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Planning Commission OKs rezoning for planned medical building

Friday, July 27, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission gave its blessing earlier this week to rezone land to allow the construction of a medical building in Austin’s Heritage neighborhood.


The commission voted 5-2 to recommend a change from Limited Office to General Office on four tracts at West 34th and Grandview streets. Commissioners Danette Chimenti and Jean Stevens voted in opposition, while Commissioner Richard Hatfield absent.


The applicant, Richard Stilovich with REIT Management, told the commission that the planned building would be used for “daytime medical use,” would be outpatient only, and operate during regular business hours.


On Monday night, the rezoning won the support of the Heritage Neighborhood Association in a close vote before the Planning Commission considered the case on Tuesday. But the neighborhood remains split over the change. The Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee (CANPAC) has yet to weigh in on the latest draft of the agreement struck between developers and the neighborhood group.


The Planning Commission voted to recommend the zoning change despite concerns about the proposed buildings. Commissioner Saundra Kirk, who voted in favor of the rezoning, said she felt she had to respect the process the neighborhood underwent in negotiating an agreement with developers.


“When I originally saw this plan I thought it was inappropriate for the neighborhood, and I still do,” said Kirk. “The neighborhood did not take the stance to cut this off at the knees when it first started…. They’ve gone through a laborious process of trying to make sense of it. And there is a certain amount of sense in this.”


Attorney Nikelle Meade of Brown McCarroll, who represented the Heritage Neighborhood Association, explained that those who voted to support the zoning change felt the project, with the amenities in the agreement, was a better deal than what could be built with the original zoning of Limited Office, which would not require neighborhood approval.


Meade said the neighborhood residents did not feel forced to make an agreement with developers.


“The feeling that we got was that there was very strong support for the neighborhood position, particularly if no agreement was reached… We always felt pretty empowered to stop the zoning if we wanted to stop the zoning,” said Meade.


The terms of the agreement that the Heritage Neighborhood Association negotiated with developers are lengthy, and include plans for trees, transportation, impervious cover, parking, the creation of a pocket park and design standards.


Ambrust and Brown attorney Kevin Flahive, representing the developer, said that while the case has been under way for quite a while (Meade guessed they had been to the Planning Commission “about ten times”) negotiations with the neighborhood really started “in earnest” about four months ago.


“This agreement is quite comprehensive and quite specific in some aspects, yet we are still at the zoning stage here,” said Flahive. “We’ve effectively had to, in some respects and in some areas, attempt to engineer the project in order to reach specific terms.”


The Heritage Neighborhood Association approved the agreement in a narrow 28-26 vote. Several neighbors spoke to the Planning Commission about the case, illustrating the split in opinion that has divided the neighborhood.


Betsy Greenberg, Heritage Neighborhood Association Treasurer and CANPAC Secretary, told the Planning Commission that CANPAC voted unanimously to oppose the zoning request on May 21, and had not yet seen the revised term sheet.


She said the close vote at the neighborhood association showed there was “no consensus or mandate” on the issue.


Greenberg said that she was concerned that such large commercial buildings were being considered in the interior of the neighborhood, noting that LO zoning would allow developers to build about double what was currently on the ground, but a change to GO would allow three times what is currently built.


Other neighbors cited concerns about trees, traffic and a “heat sink effect” that would be caused by the air conditioners for the facility. While trees will be removed from the site, the developers will mitigate the loss by contributing to planting trees elsewhere, as dictated by the agreement. They also plan to relocate one large “heritage” tree to the pocket park that will also be created by the agreement.

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