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Planning Commission opposes church’s expansion of parking lot

Monday, January 27, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though there were hopes that it could help alleviate parking troubles on South Congress Avenue, the Planning Commission shot down a zoning change request by the Congress Avenue Baptist Church at the commission’s most recent meeting. The next stop for the request is the City Council.


The church at 1511 South Congress Avenue was asking for a change in order to make the current use of its surface parking lot both legal and profitable. Pastor George Tuthill explained that use of the lot had created enough wear and tear that they needed revenue to pay for maintenance of the lot.


Though the lot is currently used by other businesses, that use is not legal under the current zoning. The church hoped to make the current use legal, and though it has no plans to build a parking garage, it would not preclude one being built in the future.


The church was asking for a change from Single-Family zoning (SF-3) to Community Commercial zoning (GR). The church offered to limit the uses allowed under the new zoning to two parking-related uses.


The threat of a parking garage on the lot worried neighbors, who have long battled Congress Avenue businesses over parking problems.


South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association President Marc Davis explained their opposition to the change.


“We do want more parking options, but it’s inappropriate to push this intense commercial zoning into the neighborhood like this,” said Davis, who explained that they had supported commercial zoning for the portion of the lot that is on Congress, but not the east section of the land.


“What the applicant says they are asking for, what they are really asking for and what everybody is talking about is all different,” said Davis. He said that while the request was originally presented as a way to make the current situation legal, it would also allow for the construction of a large parking garage. This, said Davis, stirred up excitement and conversation throughout Austin, and that conversation had become muddled.


“If we are talking about a parking garage, it doesn’t solve the parking problem on South Congress. A standalone parking garage is not commercially viable. You can’t charge for parking on Congress Avenue when neighborhood streets are still free to park on,” said Davis.


The Greater South River City Neighborhood Planning Contact Team also opposed the change.


Commissioners voted 5-3 to deny the change. Commissioners Alfonso Hernandez, Stephen Oliver and James Nortey voted in opposition. Commissioner Richard Hatfield was absent.


“I see one site that’s really, really good for parking in that area, and this is it,” said Oliver.


But the majority of the commission sided with the neighborhood.


“I don’t appreciate much when a bunch of people are saying, ‘No growth, we’ve got to stop.’ But in this particular instance, that neighborhood has been so abused by the growth that at some point you have to say this has to stop,” said Commissioner Brian Roark.


Commissioner Danette Chimenti, expressed frustration that the change in zoning would allow the church to sell parking to other businesses in the area.


“(The restaurants) could expand their businesses and lease parking from this site. That does nothing to help solve the parking problem on South Congress. It does nothing but exacerbate it, honestly,” said Chimenti. “The same businesses that are fighting against metered parking and fighting against residential parking in the neighborhood… are the ones that are proponents of this project.”


Chimenti, who lives nearby, said that she also opposed the zoning change because it would create a commercial “creep” into the neighborhood, by putting a commercial use on an otherwise residential block. She explained the history of the lot, which was once divided by an alley that had ultimately been vacated, turning the block into one large piece of land.


Nortey said that while he agreed the change would be spot zoning, the change was “an extraordinary circumstance, where the benefits outweigh the cost.”


Though the neighborhood has said they have no problem with the current, illegal, use of the lot, agent Ron Thrower explained that there was no other way to make that use legal aside from the zoning change, which would only permit two commercial uses, both related to parking. He and Pastor Tuthill stressed that the church intended to remain on the lot, where it has been for the past 110 years.


“The church has been approached many, many times for a buyout of the property for millions and millions of dollars. And they have continued to say, ‘No, no, no’,” said Thrower. “It’s wrong for somebody to predict the future saying they are going to sell… because that’s not what they have done so far. They have continued to say no. They will continue to say no. They want to stay in this location.”

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