The Austin Chronicle

Beside The Point

Three-Part (Dis) Harmony?

By Wells Dunbar, March 30, 2007, News

According to many armchair numerologists, evil comes in triplicate: Take City Council's three-fer meetings in the Concordia zoning saga. Developers East Avenue IG seek to transform the property which currently houses the sleepy, private Concordia University into what they call a miniature Downtown, and surrounding residents were rightfully concerned about the prospect of increased density and traffic. We've heard of negotiations going down to the wire, but this one hurtled toward it, tripped, and fell forward half a week.

East Avenue, represented by Austin's answer to Snidely Whiplash, real estate attorney Richard Suttle of Armbrust & Brown, hammered out last-second changes with the Hancock Neighborhood Association just minutes before the third and final zoning hearing at Thursday's council meeting. Requiring more attention than a cursory BlackBerry scroll, council took the rare step of recessing its meeting until 1:30pm the following day, Friday, with the hope that all would be ironed out. But the wrinkles wouldn't come out in the wash – after Friday's hour and a half of questions and testimony, it was apparent HNA wasn't yet comfortable with what East Avenue proposed in exchange for its desired PUD zoning. (PUD, or Planned Unit Development zoning, was – at least until the Concordia controversy – the preferred process for large-scale projects.) So the gang returned again, Monday (in a barely there quorum of five) to enact the PUD into posterity.

Katherine Gregor covers the push-and-pull more extensively today in "Developing Stories": how, after a tortured series of starts and stops, the ultimate negotiation model at Concordia – facilitation by a third party, in this case Downtown master-planners ROMA Design Group – may become the "best practices" standard for future PUD planning. But that's only after dragging the neighbors through hell – initially bereft of any resources, the working families of the neighborhood were expected to learn the arcane ins and outs of floor-to-area ratios and parkland dedication and negotiate private covenants with pros like Suttle. Hancock reps told council that one neighbor became so involved in the project he lost his job.

Noting the fight the neighbors were thrust into, Brewster McCracken said "our PUD process is broken … our current way of doing business is broken if we don't want to have a city that looks like California with a $400,000 housing average." (You always know what talking point McCracken has just acquired, because, like kids with shiny new curse words, he'll repeat it incessantly. Here entered the $400,000 entry into the Cali market – frightening, but judging from the affordability grumbles at East Avenue, all too possible.) With that, he promised a more formalized PUD process he and Mike Martinez are bringing forward; similarly, Sheryl Cole trumpeted the parkland dedication process for developers she has in the pipeline. The city shouldn't wait to pass these measures, along with the most important guideline – the affordable-housing task force recommendations, completing the triptych.

Martinez also announced formalizing the PUD process Thursday morning – of late, council has converted the opening minutes of each week's meeting into show and tell, when everyone on the dais trots out his or her latest endeavor. Aside from the PUD program and Cole's parkland program, Jennifer Kim discussed her recycling program for compact fluorescent bulbs – the city is encouraging use of the energy-efficient lights, but because they contain mercury, they must be properly disposed of. In other conservation news, Lee Leffingwell promised to present his water conservation task force findings next month. But nothing this week – council won't return until April 5. After three meetings in five days, they deserve a break.

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