submitted by Steven Zettner

Developers, neighborhood activists and City officials all proposed changes to the Commercial Design Standards and VMU ordinance at a review meeting held March 28 at City Hall.

Council Member Brewster McCracken moderated the meeting, the first of several which will attempt to refine the ordinance one year after it went into effect.  Any changes proposed to City Council will require full consensus from all meeting participants. The next meeting is scheduled for April 11 and is open to the public.

Feedback ranged widely.

McCracken himself proposed loosening the VMU affordability requirements
to achieve other goals not covered in the original ordinance.  Retail
space leased to local small businesses and non-profits could be counted
towards VMU’s requirement that 10% of a project must be leased or sold
to residents with below-average income.  The 10% threshold would be
measured in square footage, rather than residential units.  McCracken
said many neighborhoods opted to set the definition of “low income
resident” at 60% of median income, which made VMU development
unprofitable.  He proposed offering different incentives to
neighborhoods that loosened the affordability level, for instance added
park space or additional space for local small businesses.

McCracken also floated the idea of creating a “neighborhood negotiating
toolkit” that would give neighborhoods some standardized options to
customize a VMU development.

Dan Heinzen, a representative of the Heritage Neighborhood Association
near UT, expressed concern about the negative impacts of VMU located on
small commercial lots that back up to single family homes.  “Our
neighborhood is surrounded by transit corridors on three sides, and the
interface between VMU and our residents could be very disruptive,”
Heinzen said. These concerns are shared by other neighborhoods,
including Allandale and Crestview.

Steven Zettner, an Allandale resident who has been actively involved in
the VMU process, proposed adding pedestrian and bicycle connectivity
requirements for VMU properties defined as being in “town centers.”
The current ordinance actually removes connectivity requirements for
VMU that apply to straight commercial developments.

One architect expressed concern with how neighborhoods were removing
VMU from properties along a corridor.  “This undermines the whole
vision of continuous mixed use that we originally agreed upon.”

Brett Denton, developer of the 5350 Burnet VMU property, expressed
concern that the current street tree requirements were too restrictive
and would block the view of retail from the street.  He suggested
allowing developers to “move” street trees to other locations on the
property, or plant them in off-site locations.  He also asked that
Austin Energy allow a mix of power transformer levels that reflect the
mix of uses.

George Adams, a City planner instrumental in creating the VMU
ordinance, raised concerns about how affordability is monitored, how
VMU is implemented in historic districts, and how “redevelopment” is
defined.  The Design Standards do not apply to projects defined as
“redevelopment,” and many developers have used this as a loop hole to
avoid following the new rules.

Adams also raised the possibility of finding new options for handling overhead utilities that interfere with street trees.

One participant raised implementation problems that limited use of
solar panels.  Rules governing sites over 5 acres were deemed complex
and developers asked that they be made more flexible.