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Judges Hill wary of creation of UNO hotel district

Friday, May 23, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The Judges Hill Neighborhood Association has greeted the idea of creation of a hotel district within the area controlled by the University Neighborhood Overlay with some trepidation.

Last night was intended to be a public hearing on proposed amendments to the UNO ordinance. UNO was incorporated into the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan in 2004 to increase density in West Campus. On that count, it’s been successful. Planner Mark Walters noted an additional 3,000 new housing units have been planned or built in the last four years, with the potential of a total 11,000 beds added to West Campus for college student housing.

Neighborhood leaders, however, said the city had thrown them a bit of a curveball, adding a section on a potential hotel district within UNO at the last minute. Bob Swaffer, speaking on behalf of the Judges Hill Neighborhood Association, said Judges Hill understands density is coming, but they wanted that density with height limits.

“We’re all in favor of a hotel district. Our only problem is the height,” Swaffer told Council at the hearing last night. “We’d prefer to keep the 60-foot height along MLK (Boulevard) between Rio Grande and Pearl.”

The hotel/motel amendment was added at a Planning Commission meeting in April. According to the amendment, hotels and motels would be encouraged along MLK Jr. Boulevard between Pearl Street and Guadalupe Street, as well as on Guadalupe Street between 22nd Street and MLK Jr. Boulevard.

Height of the hotel would be limited to 85 feet. The developer also must agree to contribute 50 cents per square foot to the University Housing Trust Fund.

The neighborhood group was concerned that a large-scale hotel project on both sides of the Mansion at Judges Hill would create a kind of visual canyon that would overwhelm the historic hotel.

Mike McHone, who represented the developer, noted that the proposed hotel project would not be out-of-scale with other local projects. Just down the block, vertical mixed-use development had been approved for the Inn on Pearl Street. When the heights of the two proposed projects were compared side-by-side, there was only a five-foot difference in terms of the actual elevation of the two buildings.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell closed the public hearing and asked that a vote on the ordinance amendment be delayed until the developer had further talks with the neighborhood. While the hotel district was at issue at last night’s hearing, other changes also were proposed: internal organization of the ordinance; regulations relating to small sites; parking for existing sites that pre-date the UNO Ordinance; building design along the ground floor; and the creation of off-site construction staging.

Other changes included building height; building design for sites adjacent to landmarked structures; design guidelines; building design between the ground and the first required building step-back; setbacks between the building and the street; hotels along major roadways; screening between existing sites and new construction; streetscape improvements; the location of trash receptacles; and site access.

Council Member Jennifer Kim also asked that additional affordability guidelines be explored for the hotel/motel projects.

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