A New Voice for the Waterfront

A new advisory group gets down to brass tacks

The Dec. 14 meeting of the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board revealed interesting dynamics emerging on the brand-new city board, an advisory group tasked by council with "promoting excellence in design, development and protection of the City's waterfront." At the group's second meet-up, it got an update on the first proposed project it will consider Jan. 11, 2010: the Park PUD at 801 Barton Springs Rd. Sparks flew between the applicant's representative, John Donisi (who asserted that the project complies with all Waterfront Overlay Ordinance rules), and board member Mary Arnold, who was cool to increasing the project's height from 60 feet to 120 feet. Neighborhood advocates were on hand to oppose the PUD as well.

But in later discussions of the board's goals and objectives, other members said that conversation ­– framed in the usual adversarial terms – was the antithesis of the tone they hoped to establish. Vice Chair Dean Almy said afterward, "We're hoping to come to some reasonable consensus and formulate a vision for the future – a framework that allows us to evaluate each project that comes through against a larger set of city goals versus on a case-by-case basis." Members anticipate a series of work sessions to craft that vision, in addition to monthly board meetings. Almy said he regretted being faced with the Park PUD fight so soon; as planned unit development zoning trumps Waterfront Overlay restrictions, the new board will consider whether the project meets "superior" PUD standards – and whether the small site merits a PUD at all. (See "Developing Stories: Chipping at the Waterfront," May 22.) Council has tasked the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board with recommending a special waterfront density bonus system, specifying which community benefits developers must provide to earn additional height and entitlements. Almy believes 3-D modeling of the whole area could help clarify the vision.

The board's makeup is noteworthy in itself. Unlike its predecessor group, the Waterfront Overlay Task Force, the board make-up emphasizes professionals with expertise in waterfront and urban planning and design – which bodes well for its ability to frame a coherent and balanced future vision.* The trade-off, noted Austin Neighborhoods Council President Cory Walton, is that these same professionals could have future conflicts of interest if they're working on projects that come before the board or council.

As with all city boards, each Waterfront Planning Advisory Board member was nominated by (and reflects the perspective of) one council member. Jim Knight (Mayor Lee Leffingwell's appointee) is a principal and chief development officer for Bury+Partners, one of Austin's most influential engineering firms. As board chair, Knight said he will work as a consensus-builder; he has led project teams for many large, complex projects in environmentally sensitive areas subject to community review. Almy (Randi Shade) is an architect/planner; he serves as director of the graduate programs in urban design and landscape architecture at the University of Texas and is a principal at Atelier Hines Almy. Arnold (Laura Morrison) is a longtime environmental activist (see "Citizen Mary," April 5, 2002); she brings three decades of experience opposing development interests and city deals on projects with environmental impacts – including those proposed for the shores of Lady Bird Lake. Roy Mann (Chris Riley) is a principal of the Rivers Studio and a nationally known waterfront planning and protection expert, and he authored the seminal book Rivers in the City in 1973. Daniel Woodroffe (Sheryl Cole) is a landscape architect with TBG Partners, where his work emphasizes collaborative and sustainable design. Robert Pilgrim (Bill Spelman) also is a landscape architect/planner and project manager with TBG. Brooke Bailey (Mike Mar­tinez) is a native Austinite with a background in urban planning; she's been active in the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association and the Clarksville neighborhood. "I don't believe in ulterior motives," said Knight. "I think that as a group we'll make decisions that are right for everybody." Said Bailey, "The waterfront is sacred."

For more Chronicle coverage of this issue, see "Protecting the Waterfront," in two parts, April 24 & May 1.

*[Editor's note: Design Commissioner Eleanor McKinney, a landscape architect, served on the Waterfront Overlay Task Force.]

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Waterfront Planning Advisory Board, Lady Bird Lake

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