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Panel gives boost to couple planning boutique hotel on East 11th

Monday, November 26, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

The Austin Urban Renewal Board has agreed to add a hotel-motel option for a parcel in limbo on East 11th Street, leaving it to the Planning Commission and City Council to work out an agreement on the design between a potential owner and neighborhood leaders.


The only structure on the lot at 1123 East 11th Street for the last four years has been a skeleton of a potential building. Dick Clark Architects bought the lot out of bankruptcy with the intention of building some type of commercial property, architect Mark Vornberg explained to the Urban Renewal Board on Monday night.


Then the economy tanked, and nothing but steel girders have sat on the property for four years. When the firm was ready to sell the East Side parcel, Vornberg and his wife, attorney Shelly Leibham, jumped at the chance to buy the lot.


A boutique hotel has been the couple’s life-long dream. So the couple told the Urban Renewal Board they were ready to buy the property and build a 14-room boutique hotel on the East Side. Leibham would quit her job and manage the property, with the couple living in a garage apartment on the back end of the 70’ by 100’ lot.


“We’re ready to move on the project, and this is a perfect location,” Leibham told the board. “We live in Travis Heights, and we’re ready to sell our home and put our money into this project.”


It’s an ambitious plan on a street that has seen spotty results when it to comes to development. Residential properties on the street appear to have done fairly well. Results are mixed for commercial properties. The city occupies much of the office space in the building constructed by the Austin Revitalization Authority, but retail and restaurant performance has been anemic.


Vornberg and Leibham, however, are convinced they can make a “go” of it, and they’ve already canvassed a couple of neighborhood groups and agreed to a variety of concessions, such as nixing late-night alcohol sales and outdoor music. A limited small venue for light eating and beer and wine on the site is fine by them. “This is not going to be a hipster hotel,” Vornberg insisted in his presentation.


“We’re surprised there aren’t more small boutique hotels,” said Leibham, comparing their project to the new Heywood Hotel at 1609 East Cesar Chavez Street. “We want to be a locally run family business, not somebody coming from the outside. We have to live there, too.”


Two months of walking the neighborhood left the couple with only one significant issue, which was how the hotel would interface with the single-family housing behind it. Commissioner Saundra Kirk, a former member of the Planning Commission, pointed out, and Vice Chair Mike Clark-Madison concurred, that issues should as compatibility were best left to other commissions.


Mike Rogers, speaking on behalf of the Guadalupe Association for Improvement of the Neighborhood, or GAIN, outlined his concerns about the need to provide some buffer between upper balconies and neighboring residences, but he also admitted that “Mark and Shelly have been great to work with.”


Rogers pointed out a zoning change was forever, and it would apply to anyone who might follow Vornberg and Leibham, regardless of how well intentioned they were.


“What you have to remember is that it’s not Mark Vornberg,” Rogers said. “It’s what can happen for years and years and years to come. What happens when they’re gone? How do you write into the zoning you don’t want a hipster hotel?”

Clark-Madison, who knows the neighborhood well, understood the issue and the level of concern raised by neighborhood leaders. Rogers said a bad negotiated result could result in universal opposition from single-family neighbors. Clark-Madison, knowing the couple was on a timeline, opted for mediation.


“I know when Mark Rogers is really concerned,” Clark-Madison said. “This isn’t it.”


In other words, Clark-Madison had confidence the two sides could mediate a compromise by January, when it was expected to reach City Council for approval. Kirk noted a work group had been set up to address just the issue being raised: how high-intensity street-side uses could interface with single-family homes.


Clark-Madison, in his comments, pointed out the Urban Renewal Board could not postpone its decision over neighborhood plan exceptions and still keep the land use change on track for a January appearance at Council. Changes within the urban renewal plan start and end with the Urban Renewal Board.


Vornberg and Leibham considered such a delay significant. Darwin McKee, another long-time city commissioner, was sympathetic to the couple’s plight that the zoning change could not wait.


“We still have another couple of bites at the apple, to have something the neighborhood agrees with, right?” McKee asked. “Maybe we can express some opinions without necessarily saying that they have to come back to another meeting (with us) next month.”

Kirk was clear, and the board agreed, that the Urban Renewal Board would exceed its authority to deal in compatibility issues. McKee made the motion to approve the urban renewal plan and zoning changes – two items on Monday night’s agenda – and the board agreed to those changes unanimously.

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