Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Why Does the City Care About VMU?

Urban Planners have shown a number of benefits to a city that successfully mixes residential, retail and office space:

Vibrant, Diverse Cities - Those with mixed use offer the most social, economic and racial diversity. Think New York City or San Francisco.
Fewer Dead Zones - Who's never felt spooked walking in a deserted, downtown financial district late at night
Safer Neighborhoods - Nothing drives away criminals like active streets. People walking, open stores, neighbors sitting on the balcony. These are thieves' worst enemies
Healthier Residents - Getting people out of their cars and on to the sidewalks may reduce health care costs
Happier Residents - Studies have shown that shorter commutes lead to happier lives (Limited Infrastructure Costs - When people are densely mixed with businesses, roads, power lines, and sewer pipes are shorter.
Preservation of Green Space - Then Envision Central Texas vision has fewer, denser developments and more open land.

Studies have shown clear linkages between the traits above and mixed use developments. But a linkage doesn't necessarily mean causation. Are cities diverse and vibrant because they have mixed used buildings or is it just that mixed use development isn't successful in a city that isn't vibrant? Maybe people just want to live where the action is.

Does living in the city make you skinny, or do people who don't like walking everywhere just move to the suburbs?

Even if you accept that mixed use actually helps a city meet the goals listed above, I think it is important to remember that the goals of VMU do not include:

Neo-Quaint Architecture - Mainstreet at Disneyland doesn't qualify as vibrant street life.
Higher Tax base - The goal should be lower cost per capita, not a source of cash to subsidize low density sprawl in other areas of town.
Rows of Boutiques, art galleries and day spas - These maybe tourist draws, but they are not the makings of a vibrant city.

I don't have anything against neo-quaint boutiques or luxury lofts, but the government shouldn't be subsidizing them at the expense of affordable housing and neighborhood businesses. The city should not distort the market to encourage developers to tear down affordable homes and commercial space, only to replace them with luxury condos and chain coffee vendors.

VMU development is part of a New Urbanist trend that is sweeping the country these days. In general I support most of the priniciples of this movement. But I'm concerned when the city tries to force this trend on a neighborhood with regulation and subsidies.

For the most part, the mixed use projects in our neighborhood have been developed on "brownfield" lots. (Sixth & Brushy, Waterstreet lofts, Saltillo lofts). Duplexes going up in the neighborhood are unaffected by this ordinance. I'm not aware of any VMU style projects that have actually torn down existing housing/commercial space. But this is only a matter of time.

In short, there seem to be reasons that the city would want to see VMU development in any neighborhood, but there are clearly concerns about why the city wants to see VMU development in our neighborhood.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

What is VMU?

A Vertical Mixed Use (VMU) building has a store or office on the first floor, and a residence above. (Think of the recent live/work developments in our area like Sixth+Brush, Waterstreet Lofts, and Saltillo Lofts.)

The first floor must be "Pedestrian-Oriented Commercial Space." This means it must have a front door that opens to the sidewalk. The front room must be tall (12ft) and deep (24ft) and have large front windows. At least one upper floor must be a residence. Store below and office above does not count as mixed use.

The recently passed Commercial Design Standards provide strict new limits on the design and placement of development in our Neighborhood. Basically all new stores and offices will need to be built right up to the side walk. Parking will need to be located behind the building. (Think of the historic properties on E. Sixth). But these standards apply to all new non-residential development and not just VMU properties.

Remember VMU is a special designation the city has defined to provide developers special incentives to mix residential and commercial space. If a developer wants to build a mixed use project with an 11 foot ceiling on the first floor, that's fine, she just won't qualify for any incentives.

In addition to the physical characteristics of the project, developers interested in incentives must make sure that at least 10% of the housing is affordable. The affordability requirements range from 100%-60% of median family income. Again if the developer is not interested in incentives, she doesn't need to provide any affordability. This ordinace encourages affordability, it doesn't require it.

And even the lowest affordability targets offered are still more than twice the median family income of the ECC neighborhood.

In short, if a developer follows city rules to build a project with a store on the first floor and a residence above and she makes some of the housing affordable, she will qualify for incentives from the city.

Why would the city would want to do this? That's the topic of my next post.

The VMU Overlay and ECC Neighborhood

The recently passed Design Standards Ordinance that offers special incentives for projects that meet the requirements for Vertical Mixed Use (VMU) developments.The city has recently notified the ECC Neighborhood Planning Team and other planning teams across Austin that we have 90 days to opt-in and/or opt-out of these requirements for specific properties in our neighborhood.

Since VMU is a big, complex topic, I'll break the subject down into multiple entries:
  • What is VMU?
  • Why Does the City Care about VMU?
  • How Does the VMU Overlay Encourage More VMU Development?
  • What Areas of ECC are Affected by VMU?
  • What Does the ECC Planning Team Need to Do?

For more details, see the recent Austin Chronicle article on VMU, but please note that it gets the commercial corridors in our neighborhood wrong: Cesar Chavez is not listed, but 5th and 6th street are.

East/West Connections

This week the I-35 Makeover Coalition unveils their plans for the parking lot under I-35 between 6th and 8th street. The coalition will use the proceeds from parking to improve the gateway between East Austin and Downtown.

In addition to the parking fees, Keep Austin Beautiful is pitching in.

For more details see this article in the Austin Business Journal.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

One of my frustrations with the new Commercial Design Standards and VMU Overlay is
that these programs are designed for developers, penthouse dwellers and boutique
shoppers. The article in today's Statesman subtitled "Luxury apartments are above world-class shops and within walking distance of restaurants" describes the government subsidized housing project going in at the domain.

The new VMU overlay will provide incentives to developers already building mixed use condos in East Austin quite profitably. (Think Saltillo Lofts, Pedernales, 1620 E. 6th, 2124, Este, 1305 Lofts, Sixth & Brushy, The Ends on Sixth).

Why not provide subsidies to poor and middle class residents to encourage them to make choices that support dense, vibrant neighborhoods? Subsidies like small, quality neighborhood schools. AISD is closing schools in some of the densest neighborhoods in the city while building modern, new schools in the sprawling suburbs. If the goal of VMU is to provide vibrant, diverse cities where people can work and shop within walking distance of their homes, then lets not send the kids to schools across town.

Why not provide mass transit that has as its goal allowing people in dense neighborhoods to function without a car or allow families to get by with a single car. Dependable, frequent and affordable mass transit would make it easier for working class families to trade their car payments for a more expensive apartment.

Its frustrating that whenever the city tries to control patterns of development one group get the carrots and the other group gets the sticks.

Common Uses for Commercial Zoning

Below are some of the uses generally allowed in CS zoning. Please comment on what uses you think might be appropriate next to a residence.

Administrative and Business Offices
Agricultural Sales and Services
Art Gallery
Art Workshop
Automotive Rentals
Automotive Repair Services
Automotive Sales
Automotive Washing (of any type)
Bail Bond Services 10
Bed & Breakfast
Building Maintenance Services
Business or Trade School
Business Support Services
Cocktail Lounge
Commercial Off-Street Parking
Communications Services
Construction Sales and Services
Consumer Convenience Services
Consumer Repair Services
Convenience Storage
Drop-Off Recycling Collection Facility
Electronic Prototype Assembly
Equipment Repair Services
Equipment Sales
Exterminating Services
Financial Services
Food Preparation
Food Sales
Funeral Services
General Retail Sales (Convenience)
General Retail Sales (General)
Indoor Entertainment
Indoor Sports and Recreation
Laundry Services
Medical Offices
exceeding 5000 sq. ft. gross floor area
Medical Offices
not exceeding 5000 sq. ft. gross floor area
Monument Retail Sales
Off-Site Accessory Parking
Outdoor Entertainment
Outdoor Sports and Recreation
Pawn Shop Services
Personal Improvement Services
Personal Services
Pet Services
Plant Nursery
Printing and Publishing
Professional Office
Research Services
Restaurant (General)
Restaurant (Limited)
Service Station
Software Development
Vehicle Storage
Veterinary Services

Monday, February 26, 2007

Jim Nix, a local architect working as an agent for Carrie Altemus, came to our last Neighborhood planning team to discuss his plans for 1607 East Cesar Chavez (The house just east of the Waterstreet Lofts.

They are planning a mixed use building with retail on the first floor, and a single apartment upstairs. He would like to expand the second floor apartment along the original footprint of the house, but because the house next door is a residence in a commercial zone, he needs city approval to build anything closer than 15 feet and the house is just 9 feet 4 inches from the east property line.

The lot is now zoned Commercial Services and he could easily convert the ground floor to retail without needing approval. In fact, he says they will convert the lower floor to a retail use regardless. They will probably build the apartment if at all practical.
The team was concerned that a retail store next to a residence might not be compatible and is currently working with Mr. Nix to see if we can develop a list of appropriate uses that might let us support a variance. Allowed uses for a commercial zone can be found here