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ZAP approves variances for townhome project despite objections

Monday, May 23, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

The first test of the redevelopment exception in the Barton Springs Zone had a difficult time at the Zoning and Platting Commission Tuesday night, despite claims that it went well beyond the requirements of the exemption.


“This is a significantly less intense project than what was previously approved for the site. Previously a large commercial office and retail project was approved on the site,” said applicant John Burnham. “This is much more compatible with the neighborhood.”


Developers of the Tarlton 360 Townhomes came before the commission to ask for variances to increase floor-to-area ratio, permit construction on a slope, and increase building height from 40 to 53 feet. The 16-acre mixed-use project consists of 229 residential units, approximately 75,819 square feet of office, 8,300 square feet of retail space and 3,500 square feet for restaurant use.


“I’ve appeared before this commission for 35 years, and this is the most complicated site plan I have ever encountered by far,” said attorney David Armbrust. “I do want to emphasize that nothing has changed since we were here in May of 2010, since we were at City Council in June of 2010. The site plan is exactly the same.”


Nonetheless, the South Bee Caves Woods Neighborhood Association, who once supported the development, changed its opinion and showed up to speak in opposition at the Zoning and Platting Commission.


“One thing that I want to make clear right out of the chute is what changed. We’ve heard that nothing changed, but what did change is the neighborhood read the TIA (traffic impact analysis.) We were not actually provided the TIA prior to the meeting where we took our first vote,” said Mark May.


Burnham stated the development would reduce traffic, compared to the old Cinemark theater or a potential office building. Neighbors argued that the nature of residential traffic is different.


Opponents questioned the veracity of claims that only 5 percent of traffic would turn north on Walsh Tarlton Lane when exiting the development. To the north are grocery stores and schools, as well as an already congested intersection at Loop 360 and Walsh Tarlton Lane, for which the development itself is presumably named.


“If you look at the percentage of traffic that they are actually adding to the intersection of Loop 360 and Walsh Tarlton, it’s about 3 percent of total traffic at that intersection,” explained HDR Senior Project Manager Kathy Hornaday, after an extended conversation about how TIAs are conducted.


“I know one of the things that neighborhoods typically rely on to defeat a project is the TIA,” said Commissioner Sandra Baldridge. “I don’t know if any of us know that there is any more or any less validity to a TIA then we know what the weather is going to be tomorrow.”


After debating the relative merits of TIAs for almost two hours, Chair Betty Baker spoke to her commissioners, noting that the requested variances did not, in fact, address traffic.


The commission voted, then reconsidered, then voted again, ultimately approving the variances 4-1. Vice Chair Patricia Seeger voted against and Commissioner Gregory Bourgeois abstained.


The variances were approved on the condition that one building, comprised of three townhome units, be removed. This will reduce impervious cover on the site by about 2200 square feet.


The commission also recommended that City Council extend a managed growth agreement five years, instead of 10.


Baker and other board members bristled at the mention of a proposed 10-year managed growth agreement, which would freeze standards of development for its duration. “You let the cat out of the bag when you told us about it,” said Baker.


Burnham claimed the development had “significantly better environmental protection than what is required under the redevelopment exception.” He pointed to the removal of the non-operational Cinemark building, an increase to the city’s tax base, parkland dedication fees of $150,000 to the City of Austin, and an increase of natural area from 30 to 40 percent as proof of this statement.


Under the redevelopment exception, developers are allowed to build up to the previously existing impervious cover percentage instead of the normal 15 percent. In the case of the Tarlton 360 Townhomes development, this means builders are allowed approximately 54 percent impervious cover.

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