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BOA postpones vote on controversial variances for rehab hospital

Wednesday, June 10, 2009 by Charles Boisseau

Developers on Monday won a delay on consideration of variances for a controversial 80-bed rehabilitation hospital at 38th and Jefferson streets after hinting that new plans may not require variances to city codes.


Officials with the proposed Central Texas Rehabilitation Hospital want to build an 80,000-square-foot facility, including a partially below-ground parking garage, at 1600 West 38th Street on land that now has a parking lot for an office building. 


In May, the City of Austin’s Board of Adjustment denied a request by the hospital for five variances to increase the height of the buildings and to build closer to single-family homes than allowed by zoning codes in the Rosedale neighborhood. Reworked plans would not require a variance to the height limit, but still would require variances related to impervious cover and setback for a driveway, according to information provided to the city by the developers.


However, Sarah Crocker, an Austin development consultant working with the hospital, told members of the board Monday evening that the plans still were being tweaked and her clients wanted a delay so the new plans could be finalized. The new plans may involve moving the planned hospital closer to the existing Jefferson Building. “We’re hopeful” the project could go forward without requesting a variance, Crocker said.


The rehab operator wants to move out of the 13,000 square feet it leases on the eighth floor of nearby Seton Medical Center, whose parent company is a minority partner. The new hospital would be controlled by St. Louis, Mo.-based RehabCare Group Inc. Crocker’s clients also include Dallas-based developer Advanta Medical Development, which would own and then lease the building to the hospital.


The board granted the request and scheduled to take up the issue – which had been postponed once before — at its September meeting. The board has been criticized of late by some observers, including some City Council members, for granting too many variances and postponements. 


Michael DeNosky, a lawyer and owner of a duplex directly adjacent to the proposed hospital, told the board that repeated continuances cause hardships for the homeowners and business owners who oppose the project because they must continue to show up at the meetings. Roughly half of the dozens of people at Monday night’s meeting were there to oppose the hospital project.


Owners of nearby businesses and homes continue to object to the granting of variances because they argue the project’s planned 24-hour emergency service drive would disturb adjacent single-family homes and harm the character of their neighborhood. DeNosky said the zoning requires a 25-foot vegetative buffer in between the hospital and his residential lot, but the latest plan included no buffer, meaning the driveway would be 16 feet from his tenant’s bedroom. Tenants in the office building also have objected because of concerns that the project would mean less parking for customers.


After the board decision, Peggy Barrett, chief executive of Central Texas Rehabilitation, said she was hopeful the project would go forward with the unspecified modifications. “The last thing we want to do is to take away from the needs of the community,” she said.


In other action, the board: 


  • Postponed action on whether to grant a variance to Bank of America’s request to increase the height of a bank sign at Manchaca Road and Slaughter Lane to 25 feet from 12 feet.
  • Addressed a typical busy slate of requests for variances by property owners who want to build – or have already built – carports, porches and privacy fences that don’t meet zoning requirements, such as providing adjacent setbacks from adjacent property and leaving adequate undeveloped space on a lot.


Board Member Michael Von Ohlen expressed frustration over the board’s agenda being cluttered with issues such as carports.

“I’m starting to hate these carports,” said von Ohlen, noting that property owners construct the structures in front of their homes because they lack adequate space on the side, especially with homes built in the ‘60s and ‘70s that have already expanded into what at one time were attached garages. “It’s like nailing Jell-O to the frickin’ wall.”


Chairman Frank Fuentes joked that the board needs “therapy” on car ports as well as storage buildings. City code enforcement staff may need to provide informational materials to better educate building contractors and property owners about the issue. Board members agreed to have a discussion about dealing with carports and storage buildings on next month’s agenda.

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