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City Council narrowly approves rezoning for downtown boutique hotel

Friday, March 8, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

It didn’t come without a fight, but City Council narrowly approved rezoning for the new Hotel Zaza on Thursday.


Developers were seeking a change from CBD (Central Business District) to CBD-CURE for the lot at Fourth Street and Guadalupe Street. 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. Though the site plan is not finalized, the structure is expected be 24 stories, which will be made possible by the increase in floor-to-area ration from 8:1 to 12:1.


After a heated discussion, City Council voted 4-3 to approve the zoning change, with Council Members Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo voting in opposition.


The Hotel ZaZa case staggered through City Council on each reading. When it was discussed at the last Council meeting, Mayor Lee Leffingwell shut down talk about affordable housing, calling even the hint of a quid pro quo during a zoning case contract zoning.


That strategy was less effective this week, with much of the discussion about the case centering on whether or not the principles of the Downtown Austin Plan could be applied to downtown properties seeking increased floor-to-area ratio through Central Urban Redevelopment, or CURE, zoning. The Downtown Austin Plan established a framework for developers to establish community benefits, like affordable housing, while getting increased height for their projects. Though it passed in December of 2011, the plan has yet to be codified.


Spelman said that the Downtown Plan was extremely controversial, and had a lot of people who were against portions of it, many of whom were finally mollified by the inclusion of standards for increased height entitlements for upzoned downtown lots.


“It seems to me we ought to be applying our own policy which we passed with a unanimous vote,” said Spelman. “I have the discretion to vote in favor or against any CURE zoning case. The zoning comes before this Council… all of us, as Council members, have the discretion to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ based on how well we think it’s going to fit our vision for the city, and how well we think it’s going to provide benefits to the city, and community as a result. Our collective decision on that subject, I believe, was made when we passed that policy – whether it’s codified or not.”


“I, for one, will vote in all cases in favor of that policy. It is in my discretion to do so, and I believe that was a good policy, which we passed on a unanimous vote. I am going to uphold it,” said Spelman.


Ambrust and Brown attorney Richard Suttle explained that there was currently no program or mechanism in place for developers to abide by the Downtown Austin Plan framework.


“You have, in your plan, a concept. There are things that need to be fleshed out in that concept plan,” said Suttle. “There’s not a program there.”


Suttle pointed to the community benefits that the project was offering, such as preservation of the existing building facade, moving a non-protected tree, and participation in the Great Streets Program.


Co-project manager of the Downtown Austin Plan Jim Robertson affirmed that while calculations for community benefits according to the plan were clear, where that money would go was not yet established.


Spelman also brought to light a letter he had received from the Workers Defense Project, which alleges numerous violations against Gables Residential, who are developing the site.


Suttle declined to comment on the allegations, saying it had nothing to do with the zoning case, and nothing to do with the issues being discussed.


Leffingwell reiterated his discomfort with the entire discussion about community benefits before casting his vote in opposition.


“What we are dealing with here is at best a grey area of the law, and at worst a clear violation of the law – considering and requiring payment or compensation in return for approval of a zoning case,” said Leffingwell.

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