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Panel recommends historic status despite neighbors' opposition

Thursday, June 10, 2004 by

East Austin landmark might provide mixed uses in the future

Members of the Planning Commission found themselves Tuesday night in the unusual position of hearing a historic zoning case in which the owner of the property had initiated the request but the neighborhood was opposed. Both sides agreed that the property at 1211 San Bernard St. merited the historic designation. But representatives of the Swede Hill neighborhood argued that granting the historic status would facilitate a future zoning change and bring commercial uses to the site, which is currently zoned SF-3-NP.

The building is known as the Giese-Stark Store. Originally built around 1900, according to Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, the store has several unique architectural properties and historical significance for the neighborhood. “It’s a very important store; it represents a very important piece of Austin’s history being a neighborhood grocery store,” he said. “This is an opportunity to bring a very important building back into economic viability as a residential unit.” Grocer Adolph Giese operated a store at the location in the early 1900s. Beginning in 1947, the building housed a grocery store operated by Frank Stark. In the 1970s it was converted into an antique store. Over the past several years the building has sat vacant. The property downzoned to SF-3-NP as part of the Central East Austin Neighborhood Plan, which calls for preserving residential uses in the area and concentrating commercial development along 12th Street.

“Currently, we plan to use it as our residence,” said David Cox, who will be handling the restoration of the store along with Amy Maner. “But in the future we may come back and ask for mixed-use zoning. This store was just that . . . a commercial building for over 80 years. We believe that the neighborhood could use something like this, but we haven’t decided what it is we would like to do . . . but we would like to reserve that option for the future.”

The prospect of commercial use and the accompanying traffic prompted James Medina of the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association to oppose the historic designation. “The directly adjacent neighbors have expressed appreciation and support of David and Amy when it comes to restoring the store,” he said. “However, they are in opposition to any type of zoning, including historic, which would facilitate the change to non-residential use. The ARA (Austin Revitalization Authority) process identifies 12th Street as a commercial corridor for that area. We’ve gone to great lengths and many meetings to focus commercial on 12th Street and not bring additional business into the neighborhood.”

While sympathetic to the neighborhood’s concerns, Commission Chair Chris Riley questioned the validity of their argument that commercial would not be suitable on that site. “How do you reconcile that with the fact that for the past century, this building actually operated as a store? Has it been incompatible for the whole century?” But Riley later said he did not want to entirely discount the input of the surrounding community in deciding on the historic recommendation. “I do understand and respect the concerns of the neighborhood,” he said. “This neighborhood has been willing to accommodate significant density and commercial development on 12th Street, so it’s understandable that they don’t want to see intrusions off of that artery. But I would encourage everyone that’s interested in this case to keep an open mind about the possibilities for this building. My sense is that mixed-use developments can be very valuable to neighborhoods, even in areas where you already have significant commercial development on nearby arteries.”

Commissioner John-Michael Cortez pointed out that any mixed-use designation for the property would have to come back before the Planning Commission. “It seems that the neighbors are of the opinion that they’d like to see single-family there . . . obviously, that’s what’s in the plan,” he said. “At this point, I would not be amenable to changing that. But we’re not talking about the land use tonight, we’re just talking about making this a little easier for the owners to make an investment in this property to preserve it.”

The Commission voted 5-0 to endorse the change from SF-3-NP to SF-3-H-NP. City staff and the Historic Landmark Commission are also supporting the request, which will go on to the City Council for final approval. .

Design standards a must for 'hot' cities, urban expert says

National retail consultant Robert Gibbs ended his 24-hour whirlwind tour of Austin with the assessment that the city falls below the design standards of other “hot” cities.

Austin is seen nationally as one of the “cool” cities in the country, Gibbs told members of the working group on city design standards. Trends of growth are likely to continue for the following reasons: Austin is a Sunbelt city with an active college scene, a progressive lifestyle and an attractive cultural scene. Ann Arbor, Michigan and Madison, Wisconsin are also population magnets for some of the same reasons, Gibbs told the luncheon group.

But Austin doesn’t measure up to these cities regarding design standards, Gibbs said. “There is probably room to dial it up to a higher level,” Gibbs said. “In the long run, it provides more compatibility and more quality of life.”

Gibbs made that assessment with the caveat that he had spent 24 hours of observation in Austin, 12 hours of which were devoted to sleeping and 8 spent in a closed meeting room. Gibbs urged the group to make a serious effort to attract hot retailers and to work toward bringing higher design standards to downtown Austin.

Austin needs to attract hot retailers downtown before they move into suburban shopping malls, Gibbs said. By luring those desirable tenants to the area, the city can create a walkable, livable center with good retail and desirable shops.

“I would encourage you to keep doing what you’re doing,” Gibbs told the group. “It’s very hard to tell the private sector what to do, but if you keep at it, you could be one of the great cities in the country. You’ve got all the elements to do that.”

Gibbs ran down a number of site design elements for the group, asking for preferences. Some of the themes members of the group generated included the need to raise design standards without seriously impacting market rates. The development approval process should be streamlined, possibly with a checklist, to make it easier to get through, Gibbs said. The group also talked about providing design variances for creative exceptions.

National developers are open to higher design standards, especially when they don’t directly impact profit, Gibbs said. National retailers are also open to requirements such as smaller signage and brick masonry. Landscape requirements are viewed as being a plus for retail, because they reinforce brand names. An item like parking spaces is less negotiable.

The one thing the retailer wants to know is that the playing field is level, Gibbs said. No retailer wants to be stuck with a small sign in between two businesses with larger signs.

Members of the group agreed that landscaping should be based on a percentage of cover over the parking lot, rather than a prescriptive solution such as “one tree very 10 feet.” One possibility would be 70 percent cover within 10 years. The committee was less inclined to say anything about requirements on ornamental plants or plant beds, except to continue with a policy of using native plants that require little water.

On site lighting, the group was more inclined to set standards for maximum lighting than minimum lighting. The group discussed the possibility of providing greater rewards for developers who choose to employ higher quality light or use better quality light fixtures.

On land use, Gibbs talked about developer Simon Properties move to create “Alls” rather than “Malls:” a mixture of office, retail and residential development in a single property, rather than the traditional mall setting. The group was more inclined to recommend or encourage those requirements near the city’s core. Developments that met the requirement might be given incentives, such as waiving certain parking restrictions.

Gibbs cautioned that suburban mixed-use projects, often known as “lifestyle centers,” could be a threat to downtown living. The popularity of such projects in Baton Rouge, Charleston and West Palm Beach has become a regional issue. The way to counterbalance the trend is to make sure the same retailers are located downtown, Gibbs said.

Design standards can also recommend, or incentivize, placement of buildings on a property. Gibbs’ company has specialized in the “double reverse L,” which uses two smaller shopper centers, each a “reverse L,” to create a street front and road to the larger big-box retailer at the back of the property. In some cases, cities have reduced parking requirements for developers willing to try innovative designs, such as massing the buildings on one side of the property. The group also agreed that retail establishments “up to the street” only worked when on-street parking was available.

Parking requirements might be desirable along certain high-use retail corridors in the city, such as Lamar Boulevard. In Gibbs’ projects, parking is typically parallel only on the town square with parking meters, with diagonal parking on side streets. That opens up the street to retail. Each on-street parking space, Gibbs said, should represent $300,000 a year in sales, roughly the required revenue for a 1,500-square-foot retail establishment.

The group also had a favorable reception to three-dimensional signs, such as the character on top of Fran’s Hamburgers on South Congress. The group was more willing to limit branded signs on national retailers, such as the orange-and-white roofs of Whataburger restaurants. The group was less inclined to limit the signs of local retailers.

Council to award 2nd Street contract today

The contract on the first phase of construction on Second Street, the $1.2 million reconstruction of Second Street between Colorado and Trinity, will go to the Council today. The total projected budget for the reconstruction and streetscape for seven blocks along Second Street is $11.5 million. The first phase, which will provide drainage improvements and expanded sidewalks, is scheduled to start in the third week of June. Completion is timed to coincide with the opening of City Hall in November.

There will be more street closures. First one side then the other will be improved along Second Street. That means blocks will be restriped for two-way traffic while drainage is improved and water utilities are extended, Pollyanne Melton told the Design Commission this week. Also, sidewalks will be widened as part of the city’s Great Streets program. The first blocks include the AMLI apartment project and City Hall. AMLI and the city are providing their own streetscape improvements. The contract also includes the installation of street furnishings for the two CSC blocks and the AMLI site. The street furniture was promised in the initial CSC contract and folded into this project.

The full project will cross seven blocks, from the Convention Center to the Children’s Museum, Melton said. The project will include a major piece of interpretative water artwork, some kind of “way finding” directionals and utility upgrades.

Of the total $11.5 million budget, $3 million will come out of the Build Greater Austin funds. Another $4 million will come out of the Capital Metro quarter-cent tax rebate. The department is also seeking other funds to finish out the project.

The city also recently took bids on streetlights for the Great Streets project. Prototypes are hanging on the western-most side of the CSC block, Melton said. Two different kinds of lights are currently being tested. .

Today’s City Council meeting . . . The ( UNO) Neighborhood Plan for areas around the University of Texas will be up for a vote this week. The Council will also hear staff recommendations on changes to the city’s historic preservation program. Austan Librach, director of the Transportation Planing and Sustainability Department, described staff objections to some of the Historic Preservation Task Force’ s recommendations in a memo to the Council this week. Staff is recommending that all properties designated historic be eligible for tax incentives, regardless of age. The task force had decided that only structures at least 75 years old be eligible, although they recommended that all currently designated historical buildings continue to receive the discount . . . No automatic day off for funeral . . . County Judge Sam Biscoe sent out a message yesterday indicating that some county employees had contacted his office to find out whether Friday would be a holiday to observe the passing of former President Ronald Reagan. He wrote, “After much thought, here is my decision. I have decided against declaring Friday a holiday. I strongly encourage managers to work with interested employees on allowing them to use one of their three personal days. For the record, my decision would be the same if President Reagan had been a Democrat” . . . New director named . . . Sherri Moore has been named the interim director of Health and Human Services for Travis County. Moore has been with Travis County for four years, starting in Juvenile Court as Division Director of Court Services. She moved to the position of Family Support Services Division Director in 2001. Friday is Stephen Williams' last day as the county’s director of Health and Human Services. Williams is moving on to be the Health Director for the City of Houston . . . Regional planning meeting cancelled due to high water . . . Last night’s Regional Planning Meeting in Dripping Springs was cancelled because a number of area roads were closed due to heavy rainfall. Executive Director Terry Tull tentatively rescheduled the meeting for next Wednesday, June 16, at 7pm at Dripping Springs City Hall . . . Domain agreement lawsuit settled . . . Local businessman Brian Rodgers settled his lawsuit against Endeavor Real Estate and the City of Austin over The Domain agreement. According to Rodgers, the provision of the deal between the city and Endeavor requiring the city to rebate sales and property taxes from the development in Northwest Austin to Endeavor will now be strictly voluntary because Endeavor is waiving its right to sue for damages if the agreement is not upheld. “The future City Councils are not obligated to fund this faulty agreement,” said Rodgers. “The city can direct the money to more pressing needs like public safety and roads.” The two parties actually amended their agreement back in April to include that provision. If the city fails to rebate the tax money, Endeavor and its partners will not be obligated to live up to their end of the agreement, which includes an affordable housing component. City Attorney David Smith says the city signed off strictly as a third party beneficiary. “We were not really a party to the agreement,” Smith said, noting that it was the city’s position that Endeavor could not have sued the city regardless of the settlement language. “There was an issue as to that. This clears up any argument over whether the city could be sued.” . . . Alliance releases new map . . . The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance(GEAA) held a noon press conference at Barton Springs Pool to announce the release of a new map and guide to the aquifer, as well as a three-year, $500,000 per year “Challenge Grant” from philanthropist and developer George P. Mitchell. The alliance said the maps are available for $3 at local bookstores and are complimentary with a donation. Spokesperson Bill Bunch encouraged people to join the alliance by making a donation, claiming the springs are in danger from booming development over the recharge zone. The GEAA is a conglomeration of interested groups from the various communities that sit atop the aquifer. The umbrella group formed to facilitate regional cooperation. The GEAA includes groups from San Marcos, San Antonio, Austin and Wimberley, among others. Staff attorney Brad Rockwell of the Save Our Springs Alliance said the release of the brochure and map is significant because “this map represents scientific reality. It’s not a political map..

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