Planning From The Neighborhoods Up

By now, you've probably all heard about the zoning battles over the BFI and Balcones Recycling plants in East Austin (we've been writing about it since May), and the new zoning ordinance they've spawned. It's a dramatic story, full of social injustice and political intrigue, but it also marks the first big step toward a city planned from the neighborhoods up.

The new ordinance requires owners of property zoned LI (limited industry), CS (commercial services, like construction companies or storage yards), and CS-1 (liquor sales and bars) and located within the East Austin "triangle" -- Town Lake, I-35, and Airport Blvd. -- to get a conditional use permit before they can build projects for which those zoning districts are intended. This means that each project has to go before Planning Commission and council, that neighbors have to be notified, and all the other activity that normally surrounds a zoning change.

In East Austin, this is an attractive strategy because of the widespread zoning mismatch -- lots of properties zoned LI are actually used for single-family homes. To grant a conditional use permit, the commission and council have to consider, among other things, the project's compatibility with surrounding uses. "You don't really see the same kind of mismatch anywhere else," says Greg Guernsey of the city's Development Review and Inspection Dept. "The East Austin area has unique characteristics and history; the proximity of residential and industrial uses doesn't have the same character elsewhere."

Conditional uses are common throughout the city's zoning structure -- bars, for example, require a conditional use permit within CS-1 zoning -- but there aren't any other situations where every use of a particular property requires a conditional use permit, simply because of its location. This makes the strategy attractive to other neighborhoods, where the zoning they have and the use they want to limit might be retail, or multifamily, or even duplexes. Despite the labor that attended the creation of the new East Austin ordinance, mandating a conditional use permit is still far easier than getting each piece of property rezoned, one by one.

Guernsey does not embrace this as a strategy, however. "You can't be arbitrary about it and create overlays anywhere," he says. Instead, "a neighborhood plan might set desired levels of residential, or retail, and then work to get the zoning amended to match that. With an adopted neighborhood plan, those uses are going to be promoted, and the zoning would more easily follow."

Along with the vigor with which East Austin has fought being an industrial dumping ground, there's hope the new ordinance will do exactly what Guernsey discusses -- promote alternative and better uses for property by shaking loose its traditional industrial zoning. "There's a difference between business and industrialization," says Planning Commissioner (for now) Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, one of the prime movers behind the new ordinance. "East Austin doesn't have businesses that provide services to the community -- the office and retail uses. Most of us have to go outside the neighborhood to see a doctor, to buy clothes, to go to a movie, to do anything.

"If we can get past the hysteria from property owners who think they can't sell their LI property, we can sit down and discuss the benefits of rezoning that will promote reinvestment and match the needs of the community," Vasquez-Revilla continues. "The mindset is that East Austin will always be the dumping ground for industry, but as revitalization takes place, the uses that will come in won't need LI zoning, and any new LI projects are going to be met with opposition. So LI zoning is no longer much of a premium in East Austin; the property values would be increased if they developed services for the neighborhoods or increased the housing stock. More diverse use will be more profitable for everybody in the end." -- M.C.M.

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