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Council rejects much-maligned plan for Congress Avenue hotel

Monday, February 4, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The ongoing saga of The Hotel of Austin came to an end last week at City Council – at least in this incarnation. After more than a year of postponements and presentations at the city’s various boards and commissions, City Council unanimously rejected the plan for a hotel at 8th Street and Congress Avenue.


Developer David Kahn hoped to construct 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. Council shot down the zoning change to Central Urban Redevelopment (CURE) for the properties, which are located at 800 and 804 South Congress. Kahn estimated that the $90 million project would bring in an additional $3 million in city taxes annually.


The plan drew opposition from the Downtown Austin Alliance, which strongly objected to the requested waiver from the Congress Avenue Overlay that would allow Kahn to build into the setback. 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.


In addition to the setback waiver, Kahn sought a variance from parking requirements, with no plans for on site parking, and loading dock requirements.


“I’d very much like to see a project similar to this go forward,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “The northern part of Congress Avenue does need redevelopment. But it needs to be development in accordance with our rules and good practice. To me, that means you are going to have to respect the overlay, you’re going to have to provide on-site parking, and you’re going to have provide loading and unloading space so that the alley is not blocked on a regular basis.”


There is some ambiguity about whether the Downtown Plan supports a relaxation of Congress Avenue setbacks. The plan does say that there should be a relaxation, but opponents of the hotel project say that language applies only to the already-corrupted east side setbacks.


“The great thing about the plan is it is only a plan. The ordinance will be coming to you in the future,” said attorney Michael Whellan, who was representing Thomas Properties, which opposed the project. “The reality is that it has not ever been violated, and it is economically feasible to build tall buildings on the west side without violating the step back. I think we’ve got reality on our side, which is great and helpful – in addition to a valid petition on our side.”


Kahn addressed the valid petition, which stood at 35 percent. He noted that, because of the density of downtown, the opposition of one neighbor could trigger a valid petition.


“The valid petition was created to level the playing field between developers who had money and consultants and neighbors who don’t,” said Kahn. “In our case, just one neighbor – Thomas Properties – was able to trigger the valid petition. In my opinion it’s a travesty and misuse of the valid petition process.”


Kahn disputed the nature of the DAA’s concerns about the project, saying that they were looking out for the private views from their most influential members – Thomas Properties and Tom Stacy. He made a point to stress that private views were not protected under code.


Kahn also deconstructed the notion that his building would affect private views. He singled out a comment from an unnamed Planning Commissioner who worried that the building would impact the view of the Capitol from the sidewalk of Congress Avenue as absurd – showing several pictures that illustrated the view of the Capitol obscured by trees from that vantage point.


Though they declined to engage with the back and forth between the two sides, City Council had their own concerns about the project.


Leffingwell said that he was “very concerned” about the lack of parking on the site, as well as the lack of a loading dock. Leffingwell seemed shocked at news the city was contemplating the elimination of parking requirements downtown entirely.


Council Member Chris Riley brought forward another possibility – to bring the building back to span over the alley behind the lot. The city owns the lot that this would affect, though it is a bit murky, legally speaking, how the land or air rights could be sold or leased to a single interested party.


“I think it’s a great idea. I just don’t own that piece of land,” said Kahn, who invited the city to make him an offer. (This was speedily clarified as not to be an appropriate way of pursuing the option.)


“I think it’s a creative suggestion to explore,” said Council Member Mike Martinez. “The northern half of Congress Avenue towards the Capitol needs some redevelopment and turnover. This is a project that, if we could work it out, could be a catalyst for some of that.”

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