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Residential design panel denies request for 6-bedroom, 6-bath redesign

Friday, July 20, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

A wary Residential Design and Compatibility Commission last week shot down a request for a modification of a triplex at 608 Blanco Street, citing concerns that the plans for the building may not be what they seem.


The house had been converted to multi-use, with a business on the first floor and two living units upstairs. The owners wanted to revert the house back to a single-family residence, which they say would less impact the neighborhood in terms of occupants and vehicles.


But plans to remodel the house into a six-bedroom, six-bathroom residence to better accommodate the owners’ family during holidays were met with raised eyebrows by the commission, who worried that the plans might have a future short-term rental or stealth dorm use in mind.


Jan Currier owns the house, as well as the house across the street; her husband told the commission that their primary residence was in Horseshoe Bay.


The commission voted 5-0 to deny the request to increase the floor-to-area ratio (FAR) from the allowable 40 percent to 47.8 percent, despite Currier’s protestations that it was an increase of just four feet in the back of the house. FAR is a measure of how much square footage can be built on a given piece of land, with a higher FAR allowing more density on a given lot. The new plans also would reduce the overall impervious cover from 57 to 43 percent.


Commissioners Missy Bledsoe and Lucy Katz were absent from the meeting.


“I have to say, as I look at the first-floor plan and as I look at the second-floor plan, I honestly don’t see any reason why it couldn’t be done more efficiently, if in fact you want to make this thing happen,” said Chair William Burkhardt. “You could easily make these shared bathrooms, consolidate six feet out of it and be home.”


Bob Fallis, owner of Our House Plans etc., who has been hired to redesign the home, said: “I don’t think we’re asking for that much.”


Jan Currier told In Fact Daily that she did not think there would be a problem getting the increased FAR, which others in the area have gotten, after getting the certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Landmark Commission. She pointed out that the zoning on the lot, MF-4, would allow her to build a hospital if she wanted.


“It’s mind-boggling. They are treating me like some rabid person trying to screw up the neighborhood. … I’m a neighbor, it is my neighborhood,” said Currier.


Currier, who owns four-bedroom property across the street, maintains that she hopes to host friends and family at the rebuilt house. She said she had no idea what a stealth dorm was, and had no plans to use the building for short-term rentals. She plans to appeal the decision to the City Council with the help of an attorney, but said she is still looking at her options.


“Well, you’re asking us to give it to you, and I’m not sure you’re going to get it,” said Burkhardt. “I have to question the intent as it is planned in front of me right now.”


“I’ve been designing homes with Jan Currier for quite a while. I guess about 15 years. She has always put a bathroom with every bedroom in her designs. It’s a force of habit. Out in the Hill Country, with the homes she designs, it’s what she does… The families that she sells to and designs for prefer that lifestyle,” Fallis said. “A home in that price range deserves some convenience.”


The home resides in the Castle Hill Local Historic District, just west of downtown.


Opposing the modification was Susanna Gimson, a neighbor who had recently renovated her own house according to the design standards.


“We knew that was the price we had to pay to have the privilege to live in a historical neighborhood and we were willing to pay that price. It seems to me that if you want to get all these exceptions to FAR and impervious cover, you probably should live in a different neighborhood,” said Gimson.


“I think granting something like this in a historic district is extra treacherous,” said Vice Chair Karen McGraw. “I’ve never seen four bedrooms and four bathrooms with such tiny little closets in Austin. That says ‘vacation house’ to me. It says, ‘short-term rental.’ It says, ‘downtown hotel.’ And I’m just not inclined to grant these things with what we’re looking at. I think there’s been too much work in this city to protect these neighborhoods for people who live in them that these hotels are not going to be compatible. They’re just not. And this looks like a hotel to me,” said McGraw.


McGraw also expressed frustration with the lack of protocol in the handling of the case, saying that the Historic Landmark Commission had neither zoning review nor RDCC comment at the time of their review, as is the correct process. The historic panel’s approval of the plans and permission to build in the rear of the property were apparently given without any indication that such a move would put the residence over FAR allowances.

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