The holiday season is here. While some may be coasting already, for people in many walks of life the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas means a mad rush to get things done before the end of the year. And, of course, that is the case at Austin City Hall. The atmosphere is particularly frenzied this year because Mayor Steve Adler leaves office in early January along with Council Members Pio Renteria, Ann Kitchen and Kathie Tovo. Adler in particular seems determined to push a few more major endeavors over the goal line before he heads back to his luxury condo. 

As if that’s not enough, there are the runoff elections on December 13 to choose not only Adler’s successor, but also determine three Council seats.

That’s a lot and we don’t have the time, space or bandwidth to cover it all in this article. So I’m going to borrow an approach that Trevor Noah employs on The Daily Show, specifically a segment called, “We Ain’t Got Time for That.” That means we’ll fit what we can into short summaries. So here goes, with this installment focusing on the Council agenda for tomorrow, Thursday December 1.

Several items on that agenda could change the nature and scale of Austin forever. Here’s just a partial list:

  • The Adler Councils’ final attempts to amend the Land Development Code (LDC), with items on the administration of site plans, allowing residential development on commercially zoned properties, and amendments on parking and compatibility standards; 
  • Third and final reading on the proposed PUD at the old American-Statesman site on Lady Bird Lake i.e. the Statesman PUD; 
  • A Council hearing and potential vote on the proposed rate increase from Austin’s Energy, the City’s publicly owned utility.   
  • A major zoning case in the Barton Springs Zone, redevelopment of Brodie Oaks on South Lamar.

    And that’s just the Council agenda. We will provide some election coverage shortly.

    Land Development Code – Final Days Changes

    We have provided fairly extensive coverage of the Land Development Code (LDC) saga, but, we just don’t have time for a lot more today. First, let’s just say the items on Thursday’s agenda are part of Adler’s final days LDC amendments that we wrote about a few weeks ago. The Council agenda includes items that we haven’t talked about yet, including the idea to allow residential building in commercially zoned areas.  Even some of the strongest critics of the Council majority’s LDC efforts think that allowing residential development in commercially zoned areas is a sound idea, but worry about what kind of amendments Adler and the Council majority will add. The urbanist dominated Planning Commission has already teed up a number of recommended amendments for the Council; on this and the other LDC related items.

    The other LDC items — like changing compatibility, parking standards and site plan administration — is a lot more controversial because of impacts on existing residential neighborhoods. Some Council Members who were no votes on the LDC support the final days actions, like some form of compatibility changes — both because they feel like they need to do something on the Code due to the housing affordability crisis, and because they think what they do will be more moderate than the next Council.

    Well, we’re running out of time and space for this item. Otherwise we could examine claims widely accepted in the press that Austin’s compatibility standards are way stricter than any other city. Some LDC opponents maintain that these claims are exaggerated; that they result from the same type of groupthink that the Independent described recently in regard to whether the LDC is actually slowing down building. But, we don’t have time for that.

    If we did have more time, we could look again at the Mayor’s statement in his State of the City address that these last minute, lame duck, LDC items show that he and his Council allies “didn’t give up.” And, we could reiterate that that might not be the best attitude to have when making decisions affecting the homes of thousands of citizens. But, we don’t have time for any of that.

    No, we need to move on to the Statesman PUD. 

    Before we do that, however, I want to note that I made a mistake in my last article about the Land Development Code when I said that the City decided to appeal again after losing their first appeal in the LDC suit against the City on notification and petition rights. That is wrong. The current Council chose not to appeal and the time window to appeal is now closed. I apologize for the error. The original article was corrected a few hours after publication.

    Statesman PUD

    The ultra-wealthy Cox family, which owned the Austin American-Statesman for many decades, sold the Statesman a while back. They kept the 18.8 acres, however, on which the paper’s operations were located. As most Austinites know, that land is on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake, north and east of the intersection of Congress and Riverside. Cox is partnering with local uber developers Endeavor to develop the property. Cox and Endeavor are seeking a PUD (Planned Unit Development) on the property. (The graphic at the top is a rendering of the proposed Statesman PUD looking from downtown. The PUD is to the left across the river. It is from materials presented to Council by the applicants.)

    As the City of Austin defines it, “A PUD provides greater flexibility by permitting modifications of site development regulations. Development under PUD zoning must be superior to the development that would occur under conventional zoning and subdivision regulations.”

    There are a huge number of controversies regarding this development, but, we don’t have time to cover them all here. If you want to know more, the viewpoint of the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA), one of the leading opponents, can be found here (For the record this development does not contribute water to the springs, but the group’s leaders have other concerns). A take from the Austin Business Journal can be found here. And, here’s one from the Austin Bulldog.

    Given our time and space limits, I think the best way to get a handle on explaining this might be to compare what level of development is allowed:

    • under current regulations; 
    • under a years long planning process for the south shore, begun in 2016; and
    • what is being proposed in the PUD. 

    The City initiated planning process mentioned above resulted in the South Central Waterfront Vision Framework Plan aka Waterfront Plan. The tract of the Statesman PUD was only part of what it covered, see the map below.

    Map of the South Central Waterfront planning area, from Waterfront report

    The Waterfront Plan, which was done with the intent of increasing density on the south shore, made recommendations for how much development should go on particular tracts within the zone. For the Statesman tract it recommends a total of 2,943,000 square feet of development for the tract.

    By comparison, Cox and Endeavor are asking for — and the City staff is recommending — 3.6 million square feet. That’s a 22% increase in development over the Waterfront Plan. It also comes with increases in height, which go against decades of citizen struggle and Council actions dating back to at least the 1980s. The Waterfront Plan also recommended dramatically increasing heights beyond what was called the Waterfront Overlay.

    A primary part of that struggle, in which I was involved during the 1980s, was to prevent a “canyon effect” from rows of tall buildings along the lake. The City did not respond to requests to provide a number for the amount of square footage that would be allowed under current approvals. A developer representative said he thought that was in the 700,000 to 800,000 range. That would be under Industrial Zoning — the current designation that permitted the Statesman to go there. (Most Austinites would probably not like another industrial development on the property.)

    For heights the best approach is probably to look at the map below, from an earlier developer presentation on October 30, 2019, which is included in the Council backup for tomorrow. The bottom left hand corner of the map also shows the square footages from the Waterfront Plan and the PUD proposal on the table now.

    The current height limits are 96 feet. The Waterfront Plan proposed to more than double those. The PUD is seeking approval for buildings three and four times the currently permitted level of 96 feet.

    Slide from an October 30, 2019 presentation by the applicant/developers. The numbers on top of the buildings signify the height of the building in the proposed PUD. The red lines around the buildings are the recommended heights from the City’s Waterfront Plan. Current height limits are 96 feet.

    Sketch from Council backup showing heights proposed in the Statesman PUD.

    Affordable Housing, or Lack Thereof

    The Waterfront Plan also recommended that 20% of housing built in the area qualify as officially affordable. The Statesman tract, however, was only recommended for 4% affordable housing, due to the number of other amenities that the City wanted to get in connection to the development. 

    Jerry Rusthoven of the City Housing and Planning Department explained this at the September 29 Council hearing on the PUD. “The vision plan . . . created a vision, if you will, for district-wide improvements — plaza here, real nice lakefront here, bat viewing area here, etc. This tract because of its physical location [fronting the lake] bears the brunt of those desired things that the City wants to see — the parkland, the Barton springs road extension, etc. Knowing that to be the case, the recommended affordable housing was 4%. That’s the staff recommendation.” 

    That explains why the Waterfront Plan recommended a lower affordable housing number for the Statesman tract, but since then the developers have won a lot more entitlements; at least they will if the PUD passes. More entitlements means a lot more money for them. But, they are still insisting on keeping the 4% affordable housing.

    As to actual residences, out of 1,378 residential units, 55 rental units would be “affordable.” Richard Suttle, representative for the PUD applicants, told the Independent that providing the four percent affordable housing would cost his clients $23.2 million. He said his team is offering the City three ways to make the four percent affordable housing happen. 

    • the 55 units at the PUD;
    • investing the $23.2 million apartment complex at 422 Riverside, which his clients own, where Suttle says 70 units could be provided and faster than at the PUD; or
    • just write a check for $23.2 million which the City could invest in affordable housing elsewhere. 

    Adler and Council Member Pio Renteria have offered support for the offsite option. That may well yield more units faster, but it sure does seem to contradict the countless sanctimonious lectures we’ve heard for years now from the Mayor and Council Members; about how every neighborhood needs to accept affordable housing. We could discuss how this new approach sounds like a really NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) stance, which is what some Council Members and most urbanists like to call anyone who doesn’t go straight down the line with their ideology.

    We could talk even take a different tack and discuss how high density does make sense at this location, and maybe it might even be time to back off the canyon effect prohibition a little bit — if it meant affordable housing. But, we’re getting precious little of that in this development. 

    There’s lots more we could talk about on this issue, but, we just don’t have time for that. In fact this article is getting too long already.

    So let’s end with a short note on the Austin Energy rate increase and the Brodie Oaks PUD.  

    Brodie Oaks PUD

    The Brodie Oaks case is a tough one because it’s over the Barton Springs Zone. At the same lots of pavement is already there and developers are actually proposing to reduce impervious cover. Some neighbors are concerned about the height and other issues. Hopefully this one will just be presented on first reading and folks can find out more about it from what’s presented at Council. It’s an important issue, and could, maybe, even turn out to be a somewhat good thing. But, we just don’t have any more time to talk about it now. 

    Austin Energy Rate Case

    I could sure write a lengthy article about this one (OK, most of you probably already knew that), but, I just don’t have time for that. In fact this article has taken all the time and space we have. So I’ll send out a short article about the Austin Energy rate case in the morning.

    To close, I will note that this Council still has one more meeting scheduled after the one we’ve discussed here. That is December 8. So they have another week to do more damage, but they can also call special meetings. So hang on.


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