Mixed Use, Mixed Emotions
Our first anniversary review of Austin's vertical mixed-use program discovers a range of responses to VMU, density, change, and planning
One year ago, Austin embarked on a complex experiment in populist urban planning known as "VMU." That's "vertical mixed-use," a new zoning tool to advance the broader City Council policy of promoting dense, more sustainable growth. A brief refresher: To qualify for VMU incentives (more units to sell or rent, less required parking, etc.), a development team must stack several stories of housing atop shops, cafes, and small offices and follow the city's design standards for good urban form and streetscapes. Projects must be sited on major roads ("core transit corridors") within the VMU Overlay District. Most innovative for Austin, VMU projects must reserve 10% of units as affordable housing.
What made VMU a uniquely populist experiment was an 11th-hour addition to the ordinance: giving individual neighborhoods a voice. Citizens – through their official neighborhood planning teams – were invited to tailor VMU by opting individual properties in or out. That opt-in/opt-out process is now complete. All neighborhoods have submitted their recommendations to the Planning Commission; in December, those began going forward to City Council for final decisions. Amid session-to-session drama over whether council members will adhere fully to each neighborhood's wishes, it's timely to reflect on what VMU has wrought.
Council began with the "easy cases"; in the first batch, council endorsed, unanimously on consent, all the neighborhood requests. But other cases moving up from Planning Commission will be more controversial. On Jan. 15 the commission posted, but for a variety of reasons postponed, items on neighborhood recommendations from Old West Austin, Central Austin, and Govalle-Johnston Terrace. They endorsed neighborhood recommendations from Judges' Hill (which opted out just four properties), Hyde Park (which opted out nearly 100% because the neighborhood plan contains its own design standards), and East MLK (which voted "hell, no" and opted out the whole area). At its Feb. 20 meeting, the commission's Neighborhood Planning Subcommittee plans to dig deeper into why area sentiments vary so widely.
A steady flow of cases should be posted for each upcoming council session; at this rate, finalizing the VMU Overlay District will take several more months. Council members say they're generally predisposed to endorse what neighborhoods recommend – except perhaps for those that dissed VMU (and thus council policy) altogether.
Maturing Civic Dialogue
VMU gave form to a number of laudable council policies: higher design standards, required green building, more sustainable land-use patterns à la Envision Central Texas, and concentrating increased density along major corridors to protect neighborhoods. By requiring affordable housing, it also implemented the "density bonus" principle, in which developers must provide community benefits to earn additional entitlements.
Other Austin overlay districts have treated development as a negative force; their protectionist purpose is to save existing things we value, like historic buildings or the waterfront. The new VMU Overlay District, by contrast, approaches new development as a positive tool for creating desirable change. (Its only real predecessor is the University Neighborhood Overlay, north and west of UT.) It thus marks a true sea change in Austin thinking – to which many developer-hating, longtime Austin activists have not caught up.
The three-year consensus stakeholder process that produced the city's Design Standards Ordinance (of which VMU is a part) and the following year of neighborhood deliberation over awarding pro-density VMU incentives also marked a shift in Austin attitudes. "There has been a measurable maturing of the civic dialogue about development – and it's about time," says Mayor Will Wynn, a VMU enthusiast. "I wish we were further down the road, but I'm pleased we're going down it. It's painful, and there are big challenges, but these are exciting times."
Opt In, Opt Out
Whatever else, VMU choices have provided a historic opportunity for the community to speak out. Has all the effort and community teeth-gnashing been worth it? Will the changed cityscape it fosters be positive for Austin? The answer depends on whom you ask. VMU itself, and the city's process, certainly have made enemies and earned critics. Some neighborhoods found the experience too polarizing, the city's support inadequate, the zoning intricacies impossibly daunting. Yet even with its flaws, the opportunity to have a voice was largely embraced.
By participating in VMU decisions, regular Austinites became city-makers. The residents who know each neighborhood best debated VMU's merits, then tweaked its application – parcel by parcel, block by block, corridor by corridor. Love a local business or a stand of ancient oaks? Opt that baby out. Hate the ugly drive-through bank or blighted shopping center on the corner? Opt that baby in. Don't trust developers or the city, period? Opt out the whole damn neighborhood! (A few did.)
No precise tally exists for a citywide VMU scorecard, but of the applications submitted, said city staff, roughly a third generally supports VMU, a third does not, and a third accepts at least some VMU incentives some of the time. Beyond that, neighborhood responses are hard to categorize, due to the many twists and turns in how each neighborhood tweaked incentives and maps. For example, a neighborhood might have opted out entirely of the dimensional standards incentive (which allows the developer more living units and thus profits) but might have accepted the reduced-parking incentive (which reduces the developer's costs). Some took a fine-tooth VMU comb to sorting properties (see "To Opt, or Not? Zilker Tweaks VMU," p.30), while others accepted the entire overlay – or didn't respond at all.
In retrospect, such a detailed planning assignment may not have been entirely appropriate to delegate to amateurs. But many participants observed that the buy-in achieved would have been less likely with a top-down process dictated by "experts." The complex process did drag out far beyond the initial 90-day timeline, and some landowners, developers, and architects wanting VMU zoning for their projects became frustrated. Neighborhood -planning teams that dug into the details took months to decide on the optimal future of every single parcel within the whole overlay district. That's thousands upon thousands of individual tracts, on 51 miles of major roads, from Slaughter Lane to 183.
Predictably, the neighbors who took on this huge volunteer task often had wildly differing attitudes toward neighborhood change. In some areas, neighborhood planning team and neighborhood association members disagreed seriously over VMU in principle, let alone its application on specific tracts. Still, considering the process' complexity, raw newness, and massive scope, things could have gone far worse. As city planning officer George Adams noted recently with relief, "It wasn't a train wreck!"
But in some parts of town, that train whistled by awfully close. Allandale exemplifies a neighborhood with a highly conflicted and ultimately negative take on VMU. While its objections weren't typical, they offer insight into how planning efforts can be further strengthened. Already bloodied and polarized by the Northcross Mall fight, in which the Allandale Neighborhood Association unsuccessfully sued both the city and the developer, ANA's executive committee was in no mood to support another bright idea from the city. Indeed, the detailed, 20-page statement attached to Allandale's VMU application (online at www.allandale.typepad.com) referenced "the lack of consideration of projects which are already approved for construction by the City of Austin," citing Northcross Mall and two other big, new projects on their core transit corridors – Burnet Road and Anderson Lane.
"The Vertical Mixed Use Overlay District was created without the required input of the impacted neighborhoods and without adequately addressing infrastructure such as streets and water/wastewater/electricity lines," objected Allandale, echoing its Northcross criticisms. It also lambasted the city for "using code changes to circumvent notice requirements [to adjoining private homeowners], with respect to de facto zoning changes."
A primary Allandale concern was how density increases would translate to traffic congestion: failed roads and intersections, spillover traffic clogging neighborhood streets, slow emergency-response times, slowed buses. As residents rightly point out, without linking new transit to VMU, congested streets are the inevitable result of densification. The new Cap Metro Red Line will stop at North Lamar and Justin Lane; that transit station is spawning Crestview Station (a VMU project) but currently offers no circulators to Allandale.
"We believe that insufficient time has been allowed to adequately determine the interrelated impacts of VMU on the neighborhoods of Austin," Allandale objected. "A complex new process requires neighborhoods to respond with a well-thought-out plan, yet we are given only the power of suggestion and a 'one shot deal' without the power of determination."
In June, a 5-4 vote by the ANA executive committee endorsed the recommendations submitted – which opt out most individual properties in the district. (Exceptions were Northcross Mall and properties on Burnet Road near North Loop.) In so doing, the executive committee overruled its own VMU team – which had accepted most of the VMU Overlay District as created, but with conditions.
A test case went to council Nov. 8: the mixed-use redevelopment of 5350 Burnet Rd., site of the Antique Marketplace. Allandale and adjoining neighborhoods were opposed to granting the "early consideration" variance (actually for another form of mixed-use zoning), largely because the developer's proposed 68 living units per acre approached Downtown densities. The Crestview Neighborhood Association also opposed the project in a letter to council stating that "VMU, as currently implemented, will destroy our neighborhoods," primarily because it includes no density caps.
Neighborhood leaders Chip Harris, Steve Keuhner, and Jonathan Lockin tactfully suggested, "We think that the density levels, density zones, and walkability requirements described in the TOD [transit-oriented development] and TN [traditional neighborhood] zoning categories may be better suited to certain locations along Burnet than the VMU ordinance alone." Indeed, the place-making principles that inform the city's TOD planning are more sophisticated. But council agreed with the Planning Commission and unanimously voted 7-0 to award the requested zoning – though it set a project cap of 175 living units and disallowed neighborhood street access.
On Anderson Lane, the Lamy Group plans to redevelop the Village Shopping Center into a major VMU project on 12 acres, which could take a decade. According to the North Shoal Creek NA, that project will have a final size of about 645,000 square feet – more than four times that of the current shopping center. It includes 430 new apartments; they'd like the Alamo Drafthouse Village to remain as an anchor tenant. Now conversing are the neighborhoods and developers Joe and Pete Lamy (who did the well-received VMU-esque project at 3200 Guadalupe) before the project goes to Planning Commission.
Another frequently expressed anxiety: The mayor and City Council have enacted policies like VMU to add more people to the urban core, in the name of sustainability, yet have failed to take corresponding action to dis-incentivize sprawl. As Allandale resident Allan McMurtry e-mailed the Chronicle recently: "The very people arguing for tubular VMU [the core transit corridor approach] are the ones who have brought us $3.2 billion in toll roads running out 25 miles from downtown. That's not density, that's extra-urban sprawl, or exburbs as they are being called. Lincoln Properties is bringing North Austin Wal-Mart as the solution to sprawl, while building the solar system's largest mall at Texas 71 and FM 620." McMurtry also noted that on Burnet Road, bus ridership is a miserably low 2.4 persons per mile. (Actually, Cap Metro statistics show that Route 3-Burnet/Manchaca carries 2.18 passengers per mile.)
But many neighborhoods are excited about gaining well-designed new additions, built to exacting design standards, with some affordable housing. In contrast to Allandale, in nearby Brentwood and Rosedale, VMU sailed through almost entirely as written, noted Brewster McCracken. Calling Allandale a "hot spot," McCracken attributed the sharply differing responses from adjacent neighborhoods to the personalities involved: "It depends on who the leaders are in a given neighborhood." He also pointed out that Austin Neighborhoods Council leaders Laura Morrison, Danette Chimenti, and Kevin Lewis were strong advocates of the Design Standards Ordinance that contains VMU. Those standards directly reference the Envision Central Texas model for favoring density nodes over sprawl. McCracken also said it was ANC representatives who insisted on VMU review by neighborhood planning teams – some of which had become inactive after their plan was adopted.
McCracken said he did not perceive an Eastside-West Austin split in responses to VMU. While the East Riverside team may have voiced a "hell, no," the East Cesar Chavez team opted in new VMU areas along East Fifth and Sixth to encourage redevelopment. Cherrywood and Blackshear were bullish; Rosewood opted-in 12 properties and opted out just two. Windsor Park was so split over VMU and neighborhood planning that a rogue group erupted (Responsible Growth for Windsor Park), but it ultimately opted in additional areas to encourage VMU redevelopment of an outdated shopping center.
What the 41-year-old council member who drove adoption of design standards and VMU (and who lives in the Triangle) did notice was a generational pattern. In Northwest Hills, for example, about 250 people expressed views. He said residents older than 60 were generally opposed to VMU and the neighborhood change it represents, whereas most younger than 40 were "nuclear enthusiastic" in favor. The generation in the middle, he said, was "VMU persuadable." In the end, Northwest Hills ranked in the top three for opt-ins – along with Southwood in South Austin and Rosewood.
One Allandale resident supportive of VMU's potential is Steven Zettner. But he and like-minded others advocate a "node-based" retooling, to replace the corridor approach. This would cluster new density carefully around transit stations (as in transit-oriented development) rather than stringing it out along long roadways. Zettner is on the board of a new organization, Sustainable Neighborhoods, founded by the Allandale, Brentwood, and Crestview neighborhood associations "to advocate a vision of density in North Central Austin that is neighborhood-friendly," he said. "By that I mean applying all the principles of the Charter for New Urbanism, including well-defined and highly walkable village and town centers, supported with mass transit, mixed use, public open space, affordability." Zettner said by e-mail that he sees "momentum building" for "comprehensively planning VMU, transportation, and open space all at once. To succeed, we need to save our VMU entitlement bullets. I think there may be vision and leadership at City Hall to help make this happen. I'm cautiously optimistic."
A Call for Comprehensiveness
For five years, the city of Austin has relied on the loose, broad-brush vision of Envision Central Texas without creating a solid, detailed comprehensive plan to enact it. Sustainable Neighborhoods' call for the city to conduct comprehensive planning – as opposed to advancing stand-alone initiatives, however worthy – may be the real solution to community ambivalence over VMU. South of the river in Zilker, that call is echoed by Jeff Jack. He calls VMU "at best a stop-gap solution until we have that comprehensive plan."
Jack added: "Since we have no comprehensive plan in place that tells us what kind of population growth is appropriate for Austin, we are asked to accept VMU as the solution to accommodating growth. But we have no assurance that, when all the VMU is built out, we won't be back at square one fighting commercial creep" into the heart of residential neighborhoods. He continued, "We need to work to define that strategic policy for growth management that gives us some assurance that the fabric of our community will be respected."
Signs are emerging that City Hall and city management may be coming to a similar conclusion (though not officially aligning with perennial council-thorn Jeff Jack). Those signs include a December council resolution to update the 1979 Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan (see "The Bigger Picture," Jan. 11) and a Planning Commission initiative for a "new urbanist" 2035 plan. The Austin Neighborhoods Council and Liveable City also laud comprehensive planning. McCracken, conceding that "neighborhood planning is not working well" in Austin, said he was attracted to the idea of holistic planning for "Quality of Life Zones," as Atlanta has done.
In May 2006, City Manager Toby Futrell stifled initiation of an updated comp plan process. By contrast, new City Manager Marc Ott has spent the past six years in a city, Fort Worth, that maintains an active comprehensive plan and updates it every year. Ott said that, as Fort Worth's assistant city manager over infrastructure services, he has overseen an annual update process that is highly inclusive – inviting and weighing input from citizens, community groups, town hall meetings, and city staff from all departments.
Engaging Local Values
On balance, McCracken cited a series of VMU breakthroughs. First, "VMU is actually producing tangible changes, real live projects, with the support of both neighborhoods and developers." He believes that success endorses the "100 percent consensus model" used to craft the Design Standards and Mixed Use Ordinance. Representatives from both ANC and the Real Estate Council of Austin were at every meeting, said McCracken: "Anyone in Austin could come to any meeting, and everyone in the room had to agree." He believes this consensual approach "produces results we can live with, going down the road."
"We'll have even more meaningful information on whether VMU works for developers two to three years out," said Brett Denton, a VMU developer who participated in that process as a RECA representative. He's particularly interested to see whether the market proves (or not) the extra value promised to developers for well-designed, neighbor-friendly mixed-use projects. Said Denton, "Once we have a handful of projects completed, it would be good to do another wholesale review of what worked and what didn't."
Another key breakthrough cited by McCracken: integrating local values into development code, in the form of required community benefits. "People in Austin are rightfully very skeptical of growth for growth's sake. The message from VMU is that the community will get behind, by and large, growth that has a purpose behind it and reflects local values," said McCracken. He credits Paul Hilgers in Neighborhood Housing and Community Development with advocating for the key inclusion of required affordable housing in VMU. As it turns out, that may have proved the key to its widespread acceptance.
Austin Neighborhoods Council President Danette Chimenti accompanied McCracken to some of his local presentations and had the opportunity to hear VMU dialogue in neighborhoods all over town. She observed that requiring affordable housing – funded by the developers – was the "top selling point" in its favor. "A lot of people were against it at first, but were willing to take on density to get affordable housing," she said. In this sense, VMU responses offer an important bellwether for public acceptance of other "density bonus" programs.
As for the mixed responses to VMU, said Chimenti, "It's been very controversial, but sometimes that's what it takes to engage people." She pointed out that neighborhood input becomes stronger and sounder as more folks attend meetings and get involved. "The VMU process has caused so much division in neighborhoods," she observed. "But if this served to rally folks to form or reactivate neighborhood planning teams, that's a very positive thing. ... For the ones that put tons of time into it, it was a good process and worth it."
In the end, observed Chimenti: "It's good to engage and educate more and more people, and I definitely think VMU has done that. Because if nobody's active and paying attention, then the chance to shape our own future goes away."
Individual VMU applications are online at: ftp://coageoid01.ci.austin.tx.us.