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Landmark Commission rejects zoning request for hotel project

Wednesday, February 29, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

A proposed hotel project at Eighth and Congress stumbled at the Historic Landmark Commission Monday night, when the commission voted unanimously not to approve a recommendation to upzone the property.


The project, dubbed “The Austin Hotel,” would include a 200-room hotel, 100,000 square feet of office space, live-music venues and ground-floor level retail and restaurant space on the site of the former Hickory Street Bar & Grill and the historic Bosche-Hogg Building at 800 and 804 Congress Avenue.


After months of delay, the Historic Landmark Commission recommended denial of CURE zoning for the property, voting 5-0, with Chair Laurie Limbacher and Commissioner Joe Arriaga absent. The commission initially voted to delay the case in October.


“It is complicated, it’s a lot of different moving parts, but the basic one here that this body addresses is the Congress Avenue Overlay, and it’s been with us for a long time. It may need to be changed. Maybe a lot of people would agree with you on that. But for this body to change it for one property at this time – I can’t agree with that,” said Historic Landmark Commission Vice Chair John Rosato.


The project now has a valid petition against the CURE rezoning which states that those who have signed it have “concerns relative to the proposed project, including, but not limited to height, Congress Avenue setbacks, parking, traffic circulation, alley access, compatibility with the Capitol View Corridor and adverse effect on the visual and design integrity of Congress Avenue.”


In addition to violating the setback, opponents expressed concern about developers’ plans to provide no on-site parking.


The valid petition will come into play if it is still in effect when the case goes to City Council. If so, Council must approve the rezoning with a super majority, or six out of seven votes.


Commissioner Terri Myers said she had “real concerns” with the project.


“I don’t think that the application as it is presented to us now fully honors and respects the historic facade and there are numerous, numerous aspects of the design that detract considerably from what is still there, what is still historic in the building,” said Myers. “My basic concern is the historic property, and I think it is minimized by the proposed development. It’s not highlighted.”


Developers are seeking CURE zoning for the site in order to accomplish their ambitious plan, which would increase their floor-to-area ratio from 8-to-1 to 20-to-1 and allow it to be built to a 380-foot height. The current zoning is Central Business District (CBD).


The project has faced opposition from the Downtown Austin Alliance due to its violation 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.


Alliance Executive Director Charlie Betts spoke to the commission, noting that there had not been a single variance to the setback on the west side of Congress Avenue in 27 years.


“The Downtown Austin Alliance normally is very, very supportive of good economic development in Downtown Austin,” said Betts. “The Downtown Austin Board voted unanimously, and there is a valid petition on file. Most of the neighboring properties are all opposed to granting a variance to the 60-foot setback.”


Attorney Steve Drenner, who represented the property owner, presented a different take to the Historic Landmark Commission, “In Austin, there has never been recognized a protected view from private property along Congress Avenue. To start to recognize that will be chaos,” said Drenner. “The reality is this isn’t about what they are talking about here tonight. It’s about one project that spoils the views from One American Center. That’s what this is about.”


Drenner argued that the project would revitalize a dead zone in the city, and was in line with the recently-passed Downtown Austin Plan.


The case was scheduled to go before the Planning Commission Tuesday night, but was postponed by staff until April 10.

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