Death by a Thousand Waivers: Variances granted here

Many projects on the waterfront are asking for exceptions to the rules

Developers seeking variances to the restrictions defined in the city's Waterfront Overlay Ordinance can get approvals at the Planning Commission level without having to go to City Council. Unlike council members, PC commissioners must decide a project's fate based on limited community input, often looking only at a narrow site plan. With so many citywide issues and ordinances to track, commissioners are not in the best position to serve as the "keepers" of the Town Lake Corridor. Yet with multiple large projects requesting variances suddenly coming before them, the commissioners have been working in recent months to bone up on Waterfront Overlay issues and the 2000 ROMA recommendations.

Said Planning Commissioner Saundra Kirk, "I am very much interested in the Town Lake Waterfront Overlay. We are trying to discuss this and come to synergy in our thinking. We hope to educate ourselves so that we can make sense of plans that come before us and determine whether projects support or undermine the city's vision for waterfront redevelopment." Fellow Commissioner Chris Riley, who has received a number of e-mails from citizens concerned about the projects seeking WO setback variances, said, "On the south shore east of Congress, the goals of the Waterfront Overlay have not been well-served since 1985." He added, "There's significant interest in re-educating ourselves about the prior work that's been done on the Waterfront Overlay District. The first step is getting up to speed."

At Kirk's request, city staff provided a Nov. 21 briefing to the Codes and Ordinances Committee of the Planning Commission to explain the Waterfront Overlay District Ordinance and the ROMA recommendations. (The open-meeting briefing was derailed, however, when two dozen neighborhood activists showed up to protest specific projects, preventing any in-depth discussion of the ROMA plan.) At its Dec. 18 meeting, the PC discussed adding a new requirement that, as an additional protection, the city Environmental Board should review and vote on all WO and creek setback variance requests (as occurred for the 222 and 300 E. Riverside projects) before they go to the Planning Commission.

While the developer can appeal a denial to City Council, the public does not have the parallel right to appeal an approval. This makes public notification, scrutiny, and input prior to a PC vote especially crucial.

When a WO District variance request goes to the Planning Commission, it has already been reviewed by the Parks and Recreation Board. This gives PARD the first voice, appropriately, on developer requests to build taller or closer to Town Lake (and/or its tributary creeks) than zoning permits. But Parks Board members don't always hear the whole story, according to retired Parks planner Sarah Campbell. While the review process should include independent briefings by PARD staff, she said, in some cases only the developer (or the developer's attorney) briefs the board on the project. The Parks Board is inclined to protect the natural character of the shoreline, but its vote is not binding. According to Chair Linda Guerrero, the Parks Board's vote goes to the PC only as a recommendation, and typically without benefit of comments or a briefing from Parks to Planning on the issues.

Many projects are now coming through the approval process: A single Oct. 24 agenda of the Parks Board, for example, included three major projects requesting variances to the development protections that Austin codified in the 1989 WO District Ordinance. In each case – a major new mixed-use project on the Hyatt Regency site, three proposed 200-foot condo towers at 222 and 300 E. Riverside, and a proposed high-density "urban village" on the east side off Lakeshore Drive, large enough to require new streets and its own public-utility district – developers want to build closer to the water than current setback protections allow.

Danette Chimenti has a multifaceted perspective on waterfront development regulations and pressures; she's a new member of the Parks Board (appointed by Lee Leffingwell) as well as vice-president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and co-president of South River City Citizens. Chimenti believes that the public interest would be better served by requiring that WO variance requests go to City Council for a final vote, rather than being approved by the Planning Commission. Speaking only in her capacity as co-president of her neighborhood association, Chimenti said in November, "Council members, as elected officials, probably pay more attention to public opinion, and are more sensitive to public outcry, than planning commissioners – which is an appointed, unpaid position. … I think it would be wise to have a City Council hearing for something as important to the city as Town Lake."

Some recent council actions do indicate a commitment to WO District protections. One example is the zoning change requested for a new AMLI housing project on Tract 9 at East Riverside and Lakeshore, within the East Riverside Waterfront Overlay subdistrict. At first reading at City Council, Leffingwell moved to require the developer to add explicit language stating that it would comply with WO development regulations; the amendment was unanimously supported by council.

For a full list of developments currently in the city approvals pipeline, see "The Big Picture."

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Town Lake, Saundra Kirk, Chris Riley, Planning Commission

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