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Duplex debate causes tension at RDCC meeting

Monday, March 8, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Tensions were frayed by the time architect Sean Guess made his third appearance before the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission last week for approval of his plans for a duplex in the Galindo neighborhood.

Chair William Burkhardt and Karen McGraw, both part of the drafting of the original McMansions ordinance, clearly considered the duplex a precedent-setting case for RDCC and tried to head off the project on a number of points, not all of them related to the McMansion ordinance. For his part, Guess insisted more than once that the RDCC had limited purview concerning a case that had been reviewed extensively by city staff over the last three months.


Needless to say, comments turned testy throughout this hearing. For instance, when Burkhardt questioned how Guess had calculated the square footage for his variance – Burkhardt had calculated something substantially more – Guess noted it was his third time before the commission and while there had been some early questions, he was clear about what the city wanted when it came to square footage calculations.


“You met with city staff?” Commissioner Chuck Mains prompted, helpfully.


“I did,” Guess said.


At another couple of points during the hearing, Burkhardt cut Guess off, once asking Guess to “restrain himself for a moment” from answering a question posed to staff. And the chair cut Guess off at another point, noting the line of questioning was between the commission members and staff for deliberations, not him. Guess had wanted to provide information on a question.


For his part, Guess hit a number of times on the issue of RDCC’s purview, noting that some of the questions from the commission – such as whether the front doors to his duplex needed to face the street – had nothing to do with RDCC decisions. Guess insisted such a question should be referred to the Board of Adjustment at the recommendation of city staff, which it had not been so far.


For instance, McGraw noted the need for a garage for each of the two duplexes, although Guess insisted that one potential residence faced a retainer pond and the other faced an Austin Energy substation. Burkhardt pressed Guess for an explanation as to why that land development code requirement was not met.


“If you have a good example (of an exception), let’s hear it, let’s talk about it,” Burkhardt told Guess.


“What are the responsibilities of this commission?” Guess responded. “This is not part of the McMansion ordinance. This is part of the land development code. I see no reason to bring that up with this commission.”


Burkhardt and McGraw tag teamed to hit on various issues about his project, a number of which may be fodder for further consideration in rule making:


Should any plan for a duplex consider buildings that are connected only by the roof? The buildings in Guess’ plan did not touch, although they were connected overhead. Does that create a breezeway, as prohibited by ordinance, or not? Burkhardt worried aloud that it created a precedent, and McGraw noted that the construction would violate, in principle, the rewrite of the ordinance.


Should this project have two separate 200-square-foot garage exemptions? Burkhardt and McGraw said only one exemption was intended beyond the first 450-square-feet exemption. Legal staff appeared to agree with McGraw’s interpretation, although Planner Sylvia Benavidez noted that additional exemptions for space were applied only after the city’s requirements for parking were actually met. McGraw clarified that there would be additional reviews by city staff after the approval, including possible disqualification of the application if one garage were excluded and floor-to-area ratio limits were considered in new calculations.


And, most importantly, how should the wall articulation be defined on duplexes? McGraw pointed out the traditional configuration of duplexes has been two units on one property, with one unit on top of the other or one unit attached to the other. This, McGraw noted, was not that case.


Asked what he would do to redesign the project, Guess said he did not know, but he said design was his job and he would find an alternative.


The final vote on the case, in favor of the applicant, was 4-3, with Burkhardt, McGraw, and Jean Stevens voting against the motion.

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