Now that the VMU Overlay District (VMUOD) is in place along Burnet Road and Anderson Lane, we have a chance to “opt in” or “opt out”. What does that mean?
“Opt in” means that we can identify a property in Allandale where VMU is currently not permitted and ask that it be added to the VMUOD. None of the neighbors we’ve talked to have shown any interest in this, so enough said.
“Opt out” means that we ask to withdraw or limit certain incentives (see below) that are being offered to VMU developers. Also, we can ask for a property to be removed from VMUOD, i.e. not eligible for VMU.
In addition, the ANA VMU Team has identified a number of other conditions that we might want to apply to VMU in Allandale. These are conditions that could increase the potential benefits of VMU and reduce the potential drawbacks.
Finally, we can ask to adjust the definition of affordability that is applied to VMU in Allandale.
- Opting out of incentivesIn exchange for providing some affordable units, VMU developers are offered certain incentives. By “opting out”, we can ask that these incentives be withdrawn for specific properties.A VMU project is allowed to get by with only 60% of the parking that would otherwise be required. The ANA VMU Team believes that this may be the incentive that has the biggest impact on project feasibility. Less parking space allows for a bigger building, which means greater revenue. Opting out of the parking incentive could place an effective limit on the overall size of the project. Of course, it also could help reduce parking overflow into the neighborhood.A VMU project is given exemptions from various “dimensional standards” that would otherwise restrict the size and shape of the building. The dimensional standards that would be waived include:
- Minimum site area
- Maximum floor-area ratio (FAR)
- Maximum building coverage
- Minimum street side yard setback and interior yard setback
- Minimum front yard setback.
The ANA VMU Team has concluded that these dimensional standard exemptions are unlikely to be as valuable to developers as the parking discount.
- Removing property from the VMUODBecause the VMUOD is now in place, removing a property from it requires a zoning change. That can be hard to pull off. State law gives owners the right to object. An owner who submits a “valid petition” against the change can be overruled only by a “supermajority” of the City Council, i.e. a 6-to-1 vote.Some neighbors think we should remove all properties from the VMUOD and roll it back entirely. They assert that creating the VMUOD was a zoning change, too, and that neighbors were not given the proper notification and did not get a chance to submit their own valid petitions against the VMUOD.But the City Council is encouraging higher density to support several policy objectives. They have gone on record to say that neighborhoods will not be allowed to reject VMU entirely. Therefore, some neighbors argue against trying to roll back the VMUOD. They believe that, instead of banging on a brick wall, we should use the opt-in/out process to set conditions that reduce the drawbacks of VMU and increase its potential benefits to the neighborhood. They point out that the City Council can agree to limit VMU incentives without triggering a valid petition fight.
- Other conditions for VMUHere are some of the other conditions that the ANA VMU Team has considered recommending for VMU at different locations in Allandale. These are not “official” choices defined by the opt-in/out process, and there is no guarantee that we could make any of them stick. But they could help us reach a “win-win” agreement with City Council on VMU that works better for the neighborhood.
- Limit maximum densityIn certain locations, the ANA VMU Team proposes to limit the residential density, i.e. the number of residential units per acre. Embedding this restriction in the zoning means that it could be overturned only by a 6-to-1 supermajority of the City Council. In general, lower density may encourage more upscale developments and may reduce the traffic impact. On the other hand, at larger sites, we can accept higher density in exchange for more open space or flood control features. We have gotten signals from two City Council members that they could accept density caps. On the other hand, we can expect developers to lobby for maximum density everywhere.
- Require minimum open spaceIn certain locations, the ANA VMU Team proposes to require a minimum percentage of open space, especially for sites that are environmentally sensitive. Burnet Road runs along a ridge that divides two watersheds. As a result, properties there with high impervious cover can cause run-off problems during heavy rains. A higher ratio of open space, including retention ponds, could not only prevent flooding of nearby homes but also could add attractive public green space.
- Control and reduce trafficIn locations where higher density would be acceptable, the ANA VMU Team proposes to add traffic controls and better access to public transportation. For example, cars should enter and leave a VMU development only from the main street, not from residential streets. Also, extra traffic lights may be needed. Where density is higher, there should be MetroRapid bus stations and pedestrian islands in the main road.
- Limit height close to homesIn places where shallow commercial lots are directly in front of existing homes, the ANA VMU Team proposes to limit VMU buildings to 2 stories and a maximum height of 30 ft. Although this is less than the 40 ft maximum currently in place, it is called for because of the extra intrusion of residential units on the upper floors.
- Reduce intrusionSimilarly, in places where shallow commercial lots are directly in front of existing homes, the ANA VMU Team proposes other conditions to improve compatibility and to reduce intrusion on the privacy of nearby homes. For example, we may want to require masonry privacy walls, no balconies, and no outside loudspeakers.
- Adjusting affordabilityTo earn incentives, VMU developers are required to provide some units at affordable prices. The basic requirement is that 10% of all residential units must be affordable for people who earn only 80% of the Annual Median Income for the Austin metropolitan area. For example, in 2006, 80% of Annual Median Income is $56,900 for a family of four, and $39,850 for a family of one.We can ask to change the definition of “affordable” for Allandale by reducing the maximum income level down to as low as 60% of the Annual Median Income.But, compared to the other opt-in/out choices, there’s a big difference in how our recommendation for affordability is applied. The affordability level that we choose must be applied to the entire VMU Overlay District in Allandale. We can’t set different levels for different locations.