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Landmark commission balks on proposal for Congress hotel

Friday, October 28, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Developers proposing a mid-rise hotel that will also include office space, restaurants, green space and live music venues at 8th and Congress Avenue, on the site of the former Hickory Street Bar & Grill and the historic Bosche-Hogg Building, hit a snag at the Historic Landmark Commission this week. Commissioners voted 7-0 to postpone considering the case to their  December meeting.


The developers, who are seeking CURE zoning, wanted the landmark commission’s positive recommendation on their plan but met with resistance on proposed setbacks.


The proposed building would maintain the historic facade but would violate the setback requirements of the Congress Avenue Overlay. The overlay requires that buildings step back 60 feet after 90 feet of height. The proposed building would only step back 30 feet, though it would be in two 15-foot steps, with the first just above the historic facade.


The commission voted for the two-month delay in order to get a better read on whether or not City Council would be adopting the Downtown Austin Plan in the near future (which may alter step back requirements,) and to better understand the intention behind the Congress Avenue Overlay District.


Though some commissioners were torn about choosing between preservation of the historic facade and granting a variance for the step back, Commissioner Dan Leary made it clear that he did not support the step back.


“I think taking a very small portion of the 800 block at the expense of the entire strip, from the Capitol building to the river is doing a great deal of harm to the 60-foot step back,” said Leary. “This will just sort of open up the floodgate to encroach on that… And that will significantly narrow the view of the Capitol building from South Congress.”


“I would rather sacrifice one small segment of a historic building than take the entire Congress Avenue and narrow it down,” said Leary.


Also speaking against the step backs was Downtown Austin Alliance’s Charlie Betts. While Betts said there was “a lot to like” about the project, he was clear on the fact that he did not support modifying the setback for the building.


Betts told In Fact Daily that the overlay was created following the Bank of America building construction at Sixth and Congress.


“Everyone said, ‘hey, we don’t want all the buildings built up, and this little narrow view,’ and so they passed the overlay,” Betts told In Fact Daily. “On the west side, it is not blocked, and all the buildings since that time have respected it. We just think it’s a fairness issue. Everyone else has respected it, and we think they should too.”


“You can either see the capitol in a narrow view, like a canyon. Or, with the step backs, you have a decent view,” said Betts.


Attorney Steve Drenner argued that the purpose of the Congress Avenue Overlay was not to protect views of the Capitol, but to preserve articulation of buildings and “protect the public from a wall of buildings” along the street. He said that the modified step back was crucial to the plan.


“You can’t say, unfortunately, ‘I’m for the project, but I’m for a 60-foot step back,’ because the 60-foot step back kills the project,” said Drenner. “There’s no way to do both.”


“The reality is, if you push the step back back 60 feet and you have an alley that presses you from behind and you are not wanting to get rid of that alley, you have floor plan sizes that aren’t big enough to make it economic to go up,” said Drenner.


Though Drenner seemed confident that the Downtown Plan would modify the step backs, he was less confident that the plan would pass this year. But City Council has yet to approve the plan, let alone details as specific as step backs on Congress Avenue.


“I can understand the issues of too much of a step back, but we also have the Congress Avenue Overlay. And if that is bad policy, and it is going to be changed by City Council, then that changes the whole game,” said Vice-Chair John Rosato, who suggested the postponement so that the commission could get clarity on whether City Council would, in fact, be relaxing the step back requirements on Congress Avenue as part of the Downtown Plan.

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