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Board of Adjustment denies variance

Tuesday, October 10, 2000 by

Requests from Congregation Beth Israel

Neighborhood objections prevail

It was an ironic and surprising blow that the Board of Adjustment dealt to Congregation Beth Israel’s plans for expansion on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

The synagogue sent representatives to the board last night to ask for two variances. One would have allowed the congregation to add an extra 10 feet to the top of a proposed education building. The other would have allowed an increase in impervious cover from 45 percent to 67 percent to add new buildings: an administration office, a school building, a parking garage and more blacktop parking areas. The synagogue is located on Shoal Creek Boulevard between 38th Street and 39 ½ Street.

Congregation Beth Israel is the oldest and the largest synagogue in Austin. The congregation passed on a chance to move to the Dell Jewish Community Center, then lost a contract on 18 acres at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School when members couldn’t raise $3 million to buy the site. Last night the synagogue asked for variances on the site of its current campus, which was built in 1956. The Congregation would like to get construction underway as soon as possible so that the educational facilities can open next fall, attorney Richard Suttle said.

Complaints from a couple of adjacent property owners, however, were the ultimate undoing of the proposed variances. Neighbor Joy Turner of the Tonkawa Bluffs subdivision told the board the synagogue had left too many questions unanswered: Would there be limits on the ultimate height of the education building? Would the parking garage be leased during the week? Was the land under the proposed parking garage stable, since it was a spring before it was covered to make a blacktop parking lot, Turner asked?

“I have many, many questions that have not been answered,” said Turner. “I urge the board to consider whether or not to grant this variance without more information.”

Suttle, of Armbrust Brown & Davis, told commissioners the construction project was an ongoing process with many junctures for discussion and compromise. He said the Rosedale Neighborhood Association had given its approval to the project after negotiations, but added that it would be impossible to please all the homeowners in the area.

“In Austin, it’s very difficult to get unanimity in getting all the issues together,” Suttle told the board. “What we try to do is meet everybody’s interests. We have been able to solve some of those, but sometimes you can’t solve them all.”

But unanimity appeared to be exactly what the commissioners wanted. Vice Chair Betty Edgemond asked for a postponement of the vote for a month in light of the objections raised. She failed to get a second on that motion. Edgemond then made the motion to deny the variances. Discussion of the item was brief and commissioners eventually split, 3-2. Edgemond, Commissioner Barbara Aybar and Alternate Leanne Heldenfels voted down the variances. Chair Herman Thun and Commissioner Laurie Virkstis voted for the variances. Commissioner Frank Fuentes was absent.

It was the first defeat Suttle has suffered before the Board of Adjustments in the last 10 years. He intends to appeal the board’s decision next month.

During the board’s discussion, Aybar expressed concern that enough time be given to work out issues with a property owner on Seiders Street who would face the proposed garage. In response, Suttle stressed the parking garage was not part of the requested variances and could go forward without the consent of property owners.

Joyce Brown of the Rosedale Neighborhood Association came to the microphone and told commissioners that the variances really were an outgrowth of neighborhood feedback that the congregation should build up, instead of out, on its property.

During his presentation, Suttle argued that Congregation Beth Israel had worked hard with abutting property owners and the Rosedale Neighborhood Association. The congregation had agreed to a variance under SF-3, rather than a zoning change for higher density. At the insistence of neighbors, Beth Israel added buffers between the construction and environmentally sensitive wetlands on the property. They agreed to drop the elevation of the parking garage to no more than 32 feet to avoid obstructing the view. They even notched out an area in the parking garage to maintain an oak tree on the property.

Congregation Beth Israel faces special difficulties with expansion on its property because of the environment. City officials have asked for a 150-foot setback from the wetlands on the eastern edge of the property, as well as a 75-foot setback from a spring on the northeast edge of the property. The drainage areas along the edges of the property also sit in a 25-year floodplain.

Design Commission postpones

Recommendation for Mirabeau

Commissioners ask for more visual aids

The Design Commission last night decided to wait until October 23 to make a new recommendation to the City Council on the Mirabeau condominium project at 200 S. Congress. The project, previously called Gotham, has changed significantly since the commission originally rejected it. It now appears that several members feel that the floor-to-area ratio (FAR) is no longer a problem.

Mirabeau would sit on the southwest corner of the Congress Avenue Bridge. Sarah Crocker, who represents developer John McKinnerney of Austin-based Simmons Vedder & Co., said an architect from Page Southerland Page flew to San Francisco to consult with Jim Adams of the ROMA Design Group. Adams has been the principal designer of the newest version of development standards around Town Lake. The architect has worked with Adams’ recommendations to make the building more acceptable than Gotham—which caused a great deal of controversy, especially in South Austin.

Commissioner Girard Kinney said, “We were to report to the City Council that we didn’t have a problem with the FAR,” as a result of discussions at a previous meeting. The Council last week postponed action on McKinnerney’s zoning request until Oct. 26.

After a rather philosophical discussion about whether the FAR should be used to limit building size, several members asked for more photographs or videos to help the commission see what drivers and pedestrians on South Congress will see as they approach the intersection.

Jeff Jack, executive assistant to Council Member Beverly Griffith and president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, continues to worry about the height, mass and volume of the building. Jack, who is an architect, indicated he is still concerned about how the building would impact the view of the lake.

Kinney said the ROMA report guidelines, which suggested a FAR of 1:1 or 2:1, was not dense enough. Commissioner Phillip Reed said he did not disagree with increasing the density, but wanted to see what the repercussions of the FAR might be. The Design Commission has suggested a FAR of 3:1 or 4:1 would be more appropriate. Crocker said Mirabeau is designed at 4.12:1.

Kinney finally took on one of the core issues that is rarely discussed: whether the site is really a part of South Austin or a part of downtown. Kinney said, “Some of us think that this site and the areas along the lake are very much a part of downtown Austin—as well as being a very important part of South Austin. One of the reasons there is not a resolution on these sorts of interstitial areas is that we want to honor the corridors and neighborhoods and areas where other folks were already involved . . . One of the jobs that we have as a Design Commission is to understand that we are never going to write rules that are going to cover every situation. We can try, but then when a specific area, particularly on the edge like this, comes up we’re never going to get it down to a formula. We just never will. One of our jobs is to use discretion and judgement and make the best recommendation.”

Following the meeting, Crocker said the project would pay additional taxes once completed, as part of a Public Improvement District (PID). She said the City Council enacted an ordinance several years ago, which covered the Hyatt Regency, Embassy Suites, American-Statesman and the 200 Congress properties. Michael Knox, the city’s downtown officer, said the additional revenues would “pay for things like the Downtown Rangers.”

Board of Adjustment okays parking

Variances for communications centers

Equipment-intensive offices may need different rules

Is all office/warehouse space created alike? Apparently not. Melissa Whaley, vice president of Austin Permit Service, Inc., asked the Board of Adjustment (BOA) last night to consider amending the city’s current land use code to exclude equipment-intensive communication centers from the parking requirements of office/warehouse space.

Whaley represented applicants on three such cases before the BOA last night, two of them in the mixed-use Met Center development. These communication centers require no visitors, are equipment-intensive and have low staffing, Whaley argued. A designation of one parking space per 500 square feet of gross space makes no sense when a 200,000-square-foot building requires only 20 to 60 people per shift, Whaley told the commissioners.

Whaley assured members of the BOA that the requested variance—which would cut the parking from 302 off-street parking spots to 160 spots at one Met Center building and 320 parking spots to 109 off-street parking places at another Met Center building—was similar to past requests. Board members approved the variance unanimously on the two Met Center cases, as well as a communications center at 7500 Metro Center Drive.

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

No comment. . . ROAD founder Gerald Daugherty and Chairman Jim Skaggs “are both big fans” of Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, according to ROAD Executive Director Kathy Pillmore. However, neither had any comment on what they discussed at their luncheon yesterday. Capital Metro watchers speculated that Skaggs and Daugherty were trying to convince Cornyn to assist them in their claim that public money is being spent to promote light rail, even though the transit company has said it isn’t. . . Asian transport service begins… Eagle Global Logistics today begins direct cargo service between Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and Taipei. Flights will arrive at ABIA on Tuesdays and Fridays. Eagle spokesman Ron Tally explained this company is “breaking away from the traditional gateways and going directly to the customer, specifically servicing the high tech industry.”. . . Pro-rail party. . . Austin Choices for Transportation is having a benefit tonight at Miguel's La Bodega, 415 Colorado St. from 5:30-7:30 pm to support the grassroots campaign for Light Rail. . . Friday the 13th. . . The LCRA is looking for volunteers who know about Hill Country native plants to assist in removing and replanting wetlands in the Tom Miller Dam and Red Bud Trail area. For more information call Wendy Connally at 473-3200, ext. 2030.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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