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Planned East 11th Street boutique hotel gains zoning approval

Monday, December 3, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

A proposed East Austin boutique hotel breezed through the Planning Commission last week with a unanimous recommendation to allow zoning changes needed for construction.


Mark Vornberg and Shelly Leibham, who are married, hope to build a 14-room hotel at 1123 East Eleventh Street. The lot has long stood unused, home to a rusty metal frame of an abandoned project. Vornberg bought the property out of bankruptcy four years ago with his partners, just before the real estate market crashed. The property was originally slated to be a mixed-use office and residential project.


“We’ve been hoping to resurrect it ever since. My partners are ready to move on, and my wife and I are excited about the opportunity to take over the project,” said Vornberg.


He now hopes to open his dream project, a boutique hotel that he compares to the recently opened Heywood Hotel on East Cesar Chavez Street and or the San Jose on South Congress Street. 


To do so, the city must first approve changes to the urban renewal plan and conditional use on the lot, neither of which currently allows hotel-motel use.


The developers, 1123 Partners, have planned “The Paloma” with three stories and a garage apartment that would serve as the manager’s residence. It will also have a small cafe counter where employees will serve snacks, beer and wine. The developers made it clear that they will not open a restaurant, and have included a provision that outdoor entertainment would be prohibited as an accessory use. 


“We really believe in the Eleventh Street corridor. A hotel’s business concerns are very aligned with the neighborhood’s business concerns, regarding noise, picking up trash at three in the morning, regarding outdoor music, all those sorts of things.


“We’re really in line with the neighbors so that everyone can sleep,” said Vornberg.


Though Vornberg has found neighborhood support for the project, the area remains wary of a zoning change, which would allow another hotel/ motel to be built.


“There actually were several hotels along this strip of Eleventh Street years ago. … This is not a new use for the neighborhood,” said Vornberg. “At one point the neighborhood had deteriorated to the point where several of these hotels had turned to by-the-hour. So that is one of the reasons that I think this was omitted from the neighborhood plan at the time it was written.”


The Planning Commission voted in favor of the staff’s recommendation to permit the zoning change, which will allow hotel-motel as a conditional, not permitted use. The reasoning is that this will act as a safeguard against future projects on the land, which may not be as wanted by the neighborhood. The next step: Austin City Council now must sign off on the zoning change to make it final.


Neither Robertson Hill Neighborhood Association nor the Organization for Central East Austin Neighborhoods expressed objections to the development. The Guadalupe Association for an Improved Neighborhood has also written a letter of support for the project, though that came after drafting a private restrictive covenant addressing concerns such as music, sales of liquor and other things the city is not allowed to regulate in zoning.


Ex-officio commission member Jeff Jack worried about staff’s power to regulate code compliant revisions made after the zoning change, leaving that up to the neighborhood to decide whom they would “have to sue with no money.”


“I’m very hesitant about these agreements that don’t have a bond, because it doesn’t give the neighborhood any financial ability to enforce it,” said Jack. “I’m also concerned that we don’t look hard enough at the ability of the city to enter into a public restrictive covenant.”


Commissioner Danette Chimenti incorporated Jack’s suggestion that any review process by the city include the private restrictive covenant, though case manager Heather Chaffin assured the commission this would be the case regardless.


Vornberg said he looks forward to bringing more people to the east side. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for people outside of East Austin to understand how East Austin is, and that it’s a great area.”

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