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Council grants floodplain variance for Park PUD on Barton Springs

Monday, June 23, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite warnings from staff, the City Council approved a floodplain variance for one of South Austin’s most familiar lots at its June 12 meeting, finally clearing the way for development of the Park PUD.


In March 2011, after a protracted battle with several neighborhoods, Council approved a Planned Unit Development for 805 Barton Springs Road. Developers plan to build a nine-story mixed-use office building which, when completed will be about 87,000 square feet.


But those plans do not meet the safe access requirement for structures built in the floodplain, which requires that there is a way to get from a building to a right-of-way via an elevation that is one foot above the 100-year floodplain elevation. In order to build the project, City Council needed to grant a floodplain variance, which it did in a 5-2 vote, with Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo in opposition.


The lot currently sits empty save a few food trucks. It is also entirely in the 100-year flood plain and partially within the 25-year flood plain of East Bouldin Creek.


When the city approved the PUD, developers planned to meet that requirement through an access easement to the west. But negotiations with the other property owner fell apart.


Staff did not recommend the floodplain variance.


City floodplain administrator Kevin Shunk explained that they were primarily concerned with increasing density in the floodplain.


“This is a lot of density in the floodplain. We have a lot of rules in the city and a lot of master plans, and Imagine Austin, that promote density in this area. But promoting that density in the floodplain.. isn’t the best idea,” said Shunk.


Morrison, who voted against the variance and cast the sole vote against the PUD zoning in 2011, questioned whether the project was a good fit for the property.


“I realize that it’s not unreasonable to get something built on this property. But I do think the point that the zoning was done – and the ability to do the excessive density… was done with it in mind that they were going to be able to have safe access next door. To me, it seems to make sense to either find safe access or scale it back to something that doesn’t have the extra density.”


The developer’s representative, Ron Thrower, disagreed, saying, “It doesn’t matter what goes on this property. Whether it’s a 60-foot building, a 10-foot building, a bathroom, whatever, there is always going to be an issue of safe access.”


Thrower explained that scaling the project down would not get rid of the variance, but that scaling the project up allowed developers to build parking above the floodplain and ensure that those occupying the building would also be well above the floodplain. He said that the response by the fire department in the event of a flood would be the same as it would be for neighboring 721 and 811 Barton Springs Road.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell voiced his support for the variance, noting there would be no use of the property without it.


Leffingwell said that, in his estimation, the current use of the lot was quite dangerous and that, in the event of a flood, the food trucks could be swept away and cause further damage downstream. Food trucks are not required to get floodplain variances in order to operate.


Leffingwell also drew a bright line between increasing residents in the floodplain and increasing patrons, noting that this project would not increase residents.


“Obviously, if it’s raining that hard, they might not be down there patronizing those businesses,” said Leffingwell. “I would be concerned if it were a residential project.”

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