The City Council has not been tested on the VMU ordinance until now. The first few neighborhood opt-out applications respected the VMU "bargain": allow density on the transit corridors; relieve the development pressure on neighborhood interiors.
But now Council must confront real neighborhood intransigence. Hyde Park, Judges Hill, and East MLK have asked to opt nearly all of their eligible tracts out of the VMU district. (M1EK's scathing reaction to the Hyde Park application is worth a read. I analyzed Zilker's VMU application here.)
City Council created this problem by amending the VMU ordinance last February to let neighborhoods opt individual tracts out of the VMU district. Although this opt-out right is theoretically subject to City oversight and approval, I noted the practical problems when the ordinance was amended:
It's not hard to guess what will happen. You don't even have to assume bad intentions. One property will be "de-VMUed" because it's too close to a block of single family homes. Another will be removed because it'll block someone's view. This one will be removed because of "environmental" concerns, or the need for a "buffer" or "transition." (The Chronicle even suggested that de-VMUing could be used to protect the local coffee shop . . . )
Oh, I know. Neighborhoods can't get away with that because Council will have to approve the requests. If they turn obstructionist, Council will deny their requests and they won't get anything. And property owners will have every incentive to stick up for themselves.
But I don't see how Council, or the city planning staff, can give serious scrutiny to all of the neighborhood requests. Dozens of opt-out applications will be developed all at once over a 90-day period. Then dozens of applications will be turned in all at once, each proposing to remove a slate of properties. Will our overworked city planners really have time to weigh the pros and cons of every specific request?
Unfortunately, this is playing out as I predicted. City staff and the Planning Commission have capitulated to the requests by Hyde Park, Judges Hill and East MLK to opt virtually every property out of the VMU district.
Judges Hill (roughly bordered by MLK, Enfield, West and N. Lamar) has only four VMU tracts. The neighborhood association has asked to opt out all four.
Four tracts may not matter a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. But the City's handling of these opt outs is the first evidence that the City intends to to abdicate any real oversight of neighborhood requests.
Here is the map of the Judges Hill VMU tracts:
They are on MLK, a core transit corridor, and they are directly across from West Campus, which is rapidly densifying.
As a glance at the zoning map shows, they are surrounded by office, retail and multi-family:
VMU is perfect for these tracts. The VMU designation does not intensify the commercial uses. On the contrary, it retains the base district zoning. This means that if a property is zoned "LO" (light office), the ground-floor of the VMU project is limited to light-office uses. The VMU designation merely permits residential to be stacked on top of the ground-floor commercial use.
So what's the problem here? These tracts border a busy street. They are surrounded by plenty of multi-family. Why not VMU?
Judges Hill's VMU application does not give any reason. City staff offered only this terse justification: "The neighborhood recommendation to exclude the subject tracts will encourage the protection of the residential character of the neighborhood."
If this flimsy justification is good enough for Judges Hill, it will be good enough for every other neighborhood. Most of Austin's "core transit corridors" have single-family homes -- "residential character" -- within a block of the core transit corridor. Everyone understood this when the VMU ordinance was enacted. This was why the VMU ordinance kept the compatibility standards -- e.g., height limitations -- in place: neighborhoods would be protected by the compatibility standards, not the gerrymandering of the VMU district.
So much for principle.
What is especially troubling about the Judges Hill tracts is that VMU is such an obvious fit for them.
Here is a close-up of the tracts:
The tracts outlined in red are Judges Hill's VMU tracts.
As noted above, the tracts are surrounded by apartment complexes and offices. Allowing some apartments or condos on these tracts won't affect anyone's "character."
But the clincher is the development underway on an adjoining tract. "The Presidio," a 5-story, 44-unit condo development, is being built on the tract outlined in blue. Here is the Presido's side elevation:
Judges Hill -- and the City -- now claim with a straight face that a 2- or 3-story VMU development next door will hurt the neighborhood's "residential character." If this flimsy excuse holds up here, on tracts that are ideally suited for VMU, then it will hold up anywhere. City Council might as well approve the opt-out requests across the board and go home early.
One last point. The neighborhoods that went first -- Travis Heights, Bouldin Creek, Dawson and Galindo -- kept virtually every property in the VMU district. They did so despite some internal grumbling about the VMU process. I suspect they will be upset to learn that the City has no intention of making other neighborhoods uphold their end of the bargain.