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ZAP rejects new rehab hospital on West 38th Street

Thursday, March 4, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

A proposed new rehabilitation hospital in the Shoal Creek Watershed ran into enormous community resistance Tuesday night at the Zoning and Platting Commission meeting, prompting commissioners to vote against its approval.


The applicant, the Kucera Company, was requesting a conditional use permit to build the 59,048-square-foot Jefferson Street Rehabilitation Hospital on the parking area behind a medical office at West 38th and Jefferson Street in west central Austin. The hospital design included a two-story building with a three-story under-garage.


Kucera turned in its initial application one year ago for an 80-bed, 90,000-square-foot facility, but failed to get the variances needed to build it from the Board of Adjustment. Three months later, the applicant turned in a redesigned proposal for a 59,048-square-foot hospital, now housing 60 beds, which was then compliant with city code.


On Tuesday city staff recommended approval of the request for a conditional use permit with the conditions that surgery, obstetrical, and full-service emergency care would be prohibited and that the applicant would be required to provide temporary off-site parking during construction.


City staff member Sue Welch told the commission on Tuesday that staff had performed a neighborhood traffic analysis and found that traffic along Jefferson Street would still meet desired operating levels per the land development code.


Also, she said, the site would be providing enough new parking to be compliant with city parking regulations, even with the 20 percent reduction allowed by code for buildings in core urban areas.


It was this parking issue, however, that motivated the more than 25 speakers – including representatives from local neighborhood associations, nearby business owners, tenants of the site’s current medical office building, and residents – to crowd Council Chambers and voice their concerns over the proposed hospital.


Brown McCarroll attorney Nikelle Meade, who led the opposition, told In Fact Daily that 31 of her firm’s clients in the Jefferson Street area — including Kerbey Lane Café, Anderson Coffee, Austin Pizza, and the Garden Room — opposed Kucera’s application.


For over an hour, speakers listed their grievances and fears. Most of them echoed the belief that the parking the facility would be providing would not be adequate and would lead to even more cars parked along residential streets. Doctors and dentists spoke about their desire not to get kicked out of parking spaces and about their fears that more congestion in the area would hurt their businesses. Parents told the commission stories of their children having to play in dangerous, increasingly congested streets, where drivers looking for spots often came close to causing accidents. One local business owner said the neighborhood was “under siege” by cars.


The applicant’s agent, Sarah Crocker, told the commission, however, that despite community concerns, her client’s plan would provide more than enough new parking spots to be compliant with city code.


“City code doesn’t say, ‘Thou shalt not build next to a neighborhood or anywhere close to a neighborhood,’” she said. “What it says is, ‘If you’re going to do that, you must meet compatibility standards.’ And this site does that; it meets every single one of them.”


Currently the office building on the site experiences 3961 trips per day and has 376 parking spaces. According to Crocker, the Jefferson Rehabilitation Hospital would increase the number of trips per day by 510, a 12.9 percent increase. The plan for the new hospital would increase the number of parking spaces on-site by 33.


“There will be 60 beds in the hospital and 53 employees working during peak-period day shifts,” she said. “We are providing parking according to city requirements, which are a one-to-four (ratio) on beds and a one-to-two (ratio) for every employee.”


Though she said she understood and sympathized with citizens’ concerns, Crocker said that there are different standards for parking in urban areas than suburban areas and that street parking is a necessary component of city living. “Don’t apply suburban parking limitations to urban sites,” she asked the commission.


Commissioners weren’t sold, though, and it was clear that most of them would be listening to the numerous speakers in attendance and voting against staff’s recommendation.


Commissioner Sandra Baldridge made the motion to deny the request for a conditional permit, saying, “There’s a difference between what is legal and what is responsible to your entire community. And I think if we’re going to be responsible to the city of Austin, until we can change people’s minds about transportation, we’re still going to have people driving. And we shouldn’t be compounding an already exacerbated situation.”


Seconding the motion to deny, Commissioner Patricia Seeger told Crocker that she was “(f)ighting for way too much development in the wrong area. You’ve met the letter of the law, but I think it’s deficient.” 


Chair Betty Baker was the only commissioner to speak in favor of approving the request. She pointed out that the applicant had done everything necessary to be compliant with city code and therefore deserved commission approval, despite any reservations she, or any other commissioner, might have about the site.


“If the applicant went to the Board of Adjustment,” she said, “and got (its) posterior kicked real bad, then worked with the neighborhood –‘What can we do?’– addressed all the concerns that had been raised at the Board of Adjustment, came in and secured the staff recommendation, complied with all the requirements … I cannot in good conscience say it’s totally inappropriate because I think there are so many pluses and so many advantages that this site may never have again.”


The commission voted 5-2 against the applicant’s request, with commissioners Baker and Cynthia Banks the only dissenting voices.

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