The Austin Chronicle

Beside the Point

McMansions Sweeps Week Approaches

By Wells Dunbar, March 3, 2006, News

Prime-time listings for Thursday, March 2: Extreme Makeover: Moratorium Edition. "McMansion A Go-Go." Brewster and the gang only have a couple of weeks to gut and remodel Austin's zaniest ordinance. Will they be able to pull it off? (Repeat)

Yes, it's true: The network brass has decided that Austin's McMansion moratorium, still in its first season, needs a punch-up to continue its viability. So, as only Brewster McCracken could put it, Austin is abandoning the interim moratorium for a "permanent-interim" regulation. The midseason replacement is necessitated by more than creative differences, however: While the interim regulation passed last month is – yes – interim, expiring June 6, McCracken's "permanent-interim" regulation will actually be a straight-up, permanent amendment to city code, albeit designed for obsolescence once "permanent-permanent" language is adopted this summer. So why the change? Aside from allowing a council-appointed task force of neighborhood advocates, architects, and developers to tweak the pilot ordinance's language, council is unbound from a new state statute governing development ordinances. Under rules governing certain development moratoriums, cities can't green-light them that easily; a public health and safety issue must be present (in this case, the somewhat suspect drainage argument), the proposal must be vetted by the planning commission, and it can't be passed in one day on all readings. So to avoid these rules, council now wants to produce the "permanent-interim" ordinance ASAP, and get cracking on perm-perm immediately afterward.

So the issue spins off to the task force. Realizing the breadth of their charge, they've doubled their meeting schedule to two a week; today (Thursday), council item 38 adds two more members to the force. At their meeting last week, moderated by McCracken and Lee Leffingwell, the group discussed some tweaks to the ordinance: excluding basements from the ratio calculating additional room for development while including second- and third-floor covered balconies, and adding standards for setbacks and a streamlined waiver process. Their proposed changes to the permanent-interim regulation get focus-grouped today (Thursday) as item 64, allowing for public hearing and possible action.

Despite relatively easy consensus on these matters, some static erupted at the meeting, mainly from architect Michael Casias, who openly questioned the power of the task force and its recommendations. Whether more rumblings will result is unknown, but the drainage argument hasn't exactly engendered high ratings on the developers' part. As McCracken is fond of saying, so far the committee is plucking the "low hanging fruit" from the moratorium tree. We'll see the extent of that consensus when it's time to hack and prune it into the final ordinance, which council wants by May 7 – hopefully giving them enough time to cancel any remaining doubts before their summer vacation in late June.

The council agenda's transformation into Home and Garden TV plows on, with other development and design issues dallying before the dais today. A public hearing relating to vertical, mixed-use building standards is scheduled before the McMansion ordinance, shoehorned into a cramped slate also containing Jennifer Kim's dogs-on-patios ordinance. Also, a 2pm briefing on council's commercial design standards and their implementation is scheduled for presentation by Colorado firm Clarion; item 12 pays them $51,000 in legal fees for drafting the standards. Yet sure to elicit the most discussion are the show-opening cluster of election and charter-amendment ordinances, including changes to campaign-contribution limits, domestic partner benefits for city employees, and Save Our Springs' aquifer development prohibition (see "Point Austin"). SOS bubbles up again in a lengthy executive session today, as council discusses the lawsuit filed last week against the city by the intrepid enviros, taking the city to task for their grandfathering decision allowing Advanced Micro Devices to build their corporate campus over the aquifer. Also up for closed-door discussion are Daniela Rocha's lawsuit against the city over her son's shooting death last year and the city's continuing battle with Harry Whittington. Yes, that Harry Whittington, the local GOP attorney recently peppered, seasoned, scattered, smothered, and covered with vice-presidential shotgun pellets. For more than half a decade, Whittington has been mostly successful in his eminent domain scrap with the city, ever since land he owned was used to build a Convention Center parking garage. Despite several rebuffs so far, the most recent being the Texas Supreme Court's denial of a city appeal, the city has soldiered on; today they ante up $180,000 in legal fees. An all-expense-paid trip for Whittington to the Armstrong Ranch would be considerably cheaper … What? We kid, we kid!

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