San Marcos Assistant Planning Director Matthew Lewis discusses the proposed SmartCode at a public meeting in June. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
San Marcos Planning and Zoning (P&Z) commissioners again delayed a proposed form-based zoning code last week, hoping to take it up when the commission’s docket isn’t so crowded.
Commissioners first delayed action on SmartCode at their June 22 meeting after an unusual number of residents attended to express confusion and skepticism. At about 11:30 p.m. on July 27, after six hours of discussion and public hearings devoted to the form-based code and other controversial matters at an equally well attended meeting, city staff asked commissioners when they should put the SmartCode on the agenda.
“I want to leave it flexible so you can pick a date where we don’t have a bunch of stuff on the agenda,” replied P&Z Commissioner Curtis Seebeck.
Commissioners Jim Stark and Jude Prather cast the lone votes against postponing adoption or rejection of the SmartCode.
Most of the residents who showed up to speak about the SmartCode were skeptical or opposed to it. The current level of public opposition was not evident until a June 22 P&Z meeting, where residents who had recently received mailed zoning change notifications packed the city council chambers to express confusions and criticisms concerning the SmartCode.
P&Z Commission Chair Sherwood Bishop said the city council may have stirred a hornet’s nest by considering mandatory conformity to the SmartCode in the historic neighborhoods in addition to downtown. The council in July changed course and opted to only consider implementing the SmartCode downtown.
The SmartCode, developed by city planning staff and consultant firm Placemakers, focuses on the forms of buildings and streets. The code is intended to revitalize downtown and make the area more conducive to walking and bicycling by stimulating a denser mixture of various building uses while preserving the San Marcos’ unique character.
The SmartCode also is intended to allow the development of unique zoning laws in discrete sections of the city, which is not allowed by current provisions of the land development code (LDC). The SmartCode, if adopted, would not replace the LDC, which would continue to govern actions not covered by the SmartCode.
The proposed implementation of the SmartCode, as it now stands, would be mandatory for downtown construction only. The SmartCode would be optional for developments of 80 or more acres, though notification of nearby residents, two public hearings, and two votes of the city council would be required for approval.
Lindsey Lofts developer and Austin resident Robert Hageman, arguing that the Smart Code would make residential development of his half-acre on 116 South Edward Gary Street, said he would consider building a bar on his half-acre on if the SmartCode were implemented. H. C. Kyle, former P&Z commissioner, said the SmartCode would create a bigger parking problem downtown because students mostly use vehicles for transport.
Kyle said he speaks from experience because he has leased multi-family units to university students for seven years. Kyle said students have caused a lack of parking all over the city.
City staff said Lindsey Lofts provides more parking spaces than the SmartCode would allow for new construction projects. Hageman said he has long advertised commercially zoned Edward Gary lot for lease. Hageman said he would rather build a multi-family development there, but the SmartCode would bind him to using the ground floor for retail and would limit the number of living units he could build.
“I’ve been developing and building for 35 years,” Hageman said. “I don’t have to build. I enjoy building. What I heard was 24 units per acre (maximum) for apartments, what I’ve heard is I have to put retail on the ground floor. I’ve heard that I have to hide my parking in the rear of the building … The numbers won’t work for me. I cannot build on my lot under those terms, period, end of story. And it’s a vacant piece of ground. I can do whatever I want on it. Financially, it won’t work.
“… I put in more parking spaces in my place (Lindsey Lofts) than I was required to, and I was glad I did, because it’s full all the time. And I only built 14 units there. On that half an acre, I wanted to build double that, because it’s twice the size. But under this SmartCode, I won’t be able to build but maybe 14 or 15 units, because that’s all the space I’ll have after I try to put ground floor retail, which won’t lease. I’ve already experienced the fact that it won’t lease … So for me to go out there and build ground floor retail as a condition of building the units above, it would be suicide.”
Said San Marcos Assistant Planning Director Matthew Lewis, “The parking issue is a big issue, and it needs to be handled through a parking plan. This (SmartCode) doesn’t address all of the parking issues. This is one tool to create a community that we’ve established … Distributing the parking with a diversity of (building) uses will help fix the parking situation. Right now there is a lack of housing diversity, so people do have to drive. There’s a lack of retail opportunities, so people have to drive. So people are having to drive to their destinations rather than providing options to walk. Not everyone is going to walk. Some people want to drive. However, the people who do want to walk will remove those parking spaces providing options for the people who want to drive. It’s a cyclical effect that we’re stuck in here.”
John David Carson, speaking on behalf of the San Marcos Area Board of Realtors (SMABR), said SMABR supports implementation of the SmartCode in the manner proposed by staff — mandatory for downtown, and optional for 80-plus-acre developments. Carson said SMABR only has one problem with the SmartCode: the proposed 24 dwelling units per acre (DUA) maximum, which, he said, the market will not support.
SMABR government affair’s committee representative Monica McNabb said the 24 DUA maximum for three-to-five story buildings would result in living units of 4,200 to 5,000 square feet each. McNabb said her committee would support a DUA of 80-90 or may support letting the market determine unit density and prohibiting buildings from being taller than certain landmark structures, like the Hays County Courthouse. Bishop said the SmartCode permits five-story buildings in T-5 zones, except around the courthouse square.
“Adopting the SmartCode by itself will not fix all of our problems, but it’s a huge step towards preserving the things that make San Marcos great and improving it for this and future generations,” Carson said. “Everyone should be behind the SmartCode. Environmental advocates should support the SmartCode because it focuses development to appropriate areas and stops the sprawl that continues to push us out into natural habitats and waterways. It creates walkable environments that reduce our dependence on the automobile and results in the pollution of our air. Neighborhood advocates should support the SmartCode because it fosters the development of community by creating places where citizens can live, work, interact and coexist with their fellow citizens. Its thoroughfares slow down traffic on the streets and give people, from young professionals to families, options as to what kind of environment in which to live without pushing them away from the services they need.”
The SmartCode does not require multi-story buildings to have apartments in them, but does require multi-story apartment structures to contain office/retail on the ground floor level.
At least two citizens expressed mistrust of city staff during the public comment period. One citizen said P&Z commissioners have more of a stake in the San Marcos community than city staff, and another said the city’s planning and development services employees were using their personal opinions in place of fact-based arguments.
“Staff is here — we work numerous hours,” said Lewis, a San Marcos resident. “I appreciate my staff, whether we’re appreciated by the community or not, based on the statements. We are dedicated to the city, we’re dedicated to the citizens of San Marcos, and everything that we’re putting into this (SmartCode) creates it. If the (SmartCode) document were read and understood, I believe it would be much more supported than in the current state.”Email | Print