Thursday December 16, 2021 by Jo Clifton
Although they rejected the idea of ââchanging the bylaws of three land use planning commissions to designate a specific meeting place, members of the city council’s audit and finance committee on Wednesday expressed their willingness to consider direct staff to hold meetings at City Hall rather than at the new License and Development Center (PDC) on Airport Boulevard.
Members of the Planning Commission, Zoning and Plating Commission and the Adjustment Council have expressed serious concerns that the move to the PDC on Airport Boulevard will significantly hamper public participation. The three commissions took the unusual decision of asking the committee to bless their request to designate City Hall as a meeting place in the commission’s bylaws.
The committee voted unanimously to send the matter back to the full board for discussion and possible action on Jan. 27. Mayor Steve Adler did not attend the meeting, but sent questions through council member Alison Alter, who chairs the committee.
Council member Kathie Tovo said she was convinced by what she had heard that these committees should continue to meet at Town Hall. She tried to include this directive in the motion to send the case back to the full council, but assistant city attorney Caroline Webster informed her that she could not do so due to the way the agenda was displayed.
No committee member has expressed support for moving the meetings away from their traditional location, and none of the committee members represent the constituents of South Austin. Alter noted that some commissions would stay at Town Hall.
According to a memo to the commissioners and the council from the directors of the Development Services Department and the Housing and Planning Department, the relocation of the commissions “will reduce reliance on the hotel council chamber from city ââand the boardroom and will strengthen the concept of the PDC. serving as the city’s one-stop-shop for all development and related permit needs.
This did not suit the commissioners. As Jolene Kiolbassa, vice president of the Zoning and Platting Commission, told the committee on Wednesday: âThe development center is where developers get the permits. It is not neutral ground. City Hall is designed for public engagement, âaccording to the city’s website. The note, she said, “reinforces the idea that the authorization and development center is designed for the benefit of customers.”
Kiolbassa went on to explain that safety and security are paramount at the town hall, but this does not appear to be the case at the development center. These committees meet in the evening. Kiolbassa pointed out that a number of those attending the committee meetings arrive by bus. It’s easy to do at the Town Hall, which has its own bus stop. The town hall also has sufficient security and lighting, she noted.
This is not the case with the development center, she said. To reach the PDC from District 2, Kiolbassa said, a bus ride to the center takes 40 minutes and involves a transfer, then walking down a poorly lit street with very little pedestrian traffic.
She showed a photo from around 8:15 pm, saying, âThis is the PDC. No lighting, no sidewalks, no cars, no people. She added that going to city hall is generally against rush hour traffic for southerners in Austin. Traveling much further north will make it more difficult to access meetings because once a person walks past City Hall they are moving with rush hour traffic, not against them, Kiolbassa said.
ZAP Commissioner Betsy Greenberg told council members that âthe PDC multipurpose room was not designed for public hearings or specifically for land use commissions. There is no platform. There is an awkward layout. Basically there are only movable tables and stackable chairs. There are no computers available … for us to review our files. She also noted that the stackable chairs were uncomfortable and that it would be difficult to sit on them during an entire meeting. In response to the complaint, staff sent a note Wednesday saying “DSD is studying the cost of the upholstered chairs and will have an update on those costs by spring 2022.”
Jessica Cohen, chair of the Board of Adjustment, lives in compound 3. She told the committee that she thought the place was a dangerous place to walk, noting that a pedestrian taking a bus would have to walk past “a adult nightclub “.
Todd Shaw, chairman of the Planning Commission, told the committee that the commission passed a resolution asking the city clerk to move forward with planning their town hall meetings for 2022. But the clerk refused.
“Location matters,” he said, noting that commissioners spend many hours at City Hall and that there are protests both outside and inside the building. City Hall, he said, is âa place where the public comes to meet. A licensing center is not the place for this public engagement. We’re asking for your vote of approvalâ¦ what we do matters and it’s the right place.
After indicating that some committees should leave town hall, but without specifying which ones, Alter asked for information on public participation, the average duration of meetings and the most active neighborhood organizations participating in the work of the committees. Shortly thereafter, Andrew Rivera, liaison officer for the ZAP and town planning boards, sent information showing that over the past five years, the average length of a town planning committee meeting has been four hours and the average number of public participants is 65. The five most active neighborhoods organizations participating in the planning commission are the Allandale Neighborhood Association, the East MLK Combined Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, the Montopolis district plan contact team, the South Congress combined district plan contact team and the south-east combined district plan contact team. The average number of attendees at a ZAP Commission meeting is 38 and the average meeting time is 2.5 hours, according to figures from Rivera.
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