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Proposed student housing complex gets poor marks from state rep

Tuesday, July 24, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Developers from American Campus Communities Inc. want to turn an empty lot at 203 West Martin Luther King Avenue into student housing. But they are facing powerful opposition.


The Austin-based company — which bills itself as the nation’s largest developer, owner and manager of student housing developments — hopes to build on the lot that sits between Cambridge Tower and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum.


State Representative Debbie Riddle (R-Houston), who has an apartment in the Cambridge Tower, wrote a letter to City Council asking for support in opposing the proposed development, which is being presented as a five-story, 180-bedroom structure with a five-foot setback on the east property line of Cambridge Tower.


Riddle said she has the support of at least one other state legislator.


“State Representative Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin) and I have visited about it,” Riddle said. “Even though she is a Democrat, a little more to the left, and I’m Republican and a lot more to the right, there are some things that are really not political. It’s either right or wrong… And let me tell you, when we join forces, we’re a formidable foe.” Dukes represents State District 46, which encompasses the site.


Gina Cowart, a vice president at American Campus Communities, told In Fact Daily that the project was “at the very beginning stages of due diligence. It’s something that we’re really working through. There’s not enough concrete information to really go public with it at this stage.”


Since 2005, American Campus has acquired more than $2.8 billion in student housing properties and developed more than $3.4 billion in student communities, according to its website. In Austin, the company owns and manages 26 West at 600 West 26th Street, which has 1,026 beds, and next year it plans to open the 757-bed Callaway House Austin at 505 West 22nd Street.


Planning and Development Review’s Jerry Rusthoven told In Fact Daily that some residents who live near American Campus’ newest proposed Austin project were unhappy with plans that showed four-bedroom units that they complained seemed “more dorm than apartment complex.”


Though Cowart was tight-lipped about American Campus’ plans, the developers have requested to change the property’s zoning from MF-5 to Downtown Mixed Use (DMU.)


The zoning change would allow commercial use as well as increasing the allowed floor-to-area ratio and impervious cover.


Normally, DMU zoning allows developers to build to up to 120 feet high, but because the property is in a Capitol View Corridor, the building will be restricted to 60 feet even with the zoning change.


Riddle said that isn’t good enough, and drawings of a five-story building make the dome of the capitol look “like the top of fire hydrant” from campus.


“One of the things that I find most concerning, in addition to the fire hazard, is it will block the view of the capitol from MLK and from Littlefield Fountain. … What it would do is block all but the very tip top of the capitol, and that’s not good,” said Riddle. “It isn’t worth a five-story wood-framed wood and stucco building that would diminish that.”


Riddle shared concerns that the diminished setback and building materials could present a fire hazard, and the planned rooftop air-conditioners would be both unsightly and noisy.


“To have a rather shoddily built student dorm there would just totally change the situation within that area,” said Riddle, who noted that some people hoped the area would be home to a museum district in the future.


The land, which is currently under a contract, is owned by the state. The state’s General Land Office auctioned it off following a determination that it was a surplus property.


The process raised the ire of Riddle, who said that she and Dukes were looking at “specific legislation next session so that this will not happen again.”


“Last session there was a bill that came before us wanting to give the sale of surplus state properties to the Texas Land Commissioner with basically no oversight or discretion from anyone else,” said Riddle. “It passed on the House side, went to the Senate, and didn’t do well… and that part was stricken out.”


Riddle said that while it may have been legal for the Texas Land Commissioner to take the action to sell the land, “it is outside the will and the intent of the Legislature. And we will deal with this next session.”

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