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Friday, July 15, 2022 by Jo Clifton

A divided adjustment board on Wednesday rejected a site plan call organized by the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association regarding the redevelopment of the Windsor Village shopping center at 5900 Westminster Drive. What was once a small shopping center offering neighbors the ability to walk to shops and restaurants will now be transformed into a vertical mixed-use development dominated by apartment buildings with living and working spaces.

Neighbors who had accepted VMU thinking they could continue to eat tacos, buy clothes and shop in the new development were shocked when they learned that most stores and dining areas would be removed. Instead, there will be 405 apartments. As neighbor Kathryn Faehl wrote, “Increasing density while dramatically reducing commercial space on the site is contrary to both common sense and Austin’s goals for a compact and accessible city.

Although the final vote was 7-4 to reject the appeal, a majority of council members expressed dissatisfaction with their choices and promised to work to clarify parts of the Planning Code related to zoning. VMUs. Only a supermajority vote could overturn the staffers’ decision on a site plan, according to Assistant City Attorney Chad Shaw, but maintaining the staff’s position only required a majority vote.

Stuart Hersh, who has worked in areas related to land use planning regulations for the city for more than 30 years, represented the neighborhood as a volunteer advocate. He explained that only landowners within 200 feet of the proposed development could appeal. The Mennonite Church of Austin was the official appellant.

Hersh outlined the neighborhood’s arguments that the proposed development does not meet vertical mixed-use requirements, but said staff members have consistently enforced code in a manner that permits such development. The fact that staff applied the code consistently did not mean they made the right decision in granting approval for the plaintiff’s site plan, he said. Several residents have called on council to overturn the staff’s decision, noting that neighbors would never have accepted VMU had they known it could lead to such an outcome.

A number of neighbors expressed dismay at the loss of the mall, noting that many businesses in the center had been forced to close. Jolene Keene, executive director of Accessible Housing Austin, wrote in support of the appeal. According to Keene, many low-income residents of a nearby housing development depended on being able to walk to the mall for retail services. “Many of our residents use scooters and wheelchairs and will need sufficient sidewalks to visit any of the amenities offered on site,” she wrote, saying the plan lacked proper sidewalks and offered insufficient commercial services.

Windsor Park resident Craig Whisenhunt noted in a letter to council that the first iteration of the design was for an area larger than 12 acres. The developer has divided the property into a number of smaller sites, “with the aim of reducing the requirements of the (Land Development Code) to carry out appropriate reviews and designs, meeting the needs of a large phased development”, he wrote. An internal traffic lane is an important requirement for a plan over five acres.

Amanda Swor of the Drenner Group represented the claimant, Transwestern Development Company. However, development officer Brent Lloyd spoke on behalf of city staff, saying staff applied the code correctly and consistently.

The developer started with the largest property, but the property under appeal was reduced to 4.97 acres after subtracting the city’s required 1.7-acre park allotment. It’s just below the five-acre trigger to comply with the internal traffic requirement; however, according to a Lloyd’s memo, staff persuaded the applicant to provide internal connectivity, “and the proposed plans have been revised to include a publicly accessible connection between Westminster and Berkman as well as pedestrian walkways throughout the site”.

Lloyd noted that staff did not want to include parks in overall calculations in general, as this could have the unintended consequence of allowing more impermeable cover on a site with adjoining parks.

Swor said his client went through an equivalent approval process on internal circulation. She noted that the developer worked with the Parks and Recreation Department for two years and that the department drove decisions about the size and location of the 1.7-acre park parcel. In response to a question, she said development is progressing under three site development permits.

Board Member Richard Smith moved to allow the appeal. He argued that the park should have been included in the calculations to determine site plan regulations and that failure to do so “taints the whole process.” Several other council members agreed that the park should have been included, but were unclear on how to move forward if they supported the appeal. Going into executive session to craft a motion would not have been legal under open meeting laws and council members had already dealt with the matter for more than three hours by then.

Board member Michael Von Ohlen argued at length against granting the appeal and moved a motion to dismiss the neighbors’ request. However, he agreed with those who argued that the VMU part of the city code needed an overhaul.

Several BOA members agreed with the district that staff members made mistakes in granting approval for the site plan, but blamed the code itself rather than the people responsible for interpreting it.

President Jessica Cohen said the motion to dismiss the appeal will pass.

“And yet we are again faced with an outdated code that is negatively impacting a great neighborhood that has worked hard to develop its neighborhood and ensure it is fair and walkable, and not just for trucks. I find that frustrating. This is not the intent of what VMU is for.

Cohen promised Hersh that she would take her documentation with her to visit the Planning Commission to see if she could resolve the issues raised by the appeal.

Rendering of Windsor Village by Wilder Belshaw Architects.

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