Austin’s zoning ideology



I wrote in the Monitor today about City Council approving a zoning case that will rezone the old UT Coop on Dean Keeton/Medical Arts to allow the building to be used for medical offices and financial services.

Following a recommendation by city staff and the Planning Commission, Council voted 7-4 to change the property’s zoning from Neighborhood Commercial (LR) to Community Commercial (GR). As a result of the change, the University of Texas Law Foundation, which owns the property, will be able to lease the building to medical practices.

The prohibition on medical uses in the building had made it hard to attract tenants, said Pam Madere, an agent for the foundation. The property, after all, sits right between two major medical facilities: Dell Medical School and St. David’s Medical Center.

And if I told you there was one person who spoke in opposition, who would you guess that was? You probably guessed right. It was Mary Ingle, erstwhile president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council and current head of the Central Austin Neighborhoods Planning Advisory Committee (CANPAC). CANPAC is not a neighborhood association, per se, but is the neighborhood plan contact team, an elected group of people who serve as the official point of contact for city planning staff about the neighborhood plan. In practice, however, the people on the contact teams are the exact same people who run the neighborhood associations. A city audit of contact teams found that many of them, despite being quasi-government bodies, required participants to be dues-paying members of private neighborhood associations. Ingle has bristled at criticisms of the system.

Ingle’s opposition to the proposed rezoning reflects what I call the neighborhood preservationist ideology or zoning ideology.

Ingle said that she and others on the committee don’t oppose the uses envisioned by the foundation, but they don’t believe it’s necessary to rezone the property. They could achieve the same objective by seeking a conditional use permit, she said. The new zoning will provide other entitlements to the property, such as increased impervious cover and floor area ratio, that aren’t necessary.

Ingle also pointed out that there are single-family residences on Hampton Road, right next door.

“It’s not good planning to place two (zoning) categories smack up against each other in this fragile area,” said Ingle.

Ingle isn’t levying an objection that the average person understands. There’s not a big new building going up that’s going to block people’s views or generate a bunch of traffic. It’s not a strip club or a bail bonds service. Instead, Ingle and the handful of other people on CANPAC are objecting to any “upzoning,” even one that is unlikely to have a noticeable impact on people’s day-to-day lives. To ANC, neighborhood plans are not just a means to preserve neighborhood character, they are akin to a constitution that must be zealously defended against any encroachment, no matter how small. Ingle exhibited the same mentality just last month when she opposed a student housing development that required just a small zoning change.

As I’ve said before, I believe that people will always feel strongly about what gets built in their neighborhoods. But what I do not believe will persist long-term in Austin is the ideological commitment to the “protection” of single-family neighborhoods from other uses that Ingle is voicing.

Most people simply aren’t that bothered by a dentist next-door.

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