City Hall Hustle: In the Zone

Land-use issues in all corners of the city dominate council agenda

Zoning is a many splendored thing. Just ask City Council. Like much of council's previous meeting, the upcoming agenda (Thursday, Aug. 26) is devoted to development standards and land-use questions.

Last week, Aug. 19, the most prescient discussion of historic zoning standards –and their property-tax-abating benefits – came not at the public hearing on the proposed changes but during council's zoning agenda much earlier.

While the debate over historic zoning caps went with no major changes to the three-per-month limit proposed by staff, three individual historic zoning requests that came before council that meeting elicited a strong response. Randi Shade visibly bristled at some of the reasons Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky offered for including some of the properties, like one home's "very classical, almost quiet" Queen Anne-style features –a not terribly uncommon Austin style –which was about to earn its owners a $9,500 yearly abatement from the city, county, and other taxing entitles. While the three properties passed (Shade voting no on two), Chris Riley made the point that those and other recent recipients shouldn't be surprised when a change comes. While noting that past properties in the abatement program might be grandfathered in, it was his "hope and expectation" that potential changes to the abatement allotments "would apply fully to those landmark cases ... which we are designating properties as historic landmarks now. ...Those who are now obtaining landmark status are on notice that there may be changes to the tax benefits associated with that designation sometime soon."

Another zoning rabbit hole council delved into was adoption of the Central West Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan, along with Windsor Road and West Austin Neighborhood Group rezonings. Notably, the neighborhood planning group's hope that its future land use map would be adopted for the Brackenridge Tract – explicitly calling for development to go there – wasn't adopted, with council siding with staff recommendations to continue talks with stakeholders like the University of Texas, which owns the property located on Lake Austin Boulevard. (Disclaimer: The Hustle lives on Enfield, but don't worry. His place is bringing down the whole block's property values.)

At least one other piece of land business made everyone happy –almost. That would be the council initiative to rename the Mexican American Cultural Center to honor the late Emma Barrientos. Speaking not only on behalf of the item but seemingly on behalf of the family were several familiar faces: former Mayor Pro Tem John Treviño, Judge-elect John Lipscombe, and Sylvia Orozco, MACC board member and Mexic-Arte Museum executive director. "Our lives are so short, and struggles are so long, but a memory lasts forever," she said.

However, El Concilio Eastsider Gavino Fer­nan­dez spoke against renaming the center, saying its current title "galvanizes the entire community in the sense there is no personalization of it." Mike Martinez also acknowledged council was circumventing the process for renaming municipal buildings, which includes a comment period and input from the MACC board. However, he noted, there had been "many occasions when the council circumvents the ordinance." When the resolution passed unanimously, the 50-plus supporters in the chambers took to their feet and applauded.

Next Up: The Domain

Rezoning gets no respite at this week's meeting, with a triptych of land items related to the gift that keeps on giving/taking: The Domain. An item from council looks to amend the North Burnet Gateway Regulation Plan governing growth in the Domain region to allow legally nonconforming uses to proceed on a project-by-project basis, with plans to reinstate the guidelines later –when the market rebounds. "In a really good market, we could force the issue," says Bill Spelman, one of the item's sponsors. He says the Gate­way is a "specially zoned part of land development code, so if you sell your property, you have to conform," even if its current use is nonconforming (e.g., the buyer of a convenience store built on land zoned for office couldn't continue to operate it as a store). The resolution, Spelman says, ensures that council doesn't "basically force people to sit on their property."

Two additional rezoning items are posted for the two Domain principals, Simon Prop­er­ty Group and Endeavor Real Estate. Simon, which owns a smaller portion of the development, wants to build a bank, but doing so would increase its impervious cover to 83%, 3% over the limit. Simon made an agreement with its partner that Endeavor would offset the overrun by pledging an acre of its land as greenspace, which council accepted earlier this year. While it keeps overall impervious cover limits for the Domain in check, questions have been raised about the precedent the move could set – just imagine if we started seeing impervious cover swaps all over the Edwards Aquifer.

Spelman, who's been involved in the Domain agreement, says the unique arrangement between Simon, which controls the built-out shopping area, and Endeavor, from which Simon acquired it and which continues to own surrounding property, lets the decision stand on its own. "This is one of those 'breaking up is hard to do' things. ... If I were a Supreme Court justice, I would put in the caveat very loudly that this is only because of the very special circumstances of this transaction," he said, adding that if the two hadn't already partnered on the same tract, the request would have to "lump it." However, questions about when the parkland would be required – possibly after the construction of recession-slowed residential unit construction – and whether a restrictive covenant (vs. a zoning requirement) is iron-clad enough will certainly come before council.

And if that weren't enough, a separate proposal regarding Endeavor would waive the big box ordinance requiring a conditional use permit for stores over 100,000 feet –in this case, a Nordstrom. Again, opponents worry about potential precedent and the transferability of the waiver. (If Nordy's backed out, would it hold for Wal-Mart?) But as City Planning Manager Jerry Rusthoven told the Planning Commission (which ultimately recommended the changes) on Tuesday, "Everyone's known there's going to be big boxes here for a while."

Big boxes, impervious cover, and the Domain certainly conjure an unholy bastard of council controversy. But, as with all things zoning, the devil is in the details. (For more on this week's council agenda, see "Naked City.")

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City Council, historic zoning, Brackenridge Tract, Domain

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