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Planning Commission OKs zoning change for Marriott

Thursday, June 14, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

The Planning Commission unanimously recommended a change of zoning for the coming 1,000-room JW Marriott despite continued opposition from fans of Las Manitas, the popular Tex-Mex restaurant that was demolished to make way for the city’s second convention hotel.


So opponents of the JW Marriott Hotel lost another fight this week when they protested changes to the existing CBD-CURE zoning for the hotel, which will sit on Congress Avenue on the site of the former restaurant. Zoning changes between old and new CBD-CURE were limited to off-street loading. The property, with a 16-to-1 floor-to-area ratio, has doubled its original FAR ratios.


Issues raised during the Tuesday meeting included possible conflict with a pedestrian friendly thoroughfare and limited parking spaces.


The two Perez sisters who ran Las Manitas, and a couple of other opponents, were at the meeting to express their concerns about the proposal, although comments ranged far from the what was the primary issue of off-site loading at the hotel.


The design of the new Marriott hotel, opponent Barry Lewis said, violated a design guideline in the Downtown Austin Plan approved last December by Council. Hotel porte cocheres are allowed on mixed-use streets but can in no way interfere with a “generous and continuous pedestrian path.”


“I would remind you that Second Street has been selected by the City of Austin and in the Austin Downtown Plan as the main thoroughfare from the Austin Convention Center all the way to Seaholm,” said Lewis, who noted check-in and check-out times would be a serious problem if pedestrian flow was going to be an issue. “I would remind you the city has spent tens of millions dollars planning Second Street as a pedestrian-oriented street.”


The design of the hotel, however, was not the issue at hand. The original plans already had moved through the approval process, and the Design Commission had reviewed the hotel’s exterior, Commissioner Saundra Kirk noted. The extent of the changes was limited to the number and size of loading docks, a compromise hammered out with the Board of Adjustment.


Cynthia Perez offered objections to some of the specifics of the off-street parking. It appeared she objected to the number of loading docks, saying Marriott had offered comparables in cities with better transit systems than Austin. She touched on other points made in earlier BOA hearings, but her testimony crammed many points into too few minutes, and attorney Richard Suttle, representing the hotel, said her concerns already had been resolved at the Board of Adjustment.


The bigger problem, and the one that might give some Council members more heartburn, was the parking issue. The number of parking spaces under city code, once the various uses on the hotel site were combined, was 1,407 spaces. Marriott was proposing that the number of spaces be whittled down to 438.


Ex-officio member Jeff Jack, in particular, wanted to know how the developer was going to make up the difference between actual and suggested. The original agreement allows Marriott to subtract just over 600 parking spaces.


The city’s land use code never envisioned something as large as a 1,000-room hotel, Planning Director Greg Guernsey admitted to the commission. The Marriott is a first for Austin. And as the current code stands, the hotel use, plus the meeting space, plus the two on-site restaurants did combine to require more than 1,000 parking spaces, even if that number of parking spaces isn’t necessarily appropriate for the project.


Convention hotels don’t necessarily require a maximum number of parking spaces, Suttle said. Most of the time, given the fact it caters to conventions, the hotel will be at 67 percent to 70 percent occupancy. Estimates are 30 percent of visitors will arrive by taxi, Suttle said. Marriott and White Lodging were comfortable with 438 spaces, and on peak days, use of a valet parking company.


“It’s a very complicated calculation,” Suttle told the commission. “When I’ve asked, ‘Where are you going to make that up?’ Marriott has told me, ‘We are not going to build a facility that is going to start out with failure. We know what we need. We know how to operate it, and we’re not going to fail.’”


Guernsey, responding to Jack’s questions, said some discussion was ongoing about a downtown parking benefits district, one that could provide common parking garages to be used by multiple properties. Jack said his concern was, if parking requirements were being waived in CURE, whether the city was prepared for weekends when multiple events happen in Austin.


Overall, the Planning Commission appeared comfortable with that explanation of parking requirements. The board unanimously approved the plan, sending it on to Council for approval.


In other comments, the Downtown Austin Alliance offered its support for the project. Executive Director Charlie Betts said DAA had appointed a group to review the project. DAA was satisfied with the plans, and Betts said “the biggest ask” from the business group as that the plan get to Council so White Lodging could break ground on the project and maintain its current timetable.


Groundbreaking is expected this summer, with completion anticipated in early 2015. The hotel has reportedly already booked its first convention group in 2015.

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