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Board of Adjustment denies hospital variances

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 by Michael Mmay

The Board of Adjustment on Monday denied a request by developers planning to put a rehabilitation hospital at 1600 West 38th Street. The developers requested five variances to increase the height of the buildings and build closer to single-family homes in the neighborhood.


It was the second time the project had come before the board, but it had been postponed the first time. Michael Holleran, an architecture professor at UT, spoke on behalf of the neighborhood. He said that the last time the variance request had come before the board, the developer had been told to present a “plan B” to the neighborhood. Instead, Holleran said the developer showed up without another plan, and told the neighbors they were too far along to change. “It’s clear the developers expect the board to rubber stamp the variance requests,” he said. “They are not taking the process seriously.”


In fact, there have been complaints that the current Board of Adjustment is granting variances too easily. After the board granted a variance to a drive-in bank nearby, Chris Allen, the co-chair of the Rosedale Neighborhood Association Zoning Committee, wrote a letter to council members asking for them to weigh in on the bank’s variance and noted he was worried about how the board would deal with this hospital project.


He said that the board had granted 100 percent of the variance requests this year, and said the rehab hospital should not be allowed to proceed as planned. “It would be laughable if not for the recent antics of BOA, where they have a very good chance of prevailing over common sense,” he wrote. “We all know that the Compatibility Standards are the key element to ensuring that neighborhoods can remain livable as our commercial corridors get redeveloped. If BOA waives these rules as readily and inappropriately as they did with the Design Standards, central Austin will really be in a mess with all of the properties we opted in for VMU.”


Last month, after hearing complaints from Allen and others, the City Council Audit and Finance Committee discussed whether the BOA should have a rule to prevent the board from postponing an item more than once.


Council Member Lee Leffingwell said the Council would have to approve changes to the bylaws, because the board is bound by Robert’s Rules of Order. He said the rule change happened after the Council did the massive restructuring of all the boards and commissions. Leffingwell said he had not heard that it had been a problem with any of the other boards or commissions. However, he said he had asked Assistant City Attorney Tom Nuckols whether a change would apply to other boards and commissions and he said it would.


Sarah Crocker, representing Gerald Kucera, made the case for the rehab hospital’s variances before the board. She said the variances were required because of the topography of the site, which had a steep slope on the edges of the property. She noted that the height varied from 30 to almost 60 feet, depending what side of the building you were measuring from. “If the topography allowed a standard building,” she argued, “then we wouldn’t be here.”


Crocker noted that the current layout of the property, built in 1971, does not meet landscape ordinance or design standards. She said the new development would include water quality ponds, sidewalks and would provide hospital services to the neighborhood.  Of course, any new development on the property would have to follow the design and landscape ordinances.


Holleran said the developer could add 68,000 feet without a variance, and the project was simply too big for the site they wanted to put it on. Furthermore, Holleran argued that the slope of the property was not a hardship; in fact it would allow them to more efficiently build the parking garage. “The slope is god’s gift to them,” he said.

Michael Donasky, who owns a home next to the site, said that the development would send traffic directly behind his house, and the retaining wall would likely kill trees on his property. He said it would destroy his property values, and he would file suit against the city.


Finally, attorney Nikelle Meade, representing nearby business owners, also spoke out against the plan. “The development is just too big for the site,” she said. “It could alter the character of the community.”


Board Chair Frank Fuentes was ready to postpone the decision again, to give the developer another chance to compromise with the neighborhood. But Holleran strongly objected, saying that people in the neighborhood had put their lives on hold to come to the meeting. “We don’t want to go around the revolving door again,” he said.


Board member Bryan King made the motion to vote on the variance. “The bar is too high for this project to go over,” he said. “Our job is not to just say, ‘let’s make a deal.’” Board Member Yolanda Arriaga seconded the motion, and the board voted to deny the variances.

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