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Board rejects restaurant’s parking variance

Thursday, February 16, 2006 by

South Congress Café’s request opposed by neighborhoods, adjacent business

The Board of Adjustment on Monday night rejected a parking variance request for the South Congress Café. The owners of the restaurant at 1600 S. Congress Ave. made the request after adding a deck to the back of the building, increasing the usable square footage and triggering a requirement for more parking in the crowded area.

Members of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association and the South River City Citizens came out to oppose the variance for the restaurant, which was in a legal battle with the City of Austin last year after the deck and the surrounding fence were constructed without a permit (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 29, 2005). But the city and Trudy’s Texas Star, Inc., which owns the café, reached a settlement agreement in that case giving the company until June 2 to bring the restaurant into compliance or remove the offending structures.

As part of the effort to secure compliance, the owners requested the parking variance. “I’ll be the first to admit, mistakes were made in how this got to you,” said attorney Richard Suttle, who represented the business. “My client, they’re good at running restaurants, but they’re not good at fishing through the city code. They hired a deck builder who said there’s a provision in the code that you don’t have to have a site plan for a deck, and sure enough, there is,” he explained. “But if you’re building a deck and you’re going to put seats on it and it’s going to be part of your restaurant, you trigger a lot of other things.”

He argued that the business deserved a variance to make up for the overall lack of parking in the neighborhood, that the owners were limited in changes they could make to the building itself because of its historic nature, and that the space behind the restaurant would otherwise be unusable. “If you deny this variance, he’s either got to find another way to keep the deck and fence, or you’re saying that he’s got two to three thousand square feet of land that the city is not going to let him use. He can’t pave it reasonably and he can’t put an open-air deck out there.”

One adjacent business owner urged the board to reject the parking variance request. “The South Congress Café site is just plain and simple over-developed,” said attorney Nikelle Meade, who represented nearby Allen’s Boots. “The result is that there’s no loading and unloading, there’s no parking, and trucks park in the middle of Monroe Street or park in my client’s parking lot, which makes it difficult for his customers to reach his facility.” She also discounted Suttle’s claim that his clients were ignorant of the city code when the deck was built. “They have five restaurants that I can count,” she said. “So for them to argue they didn’t know there was a parking issue in the code that they needed to look at is pretty absurd.”

Neighbors were even more severe in their criticism of the restaurant. “The South Congress Café has exhibited really flagrant and willful disregard for the city building procedures and ordinances,” said Kathie Tovo. “We ask you to send a strong message that the city takes the health and welfare of its citizens seriously, and hold these developers accountable for disregarding city ordinances.”

Board members found very little in Suttle’s arguments to persuade them. “I find the way this was done offensive to the city of Austin and to the neighbors,” said Board Member Herman Thun. “I really do.”

But Suttle stressed that the deck and the eight-foot fence had been built without bad intent. “I’m convinced that they didn’t just try to go build it first and ask for forgiveness later,” he said. The company had experienced changes in management during the period when the deck was being built, he said, reminding the board that the owners had relied upon advice from the contractor who built the deck. “I originally thought this is one of those things where they ask forgiveness instead of permission, but as I dug through it I’m convinced that’s not the case.”

The board voted 5-0 to reject the variance. But that will not mean the deck will be removed. Since the settlement agreement gives the owners until the beginning of June to bring the site into compliance, they are also working on several other alternatives.

One of those involves securing an off-site parking agreement with another property owner in the area. The other involves securing a license agreement from the City for a portion of the fence and landscaping that are in the city-owned right-of-way. Suttle said talks on both of those agreements were in progress, and if they are completed in time the restaurant would be allowed to keep the deck.

Planning Commission backs moratorium

Ordinance comes back to Council tonight; task force to be named to study issue

The Planning Commission has given its approval to the interim ordinance limiting the size of new and remodeled homes in older neighborhoods, but with the caveat that the Council’s proposed task force should take up a list of broader issues surrounding the problem of big houses on small lots.

The commission also recommended adding duplexes to the moratorium. Council Member Betty Dunkerley said Wednesday that she, Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken would recommend that change to the rest of the Council today.

It was a case of déjà vu for anyone who was at last week’s Council meeting. Department directors Greg Guernsey and Joe Pantalion offered essentially the same presentation that was made last week. And while the crowd was more heavily weighted toward neighborhood concerns on Tuesday, many of the speakers were the same ones who offered comments to Council. In fact, very little new ground was trod during the Planning Commission meeting.

What was different, however, was the Planning Commission’s own efforts to tackle McMansions. A commission subcommittee has hashed and rehashed the issues related to overly large houses and dormitory-style residences in single-family neighborhoods. That’s probably why commissioners were more vocal on issues such as the inclusion of duplexes along with single-family uses in the interim ordinance.

Chair Chris Riley said he feared that developers, faced with single-family use limitations, would turn to duplexes in the same zoning category to maximize investment.

When the time came for a final vote, Commissioner Dave Sullivan said he would feel more comfortable outlining a list of study issues raised by both the audience and commission members. He ticked off a quick list he considered relevant for discussion: potential impervious cover limit changes; floor-to-area-ratio options in neighborhood plans; use of floor area to footprint as a metric for compatibility; higher drainage fees in older areas; utility efficiency of larger structures; stepping back the height of the structure relative to lot size; prohibition of mechanical equipment in side yards; new compatibility standards triggered by the size of a house, such as garage placement behind the house in larger homes; and, as Riley recommended, tools to handle such issues in areas of the city without established neighborhood plans.

Commissioner Matt Moore added a study proposal to direct density to particular areas of the city, saying that it has always been the Planning Commission’s goal to support density in the inner city and that the group should be more proactive on the issue. The commission approved the full list of recommended issues unanimously, although Riley noted that the list was not an indication that the group supported each and every measure.

Once that list of recommended issues was approved, it was easier for the commission to approve the Council’s recommended interim ordinance. Commissioner Cid Galindo, the member most vocal about the ordinance not going far enough, was the lone vote against the ordinance. Others noted his concern but agreed to vote for it to move the process forward, agreeing that more could be done.

For his part, Galindo proposed replacing the city’s proposed limitations and, instead, tying limitations on construction to either 40 percent impervious cover or a floor to building footprint ratio of 2.5-to-1. Commissioners, uncertain what the impact of the new proposal might be on current and pending development, declined to support the motion, although the group was open to further discussion and study of the proposals.

The moratorium is supposed to be tied to use rather than zoning category, but Guernsey noted that some single-family zoning categories actually limit development to less than 40 percent impervious cover. Jean Mather, a commissioner on the Historic Landmark Commission and co-president of the South River City Citizens organization, said she, as an architect, would prefer to see 30 percent, or optimally 25 percent, on a lot.

The Council will take up the moratorium on second and third reading after 6pm tonight, along with the appointment of a 13-member task force to study the issue. The subcommittee will consists six members of the development community, including representatives from, the Homebuilders Association, the Real Estate Council of Austin, the American Institute of Architects, a remodeler, a land use planner and an at-large member. Also on the panel will be one member of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, five neighborhood representatives, and one member of the Austin Heritage Society.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

May kickoff tonight . . . Eliza May will have a party to celebrate the official kickoff of her campaign beginning at 5:30pm tonight at Juan in a Million, 2300 E. Cesar Chavez. May’s campaign manager, Stephanie Hale, said the Place 2 candidate would file documents to get a spot on the ballot on Friday. Two other candidates, Mike Martinez and Hector Uribe, have said they would also make a run for the seat being vacated by Council Member Raul Alvarez. Alvarez, who has served two terms, decided not to run for re-election because he would have been required to collect signatures of 10 percent of the city’s voters in order to do so . . . Mitchell heading up pro-charter amendment PAC . . . Longtime SOS Alliance supporter Kirk Mitchell designated ACLU activist Kathy Mitchell—no relation—as treasurer of the Clean Water Clean Government PAC. SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch is the assistant treasurer. Kirk Mitchell said yesterday that he is helping raise money for the new committee, which will work to convince voters to approve two charter amendments on the May 13 ballot. Kirk and his father, George Mitchell, have made generous contributions to SOS. The elder Mitchell, founder of Mitchell Energy & Development Corp, is known for his support of organizations promoting environmental responsibility and sustainable technologies . . . Clerk’s office counting signatures . . . City Clerk Shirley Gentry and her staff began verifying signatures yesterday on the petition filed by SOS Monday. The petition, which contains 20,743 signatures, was first shipped off to a printer to be duplicated. Gentry said her staff would work to verify 5,186—25 percent—of those names. The city has employed a statistician to select the names and do the math. Gentry said she believes that given the number of signatures, the petitions must have a validity rate of more than 96 percent in order to satisfy the legal requirement of 20,000 valid signatures. Last year’s petition to enact an anti-smoking ordinance had a 92 percent validity rate . . . NOPE appeals permit . . . The Neighbors Organized to Protect the Environment (NOPE) has filed a lawsuit in Travis County District Court against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, appealing an operating permit allowing KDBJ Partners to run a rock crushing plant near the Ruby Ranch neighborhood in Northern Hays County. TCEQ reissued KDBJ’s water pollution abatement plan in November, after it was ruled invalid by a Travis County District Judge in September. The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District also recently denied the company’s request to drill a well . . . Downtown Commission worried about bonds . . . Faced with another round of cuts to the city’s proposed bond issue, the Downtown Commission would like to send another letter to Council reiterating projects it wants to keep on the ballot once its pared down from $614 million to $500 million. Obviously, the Waller Creek tunnel project is out, and the big question for the Downtown Commission is whether the new central library remains in limbo with less-than-full funding under a revised bond proposal. That’s a question the Downtown Commission likely will be asking again next month. The Council is scheduled to hear another presentation on the bond election at 2pm today . . . Haas complains . . . Architect Stan Haas groused a bit over the McMansions issue at last night’s Downtown Commission meeting. While the ordinance is unlikely to have much effect on downtown, it’s not unexpected to hear a member speak out on the issue. The Downtown Commission is weighted more heavily toward developer and architect interests, and Haas chafed a bit at the city creating “just one more overlay” of requirements that discourages development of the inner city. Haas told his fellow commissioners that he found the city’s approach to the issue “extremely reactionary” and considered the use of flood control to set an emergency agenda item an unfortunate "pretense " . . . Engineer’s Day at museum . . . As part of Engineers Week, the Austin Branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers will sponsor the fifth annual Engineer’s Day at the Austin Children’s Museum. The event will allow children to learn basic engineering applications through interactive, hands-on activities, assisted by practicing engineers. The event will be held from 10am to 2pm, on February 25 at the Austin Children’s Museum, 201 Colorado St. . . . . Annie’s List . . . A special preview party for the April 2006 Annie’s List Austin luncheon is planned for Monday. The meeting will outline fundraising efforts to ensure Annie’s List has the resources to support its endorsed candidates. Annie’s List is a statewide political network that raises money for Democratic women candidates so that they are credible contenders and was named for Annie Webb Blanton, Ph.D., the first woman elected to statewide office in Texas. She was elected Superintendent of Schools in 1918, before women could vote in general elections. The evening is planned for 5:30pm on Monday at the home of JoLynn Free, 609 Park Blvd. For information, contact Yael Ouzillon at 440-8791, or Yael@annieslist.com.

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