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My bad neighborhood's sour grapes about VMU

My neighborhood's latest newsletter contains some thrilling sour grapes about VMU:

In June 2007, at the request of the City without any help the City staff, NUNA and the rest of the Neighborhood Planning area (CANPAC, the official planning team for the whole area) which includes Eastwoods, Hancock, Heritage, NUNA, Shoal Crest Caswell Heights, and UAP (University Area Partners) submitted the mandated application for VMU (Vertical Mixed Use). Vertical Mixed Use is applied to commercial zoning (CS) only; it must have a commercial and residential component on the ground floor and subsequent floors, respectively. Vertical MIxed Use does NOT affect height or height limits imposed on a neighborhood/area. VMU was based on the UNO overlay in the West Campus area, except it seems to be a watered down version of this overlay. In a sense, our planning area, CANPAC, was ahead of the “curve” here. VMU is something which not all areas of the City had, so this concept/zoning tool was intended to be applied widespread. The VMU ordinance was conceived by Council Member Brewster McCracken.


The determining factor for VMU was the location of properties primarily along major, transportation corridors. VMU is a fine concept which would help eliminate urban sprawl and make neighborhoods more “user friendly” with amenities such as restaurants and shops within walking distance of a neighborhood. VMU combines two uses on a property- retail or office usually on the ground floor and a residential component on the other floors. There are other benefits for VMU such as a percentage of affordable housing units, a reduction in parking requirements, setbacks, FAR and site area requirements. In NUNA, Guadalupe Street was the only major transportation corridor (determined by bus routes).


The NUNA Planning Team, which is separate from the officially recognized planning team for our area, CANPAC, carefully reviewed the maps and properties foisted on us by the City for VMU consideration. Then, the CANPAC Planning Team held many subcommittee meetings and submitted a completed application for the whole planning area to the City by the mandatory, designated deadline in June 2007.


Fortunately, NUNA has an NCCD (Neighborhood Conservation Combining District) which is a zoning ordinance that has more flexible tools for redevelopment and is more compatible to this older (unofficially historic) area of town. The other benefit of the NCCD, in the particular case concerning VMU, is that the zoning tools in an NCCD (which are more detailed than an regular neighborhood plan) trump any VMU. NUNA’s NCCD will protect the careful planning we did during the neighborhood planning process in 2004. Nonetheless, we were required by the City to submit a VMU application.


The question arose within our planning area (CANPAC) and also with Hyde Park, our adjoining neighbor, which also has an NCCD, how does one determine fairly what might constitute VMU? The NUNA Planning Team along with the Heritage Neighborhood, our neighbor across Guadalupe, figured out that no property which abuts a residential use (single family or multifamily) would be considered from VMU. Also, NUNA decided that none of the bonuses such as a reduction in parking requirements, etc. would be granted to any property which we would designate for VMU. We were also advised by ANC and the City that we must opt in some properties in our application, otherwise we would be punished and forced to have properties considered for VMU. With that kind of threat looming over our planning team’s shoulder, we very carefully included some properties for VMU status in our application.


NUNA already had on the ground ( already built) some VMU projects. For example, the “controversial” Villas of Guadalupe have a commercial component- Blockbuster Video on the ground floor, and then have a residential component on the other floors. The Venue at 2815 Guadalupe has a similar makeup with commercial uses on the bottom floor and residential suites/condos above. The best part about the Venue is the underground parking arrangement which includes a parking spot per bed- more parking than the City requirement!


NUNA was requested by the City to file an application to opt in or out properties primarily along Guadalupe Street for VMU status which could also grant additional dimensional standards, reduction in parking requirements, and additional ground floor uses in office districts. NUNA opted in properties from 27th to the north side of 30th Street along the east side of Guadalupe since these properties for the most part were built as “VMU” - a commercial use on the ground floor and a residential component on the upper floors, but we did not opt for the additional bonuses such as reduction in parking requirements, etc. for any properties. Our application will be considered in a public hearing in front of the Planning Commission February 12 along with the other neighborhoods in CANPAC (Eastwoods, Hancock, Heritage, NUNA, Shoal Crest, Caswell Heights, and UAP-University Area Partners). There will be no staff recommendation for this application.


In accordance with Hyde Park, another NCCD, we decided that we would prefer to consider individual, commercial project proposals on a case by case basis. In short, NUNA has given nothing away to the City in our application for VMU; we would like first to evaluate each project to see if it is compliant and compatible with our NCCD regulations.

Here's the response I sent to the neighborhood list; which is currently stuck in moderation:

I see in the most recent newsletter a fair amount of sour grapes about VMU which may lead people to become misinformed. For instance:

"Also, NUNA decided that none of the bonuses such as a reduction in parking requirements, etc. would be granted to any property which we would designate for VMU."

The entire point of VMU is to put density where the highest frequency transit service already exists, so that it might attract residents without cars; households with fewer cars than typical; shoppers who take the bus; etc.

"We were also advised by ANC and the City that we must opt in some properties in our application, otherwise we would be punished and forced to have properties considered for VMU. With that kind of threat looming over our planning team’s shoulder, we very carefully included some properties for VMU status in our application."

The purpose of "opt-out" and "opt-in" is being misrepresented here as well. The operating assumption was that because you folks got McMansion, which will result in less density on the interior (fewer housing units, since it so severely penalizes duplexes and garage apartments), that you would support more density on the transit corridors. This wasn't you being FORCED to accept this density - it was part of the bargain you accepted in return for lowering density on the interior, and now you (and Hyde Park) are trying to back out of your end of the deal.

There is no transit corridor in the city more heavily used than Guadalupe on the edge of our neighborhood. There is no place in the city better suited for VMU than this one. It's irresponsible to continue to pretend that the city's asking for something unreasonable here, since you got what you wanted on McMansion.

And, by the way, there was a guy here on this list telling you that the VMU application you were submitting was a big mistake quite some time ago. Ahem.

- MD

And my follow-up:

Argh. As is often the case, I see when reading my own post that I left out something important; I said that the point of opt-in and opt-out was either missed or misrepresented, but I never said what the point was supposed to be.

Opt-out was supposed to be for extraordinary circumstances that the neighborhood was aware of that the city might not be - not generalized "opt out everywhere because we think we've already done enough". For one instance, a difficult alley access (like behind Chango's) might be something that would justify an opt-out.

If you opt out more than a few properties, you're doing it wrong.

Opt-in was supposed to be for additional properties outside the main corridor - NOT for "here's the only places we'll let you do VMU". IE, my old neighborhood of OWANA might decide to opt-in for VMU on West Lynn at 12th, even though it's not a major transit corridor (the bus only runs once an hour there).

If you think "opt-in" is for the few places you pick to allow VMU on the major transit corridor, you're doing it wrong.

Regards,
MD

This entry was posted in the following categories: Austin , I Told You So , PS: I am not a crackpot , Urban Design , When Neighborhoods Go Bad

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Comments

So they opted out on everything that was not already built as VMU? Redonkeykong. That, to me, is the biggest problem with "zoning" in Austin - every property (down to the individual lot) is "zoned" as whatever is already built there, so you have go get a variance to build anything different. It isn't "zoning" at all - it's just power-grabbing and bureaucratic hurdles to inhibit development.

This is something that a lot of people at CNU are talking about:

http://www.formbasedcodes.org/

I haven't looked at it much yet, but my initial impression is that it would be an improvement over the mess we have now.

Not just my neighborhood, but Hyde Park too - tried this same gambit. (Oh, they claim they've already planned for most of the good stuff in VMU, but when you get down to the details it's clear they haven't).

As for form-based zoning, the primary opposition from my neighborhood and Hyde Park would still remain - they don't want anything large built here; whether residential or commercial or a mix.

PS: You're very lucky the city didn't include Exposition in this round - because judging from the hubbub over a few townhouses up near 35th, your folks would make Karen McGraw and company look like skyscraper-lovers. I think it might have been nice to include Exposition even though 30-minute headways on each of the #21/#22 aren't quite good enough, if you consider both as a system, you're really dealing with 15s. (for downtown, for instance, you could take either one and end up there in a roughly similar amount of time). Not quite the same thing as southbound vs. northbound on a normal route.

Yeah, it'll be interesting to see if anything ever goes through in my neighborhood, considering that the city isn't even trying to include any VMU. Some people were trying to get some included in the neighborhood plan - we will see how that goes.

I haven't checked -- what's the status of NUNA's application?

I THINK it was sent back for rethinking along with Hyde Park's, but I am not positive. I slacked off for a bit on looking through the closed caption transcripts.

My neighborhood didnt do anything on VMU - no opt-outs, no special opt-ins. The guy who stood up to explain it didn't know much about it, sort of painted it as "not sure this is something that requires us to really do anything." I was hoping we would opt-in some places (none in particular, just generally) and explained it as i understand it - which is to say, not in any detail. But no one seemed that interested. It was sort of funny, actually. This huge city-wide issue and my neighborhood association spent about five minutes deciding we didn't need to take any action.

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