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Design Commission recommends

Tuesday, October 24, 2000 by

Mirabeau design to City Council

Last year commission rejected Gotham design

Despite the efforts of two South Austin neighborhood advocates, the Design Commission last night voted to support the redesigned condominium project that sits at the corner of the Congress Avenue Bridge. Mirabeau, previously called Gotham, “appears to substantially conform to the Downtown Design Guidelines,” according to the motion approved on a 7-1 vote, with Commissioner Joan Hyde dissenting. Commissioners Eleanor McKinney and Janet Seibert were absent.

Developer John McKinnerney of Simmons Vedder & Co took over the property at 200 S. Congress from Houston developer Randall Davis. Davis’ neo-classical architecture, greater height and blank wall to the south got a scathing review from the Design Commission last year. ( In Fact Daily, Oct. 12, 1999)

Jeff Jack, president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, and Bob Sessa of the Bouldin Neighborhood argued that the current project does not meet guidelines of the South Congress Improvement Project or ROMA guidelines for the south shore of Town Lake. Jack, an architect and aide to Council Member Beverly Griffith, said he was attending the meeting only as “a neighborhood person who has been dealing with this issue for a long time.”

Commission Chair Juan Cotera said it is the job of the Design Commission to make recommendations based on the Downtown Design Guidelines, not on any other guidelines or on neighborhood input. However, Jack’s arguments appeared to influence the commission not to go so far as to recommend the zoning change itself.

Jack commended McKinnerney and his architect, Brett Rhode of Page Southerland Page, for working with members of concerned neighborhoods. However, he was not happy that the visual presentation—a video of a drive up Congress Avenue showing a building roughly the size of the proposed condominiums—was just appearing, two days before a final City Council vote on McKinnerney’s requested zoning change. The zoning change, from LI(limited industrial) to LI-PDA (Planned Development Agreement) is up for its third and final vote at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

Rhode said he had taken plans for the project to San Francisco to get suggestions from Jim Adams of ROMA Design Group, the principal designer of the south shore guidelines. Adams recommended planting two rows of trees between the building and the street, Rhode said. Adams indicated the only difficulty with the project might be pedestrian access through the Hyatt Regency parking lot. “Otherwise, it was very clear we had hit all the targets,” Rhode said.

Commissioner Girard Kinney said, “What we were saying a year ago to the Gotham folks was that they were not meeting (the guidelines).” On the other hand, McKinnerney and his design team “look like they’ve gone an enormous distance in meeting them. And we ought to congratulate them.”

Historic Landmark Panel asks for

Early warning of development plans

Commission still angry over Tips Warehouse

Historic Landmark Commissioners took two actions last night to avoid a repeat of their strife-ridden decision to allow AMLI and Bonner Carrington to demolish the 73-year-old Tips Warehouse. ( In Fact Daily, Sept. 26,2000)

That decision divided the Historic Landmark Commission in September. When the final vote was tallied, the commission decided it was too late to save the warehouse—even though some commission members considered it a one-of-a-kind structure. With much regret on both sides of the vote, they allowed the demolition permit to stand. Last night, commissioners signed a letter to Mayor Kirk Watson articulating their discontent over circumstances leading to their decision. The letter asks city management to ensure that developments with possible historic preservation potential be referred to the commission earlier in the development process.

The letter says, “The HLC has been publicly criticized for not taking a more active role in negotiating solutions to historic zoning problems. The members of Austin’s HLC are dedicated volunteers, empowered by a city ordinance that is, on one hand, very specific to our purview, and yet in many ways vague . . . It is essential that the Mayor, City Council and City Manager establish a cooperative network to ensure communication among all impacted parties.”

“It is not uncommon for developers to plead ignorance of Austin’s historic ordinance and attempt to avoid the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) review process as an obstructive delay to their development plans, but it appears that the Mayor, the City Council and the City Manager’s Office have also inadvertently failed to include the HLC in the planning process,” commissioners wrote in the letter, dated Oct. 23.

Signing the letter was the last item in a three-and-a-half hour meeting of the commission. After the meeting, Chair Lauretta Dowd said the letter was a formal request from the Historic Landmark Commission to be considered earlier in the city’s official development process.

“In many cases, staff is made aware of the existing historic structure after a site plan has been designed and has been submitted to the City of Austin,” Dowd said. “What you’re talking about (is) a point when (changing) the project … becomes a real hardship for the developer.”

And to reinforce how the process should work, the Historic Landmark Commission designated the vaults under another of AMLI’s Second Street properties to be a historic zone. This time the decision will not be as traumatic as the Tips Warehouse decision, Dowd said, because the designation comes before the site plans. The developer knows early on, allowing designers to consider incorporating the structures.

“Our goal is to work with AMLI to incorporate these vaults into their design,” Dowd said. “They have expressed in interest in using those rooms.”

The limestone vaults sit underneath the foundation of the Goad Motor Company at 400 West Second Street. The building was bought by Covert Buick Company and used for storage until a fire destroyed part of the structure in the early 1990s. The land was included in the swap between the City of Austin and the Museum of Art earlier this year.

The vaults were built in the 1850s by the Schneider family and were intended to be cold storage vaults for beer. The Schneiders, German immigrants, would later build a grocery store across the street from 400 Second Street. Those blocks around the Schneider’s store would later become Guy Town—Austin’s infamous red light district—and eventually part of the warehouse district.

Barbara Stocklin, the city’s historic preservation officer, told the commissioners that the full boundaries of the underground vaults are still unclear. Two rooms have been uncovered. An ongoing archeological survey indicates a third room might exist. Dowd, who has toured the vaults with AMLI personnel, said the developer has indicated that they might be used either as a weight room or a wine cellar.

No plans have been put into writing, Dowd said, but representatives of the developer have expressed “some excitement” at the prospect of incorporating the structures. “It will take some creative redesign,” admitted Dowd, who expressed optimism about a possible compromise on the project.

The conditional designation of the historic zone was unanimous, with commissioners Teresa Rabago, Daniel Leary and Teresa O’Connell absent from the meeting. Commissioners asked that the item be brought back to the commission when the boundaries of the vaults are finalized. The request for historic designation will next go to the Planning Commission and then to the City Council .

Smart growth matrix needs historic

Component, commission says

Previous matrix had points for preservation

The Historic Landmark Commission learned last night that the city’s SMART Growth matrix no longer rewards developers to preserve historic structures or incorporate them into their construction plans.

George Adams, principal planner with the Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department, came to the Historic Landmark Commission to explain the latest SMART Growth matrix. Adams told commissioners that preservation of historic buildings did receive points, but no line item confirming this was evident during his presentation.

The SMART Growth matrix creates a tally of points for developers. Point levels allow the city to defray a portion of city fees for development within Austin’s Desired Development Zone. Chair Lauretta Dowd pointed out to Adams that the preservation of historic structures was once worth as many points as an energy-friendly “green” building. Now it would score zero. She asked him why.

“I don’t have a good answer for you at the moment,” Adams admitted. “Obviously, I was a little unaware about the line item.”

Adams told commissioners that the points for historic preservation likely were folded into another area under the matrix. SMART Growth points are limited, Adams said, to keep the tally manageable. He also added that the matrix was “not this all-powerful thing.” It should encourage developers to meet guidelines the city wants to promote, but is not likely to make downtown Austin more enticing than, for example, Lake Travis.

Several commissioners voiced their wish that a rewrite include historic structures, or even the preservation of a portion of a historic structure such as a façade. Commissioner Laurie Limbacher said there is an inherent conflict between SMART Growth and historic preservation. SMART Growth encourages density at any cost, Limbacher said, while the goal of historic preservation is to maintain historic structures.

Dowd said her concept was that SMART Growth was intended to “go back to the things that worked” historically in Austin, such as the grid-like layout of streets.

The staff is currently writing rules to institutionalize the SMART Growth matrix. Adams promised he would take the commission concerns back to the department. The rules should be completed in the next month.

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

Artist honored . . . The Historic Landmark Commission last night honored Robert Jones for his creation of the banners and bookmarks for Black History Month, the 100th anniversary of the Moonlight Towers and Diez Y Seis. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman presented the award to Jones . . . Postponed . . . A number of high-profile items on the Historic Landmark Commission agenda, including historic zoning for the 3rd Street rail trestle and three Red River Street lots where Vignette wants to build, were put on hold until the Historic Landmark Commission meeting on Nov. 27. . . La Vista previewed . . . Mary Guererro-McDonald brought conceptual drawings of her planned condominium project to the Design Commission last night. La Vista on Lavaca will be at the site of the M.D. Pharmacy at 17th and Lavaca. Guererro-McDonald said she plans to have a floor of retail, including a restaurant, three floors of executive offices, and four floors of condos. Commissioner Joan Hyde will head up the subcommittee to evaluate the project for Smart Growth points. . . Water warning . . . Operators of the city’s Walnut Creek Wastewater treatment plant were forced to use emergency generators yesterday as a power outage damaged the plant’s equipment. The sewage entering the Colorado River is “disinfected,” but people should not be swimming in it, according to Chris Lippe, acting director of Water and Wastewater. The city also said people who get their drinking water from wells within 200 feet of the river should boil the water for two minutes before using it. No time was given for a return to normal.

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

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