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BOA rejects height variance for proposed Koenig Lane development

Monday, December 19, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Board of Adjustment has rejected a height compatibility variance at 111 East Koenig Lane. The site was once home to Howard Nursery, and is now the site of a proposed multi-family development.


Howard Nursery closed in 2007, opening up the 2.4-acre tract for development. Endeavor Real Estate Group ultimately withdrew development plans in 2007 after failing to get neighborhood support.


In March 2008, the city approved a vertical mixed-use (VMU) overlay along the Koenig Lane corridor, including the Howard Nursery site, making it a prime lot for development. While this change may have made development easier in some respects, it did not change height restrictions, which remained subject to compatibility standards triggered by neighboring single-family homes.


It also did not change neighbor’s opinions about development in the area.


Developers sought a variance from compatibility standards, so that they could build a four-story multi-family mixed-use development. They sought permission to build up to 47 feet high.


Pinaki Ghosh spoke on behalf of the 20-plus neighbors that showed up to oppose the variance. He said that despite the neighborhood association vote, the neighborhood opposed the variance, and there were 57 votes of neighbors within 500 feet on record that oppose construction.


“Their neighborhood, whether they like it or not, did vote to support this project, and we have a signed letter of agreement. It was a formal vote,” said Melissa Neslund of Bury & Partners, who cited the Northfield Neighborhood Association’s support in her presentation.


Ghosh told the board that the neighborhood association vote was “crafted as an ultimatum.” He said the neighborhood was told that if they opposed the variance, access to the complex would be via 56th street, instead of the preferred Avenue F.


“Vote no, and the developer will build to the current limits, and route traffic directly through the neighborhood. That was the basic premise,” explained Ghosh.


“We presented an initial site plan for comment,” said Neslund. “It was not an ultimatum; it was our initial site plan. Yes, it did show access on 56th and Koenig. That was the logical access. But we heard their cry. We heard their comments, and we came back with the revised site plan trying to address their concerns. This is how we ended up on Avenue F.”


Neighbors, and the board, also failed to see what hardship justified the variance.


Developers claimed the height constraint made it difficult to design the project, and increased height would be more in line with the goals of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan.


“There is absolutely no hardship that I see, other than ‘we want to build bigger and taller than what the compatibility code allows’,” said Board Member Bryan King. “You started out to design something that is not code-compliant.”


Ghosh agreed, saying, “What is the hardship here? The property is valued at $1.5 million by the city. The market value is $1.5 million to $2 million. The owners want to sell it for $3.5 million. And where does that extra money come from? It comes from the variance.”


Board of Adjustment Chair Jeff Jack pointed out that the creation of the overlay district along Koenig Lane was intended to support density without the need for additional variances.


“Commercial property that went through the VMU process was afforded significant increase in entitlements through the VMU process, which was intended to make that property developable and provide some community benefit,” said Jack. “The VMU allowed you to build bulkier buildings, but not a taller building… and it certainly didn’t envision waiving compatibility standards.”


“A lot of things that have been presented tonight, particularly in regards to the comprehensive plan’s objectives are things under discussion, and they are very nebulous and visionary. The fact of the matter is they are not the code,” said Jack.


The Board of Adjustment voted 5-2 to deny the variance, with Board Members Michael Von Ohlen and Melissa Hawthorne in opposition.


Brandon Easterling of Alliance Residential told In Fact Daily that they would not be seeking reconsideration on the variance, and would just build the project without it, within established height restrictions.

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