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Commission puts off vote on downtown conversion

Wednesday, February 16, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The Planning Commission delayed a vote on a zoning change for a downtown property conversion, a rare miss for agent Alice Glasco.


The Darnell Robinson Foundation, which provides support to impoverished African nations, recently purchased a four-unit multi-family property on West 8th Street. The new owners made multiple concessions, rather willingly, to the Original Austin Neighborhood Association (OANA) but were tripped up at the last minute over confusion about height limitations on the property.


Glasco, on behalf of the foundation, requested rezoning of the property from MF-4 to DMU-CO with a maximum height of 90 feet. Blake Tollett, on behalf of OANA, said it was the neighborhood’s understanding that concessions could give the property a height of up to 120 feet. However, the impending Downtown Austin Plan, yet to be approved, would appear to limit height on the property to 60 feet because of its location within a waterfront sub-district.


This led to some confusion on the commission. Would OANA be quite so happy knowing the property had the potential to be limited to 60 feet? Would they still be satisfied with the limitations they put on the property, which also ban bail bonds businesses and stand-alone cocktail use, pawnshops, and outdoor entertainment?


Tollett admitted, candidly, that he didn’t know what his neighborhood association might say. Glasco had given in to the neighborhood’s desired concessions so readily that it was difficult to predict his neighbors’ reaction.


“I don’t want to interfere with what needs to be done tonight,” Tollett said. “I hate to sound so wishy-washy, but I don’t know how else to address it.”


Glasco noted that a plan unadopted is still, yes, unadopted. At one time, the Austin Plan was prepared and never voted out of Council. Approving properties under the rules of a future plan could be a dangerous and slippery slope.


The other mitigating factor in the Planning Commission’s decision was Dora Maunick, a resident of one of the four units at 510 West 8th Street. Maunick said she would lose her home and her daughter would lose her elementary school. The commission, she said, needs to stop and think about what it would mean to unravel the existing fabric of downtown Austin.


“Until you have a city where people can raise their children and have roots, we really don’t have a livable downtown,” Maunick said. “We really need to think about roots in this community and not high-rises for young people to come and make their money and leave. We really have to think about a place where you can have roots and raise your kids in the city before we really plan to call it a livable downtown Austin.”


That resonated with the commission members, including Chair Dave Sullivan, leading to a series of questions on the current residential site, which was supposed to be converted to office space before the mixed-use office tower was built on the site.


One of the concessions from Glasco was that any structure over 60 feet would devote 15 percent of its excess space to residential units, but Glasco was still vague about how many units that would mean and how big those units would be. A back-of-a-napkin calculation yielded a possible eight units on the property.


In her defense, Glasco said it would be impossible to ever have a diverse and affordable downtown if there weren’t some commitment to density and height. Only then could a property on such expensive land work to the advantage of the community. If you plan on limiting the property to 60 feet, Glasco told commissioners, you might as well keep the current four-unit property.


Even Glasco’s argument about a 120-foot tower next door did not land squarely with the commission. Commissioner Mandy Dealey noted that debate over the Bradford-Nohra House had taught the commission about the value of corner lots, and the fact that this house would be next to what would eventually be a 120-foot tower did not negate that it is currently surrounded by historic properties.


“What’s a concern, really, for me, is that this building serves as an anchor for a block,” Dealey said. “The fact that there will be 120 feet next door is not as problematic to me as the fact that this is a corner lot that might be integral for the historic fabric that sounds it.”


Commissioners unanimously voted to ask Glasco to meet with the neighborhood association and provide additional information on the residential aspects of the existing and future property.

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