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Commissions tackle contentious 909 Congress development

Thursday, August 26, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The mid-block redevelopment of 909 Congress Avenue promises to be a tough case for the Planning Commission when it arrives mid-September.


New CURE-zoned construction downtown, such as the Austonian and the Frost Bank tower, has been hard fought, with ultimate teardowns leading to projects considered to offer additional public amenities or benefits. The owners of 909 Congress want CURE zoning, too, but within the existing building’s current 70-foot wide façade; they don’t want the use of an entire block.


Instead of new construction, the mid-block historic façade of 909 Congress would be rebuilt, with a 200-foot tall office tower massed behind the facade, complete with four floors of internal garage that would be served by automobile elevators.


Either you consider the owner’s plans a masterful re-vision for current space that has been vacant for a decade on Congress Avenue or you view it, as attorney Jeff Howard’s clients do, as “stuffing 10 pounds into a five-pound bag.” Howard represents the property owner on the north side of the project.


Project plan opposition, in fact, is tag-teamed by Howard and fellow attorney Steve Drenner. Drenner represents the property owner to the south on 909 Congress.


“This is an unusual case in many regards, not the least of which has been this is designed in a mid-block location,” said Drenner, who secured CURE zoning on the Frost Bank tower project. “It’s also unusual in terms of a lack of information on how the project will operate, which is going to have a direct impact on the adjacent properties.”


Drenner said the project, which will require alley access for garage access, is not a good idea for either the existing block or Congress Avenue. All the buildings, Drenner noted, share common walls and foundations. Neighboring owners have significant concerns about structural impacts.


“No one would be more excited than my clients about seeing a well-designed project that would enhance what is really a unique block,” said Drenner, noting that his client regularly has to call in pest control to address the “varmint issue” in the common spaces shared among properties on the block, “but we really don’t feel this is one of those cases.”

Reviews of 909 Congress by the Design and Downtown commissions have been mixed. At the Planning Commission this week, Planner Clark Patterson requested a delay to mid-September before the commission weighs in on whether the project seems feasible and whether the community benefits – preservation of the ground-floor historic space – would be considered a sufficient concession to grant CURE zoning on the property.


In order for the project to work, there would have to be exceptions to the Congress Avenue building setbacks. Those setbacks would preserve the first 30 feet of height of 909 Congress then have a 10-foot setback. That setback would go up another 90 feet, in addition to another 34-foot setback that would use up to the full height of the tower. Council has made exceptions for a 40-foot setback – the allowance on Congress Avenue is supposed to be 60 feet – but a 34-foot setback to accommodate the footprint of the garage would be unprecedented.


Some on the Design Commission, like Jeanne Wiginton, questioned whether a six-foot difference in setback would make much of a difference at 90 feet. Others, like Chair Bart Whatley and Downtown Commission Chair Mandy Dealey, were leery whether such a precedent would erode current Congress Avenue setback standards, which tend to vary from block to block depending on whether the building is closer or farther away from the Capitol view corridors.


“I’m concerned about the parking logistics. It seems, along Congress Avenue, this is the only building which is less than a quarter of block, that would be accessing the alley,” said Whatley, noting its mid-block location. “A lot of the development that we’ve seen come before us has been on the edge of a block.”


The use and vacation of alleys has been a hot-button issue at the Downtown Commission, a point that led to a non-endorsement of the 909 Congress project.


Attorney Robert Kleeman, representing the property owners of 909 Congress, told the Downtown Commission that the alley onto 10th Street could be sufficient to serve traffic into and out of a building with a 165-car parking space. Kleeman argued that an office building’s parking does not have the same peak hour traffic that might be expected of a residential tower or even the Convention Center.


Commissioners, however, expressed some skepticism about how that might work. Developer Robert Knight, a longtime member of the commission, noted that some projects had made use of alleys for traffic into and out of projects, but such decisions also require some accommodations from other adjacent property owners that use the alleys.


At the Design Commission this week, Richard Weiss attempted to insert language that would force the property owners of 909 Congress to use its proposed garage floors for office space or, at the least, present active uses onto Congress Avenue. Others, however, noted that the Austonian has lower-level garage space that, properly screened, looks like the rest of the tower.


The Design Commission, after some discussion, did endorse the project, with the condition that the 40-foot setback be maintained. That was less than the 34-foot setback proposed by the owner. Weiss and Whatley voted against the motion.

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