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Austonian gets its curb cuts

Friday, October 30, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Planning Commission unanimously agreed this week to provide an exception to the curb cut prohibition on Congress Avenue for the 57-story Austonian building, an exception that was not viewed with much favor by city staff.

The city has a plan for Congress Avenue as a pedestrian-friendly streetscape, possibly one that could eventually incorporate urban rail. Curb cuts are not consistent with such a plan, and after the construction of One American Center, city code was amended to discourage any type of curb cuts on Congress Avenue.

Still, the door was left open for qualified exceptions, and so the Austonian brought a variance forward to create valet parking for its street-level restaurants.

The argument by planners Nikki Hoelter and George Adams was convincing. A curb cut – actually a place for valet parking – would impair what was intended to be one of the most active intersections in downtown. It would impede the quality of the pedestrian environment and possibly even future urban rail.

And it would likely mean the proposed Marriott convention hotel—if it ever came to be—at the northwest corner of Congress and 2nd Street, would also request a curb cut. The hoteliers had already done so before the deal was put on hold. If one side of the street goes, then it is likely to set a precedent for both sides of the street, Adams said.

Speakers for the Austonian talked about open-air tables on both Congress and 2nd Avenue. Staff had no problem with that. It was that valet drop-off lane that caused trouble.

“The café zone, which is about nine feet in width, will add life and activity to the street, but, in contrast, the drop-off zone and even that parallel parking as a matter of convenience really doesn’t speak to the type of Congress Avenue that we’re trying to create in the future,” Adams told the Planning Commission.

But just when it seemed clear that the commission would follow staff advice and never open the door to a curb cut, attorney Nikelle Meade stepped up and presented a logical argument on the issue that convinced them it was not a bad idea to change.

Meade’s 10 minutes before the commission were not dramatic, but she was logical and she walked the commissioners through the options, clearly prepared for some of the objections that would be raised by staff.

The Austonian, for all its 57 stories, actually has little viable parking access for cars. On Congress, the curb cut had been discouraged, and on 2nd Street, the developer had agreed to preserve a historic façade for a café. As a consequence, parking for any of the street-level uses requires entering an alley widened by the developer, driving into a garage, and then walking the 400 or so feet to the front of the hotel. 

As easy as that sounds, it something that simply hasn’t been done for the upper-end restaurants on Congress Avenue. Restaurants like III Forks have valet parking. And those that don’t – Commissioner Jay Reddy asked about arrangements for a restaurant like McCormick and Schmick’s in the Frost Bank Tower – are at a disadvantage to other upscale eateries in downtown Austin.

Commissioner Dave Anderson said he would like there to be an option that would minimize traffic snarls along Congress Avenue and 2nd Street, and Meade scored a fairly good hit on this point, too. The city wants to discourage valet parking on Congress Avenue, but officials also want to discourage anything that would stop the flow of traffic along 2nd Street, which is the gateway to the Convention Center.

That leaves the Austonian with literally no options for dealing with the always-encouraged restaurant and retail ground-floor use. Some places have parking next door, but the Austonian does not, Meade pointed out to the commission.

Meade also pointed out that the Marriott is hardly in the same position as the Austonian. The future second convention hotel will have block faces on all four streets. The Austonian is limited to two streets, neither of which is preferred for traffic.

Meade, using an elevation to show commissioners the street level, noted that the valet parking lane would be no deeper than the street trees, still allowing a significant portion of the sidewalk to be available for pedestrian use. In her presentation, Meade referred to this lane as a “gentle curve” off the street.

The points that appeared to sell the Planning Commission were two-fold: First, the developer agreed to parallel parking during the day and valet parking only in the evening. And, second, the Austonian agreed to abandon its plans if the lane proved to be incompatible with the downtown plan or urban rail.

The Austonian also agreed that if traffic were backed up, and if the tower could not provide quick and efficient service to clear it up, then the city would be allowed to immediately revoke the building’s valet parking permit.

“If we cannot maintain that level of service that we promise, that permit would be automatically revoked, no discussion,” Meade told the commission.

With an agreement like that, even the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association could find little to oppose, although the group remained neutral in testimony.

Terry Mitchell, batting clean-up, reiterated Meade’s testimony to the commission, noting the Austonian’s willingness to comply with all downtown regulations and even back off plans for valet parking if it conflicted with the downtown plan.

The Planning Commission offered unanimous support for the variance, 7-0, with Commissioner Saundra Kirk absent from the meeting.

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