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Developers disagree over projects planned along South First Street

Friday, May 30, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

What started out as a dispute between neighbors at the Planning Commission Tuesday turned out to be a disagreement between developers in South Austin.


PSW Homes is planning to build more than 47,000 square feet of condominiums at 900 South First Street. In addition to a proposed 34 residential units, they will also be developing about 7,000 square feet of office space on the 1.26-acre lot.


In order to do that, developers were requesting a compatibility waiver that will allow the side-yard setback to be reduced from 25 feet to 15 feet.


Though the adjacent neighbors objected to a request for a compatibility setback waiver, the objection seemed to carry less weight once it became clear that they planned a similar development for their own land that would almost certainly eliminate the compatibility setback in the end.


Planning Commissioners voted 8-0 to approve the waiver, with Commissioner James Nortey absent.


Commissioner Jean Stevens said that she was “somewhat sympathetic” to the adjacent property owners. However, that sympathy was diluted by the unsanctioned tattoo parlor that was on the land, and plans for a development of their own. That development, said Stevens, would require a rezoning of its own that would negate the compatibility issue affecting PSW Homes.


Case manager Donna Galati explained that the property next door that triggered the compatibility setback was being used as a tattoo parlor, which did not trigger compatibility. That property is zoned commercial (GR,) but the owners explained that they had plans to develop their own residential project there.


“If PSW had talked to us about our development, we would have told them… We are planning on a residential development in that area,” said Magdalena Rood, who owns the property at 908 South First Street with Leslie Moore.


Rood explained the tattoo parlor had been shut down, and the house was currently for rent as a residence for now.


Moore told the commission that they hoped to develop something that would preserve the existing character of the neighborhood. He emphasized the residential nature of his proposed development, noting that there was “plenty” of commercial development on South First Street already.


“We know that change is imminent. Those little houses are no longer supporting enough to take care of the taxes, but we still want to maintain the residential character of the neighborhood,” said Moore. “We’re just trying to do what we can to preserve as much as we can.”


The Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association also opposed the setback waiver. Association president Kevin Lewis said that the neighborhood asked the developer to work within the “clear intent and specific requirements” of the neighborhood plan, and respect all required compatibility setbacks.


PSW Homes Director of Architecture Michael Padavic explained that they had moved forward with plans to develop next to a commercial business, as it had been for the past five years. The change to residential meant the project would need a setback waiver from the Planning Commission and a height waiver from the Board of Adjustment. Developers are also asking for right-of-way vacations in a separate process.


How to order these operations concerned several commissioners, including ex-officio member Jeff Jack, who worried that the waiver would pave the way for other variances down the road. Jack is chair of the Board of Adjustment.


It also concerned Commissioner Stephen Oliver, who noted that it can be difficult to navigate a process where there was no one board to oversee the case as a whole.


“I have a lot of sympathy for people who have to go through our process where multiple approvals are required from different boards. There never seems to be the correct starting point or finishing point,” said Oliver. “It’s complicated. It’s messy. And it’s unfortunate.”

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