City Hall Hustle: It Ain't Xmas Yet

Plenty of unfinished business on the rail line to the holidays

Amid the holiday parties, the frigid winter weather, and the massive tree rising in the foyer at City Hall, do you think anyone's mind is totally trained on pending duties at 301 W. Second, and not, say, visions of sugarplums?

Believe it or not, there's plenty of unfinished business at hand before the City Council scurries off into the winter wonderland like a gaggle of overcaffeinated elves. Today (Thurs­day, Dec. 10) is the penultimate meeting of the year, and there are some ambitious proposals that will affect land use in Austin for many a winter to come.

Council Member Chris Riley's most substantial initiative to date (Item 42) designates the corridor of Airport Boulevard from North Lamar to the Mueller development as a testing ground for "form-based code" zoning, which essentially shifts regulation from a focus on traditional land-use zoning to specific form standards that entail walkability, neighborhood compatibility, and similar anti-sprawl tenets of New Urbanism. The Airport Boulevard undertaking is conceived as a pilot program for future code-based projects, stretching between Mueller and commuter-rail destination Midtown Commons (with Highland Mall, Travis County's northern campus, and several shuttered storefronts in between). There's plenty of potential – as long as the existing businesses and restaurants that make Airport a bastion of authentic Austin "weirdness" don't get lost in the redevelopment shuffle. (Don't touch Tamale House – or Burger Tex, or I Luv Video ... – or the Chronicle offices might grind to a chorizoless halt.)

Another master-planning matter before council is urban rail, still a priority for Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who's spoken of his willingness to hold a transportation bond election in late 2010. The council receives a 10:30am update on the city's plans for urban rail, including potential funding mechanisms. To that end, a separate item (Item 7) authorizes a $1 million contract to develop an "Austin Urban Rail Preliminary Engin­eer­ing Study" to get the project moving. The study calls for "identification of right-of-way, engineering analysis, project costs and staging plan for construction," and is but one of 10 components of the due-diligence requirements related to rail. (Here's an 11th point: Thanks to Cap Metro's commuter conundrums, don't call it "rail.") Rounding out the train triptych, Monday, Dec. 14, the city's Transportation Department is hosting an Urban Rail Open House, 10am-2pm at City Hall.

Elsewhere amid the land-use tableaux, Laura Morrison has two zoning motions of her own. Item 43 – per the request of the Southwood Neighborhood Association, bounded by Ben White (north), Stassney/Williamson Creek (south), South First (east), and Manchaca (west) – directs the city manager to work with the SNA and surrounding neighborhoods in extending the McMan­sion home/lot size restrictions to their southside hoods. Item 44 addresses the University Neighborhood Overlay zoning district – i.e., the zoning that turned West Campus into Condo University – reworking meager UNO development fees earmarked for affordable housing and allowing for an "annual adjustment to reflect current market conditions."

But while council turns an eye to the land use of tomorrow, it's a trek through the past that preoccupies most of this week's lengthy zoning agenda. A whopping 20-plus items come up requesting historic landmark zoning, many over the Shoal Creek Watershed in central West Austin. On the more modern side, zoning approval for a proposed "eco-hotel" at Fifth and Colorado comes before council (Item 52), despite applicants Austin Hotel Holdings' inability to earn a recommendation from the Planning Commission. The commission split 4-4 on whether to recommend the project, with the neighborhood-friendly bloc of Danette Chimenti, Mandy Dealey, Saundra Kirk, and Kathy Tovo saying nay, brandishing the cudgel of greater affordable housing contributions as reason for their votes.

And lastly, would it be the holiday season without a present nestled under the tree? Tuesday, the city unwrapped its new hire to head the evolving Solid Waste Services department: Robert Gedert. He comes to Austin most recently as head of the California Resource Recovery Association, a nonprofit devoted to recycling and reuse. He'll have a challenge in turning over the compost pile that is SWS; the department has struggled to keep pace both with conservation-minded changes, like the goal of becoming a zero-waste city, and with the need for a materials recovery facility, the lack of which locked Austin into a costly recycling contract with Greenstar North America.

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