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University Overlay at the center of Board of Adjustment debate

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Board of Adjustment has rejected two variance requests for a would-be West University Neighborhood apartment building. Their action affirms a strict reading of the purpose of the University Neighborhood Overlay zoning district.


Indeed, with the ruling, the board found itself wading into a dispute over just how the overlay should be applied. On one side, the University Area Partners neighborhood association saw the variances in question and overlay zoning status as compatible ideas. On the other, Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee co-Chair Mary Ingle worried that they would gut what she sees as the purpose of the district. However, the committee as a whole had no official position on the plans for the project.


The variances needed five votes and only got four. Board members Jeff Jack, Heidi Goebel, and Bryan King opposed the exceptions.


Cathy Norman is the president of University Area Partners. She told the board that, even with the variances to the building in question, the spirit of the overlay would remain in tact.


“We like for people to develop under (the overlay) because we like the greater residential density and we like the pedestrian improvements,” she said. “We reviewed this request for support of their variance at our general meeting in October and we looked at the design and talked about are we still achieving some of the purposes of the (overlay) rules … and we feel that the spirit of the (district) is still being complied with.”


The developers had asked the board to allow the ground floor of their building to be 19 1/2 feet higher than the sidewalk that runs alongside of it. They argued that the topography of the site would make it impossible for them to construct the project according to plan and code.


They had also asked the board to allow them to build a utility vault that would not be next to their alley. Both of those regulations come with University Overlay zoning.


In her testimony, Ingle was blunt. “The future of (University Overlay zoning) is at risk with these types of precedents,” she argued, “The way you qualify for (the overlay) is you meet the design guidelines, and both of these variances are part of the design guidelines.”


Besides, Ingle argued, the developers didn’t have to choose to zone with the overlay. “(It’s) optional,” she said. “Every property in (the district) has a base zoning … the developer has an opportunity to build in this base zoning without (the overlay) and without any variances to (that overlay).”


After the hearing, Ingle told In Fact Daily that she felt that the request featured some amount of trickery on the part of the developer. “This was just an old something pulled out of a drawer … (so they could say) we have a topography issue,” she said. “It’s convincing if you don’t know anything about topography or grades or engineering, but for me — and just having talked with many engineers … this project could be done like that with no variances overnight with good design.”


In the end the board sided with Ingle.


“I think or I feel or I have (an) idea that what you’re trying to do is recycle this old plan and put it on this site, and you’re fighting mightily to do that but you’re running up against these variances,” said Goebel.


The University Overlay district was approved in 2008. In effect, it rewards high density structures with extra height allowances in return for meeting certain requirements meant to leave the area around the University of Texas with an attractive streetscape.


Though the height enticement can only be captured if developers opt in to the district, it does not represent a mandatory zoning regulation.

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