City Hall Hustle: If You Don't Build It, They Will Still Come

Council arguments over growth are sharp on both edges

Keeping up with the city of Austin's national awards is becoming a full-time job. Every week brings some new accolade from publications and institutes large and small, praising the city for being best-positioned to emerge out of the recession, implementing wise public policy, being home to the highest breakfast-taco-to-resident ratio, etc.

One of these recent notices, in particular, captured my attention: A finding from the Brookings Institution which, crunching census data, found that from 2007 to 2009, more young adults age 25-34 moved to Austin than to any other city – presumably to chase their food trailer and East Austin barkeep dreams. (That, or they slept through their return flights after a South by Southwest after-afterparty.)

All of which raises the eternal question: Where are we gonna put all these people?

The paradigm of growth is nothing new: An attractive place draws people to it, in some cases ruining what makes it attractive in the first place. And even less surprisingly, the growth wars are growing more pitched in the zoning and land-use battles emerging before City Council.

Exhibit 1: The Park PUD controversy (see "The Park Is in the PUD-ing"), where the Hustle may be the only one having a hard time getting worked up either way. While the PUD, passed on first reading, does exceed the neighborhood plan by some 36 feet, hopes for lesser development at the site, located opposite two sprawling arts and meeting facilities and sandwiched between major arterials, seem like just that – hopes, that if we stop putting out the welcome mat, people will stop coming. For proof how well that's worked, meet me at the 35th Street bridge over MoPac at 5pm.

Exhibit 2: the public hearing on the appeal of Lustre Pearl's outdoor music permit, brought by a longtime neighbor living two doors down – successful, despite not being recommended by city staff.

Part of the reason staff didn't recommend the appeal is that some of the issues raised went beyond sound, into such areas as parking that aren't part of the music-permitting process but can be factored in by council. "It's fairly simple for someone to move into one of these old houses, remodel the structure to be brought up to minimum building code standards, and by right of zoning they can establish a bar," said Planning and Development Review Department Director Greg Guernsey, "and because there's no parking requirement, there's no on-site parking that's required, and they can utilize parking on the streets or other parking lots that might be nearby to accommodate their patrons."

"We have a whole set of comprehensive issues on Rainey Street that aren't necessarily related to the operation of an outdoor music venue," said Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, taking the lead on the discussion. "It's just the nature of what's going on on Rainey Street. And so I believe those issues need to be addressed as quickly as possible." Martinez said he, Chris Riley, and Randi Shade would offer an item at the next council meeting addressing some short-term fixes on Rainey, "including revisiting the convention overlay to allow surface parking on vacant lots where currently in CBD [central business district zoning] you cannot do that," as well as other parking changes designed to prevent patrons from walking in the middle of the street.

Longer term, Martinez said, "I'm going to make a motion to overturn the decision by staff to grant the outdoor music venue permit. What I'm going to ask is that we engage in this process and encourage the venue operators to come back and apply at a later date, once we've all seen some improvements. ... I encourage you to come back once we are able to come up with a comprehensive plan, once we deal with the issues on Rainey Street." Martinez sounded optimistic that enough changes could be in place for a successful reapplication in the next few months.

A little more conversation ensued – largely concerning potential sound permitting for Lustre Pearl during South by Southwest – but the denial of the permit passed unanimously, 7-0.

Several speakers addressing either the PUD and/or the Pearl managed to sandwich in a word of thanks to the mayor, for coming out the day before against "losing good schools in the urban core," in the mayor's statement questioning the AISD Facility Master Plan Task Force proposal that the district close eight elementaries and beleaguered Pearce Middle School.

A reliably contrarian take came from local blogger Mike "M1EK" Dahmus, in the comments of the Chronicle website: "McMansion and fighting [vertical mixed-use] and other infill are 'wins' Leffingwell was happy to give these neighborhoods. What do you think happens when housing stock stays tiny and in short supply and gets more and more expensive?"

While the Hustle believes lots of forces coalesced to place AISD in the sore spot it's in now, it would be foolish to disregard the questions Dahmus raises. When it comes to planning for the future, the council, neighborhoods, AISD, and our rash of all-new residents would all do better to look at the larger picture.

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City Council, Park PUD, Lustre Pearl, Greg Guernsey, Mike Dahmus

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