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Council approves six story development at Riverside RunTex site

Monday, October 22, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Austin City Council approved on Thursday the rezoning of a large property on the northeast corner of Riverside Drive and South 1st Street to allow for the construction of a six story mixed-use building that will include 9,000 square feet of pedestrian-oriented uses, up to 240 multifamily residential units and  a three-level garage.

The site is best known now as the home of a low-slung building that houses RunTex, the Austin athletic shoe and sportswear retailer.

Staffers determined that rezoning the property to a planned unit development (PUD) would be the only way to allow the project to exceed the South Shore Subdistrict of the Waterfront Overlay’s maximum 60-feet height allowance. The developer requested 75 feet of height for the project.

In addition, the proposed project would require waivers and variances from the Riverside Drive Scenic Roadway Overlay, which requires a minimum setback of 35 feet from Riverside Drive and 25 feet along S. 1st. The applicant, Alliance Residential, requested a setback of 15 feet along Riverside and no minimum on South 1st.

Several citizen/neighborhood groups, along with Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo, opposed the PUD rezoning, saying the resulting development would defy the guidelines of the waterfront overlay, fly in the face of the Bouldin Creek neighborhood plan and mar the “view” of the area.

“One of the troubling parts of the development is they’re encroaching upon the setback and the slope” requirements of the waterfront overlay, said Save Town Lake board member Jack Graham. “This affects the viewscape of Auditorium Shores, the Long Center, Butler Park, the trail, the lake. From a pedestrian aspect, it’s not an urban corner; it’s a pedestrian-oriented environment. This viewscape encroachment is one of the most important reasons we are opposing the development.”

Both the Environmental Board and the Planning Commission endorsed the PUD, with the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board opposed.

Attorney Michael Whellan, who spoke on behalf of the owner/applicant, said opponents of the rezoning don’t object to the project but simply to the property becoming a PUD, which is a type of development that allows a developer to meet overall community density and land use goals without being bound by existing zoning requirements.

“I don’t think they (opponents) have much objection to the project itself, as a six-story multi-family project with underground parking, pedestrian-oriented uses and environmental features,” Whellan said. “It is the PUD process that they object to. We disagree with them. We think using the PUD is a great way to be innovative with some of the requests that have been made by staff and by others.”

Whellan said that his client would be building a 2-star green building, with reduced impervious cover, a public plaza and onsite affordable housing or payment of a fee-in-lieu.

Those concessions, however, didn’t satisfy Morrison and Tovo, both of whom said the project does not meet the “superior development” standards the city set for PUD applications and ignores the guidelines and regulations of the waterfront overlay.

“This is a project that is not going to be developed in accordance with our waterfront overlay,” Tovo said. “It flies in the face of the neighborhood plan. And I think those are both governing documents for how we develop our city.”

Morrison, meanwhile, argued that allowing the project to move forward as a PUD would mean a “breakdown in the regulations that we have set to protect out Lady Bird Lake views.”

But Council Member Chris Riley, who made the motion to approve the rezoning, disagreed with his colleagues, making the argument that, rather than defying the waterfront overlay, the project would move the area toward the original goals of the overlay.

“By and large, this area has just been stagnant,” Riley said. “We’ve seen nothing but surface parking lots and one-story retail uses for decades now. The area does not reflect a local character; it is not oriented toward the waterfront. It is not activated with pedestrians. It’s not what had been envisioned at the time the waterfront overlay was studied and the documents were put in place. This is one step toward finally moving toward achieving the vision set out in those planning documents.”

In particular, Riley continued, because the property is located on the bus rapid-transit line, the building will fit in with the city’s goal to increase transit-oriented development.

Council voted 5-2 in favor of the rezoning, with Council members Morrison and Tovo voting against. The final agreement included two amendments added by Riley. The first directs the owner to incorporate seating associated with pedestrian-oriented uses, such as a coffee shop, in the onsite public plaza. The second calls for the city to place a bike kiosk on the property for use in the city’s future bike-sharing program.

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