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Council gives preliminary OK to CURE zoning for Convention Center hotel

Monday, November 14, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council unanimously approved CURE zoning for the Grand Hotel at Waller Creek (formerly known as the Cesar Chavez Convention Center Hotel) on first reading last week. Developers and staff will have the next few weeks to work out the remaining kinks before cementing the rezoning.

 

Attorney Steve Drenner explained that the project would bring a great deal of money to the city with 100 percent of City of Austin and 50 percent of Travis County property taxes going to Tax Increment Financing.

 

Drenner told Council that the projected future annual property tax is $4.1 million, and the Hotel Occupancy Tax is “a staggering $11.325 million on an annual basis.”

 

If ultimately granted, the zoning change will allow a floor-to- area ratio increase from 8:1 to 16:1, with some stipulations. Council has included Planning Commission recommendations that the project include 1,000 or more rooms, underground parking, and participate in the Great Streets Program.

 

There are some details that still need to be hammered out before giving the Grand Hotel an official go-ahead. Developers have promised to contribute $500,000 for the long-awaited renovation of the historic Castleman-Bull house and $250,000 to the Waller Creek Conservancy for neighboring Palm Park, but that is not yet in writing.

 

Additionally, green building standards have yet to be completely agreed upon. Developers would prefer to utilize LEED standards, and it is that standard that is in a proposed restrictive covenant. Drenner explained that LEED standards were better understood nationally, and that they would prefer not to commission two separate sets of standards.

 

However, some Council members wished to use Austin Green Building standards as a tool instead.

 

When Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole attempted to add an amendment that would require developers build to two-star Austin Green Building standards, Council Member Mike Martinez rebuffed her idea.

 

“The developer is willing to go LEED Gold, or whatever equivalent under Green Building, which could be higher than two star. So why don’t we let them discuss this between first and second reading, and then come back with either three star, two star, four star, or LEED Gold?” said Martinez.

 

Though the Downtown Plan was postponed, again, the discussion of CURE versus the density bonus program remained part of the discussion. Council Members Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison, and Kathie Tovo all referenced personal calculations they had performed, stacking up the project’s “community benefits” against those that would be required by the density bonus program.

 

“I just want to point out that you’re spending more money than we would have mandated you spend under the changes in the Downtown Plan. And I think you are providing, arguably, more community benefits,” said Spelman

 

While the Council voted unanimously for the rezoning, there were hints that they still had some questions about the massive undertaking, in particular, whether there will be a sky bridge between the hotel and the Convention Center.

 

“Let me mention one thing at the outset. You are not voting today on any sky bridge option,” said Drenner. “Our understanding, and what we certainly would support is that any sky bridge alternative must come back to you. This zoning case does not involve any approval of a sky bridge, although I will tell you that we think it’s important to the project, but we look forward to that conversation in the future.”

 

Last week, Cole shied away from passing an amendment to the Downtown Austin Plan that would prohibit sky bridges. Council Member Chris Riley also took time to ask that the sky bridge be discussed by Council at a later date, and not approved administratively. He was assured this was the case.

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