Council Watch

Pulling their PUDs

Council Watch Pop quiz: The following statement, "Austin has clearly become the next Texas boomtown," appeared in the following:

1) New Chamber of Commerce pamphlet, "Austin: Just Send Us Bags of Cash"

2) "Wynning Edge," the Mayor's new collection of motivational lectures

3) The New York Times

4) None of the above

If you chose 3, well, you've pinned the point tower on the site plan. Last week, the Times ran an article about Our Fair City, "It's Also the Texas Capital of Construction," highlighting the local building frenzy. In a show of hospitality, last week City Council did its best to keep the cranes moving. On the infill agenda last meeting, two items seeking similar zoning raised interest – along with a question for the discerning city planner: Is PUD the new VMU?

If you're choking on your alphabet soup, PUDs are "Planned Unit Developments." According to city code, PUD zoning fits "large or complex single or multiuse development that is planned as a single contiguous project … under unified control." A perfect example of this kind of project is the proposed Concordia development, with its self-contained ideal of a miniature downtown (see "Developing Stories," facing). (Whether the Eastwoods and Hancock neighborhood groups will find living near an exciting, extrapolated urban center its own reward – or whether the ensuing traffic is just gravy – are entirely different questions.) Regardless of its merits, the Concordia team has a specific idea of what it wants and, with PUD zoning, a hope of achieving it.

Meanwhile, down along the lakefront, there was concern that the PUD just didn't cut it. There, the Town Lake Hyatt was up for rezoning as a planned unit development. Detractors – nearby business owners and other developers with designs on the area – argue that granting the zoning tabula rasa (minus specific plans aside from more condos) is irresponsible on the city's part. Unlike responsible city planning, it's potentially akin to any one of the interchangeable episodes of real estate porn littering basic cable – Flip My PUD, anyone?

Yet presented with a Town Lake project not begging for any setback variances, council decided its energies could be better directed elsewhere. Mercifully, late agreement between the developers and nearby property owners blunted the sharpest corners, but the development deluge the Times describes will only worsen if the city continues to treat zoning as laissez-faire. Too many condo projects that include a perfunctory nod to "mixed use" better resemble Winston Churchill's thoughts on vermouth in his martini: A glance at the bottle will do. With our fever-pitch construction telegraphed to the world, the city needs more precisely to steer and shape the future of development through the zoning tools it has – instead of bestowing permissive agreements, few concessions asked. The age of the undifferentiated boom is over.

Miscellany: The detritus of construction littered the rest of last week's agenda. Briefly:

The Las Manitas-inspired Retail Retention program for Congress Avenue was expanded to envelop Sixth Street, with the caveat that bars aren't included (there's a joke in there somewhere).

The CLB Partners' 400-foot tower at Seventh and Rio Grande, amidst a whirlwind of neighborhood controversy, was approved on first reading.

The Big Box Ordinance creating expanded notification, hearings, and conditional-use permitting passed on final reading.

Dark horse in the controversy sweepstakes was Item 73, overseeing billboard relocation. Surprise – the recipients didn't want them either! With the variances denied, the discussion was put on hold for now.

Council's meeting is cancelled for this week, but that doesn't mean they're off the hook: Instead, this Friday is a City Council work session – none of this "retreat" business – inside council chambers.

One last aside: Last week's column on the size of the Northcross Wal-Mart drew several responses, not the least of which came from KXAN's own Chris Willis. Going with a revised Northcross site plan, Willis insisted the proposed store would still be smaller than the two other stores I cited. Staying with the 225,085 square feet on file with the city as of my writing last week, Northcross would still outsize the Ben White Wal-Mart, but, by Willis' numbers (including those nature-forsaken garden centers), the Norwood Boulevard Wal-Mart by 183 would edge out Northcross.

Which I'm sure will calm all the neighbors down. I mean, what's the big deal?

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

development, City Council, PUD, Planned Unit Development, Growth and Development, New York Times, Mixed Use, Retail Retention, Las Manitas

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