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BOA splits difference with Marriott on downtown loading docks

Thursday, April 12, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Board of Adjustment didn’t give representatives of White Lodging exactly what they wanted, but they did manage to come to a unanimous agreement on variances allowing a reduced number of loading docks for the planned downtown Marriott Hotel.


City code required that the building have eight loading docks, but developers were asking that number be reduced to three.


The Board of Adjustment split the difference, ultimately voting to reduce the loading dock requirement to five, as opposed to the three sought by the applicant.


Richard Suttle, attorney with Ambrust and Brown, explained that after research of Marriott Hotels of a similar size, “two to four docks seem to be the sweet spot.”


Suttle said that with eight docks, “you would virtually eat up probably half of a city block with dock and loading space,” unnecessarily denying the hotel a reasonable use of property. He also told the board that, at an estimated 15 deliveries a day, each dock would receive about two deliveries per day if they followed the code.


Research by staff on hotels in cities of a similar size resulted in varied requirements, from 26 docks in San Diego to none in San Antonio.


“I would worry that your calculation might fall short, and it might cause problems of loading and unloading and exacerbate traffic in the downtown DMU area – that’s what I’m worried about. I know it’s your best guess that you think you can do it with three, but we see the numbers all over the place,” said Board Member Bryan King.


“There’s no real science to it,” said Suttle.


A restrictive covenant is in place which restricts the hotel from loading and unloading anywhere other than Third Street. 


The same section of Third Street will also be home to the Lance Armstrong Bikeway,  a concern for some board members.


“The loading provisions do appear on the surface, at least in my mind, to conflict with several downtown initiatives, when it’s combined with the restrictive covenant forcing all the loading onto Third Street,” said Alternate Will Schnier, citing Great Streets, ground floor pedestrian space and the bikeway as examples.


“Now we are going to potentially have a section of bikeway with 80 to 100 feet or more of loading dock space in the middle of it, with trucks maneuvering through the bikeway,” said Schnier.


Chair Jeff Jack said that he was stuck on one issue: whether or not the granting of the variance would create a safety hazard in downtown Austin. “If your numbers are not right, then what happens is that you have a traffic problem on Third Street in downtown Austin, with 18-wheelers trying to get in to offload and on-load their material.”


“So while three might be something you think you can get away with, it doesn’t give us much surety that it’s not going to create this safety hazard in the future for traffic on Third Street,” said Jack.


Barry Lewis, who lives at Second and Congress, spoke against the request.


“I am in favor of high density development downtown in Austin. But I want to see that development be responsible development. And I don’t want to see it do violence to the city code. The city code and the state statutes, it is my understanding, require a finding of hardship in order to support a variance… The hardship that has been cited by Mr. Suttle, and I appreciate his very creative advocacy, is that the code is a hardship,” said Lewis.


Suttle explained the hardship which led developers to seek the variance.


“The hardship is that in Austin, Texas in order to do a convention-center sized hotel, with our block sizes, you have to fit your loading dock, your entryways, your stairwells, your Great Streets, and all that on a single block. If we had to put code-required loading docks on here… it would eat up roughly half a block,” said Suttle. “The hardship would be you could not do a hotel this size on a city block like this.”


After failed votes on motions for three, then four loading docks, the Board of Adjustment voted 7-0 to approve a variance requiring the hotel to only build five loading docks, and a condition that those docks be in use during off-peak hours. Board Member Melissa Hawthorne abstained from the vote.

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