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Council lowers Riverside high-rise

Monday, June 26, 2006 by

Despite a list of incentives offered by the developer, the Council voted last week to knock about 70 feet off the top of a residential tower at the corner of Riverside Drive and I-35, sending a message that high-rise buildings belong downtown, not in residential areas.

Constellation Group of Sydney, Australia proposed constructing a four-building, 250-unit residential property at the busy intersection on the site of an abandoned motel. The project, according to owner’s representative Brian Birdwell, would include one tower at 190 feet tall, two others at 60 feet and one at 40 feet.

In addition to the requested zoning change, the developer would have needed a variance from the Board of Adjustment to build at 190 feet, due to a 120-foot limit on buildings within the Town Lake overlay. As an added incentive, Birdwell gave a Council members a list of "incentives" the developer was willing to pay if the 190-foot height limit was granted, including some $250,000 to complete the hike-and-bike trail through the area, $100,000 towards affordable housing, and more.

Despite support from the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Associations, the project drew strident opposition from Riverside Drive area neighborhoods, who expressed concern about potential traffic problems, and setting a precedent that would allow Riverside Drive to become a walled-off canyon with high-rises.

"Downtown building height does not belong on the south shore of Town Lake," said Gail Goff. "If you allow this high-rise to go up here, we will not be able to say ‘no’ again to a high-rise. We need to respect the city and its neighborhoods."

Many of those who opposed the project said it was a case of spot zoning and the city should hold off until it completes a comprehensive plan for the Riverside Corridor.

"This is an example of downtown sprawl," said Laura Morrison, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. "It’s piecemeal zoning, and it does nothing to protect the neighborhood. We hope you will deny the zoning and support corridor planning for Riverside Drive."

Constellation’s Birdwell said that the developer had worked with the area neighborhoods to try and resolve concerns over traffic, but said much of the problem involved the roadway infrastructure.

"The turn onto the bridge on Riverside is only one lane, and it needs to be two lanes," he said. The developer agreed to limit daily trips to 2,000, but residents said the roadway is already near gridlock, as it is being used as a feeder from several new housing developments as a route into downtown.

The staff recommendation for the project was to limit the height of the largest building in the project to 120 feet, with the other structures at 90, 60 and 60 feet, respectively. But when asked if under that scenario, they would still pay for the high-and-bike trail and other incentives, Birdwell was coy.

"Our ability to include the financial incentives is based on being able to make our projected revenues on this project," he said. "We are committed to do the trail improvements, but with the change in configuration we will need to reevaluate whether we will have sufficient revenues to be able to afford that."

Council Member Jennifer Kim Moved to grant the zoning change that would allow the 190-foot tower, but Council Member Brewster McCracken offered a substitute motion to accept the staff recommendation of 120 feet.

"I think we need to take a step back and look at the precedent we might be setting here," he said. "Height does not necessarily mean density, and in this case, I’m concerned about bringing this type of building out of the downtown area. I don’t want the value of a building to be set based on its height.

Council members were also concerned that by approving the zoning the developer was seeking, it would put undue pressure on the Board of Adjustment to grant the height variance.

The Council passed McCracken’s substitute motion on first reading on a 7-0 vote.

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

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