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Design Commission mandates right of way upgrade for condo project

Thursday, February 27, 2014 by Kara Nuzback

A developer planning a 163-unit condominium project downtown near Shoal Creek is finding that flood plain requirements are making it difficult to comply with the city’s urban design guidelines.


The Austin Design Commission voted unanimously Monday to require developer Riverside Resources to modify its plan for a 37-story condo building on the corner of Fifth Street and West Avenue to include more infrastructure in the public right of way to spark pedestrian activity.


Commission Chairman Dean Almy said the developer must add public seating, low-level lighting and an outdoor café kiosk to its proposal.


Riverside included a kiosk and public seating in the plan it presented to the seven-member commission, but commissioners said the street amenities were too far separated from the structure. “I still see it as a very private building,” Almy said.


The city’s Great Streets Development Program aims to transform the public rights of way into active public spaces downtown. The program also offers incentives to private developers willing to go above and beyond the city’s minimum required streetscape standards.


Attorneys for the developer noted the flood plain requirements for Shoal Creek mandate the first floor of the structure must be eight feet above street-level. Attorney Nikelle Meade of Husch Blackwell said a street-level kiosk would be permitted because it is not a permanent structure, but the developer’s options are limited.


Architect Joel Efrussy told the commission, “There are limited things we can do below eight feet to activate the street.”


Riverside Resources’ plan also included an elevated outdoor terrace with seating and a fireplace. The kiosk, public seating and terrace were added to the project after the developer presented its design proposal to a working group chaired by Commissioner Bart Whatley.


At the Design Commission meeting, Whatley said the additions were a step in the right direction, but the proposal still does not comply with Great Streets guidelines. “I think what you’ve proposed could be stronger,” he said.


Whatley said the developer could move the café kiosk from the street level to the elevated terrace to attract passersby.


Commissioner Juan Cotera, who said he was opposed to the plan Riverside presented, said the amenities would only benefit residents of the condominium. “There’s nothing that enhances the street life,” he said.


Commissioner James Shieh said Riverside made a strong attempt to comply with Great Streets guidelines while adhering to flood plain requirements. “They are doing things above and beyond,” he said.


Shieh said more developers will come to the commission looking to build in flood-prone areas. “We have to find a way to be able to deal with this,” he said.


Commission Vice Chairman Evan Taniguchi helped pen Imagine Austin: The Way Forward, a 30-year development plan that includes creating more active neighborhoods across the city. Taniguchi said residents of the condominium would inherently facilitate more pedestrian activity in Shoal Creek.


“I am all for bringing more people downtown to live,” he said.


City planner Jorge Rousselin said it was in all parties’ best interest to move the project forward. He asked the commission to specify in writing how the developers could modify the plan to comply with Austin’s design guidelines. “And it goes forward administratively,” he said of the proposal.


Commissioners said the kiosk and street-level seating should appear part of the structure, rather than set away from the condominium. Secretary Hope Hasbrouck said low-level lighting around the seating would add animation to the streetscape.

Meade said Riverside could fulfill most of the commissioner’s requests. “I’m not hearing anything we can’t do,” she said.


After the vote, Meade said Riverside Resources came to the commission seeking recommendations for the project. “I felt like today was really just fine-tuning those recommendations,” she said. “So we’re pleased.”


Rousselin said the developer must present evidence it has complied with the commission’s requests for the project to move forward. He said city staff would put the commission recommendations in writing and present them to the developer within a week.

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