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Rainey Street development proposal hits Landmark Commission roadblock

Thursday, May 3, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

A proposed mixed use development in the Rainey Street area may have hit a stumbling block at the Historic Landmark Commission last week.


To make way for the development, 95 Rainey Street, 91 Rainey Street, 93 Rainey Street, 89 Rainey Street, and 89.5 Rainey Street will have to be demolished or moved. All the houses, aside from 89.5 Rainey Street, are contributing structures in the Rainey Street National Register Historic District.


Though the exact plan for the development has yet to be nailed down, plans for the “Rainey Street Project” show two towers that will consist of residential, office, and hotel space as well as restaurant, hotel and car dealership use.


The developer has offered to “make a good faith effort” to relocate the buildings that are sturdy enough to be moved. But this offer was evidently not strong enough for the commission, who voted unanimously to begin a demolition delay on the properties in order to give developers time to talk to those who oppose the demolition.


The commission can delay demolition for up to 180 days without initiating historic zoning.


Developers pointed to the 2005 Rainey Street Ordinance, saying that their project was in line with what the city envisioned for the area when it decided to include the neighborhood in the Central Business District.


“Clearly this contemplates a major development. Something other than what is there now. I can’t imagine Lustre Pearl building an underground parking garage,” said Wally Scott, president and general counsel of the Sutton Company. Scott told the commission that he hoped to “advance the redevelopment of that property in a logical way.”


Since its inclusion in the CBD, Rainey Street has rapidly transformed into a bar district. Cocktail Lounges are not a conditional use in the district.


After attending a Rainey Street Neighborhood Association meeting, Sutton Company principal Mac Pike said that he felt he had neighborhood support – though there was no official vote on the project. Several neighbors showed up in support of the project, saying that the recent speedy transformation of the area into a bar district has led to decreased quality of life in the area.


One neighbor, Gene Sanchez, said that he recently had to erect a fence “to keep people from using our yard as a toilet.”


“When this was presented to my family, we said ‘of course we will support this fully,’ because the character of the neighborhood right now is pretty much like Sixth Street,” said Sanchez.


In fact, no Rainey Street residents showed up to oppose the project, though several Austinites did speak against the demolitions, including Tere O’Connell, president-elect of the Heritage Society of Austin.


O’Connell said that she was concerned about the long-term preservation of Rainey Street. “There are ways to reuse existing buildings in a vibrant community and that adds to the texture of our city to retain these historic buildings,” said O’Connell


Commissioner Meghan Kleon agreed.


“Preservation does allow for density. It allows for mixed-use sustainable development, and historic preservation is a key component to sustainable development in Austin. So I think pitting the two against each other is absurd,” said Kleon.


“I’m kind of disturbed by some of the architectural determinism that I’m hearing in this discussion as if preserving these buildings means you necessarily have to have bars. That’s certainly not the case. There’s a potential to have other types of businesses in these historic  buildings,” said Kleon.


Downtown Commission member and Rainey Street resident Jude Galligan told the commission that he was concerned that their lack of support for the demolition or moving of the houses would help to perpetuate the district’s transformation into a “single-use, nighttime-only bar district.”


“Appropriateness on Rainey Street should be viewed through the lens of mixed use, and land decisions, which you are here to opine on. The appropriateness of them should be congruent with the Downtown Austin Plan. If it’s too much to ask this commission to support this project… perhaps it is not too much to ask this commission to simply not oppose it and to acknowledge the vision for downtown Austin articulated in the Downtown Austin Plan,” said Galligan.


“With all due respect, we did not start this process with the expectation of coming in front of the Historic Landmark Commission,” said Pike. “Our intent is to comply 100 percent with those zoning ordinances as well as the Rainey Street overlay, which does address the specifics of what can and cannot happen to those houses.”


“Those houses do have significant years and people living in them. But I think so does just about every other neighborhood in this city and every other neighborhood in the county,” said Pike.

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