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Council OKs rezoning for 310-room downtown hotel

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council begrudgingly approved rezoning for another downtown hotel on first reading last week, letting the case go forward for now despite its lack of compliance with the Downtown Austin Plan.


Developers asked for a zoning change from CBD to CBD-CURE on the parcel, which is currently a surface parking lot at San Jacinto Boulevard and Fifth Street. The rezoning will increase the floor-to-area ratio (FAR) from 8:1 to 13:1, facilitating construction of a proposed 310-room hotel on the property. FAR is a measure of how much square footage can be built on a piece of land, with a higher ratio allowing for more density.


After years of work and discussion by the city, City Council approved the Downtown Austin Plan in December 2011. But what passed is only a framework, with specific code changes still in the works. Planning and Development Review Director Greg Guernsey said that his department was in the midst of working on these changes, and expected they would be ready for City Council in the spring.


Council Member Laura Morrison said, “It’s been a long haul talking about how to put appropriate standards in place, and then we are left a year and a half later where we’ve adopted something and we still don’t have them. It gets to be pretty frustrating, obviously. I’m going to be a lot more comfortable if the plan and zoning application somehow meets the downtown plan standards.”


Armburst and Brown attorney Richard Suttle said that developers were asking for things appropriate to the process, and telling Council that hotels are unique revenue generators that provide the city with sales, hotel occupancy and property tax revenue.


In addition to the rezoning, developers are asking for a slight break on parking requirements and a reduction of loading dock requirements from two to one. Suttle told Council that despite there being several months left until the regulatory plan is implemented, the project will comply with “gatekeeper requirements” that are outlined by the plan.


Specifically, the hotel will participate in the Great Streets Program, the two-star Green Building program and meet building design standards.


What they will not be complying with are “community benefit” requirements, which require contributions to the city’s public art, open space and affordable housing. The exclusion left several Council members audibly unhappy.


Suttle said that the community benefits that will be mandated by the downtown plan in the future, “usually end up being a payment for zoning.” Payment for zoning is of course illegal and though it seems to happen in different forms from time to time, there is no public acknowledgment that it is happening.


“Without a regulatory plan, there is no place – if you wanted to – to go pay your money. … Until the regulatory plan, there is really no clean and crisp way to do it,” said Suttle.


Morrison thanked Suttle for reminding Council about the many benefits of hotels, and in turn reminded him that while hotels were not included in the interim density bonus plan, they were not exempt from the downtown plan.


“I do believe that there is another applicant that is trying to mimic, with a hotel, the downtown plan. We can certainly get them in touch with you, if you need some help with the mechanisms,” Morrison said.


“That would be great,” said Suttle.


City Council voted 6-1 to approve the rezoning on first reading. Council Member Kathie Tovo voted in opposition. She said that she looked forward to, “the possibility of supporting this in the future, if it complies with our downtown plan.”


Council Member Bill Spelman added additional language to the measure, directing staff to include language that would help developers comply with the plan.


“It was my understanding that the primary concern the applicant had was that our requirements are not clean and crisp enough,” said Spelman. “My suggestion would be that staff find a way to make this clean and crisp and very specific as to what would be necessary for them to comply.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell took the opportunity to restate his opinion that hotels should not be included in the downtown plan, in a conversation that Tovo called “familiar.” Before the Council voted, Leffingwell made it clear that he supported the zoning change.


“It seems we’re in here in the business of penalizing people, requiring additional concessions of people, for doing what we really want them to do, which is increasing density in the downtown area,” said Leffingwell. “I have a little bit of a hard time in reconciling that dichotomy.”


Merrillville, Ind.-based White Lodging Services has the property under contract. The project is on a smaller scale than their most prominent venture – the 1,000-plus room Marriott at Congress Avenue and Second Street that recently held a groundbreaking. White Lodging is proposing 310 rooms for the new hotel. Suttle told City Council that the hotel will also include a rooftop lounge that is open to the public.

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