submitted by Steven Zettner [Email address: szettner #AT# austin.rr.com - replace #AT# with @ ]

Council Member Brewster McCracken on Monday March 17 rebuffed a
proposal by ANA and two other North Central Austin neighborhood groups
to modify the City’s plan for Vertical Mixed Use (VMU) on Burnet Rd and
Anderson Ln.  McCracken hinted that modifications to VMU proposed in
the “Two Nodes” plan would not be acceptable to developers, who would
ignore VMU to do traditional commercial development. 

The plan, crafted by a local advocacy group called Sustainable Neighborhoods, had the support of the ANA and of the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Association development subcommittee. All three groups attended the meeting.

McCracken did express support for prioritizing new parks to support VMU areas.  He said he would consider a neighborhood’s “Opt-in/Opt-out” proposals for adding or removing VMU to properties on a lot-by-lot basis.

ANA will lobby other Council members over the coming weeks, and will reach out to homeowners living behind potential VMU properties along Burnet Rd for their support on removing shallow lots along Burnet Rd from inclusion in VMU and for supporting the two nodes approach where VMU is concentrated at the North Loop and Burnet and Anderson Ln locations.  ANA’s recommendations are scheduled to reach Planning Commission in April and City Council in May.

VMU is a new zoning category that provides an additional development choice.  Developers can either build a commercial development as before, or a VMU project that includes both commercial and residential on different floors of the building. 

Both straight-commercial and VMU projects along Burnet and Anderson are subject to the Design Standards ordinance, which requires new buildings to be placed close to the street and support a “streetscape,” including broad sidewalks, awnings, and street trees. The VMU ordinance includes an affordability requirement, whereby 10% of new residential units must go to people with below-average household income.  It does not, however, take account of infrastructure changes like new parks or the location of mass transit.

The VMU ordinance approved in January 2007 rezoned all commercial properties within Allandale up and down Burnet and on Anderson Ln with VMU. But it also gave neighborhoods a process called “Opt-in/Opt-out” to recommend changes.  VMU could be added or removed from properties, as could certain incentives which the ordinance provided to encourage VMU development over straight commercial development.

The “Two Nodes” approach would stop the automatic application (blanket zoning) of those properties.  Property owners can always ask for VMU zoning later, on an individual basis.  The plan called for additional planning to create two “town centers,” one at Burnet and North Loop and the other along Anderson Ln between Mopac and Burnet.  Development incentives from the VMU ordinance would have been deferred until a planning process could take place, and a mix of new requirements and incentives agreed upon that positively shaped a town center.

A town center is urban planning jargon for a planned community that includes a mix of residential and commercial uses, clumped around a mass transit station, and supported by parks, civic features, and bike/ped paths.  They are also called “nodes,” referring to stations on a mass transit line.

Proponents of VMU argue that the new developments are more expensive than traditional development, so they will last longer and be maintained better.  The VMU “streetscape” is often pointed to as more aesthetically pleasing than ugly parking lots. Given the high cost of land, proponents fear that the only viable alternative to VMU will be big boxes or car lots.  The new residential density from VMU will allow mass transit to run more frequently and become more effective as an alternative to driving.

Both ANA and Sustainable Neighborhoods (SN) have expressed concerns that the VMU ordinance could have unintended consequences.  For instance, City officials have stated that new residents living in apartments along streets like Burnet will be more likely to use mass transit.  SN researched academic literature to determine what factors cause people to use transit.  It found that (astonishingly) people don’t like buses and don’t like to make transfers.  They also don’t like to walk too far.  To achieve maximum transit use in a mid-town area like Allandale, new residents should be living less than 800 ft from major transit stations, and not just bus stops.  Residents living in apartments far from major transit stations will be much more likely to drive, contributing to area traffic congestion.

ANA and SN are also concerned that VMU will lead to lots of people trapped on avenues with no place other than the side of a busy road to walk.  Developers have not expressed a willingness to give up acreage on their properties for public open space.  That leaves the City, but the Parks Department does not prioritize acquiring parks in the kind of high-density areas that VMU will create.

The VMU ordinance is unprecedented in its scope, rezoning arterial streets throughout the central part of the City, as well as some mid-town streets like Burnet and Anderson.  It has the potential to rewrite the City’s genetic code, by greatly increasing residential density along these commercial streets.  One estimate suggests the rezoning would create capacity to add up to 6,000 new residents on Anderson between Mopac and Burnet. 

Many Allandale residents have found the VMU ordinance, its many acronyms and implications, maddeningly unfathomable. 

ANA and Sustainable Neighborhoods will continue to work on promoting the Two Nodes approach to increasing density along Burnet and Anderson roads but efforts to date have not left us with much hope that the Planning Commission or the City Council are willing to consider a comprehensive look at what makes sense for the area in terms of VMU. What follows are our efforts to date and the outcomes:

Highlights of VMU

July 2006 – VMU amendment proposed for the Design Standards ordinance

January 2007 – VMU ordinance approved by City Council

March 2007 – Neighborhoods given 90 days to request adding or removing VMU from various properties along Burnet and Anderson, and to request opting in or out of various VMU incentives.

June 2007 – Allandale submits VMU Opt-in/Opt-out application to City, requesting to add VMU to the Northcross Mall site and two properties near North Loop, and to remove VMU from all other properties.along Burnet and Anderson.

July 2007 – Ardent Properties approaches ANA requesting support for rezoning of the Antique Mall property at 5350 Burnet to VMU.  ANA had agreed to mixed use and an increase in height to 60 ft for the previous owner of the property, who had promised to build 88 condos.  The new developer intends to build 165 luxury apartments.

October 2007 – Residents near the Antique Mall protest the rezoning request, arguing that they had only agreed to allow greater height on the property based on the earlier plan. Planning Commission votes 6-3 in favor of the developer.

November 2007 – City Council approves the rezoning request 7-0.  Former VMU team members found an organization, Sustainable Neighborhoods, to lobby for a vision of development on Burnet and Anderson that encourages a sense of community, walkability, and higher mass transit use.

February 2008 – Proposed VMU properties at North Loop that are in Allandale but that were in the Rosedale planning area go before Planning Commission.  ANA recommends including VMU but removing VMU incentives.  Planning Commission votes 8-0 to include the VMU incentives.

March 2008 – ANA, along with representatives from North Shoal Creek NA and Sustainable Neighborhoods, pitch the SN “Two Nodes” plan to Council Member Brewster McCracken.  McCracken demurs.