The first public Vertical Mixed Use hearing last Thursday turned into something of a love fest. And why not? The two central Austin neighborhoods whose applications were up for vote -- Bouldin Creek and Travis Heights/St. Edwards -- asked to opt exactly one tract out of the VMU district. These neighborhoods honored the VMU bargain: "Put density on the transit corridors, not in the neighborhood interiors." Councilmember McCracken, VMU's daddy, even gushed, "I think anytime you hear anymore that neighborhoods don't support density it's a bum rap . . ."
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Plenty of neighborhoods have no intention of honoring the VMU bargain. And the fact is that last February Council gave them a sharp little knife to cut out the density they don't want when it authorized them to opt individual tracts out of the VMU district. As originally enacted, the ordinance put all commercially-zoned property on core transit corridors into the VMU district. This was one of the ordinance's best features: neighborhoods got the chance to customize the VMU incentives, but they couldn't opt properties out of the district completely.
Now the truly intransigent neighborhoods have the chance to opt out big chunks of real estate. Sure, they need Council's permission, but it will be a lot harder to deny a specific neighborhood application than it would have been to vote down that "technical" amendment back in February.
And how will Council ever have time to pass judgment on all of these individual opt out requests? It faces potentially hundreds of individual zoning cases triggered by neighborhood opt-out applications. Just because the first two neighborhoods honored the spirit of the ordinance does not mean that Council is off the hook.
The Zilker Neighborhood Association's VMU application (pdf) is a perfect example of the trouble headed Council's way. By my count, ZNA has asked to opt more than 70 eligible tracts out of the VMU district.
ZNA has offered various justifications for opting out these tracts, mostly bogus, in my opinion. Things like "neighborhood character preservation" (read "iconic preservation"); "infrastructure capacity"; environmental protection (water quality, trees and "scenic view sheds"); prevention of VMU "creep" and compatibility; and preservation of small local businesses.
There will be plenty of time to debate these but for now I just want to illustrate the scope of ZNA's opt-out request, and the job facing Council. I have charted ZNA's opt-out requests below the jump.
Let's start with the stretch of South Lamar between Treadwell and just north of W. Mary. This is what a VMU application ought to look like:
The green diamonds are tracts that ZNA has recommended leaving in the VMU district. The black diamonds are tracts that are not eligible for VMU. (Each of these is already zoned for multi-family anyway.)
The two red diamonds are properties that ZNA has asked to opt out. One is the Salon, an "historic" 1930 house near Treadwell. The other is the Planet K&S Austin Culture museum, exempted on the ground of "neighborhood character." I don't agree that the latter is a proper use of zoning, but all in all, there's little to quibble with here.
But slide south a little bit and things, well, head south:
ZNA has asked, in effect, to carve the western swath of South Lamar between W. Mary and Goodrich (see the next map too) from the VMU district. One of the proffered justifications -- and the main one, I'm sure -- is "compatibility" and the risk of "VMU creep." These tracts sit close to single family homes. But the VMU bargain was not to allow density on busy streets except where there are SF homes nearby; nearly all of our streets are like that. Anyway, we have compatibility standards to protect nearby SF homes from "too much" height; in many cases, the height limits are stricter for VMU buildings than single family homes.
Back to the maps. Continuing southward, from Goodrich to just north of Barton Skyway:
It would probably be more accurate to call this cherry picking rather than a wholesale exclusion, but chopping up the VMU district will probably have the same consequence. (Note: the tracts to the south/east of S. Lamar are in the South Lamar Neighborhood Association.)
Turning around, we head north on South Lamar from Treadwell to Barton Springs:
Again, ZNA has asked to opt out the entire western segment of South Lamar.
Barton Springs Road between Robert E. Lee and the railroad tracks also falls within ZNA's jurisdiction. ZNA apparently concluded that VMU just isn't a good fit west of South Lamar:
(I'm fairly certain the three pink diamonds on the south side of Barton Springs are all "opt-outs," but I couldn't match the addresses on the opt-out applications with the COA GIS viewer.)
Finally, to be complete, South Lamar between Barton Springs Road and Town Lake:
Given that there are two VMU projects under construction along this short stretch of road, ZNA wisely concluded that VMU was appropriate for this area.
ZNA did not pull an Allandale, but it didn't follow Bouldin Creek and Travis Heights' lead, either.
I think ZNA's application flouts the spirit of the VMU compromise. I'm sure the neighborhood reps could mount an argument in favor of each opt-out decision. But who will want to (much less have time to) sit through 70+ debates -- for just one neighborhood? These decisions either will be made in bulk or, when property owners object, will be made very slowly. Neither is a particularly encouraging prospect.