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Planning Commission endorses West Campus density

Tuesday, September 17, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

When the University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO) was established in 2004, the idea spurring its creation was to increase housing opportunities for students in an area close to classrooms and campus life.

In the 15 years since, the need for affordable student housing in West Campus has only continued to grow. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to bring more housing – affordable or otherwise – to the already dense area, Mark Walters with the Planning and Zoning Department came to the Planning Commission’s Aug. 27 meeting to ask for a recommendation concerning changes to the overlay’s use regulations, building heights, parking requirements and sign regulations.

After a significant debate, the commissioners offered their recommendation to support staff’s request with a few amendments. These included removing all parking requirements within the University Neighborhood Overlay and expanding the boundaries of what is known as inner West Campus.

The vote tallied 11-1 with Commissioner Patricia Seeger voting against the motion.

“A lot of people came together and agreed on something, which is highly unique,” said Seeger, adding that staff members’ recommendation “appeared to be a really good compromise to me.”

The University Neighborhood Overlay is a collaborative effort among several surrounding neighborhood associations, all with different requirements. These organizations, along with the city of Austin, came to a consensus to reduce parking requirements from 60 to 35 percent in the outer West Campus subdistrict and eliminate all requirements from multifamily units in the inner West Campus subdistrict and Guadalupe subdistrict.

John Foxworth, who worked to bring the original University Neighborhood Overlay to fruition, argued that parking was still necessary in certain areas “because that will help support small restaurants.”

The Planning Commission, however, thought these reductions did not go far enough. Commissioners argued that students were less likely to bring cars to campus if they were not commuting, and that increasing the number of units within walking distance of campus would consequently reduce the need for four-wheeled transportation.

Height restrictions were also revised. Buildings in the Guadalupe subdistrict and outer West Campus subdistrict with a 50-foot height limit are facing a proposal to increase their height during redevelopment by 25 feet. Properties in the inner West Campus subdistrict could be increased by 125 feet. These height increases are contingent upon the development meeting affordability requirements that are already established in the UNO section of the Land Development Code.

Although commissioners agreed with these increases, they expressed a desire to see the inner West Campus subdistrict expanded in order to increase the area where significantly more height could be added. “We need thousands more units,” said Commissioner Greg Anderson. Increasing the area where height can be built “makes all the sense in the world.”

Walters explained that the reason inner West Campus is districted as it is now is because the fraternities and sororities have “been Swiss-cheesed out of UNO.” No representatives from the Greek community came to the meeting to offer their opinion on expanding the inner district to encompass the Greek homes.

Members of the West Campus Neighborhood Association, however, were in attendance and expressed their support for expanding density within West Campus. “The closer a student can live to campus, the better their academic performance,” said Allie Runas, the president of the neighborhood association.

Even with the history of the districting in mind, the commission felt strongly about expanding density both through increasing the surface area that could reach new heights and converting space that would be used for parking into more units.

“It just gets more affordable housing,” said Commissioner Conor Kenny.

Photo by Earl McGehee made available through a Creative Commons license.

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