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Waterfront Board splits on proposed Park PUD development case

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The wheels of the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board began to turn slowly last night, although the recommendation to the Planning Commission on its first case was a deadlocked 3-3 vote on the Park PUD on Barton Springs Road.


The Park PUD, as complicated as it was by its own set of circumstances, ended up beings the advisory board’s first case. The case had its own grey areas: The project, on the former site of the Filling Station Restaurant, is in the tertiary zone of the waterfront overlay and had no height limits. The location, both narrow and long, had a flood plain and creek fork issues that limited the area that could be developed and put some pressure on the height issue. And the proposed project, at 120 feet in height, would be the same height as the building next door.


The building, scaled back from 180 to 120 feet, would be four stories of office, with ground and sky top restaurant. Flood plain issues prevented underground parking, so the project also incorporated a parking garage, plus public open space and access, with a contribution to East Bouldin Creek erosion improvements.


Neighbors raised height and compatibility issues, insisting the Bouldin Creek neighborhood plan should be honored. There was some disagreement over how the plan treated Barton Springs Road. Attorney Brad Rockwell, who lived closest to the Park PUD, protested that the 120-foot wall about to be installed near his home was too much. And Daniel Llanes, who participated in the waterfront overlay task force, argued that the canyon effect was looming in South Austin.


“We’re starting a canyon, and that is what I don’t want in Austin,” said Llanes, who lives in the Govalle Johnston neighborhood in southeast Austin. “As time goes on and real estate goes up and up and up, we don’t want people to come to Austin from Manhattan or Dallas or Los Angeles and make it into those places.”


Project opponents had the support of Planner Clarke Patterson, who did not recommend approval of the Park PUD because he did not consider the height to be conducive for the pedestrian oriented development encouraged by the waterfront overlay. Supporters argued that it did accommodate those uses.


Attorney Steve Drenner, who presented the bulk of the presentation in favor of the Park PUD, had the support of urban neighbors such as the Austin Lyric Opera, which supported the Park PUD’s high urban design, given its two restaurants and public parking garage. Since the property was designated CS 1 zoning, Drenner had no problem outlining the lower-end possibilities of the property: fast food drive-in, strip retail center, automotive repair use, car wash or the dreaded storage facility.


Given the high-end cost of the property itself – and its potential for office and retail development – the idea of the site being home to a Sonic Drive-In appeared unlikely.


The audience, rounded up by both sides in the process, appeared evenly split between those in favor and those who opposed the project. So was the Waterfront Overlay Advisory Board. Chair Jim Knight recused himself, in case he had eventual personal entanglement with the project. That left the board almost evenly split between design professionals and the neighborhood allies, both with relevant points of view about the project.


Vice Chair Dean Almy appeared to epitomize the conflict. Almy, like a number of the board members, was ambivalent about the use of PUD zoning to push through the Park project. But he also wanted to acknowledge the superior design elements of the project, which were lacking from the projects on either side of the Park PUD.


Some members, like Brooke Bailey, were even more strongly opposed to using the PUD as an option, noting it should be used as a tool on larger-scale projects. Design professionals, however, like Robert Pilgrim, saw fewer problems with the use of the zoning category as a means to an end on better urban development.


After more than two hours of testimony, Commissioner Roy Mann made the initial motion to support the staff recommendation and oppose the PUD. Mann, in an explanation of his motion, acknowledged the superior design of the project but also noted that the commission had no tools yet to address the areas noted in objections to the project, such as the compatibility standards that should apply between the building and nearby single-family neighborhood.


Commissioner Mary Arnold, who led the opposition to the project, used her line of questioning to make it clear the developers of the Park PUD had a number of zoning options and variances open to them that would be less intense and intrusive than a PUD zoning designation. Walking the property, and even looking from Riverside Drive, Arnold saw the 120-foot height to be too intense for the local neighborhood.


Still, during the final discussion, Arnold was more than willing to agree with design professional colleagues on the commission that parking requirements might be too restrictive in the waterfront overlay zone, leading to projects taller than anyone desired. And Architect Daniel Woodroffe noted that no matter what the height of the development on the site, it likely would be enough to rob Rockwell of his view, whether the project was going to be the allowable 60 feet or even 120 feet.


Commissioners appear to be headed toward work groups to consider the specific accommodations for various districts under the waterfront overlay. But Almy made it clear, from his view, that inaction was not an option, noting that the landscape from the lake to Escarpment had remained unchanged for years. Almy said he didn’t want downtown, but he wanted something more than a Hooter’s to be the future of development along the waterfront overlay.

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