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Planning Commission votes against rezoning for proposed hotel

Friday, October 26, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

A proposed hotel project at Eighth and Congress hit another road block Tuesday night when the Planning Commission voted against recommending rezoning of the tracts.


The commission voted 5-3 to deny a zoning change to Central Urban Redevelopment (CURE) in the Central Business District for the properties, which are located at 800 and 804 Congress Avenue. Commissioners James Nortey, Alfonso Hernandez and Stephan Oliver voted against the denial and Commissioner Richard Hatfield was absent.


In February, the Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted against the change. However, the city’s Design and Downtown commissions have recommended City Council approve the zoning change.


One of the most controversial aspects of the proposed project is the developer’s request to build into the required stepback, which limits how close to the property line buildings on Congress Avenue can be built. It is this violation that has raised the ire of the Downtown Austin Alliance, which has been consistently vocal about its opposition to the project.


Currently, the Congress Avenue tracts are home to a former one-story restaurant and a three-story office building that is zoned “historic” for its façade. Developer David Kahn said that the people that were truly against the project were attempting to preserve Capitol views from their own buildings. He noted that there is “no statute, ordinance, case or precedent for the protection of private views.”


However, the city has in place the Congress Avenue Overlay to protect how close buildings can be built to Congress Avenue. The overlay requires that buildings step back 60 feet if they are 90 feet or taller. The proposed building would only step back 30 feet, in two 15-foot steps. The zoning change would allow an increase in floor-to-area ratio from 8:1 to 20:1, and allow the building to reach a height of 380 feet.


Undeterred, Kahn told the Planning Commission that proposed hotel, called Austin House: The Hotel of Texas, would be an “insanely great project for Texas.” Plans for the building include a 210-room four-star hotel, 110,000 square feet of office space, a music venue and ground-level retail on the site of the former Hickory Street Bar & Grill and the historic Bosch-Hogg Building.


Kahn estimated that the project will bring $3.1 million in taxes to the city and contribute an annual economic benefit of $38.5 million, including 923 permanent jobs. Kahn also stressed the need to vitalize the northern section of Congress Avenue, which he said is so quiet in the evenings that “you could have a picnic on Eighth Street and nothing would happen.”


Kahn also questioned the opposition of the project by the Downtown Austin Alliance, and its executive director Charlie Betts, and some large downtown property owners, Thomas Properties Group and Austin real estate operator Tom Stacy, who have filed petitions opposing it.


“When (Betts) says he represents 458 property owners, three of those properties are mine. He’s not representing me. Thomas Properties and Tom Stacy pay about a third of his budget, so guess who he’s really representing?” Kahn said. “What is Mr. Betts and the DAA doing for our part of town? All they have done so far is put lights on the Christmas trees. … I have to pay thousands of dollars for those people to represent me.”


Chair Dave Anderson said that he liked the project, but could not support it in its current incarnation, even at the risk of keeping that section of Congress dead.


“I don’t think it’s about fairness,” said Anderson. “When I think of preserving the very essence of nature, a stream, I think of making sure we do everything to keep that as pure as possible. I think the view of the Capitol up Congress is, in my opinion, similar to that.”


In addition to the setback variance, Kahn is also asking the city for variances from alley unloading and loading requirements and parking requirements.


In opposition, attorney Michael Whellan told the commission that the lack of on-site parking was a problem.


“There has been no demonstration by the applicant that the 300 to 600 parking spots that he would need are available within a reasonable radius,” said Whellan, who noted that there was no clear picture of what the traffic impact would be.


“By proposing no parking, and I have to admit this was brilliant, the applicant obtained a waiver from the TIA (Traffic Impact Analysis.) … It is quite a novel approach, one I have to remember,” said Whellan.


Kahn said that the lack of activity on North Congress leaves about 3,000 empty parking spaces after 5pm. In addition, he said that he had contracted 150 parking spaces in a garage.


“It would be suicidal to spend $90 million and not have parking. … We are going to find the parking. We’re not going to build it without parking,” said Kahn.


Kahn also asserted that the Downtown Plan indicates that the city should consider relaxing the 60-foot stepback requirement, noting that it was “pretty impossible” to develop the sites with it in place.


Commission Vice Chair Danette Chimenti said that the way that she read the Downtown Plan, it does not advocate relaxing the setback on the west side of Congress Avenue, but specifically talks about the east side, which already has many buildings standing in violation of the setback.


“I don’t think the Downtown Plan is endorsing violating that setback, and I think the setback is a great aspect of the city,” said Chimenti, who said that she wished the project itself would step back a bit so that she could encourage density in the area and support the project.

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