Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014
By James Duncan - Special to the American-Statesman
To follow the plan or not to follow the plan, that is the question.
Several of our local neighborhoods are again under siege by an out-of-town real estate speculator who looks at Austin more as a commodity than a community. This time the neighborhoods are Northwest Hills, Westover Hills, Allandale and North Shoal Creek, and the proposed project is the Austin Oaks PUD.
The PUD applicant wants to convert an idyllic 40-year-old low-rise, low-density, tree-covered neighborhood office park into a high-rise, high-density regional commercial center that would feature the tallest buildings between the UT Tower and Waco and dump 20,000 new vehicle trips onto eight already failing nearby intersections. Such a proposed project clearly does not belong in an established Austin neighborhood. It belongs downtown or at the Domain.
The proposed project went before our City Council in late June for a pre-hearing and, while Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison indicated considerable concern, surprisingly no staff or council member noted that it was in direct conflict with Imagine Austin, our new comprehensive plan (which clearly designates the property as a low intensity neighborhood center and not a high intensity regional center.) Nor did anyone note that its approval would be an obvious violation of Article X of our City Charter, which mandates that all new development be in compliance with our adopted plan. Adding insult to injury, everyone seemed oblivious to the fact that approval of the project would also be a blatant affront to the 18,000 Austinites who just spent three years and $4 million laboring over Imagine Austin.
As various neighborhoods gear up to oppose the Austin Oaks PUD, I caution them not to get caught up in the Austin “Zoning Game,” which can best be described in three phases. First is the application phase, where developers almost always ask for twice what they really want so that their allies in City Hall can look good by cutting the request in half.
Second is the misdirection phase, where the developer cleverly diverts discussion about the proposed project, again with a little help from his council allies, from the most important and relevant issues of use, density and height to the less important and irrelevant site planning issues, such as curb cuts, sidewalks and bikeways.
And third and finally is the barter phase, where the developer offers a lot of nice-sounding amenities like two-star (out of five) buildings, street improvements and affordable housing contributions in exchange for the rezoning. In the end everything is designed to make the public feel like the proposed project is a “must have” economic stimulus for the city.
The bottom line is that no matter how great the Austin Oaks PUD is made to sound as it goes through the approval process, it should not be approved in any form or fashion. It should be summarily rejected. When it comes to development approvals, Austin needs to stop playing “let’s make a deal” and start following proper planning and zoning principles.
It is acknowledged that cities and their neighborhoods are organic and change over time. It is also acknowledged that existing properties like Austin Oaks will redevelop and change as well. As current homeowners who want to remain in their neighborhoods become empty nesters and then senior citizens, their housing and retailing needs also change. As new young families arrive, their needs are often quite different from previous residents.
Imagine Austin acknowledges those changes and provides guidance for how neighborhoods and neighborhood centers can meet those needs — and Austin Oaks is well-positioned to help in those efforts. It just needs to be done within the framework of good planning and reasonable and compatible zoning. Current residents and businesses in all four of the affected neighborhoods are “entitled” to nothing less.
Duncan is a former Austin planning director and current member of the CodeNext committee.