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Planning Commission approves PUD zoning for 211 South Lamar project

Thursday, June 13, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Developers of a Planned Unit Development at 211 South Lamar finally got a win at the Planning Commission on Tuesday night.


The group, which is called Post Paggi, is seeking PUD zoning for its 211 South Lamar lot, currently the site of a Taco Cabana and the historic Paggi House restaurant. The zoning change would allow them to build to 96 feet instead of the current 60-foot limit.


In return for the Planned Unit Development zoning, developers will offer such community benefits as ground-floor retail, extended sidewalk improvements, tree preservation, three-star green building compliance, water quality controls, rent-free space to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and money or space dedicated to the city’s affordable housing.


Despite a liberal assortment of groups opposed to the project, the commission voted 5-3 to approve the change to PUD zoning. Commissioners Danette Chimenti, Jean Stevens and Myron Smith voted in opposition. Chair Dave Anderson was absent.


Commissioner Richard Hatfield made the motion to recommend the zoning, explaining to the people gathered to oppose the project that it wasn’t an easy decision, and one that he spent a lot of time on. He said he understood the emotion around the case, but indicated that his own decision was based on logic, looking at the rules currently in place.


Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez counted the 40 additional units that could be built with PUD zoning as a benefit, given the rapidly diminishing ability to develop closer to downtown and the increasing desire to live downtown in Austin.


Commissioner Stephen Oliver appeared to agree.


“This is a highly desirable location,” said Oliver. “At 96 feet, we’re already suppressing the density for this site, based on what the demand would be. If you unleashed market forces on this site, this would be a high-rise.”


“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to squash the density here,” continued Oliver. “Based on the vision for this corridor, the vision is ‘don’t do high rise.’ 96 feet is a solid mid-rise building. They found a way to make the economics work, and good for them. I’m glad they are taking a risk, because I think a signature building on this site will do wonders for this corridor. I don’t think it will destroy it.”


For her part, Chimenti stuck to her guns about the affordable housing community benefit offered, saying it should be calculated on the total square footage of the project, not the “bonus area” that is gained from the zoning change. At their last meeting, City Council directed staff to clarify that part of the PUD ordinance, looking at only the bonus footage. (See In Fact Daily June 7.)


Commissioner Jean Stevens also dissented, saying she didn’t think the project met the standards set forth by the PUD ordinance, and noting a large building could negatively impact the natural landscape of Lady Bird Lake and “take away from what makes this city unique.”


Many people spoke against the project at the meeting. Members of the Bridges on the Park Condominium Association said that they voted unanimously against it at their last meeting. Members said they had expected a building on the site, as the second phase of their project, but were mislead about its nature. They said they would support a shorter building on the site, but resented the choice between a beautiful 96-foot building and an undesirable 60-foot building.


“I think we have been portrayed unfairly as unreasonable opponents of development. In fact, we do support responsible development on this site…The truth is the project is too tall, and it’s inappropriate so close to the lake and the Pfluger Bridge,” said Bridges Condominium Association President Robert Wilson. “Bridges on the Park residents moved into the building expecting that another building would be built on this site that would be 60 feet tall.”


Bridges owners were joined in their opposition by members of Zilker Neighborhood Association and Save Our Town Lake. The project is also opposed by the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association and the board of the nearby Zach Scott Theater.


Neither the Environmental Board nor the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board made a positive recommendation for the development.


In his rebuttal Winstead PC attorney Steve Drenner spoke about the difficulties in developing the site.


“Development really is never easy in Austin, and this case is evidence of that,” said Drenner. “We waited a full 18 months, watching the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board do nothing to finish the job to provide the community benefit part of the ordinance, so we wouldn’t have to go through a zoning case. Nothing happened, nothing’s happened since. We spent a tremendous amount of time talking to the president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association about his suggestions for the project, knowing full well that our odds of getting the Zilker Neighborhood Association to ever vote for a project were virtually nil… We worked hard with the Bridges for more than a year. No one ever told them it was a 60-foot project… We kept chasing a list of requirements from them that we just couldn’t fill.”


Drenner pointed out that they had made a number of significant changes to the project through talks with the Bridges, such as reversing the orientation of the building, but some suggestions were just not tenable. He said that they gave residents honest answers, but they wanted the impossible: all the best of the 96-foot project at 60-feet.

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