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Downtown multi-use tower wins commission’s approval

Thursday, January 10, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite a strong turnout on their side, opponents of a proposal to build a 24-story, multi-use building on a the lot at Fourth and Guadalupe streets gained no traction at the Austin Planning Commission Tuesday night.


In the end, members of the commission, though expressing sympathy for residents of the adjacent Plaza Lofts, voted 9-0 in favor of the rezoning requested by the developers. City Council will ultimately decide the issue.


Developers are seeking a change from CBD (Central Business District) to CBD-CURE for the lot, which has long stood empty except for a building that was most recently home to The Ghost Room, a live music venue. They plan to construct a high-rise to house a restaurant, retail shops, residential units and the Hotel ZaZa, a boutique hotel operated by a Houston company. All told, the structure is expected to rise 24 stories, though the site plan is not finalized.


Armbrust and Brown Attorney Richard Suttle told the Planning Commission that the change would accommodate about 141,000 square feet more than the current zoning by increasing the floor-to-area ratio from 8:1 to 12:1.


In addition, developers were asking for access to the alley behind the property to maneuver trucks to the loading docks and empty trash receptacles.


Suttle explained that the project would participate in the city’s Great Streets program and construct a two-star Green Building tower as public benefits.


While the project has the support of the Downtown Austin Alliance, and at least one nearby resident, the meeting was filled with opponents, including residents of the adjacent Plaza Lofts. Some commissioners were sympathetic to requests for a ban on amplified outdoor music, reduced parking and a less bulky building. But the vote was unanimous to approve the zoning change.


“They actually, by right today, can do what you guys are protesting and what you say is going to ruin your quality of life,” said Commissioner Danette Chimenti. “That speaks to the fact that we need to get on board with the Downtown Austin Plan, and get something done and take a look at what is going to allow us the density that we want downtown but also the quality of life for the folks that are living there.”


Attorney John Joseph of Coats, Rose, Yale, Ryman & Lee spoke on behalf of about 60 families who live at the Plaza Lofts. He explained that they were not opposed to development, but to the proximity of the proposed building, which would greatly impact their quality of life.


“The alley is all that will separate the Plaza Lofts from this project,” said Joseph, who explained that this would mean a separation of only 15 feet for some residents of the lofts.


“They are requiring approximately 500 parking spaces and the code requires 268 parking spaces. The stated goal of the City of Austin is to reduce parking downtown. This is exactly the time, and the opportunity and the kind of project that would best lend itself to that kind of reduction,” said Joseph, who said that fewer parking spaces, or locating some of the parking underground, would reduce the pedestal of the building and lessen the impact on existing neighbors. “As designed, the tower is relatively short and squat. We would like to see a taller, more slender tower.”


Plaza Loft residents were also asking for a ban on amplified sound, a notion that the commission entertained in an unfriendly amendment that ultimately failed, with only commissioners Chimenti, Jean Stevens and Myron Smith voting in favor.


Roger Cauvin, who is a former vice president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, was the sole Plaza Loft resident who spoke in favor of the project, though he did express that he had some concerns about parking. He urged the commission to reduce the parking footprint of the proposed building “by at least half.”


Currently, developers are planning to have 495 spaces on the site, which is within the range dictated by code. Though Cauvin, the opposition, and members of the commission all discussed a reduction in that number of spaces, the current number is well-within code, and 100 spaces less than would be permitted without a variance.


Joseph admitted that he was not accustomed to being on “this side of the argument,” and said residents objected to the proposed configuration, which uniquely burdened the closest residents, the location of the seventh-floor “party deck” in close proximity to lofts and the use of the alley for loading and unloading.


Suttle later explained the alley was to be used for maneuvering only, and the loading dock would not be located in the alley. He also clarified that trash bins would not be emptied in the alley.


Commissioner Richard Hatfield said that he hoped that compromise between neighbors and the developers could be found as the site plan was developed further.


“It’s unfortunate, but the applicant does have the ability to go ahead and build more than what they’ve proposed right now,” said Hatfield, who noted the residents downtown views would be obstructed by the new building. “The hardest issue is the quality of life. … You’ve had this view for so many years and you feel like you own the view. Unfortunately, you don’t, and I wish you did.”

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