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University neighborhood goes up against another alleged “stealth dorm”

Monday, February 20, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The president of the Original University Neighborhood Association plans to challenge the city staff’s approval of a new duplex slated for construction at 1917 David Street. Nuria Zaragoza requested a hearing before Austin’s Board of Adjustment. There, among other issues, she will ask for a reinterpretation of the city’s assessment that the house does not defy super-duplex standards.


As part of her case, Zaragoza will challenge staff to harden the way they define a bedroom. That action could pose ramifications for construction across the city.


“If the city is going to regulate based on bedroom counts, it is unreasonable for reviewers to refuse the authority to make that determination,” Zaragoza writes in a Board of Adjustment filing. “At this point, reviewers simply read what is written on a plan.”


Zaragoza contends that there is ample evidence that the owner of the property, Premier Reality, plans to use more bedrooms than they are allotted under city code. “Although some of the bedrooms are not accurately labeled, this structure has a total of 10 bedrooms, plus 1,292 (square feet) of potentially habitable ‘storage space,’” she writes. “This ‘storage space’ will be created at great expense, through the extensive use of dormers, and two full sets of stairs.”


The language implies the neighborhood’s concern over the creation of what it calls stealth dorms – structures that typically house an extreme number of university students. The neighborhood argues that developers invest in such buildings in order to achieve the maximum profit offered by over-renting the space.


Mike McHone, who is serving as the agent for Premier on the 1917 David case, refutes that allegation. “This is not a large-scale building,” he says. “(It’s) not designed to be anything other than a three-bedroom duplex on each side.”


McHone suggests that Zaragoza’s appeal “is filed more based on the business of the owner” than on the house itself. “People are looking for problems that don’t exist,” he says.


This is not the first time that Zaragoza and her neighbors have been before a city body over occupancy. In 2010, they successfully fought a remodel attempt at 1915 David Street. That effort resulted in two ordinance changes that make it more difficult to destroy significant amounts of a building and have still a project considered a remodel. McHone also served as the agent for the owners of 1915 David Street—who are not involved in the 1917 David project.


As part of that fight, Zaragoza argued that certain features of some of the rooms designed for 1915 David Street made those rooms bedrooms, and not—as the developer suggested—studies or game rooms. The city, Zaragoza says, has since changed its definition of a bedroom. “Before, a bedroom, if it had a closet, it was a bedroom,” she told In Fact Daily. “Apparently that is no more.”


John McDonald of the City of Austin’s Planning and Development Review department told In Fact Daily that no such change had been effected. “We don’t even have a definition for a bedroom,” he said. “We follow what the designer” shows.


In her Board of Adjustment filing, Zaragoza offers her own suggestions for the definition of a bedroom. She argues that such a space “could be reasonably defined” as “any room that meets the definition for habitable space…and meets the minimum area requirements…and is a private space or can be made private by the addition of a door…and has an outside door or window which meets the minimum requirements for emergency escape.”


Zaragoza further explained the idea to In Fact Daily. She turned to the example of a study. She suggested that “it makes sense” to have a door that closes in a study, and that a potential remedy, under her proposed rules, would be to have a window that “would bring in light but that would not necessarily meet the egress requirements for a bedroom.”


McHone suggests that these limits could be overly harsh. He sent along examples of homes in the area which have four and five bedroom set-ups, but are not used as dorms. He said that his client was only interested in building a “nice project that fits into the neighborhood.”


McDonald said that he had not yet had an opportunity to prepare his response to Zaragoza’s suggestions. He added that the response would come in advance of the Board of Adjustment hearing on the matter.

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