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Redeemer, neighborhoods reach zoning agreement

Monday, December 18, 2006 by

Council Member Mike Martinez – and a lengthy Council agenda – made a last-minute “save” possible last week between the congregation of Redeemer Presbyterian Church and the surrounding Mueller-area neighborhoods concerned with the church’s future plans.

The zoning case for Redeemer was a simple matter of approving the appropriate zoning category to increase the height of the sanctuary from 40 to 60 feet, key to the musical nature of the church’s programs, attorney Richard Suttle told Council on Thursday. The zoning change would be limited to the footprint of the church sanctuary.

That was the church’s priority. The neighbors, seeing a good chunk of the East Austin Featherlite tract disappear, were equally concerned that the frontage along Manor Road be preserved for future commercial development at the gateway to Capital Metro’s MLK commuter rail station. Redeemer was willing to compromise on this point, as long as the compromise would not imply any zoning change, since a zoning change from religious to commercial use would create a tax liability for the church.

The agreement proposed by Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey was a site plan that showed no construction on the southern three acres that the church intends to sell and no development on the northern 60 feet, with an additional 40 feet beyond that 60 feet with nothing but parking. In such a way, the northern boundary of the property could be preserved for parking for any future transit-oriented development uses.

But when it came time to finally seal the deal at Council – this case had been delayed repeatedly since October 2005 – negotiations broke down. Suttle said a letter from the associate pastor of the church that the land would not be used for religious assembly uses should carry some weight – that drew snickers from the audience – and the neighbors wanted a written covenant that “carried some teeth,” Girard Kinney told the Council.

Scott Wade, a local attorney with the neighborhood group, said the letter provided by the church, which would be reinforced by plat notes, did not require the church to ever subdivide the property and did not stop the congregation from putting a day care, book store or other uses on the portions of the property set aside for other uses.

Faced with an impasse, Council Members Brewster McCracken and Betty Dunkerley were more inclined to trust the church and pass the zoning change on second and third reading. Council Members Jennifer Kim, Mike Martinez and Lee Leffingwell were more inclined to support a substitute motion to pass the zoning on second reading, with some hope of finding additional language, or compromise, in the next month.

Elder Barry McBee, who represented the church, said he saw no way out of the stalemate and would not put the church’s financial future at risk by agreeing to a covenant with a zoning change. McBee said the church was willing to submit to the Council’s judgment but that judgment had consequences for both the church and the neighborhood. He said the church would withdraw its request for a zoning change but that would not make anyone happy.

“If you are unable to, for whatever reason, make a decision this evening, then we will proceed immediately to build our sanctuary at 40 feet to take care of all of the steps that are necessary to accomplish that purpose,” McBee said. “We will do that with a great deal of sadness because we will have lost the opportunity, we believe, to provide for the City of Austin and all of Central Texas a very unique cultural resource and also with sadness because we will lose the various commitments and agreements we have been able to make in discussions with the neighborhood over the last many months.”

McBee said if the Council decided to postpone the case the church would withdraw its zoning change request.

Martinez, faced with such a decision, called for a break in the Council consideration and sent both sides off to further negotiations on the zoning matter. Leffingwell, who had been meeting with both sides to try to facilitate a decision, quickly agreed.

When the two sides returned, they had negotiated a different way around the “religious assembly” concern. Both sides agreed that “religious assembly” uses would be a conditional use on the northern or southern extremes of the property. Those uses would include any use for religious assembly, a private school, day care center or any type of private community recreational use. That way, any type of religious assembly construction would require a hearing before the Planning Commission.

A motion to include those exceptions won unanimous approval and a sigh of relief from the Council, which had just returned from an unanticipated fire drill in the midst of the contentious Wal-Mart at Northcross presentation.

Parking problems nix Music Hall variance request

Until recently, not having any parking spaces was not a problem for the owners of the Austin Music Hall. But plans to double the size of the popular Warehouse District concert venue means that the number of parking spaces they need but don’t have will double, as well. And that, according to the Board of Adjustment, is a problem.

Representatives of Direct Events, the company that runs the Austin Music Hall, will need to come back before the BOA with a new plan next month after their request for a parking variance met with a cool reception at the board’s most recent meeting.

The downtown venue, current site of the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, announced plans this summer to add a second story to the structure, which dates back to 1959. The project would install new seating for concerts, add a restaurant, along Nueces St., and include improvements to the exterior of the building. However, those extensive renovations would trigger the requirement for a parking variance for the structure, which has no parking of its own.

The addition of a second story would nearly double the building’s existing square footage, which normally triggers the need for additional parking. The structure already has a variance waiving the requirement for 178 parking spaces. The additional square footage would bring the required number of spaces to 305.

All that additional space, however, does not mean the venue intends to double its capacity. “We want to make it more of a seated facility,” said Barry Kohlus, VP of Operations for Direct Events, the company that operates the music hall. “We’re adding a second floor and a mezzanine. Most of those are going to have seats, including a section with fixed seats that won’t come out.”

The venue’s capacity would actually increase from 3,000 to 4,000 with the proposed addition, which also includes plans for a restaurant. The Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association and the Downtown Austin Alliance both submitted letters supporting the variance, and no one showed up at the meeting to oppose the request.

While the Austin Music Hall has not had to provide parking since it opened, the potential for additional customers and the size of the requested variance prompted objections from the board. “I’ve been to it many, many times,” said Board Member Bryan King. “Parking is atrocious down there. It’s tough. We’re talking about doubling the size of that building and not adding any parking, or any parking agreements.”

In many parking variance cases, the board encourages the applicant to seek an agreement with nearby properties to allow parking. But in the case of the Austin Music Hall, the nearest source of plentiful parking is a state-owned parking garage. The state, said agent Alice Glasco, does not sign parking agreements. “This has been tried previously,” she said. “It’s a public parking garage, first-come, first-served. For that reason, the state will not enter into a parking arrangement.”

Glasco’s proposed findings for the variance request were similar to those for several previous variance requests dating back to the early 1990’s. The regulations do not provide flexibility in a densely-populated area, she said, and the nearby state-owned lots provide a ready source of parking. Glasco also argued that the demand for parking at the Austin Music Hall was greatest after 6pm, when many surrounding businesses are closed. She also pointed to a parking study of the area done in 1999-2000 by Wilbur Smith and Associates predicting a parking surplus for the area as more residential projects with their own parking are constructed.

Those findings, while good enough to convince the Board to grant four previous variances for different remodeling or smaller expansion projects, failed to win any support this time. “In the past, they weren’t making such huge additions,” said Board Chair Frank Fuentes. While many older downtown business do not have to provide parking under the city code, Fuentes said, “if they remodel, then by all means they have a hardship with respect to parking. But here, you’re adding a significant square footage.”

Glasco argued that the parking regulations were simply not reasonable for the location. “It’s impractical to provide parking on site unless you demolish the entire building and build a parking garage,” she said. “It’s impractical.” But after hearing concerns from Fuentes and several other board members, she agreed to request a postponement of the case until the board’s January meeting in order to submit new findings of fact for the variance.

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

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