don’t really have a problem with your zoning request,” said Duncan. “I would hate to see this tract not participate in some of the programs the city has created for a better community for tomorrow.”

Besides a lack of jurisdiction to incentivize the development to participate in city programs, Commissioner Ann Denkler expressed her concern about the deferred traffic impact analysis report.

One of the properties’ current zoning has a conditional overlay limiting daily vehicle trips to 2,000. However, with new, denser development, the number of trips may exceed this limit. Denkler explained that her concern stemmed not only from the increased activity development will bring, but also Howard’s explanation that as development continues, an internal roadway system will need to be installed in order to accommodate access to all portions of the property.

The traffic impact analysis report, however, was deferred until the site plan stage.

While this is not unusual, Denkler was concerned about the legality of that switch in this case. She indicated that the deferment of the traffic analysis was done via email, though, “I’m not sure how legally binding that email is.” She said that generally an official traffic impact analysis memo is sent out to legitimize the decision.

While a traffic analysis will still be required at the site plan stage, Denkler noted that a site can take decades to develop and said, “You want a fresh TIA.”

City legal staff explained to the commission that at any point, the Land Development Code authorizes the director of Planning and Zoning to request supplemental information if he or she feels that the current TIA is insufficient.

Still, at the vote, the commission voted 8-0-1 to approve the rezoning of these Northwest Austin properties. Denkler abstained. “I think the email is a little sloppy way to go,” she offered by way of explanation.

Map courtesy of Google Maps.

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