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Planning Commission OKs zoning change for hotel at 619 Congress Avenue

Monday, July 14, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Plans for yet another downtown hotel took a step forward at this week’s Planning Commission meeting.

Conventus Corporation and Finley Company, represented by Armbrust and Brown, were seeking a change from Central Business District (CBD) to CBD-CURE (Central Urban Redevelopment District) for the property at 619 Congress Avenue.

Developers hope to construct the 32-story, 409-room Aloft Austin & Element hotel on the lot. The building will include space for a 5,400 square foot restaurant. It does not include plans for on-site parking. Though that parking requirement was not something under debate Tuesday night, it dominated much of the discussion.

The hotel will have ADA parking off-site, but all other parking will be provided through valet service. Attorney Richard Suttle explained that, as the code is written, buildings have to provide a percentage of parking requirements as ADA parking. Because the parking requirement for downtown is now zero, how much ADA parking is required “remains an open question,” said Suttle.

Suttle explained that the valet service would determine the overall number of spaces they would need.

“The thing about this one is that the code says that we don’t need any,” said Suttle. “It’s a big leap. I’m not saying, personally, that I think it’s going to work great.”

“I hate to use the word ‘experiment,’ but I think this is the first one in our downtown area,” said Suttle. “We’re going to try this and see if it works.”

The Planning Commission voted 6-1 to approve the zoning change, as well as a change in setback, with Commissioner James Nortey voting in opposition. Commissioners Jean Stevens and Lesley Varghese were absent.

If City Council approves the developer’s request, they will be able to change their current street setback from 60 feet to 40 feet, where they could build above 30 feet in height. Developers would also like a reduction in the number of required loading docks. Though staff was in support of the setback modification, they remained neutral on the loading space.

The Planning Commission took no action on the loading dock issue. Staff may decide on their position before the case goes to Council.

A similar setback was denied for the property just across the street early last year. Suttle told the commission that, after that case was finished, the western setback of Congress Avenue was codified in state law. Any change in those setbacks now requires a trip to the legislature. The state also codified setbacks for the east side of Congress Avenue. State law is now in line with what developers are seeking for 619 Congress Avenue.

Developers will only have to go through Council to get the setback and loading dock changes. Under recent changes to the city code, the change in FAR will go through an administrative density bonus program.

That didn’t stop many of those who spoke from expressing broader concerns about the project.

Commissioner Stephen Oliver allowed that the hotel “looks great up close,” but was less convinced that the large massing would be attractive from a distance.

“From a half-mile or mile away, that is going to be monolithic,” said Oliver. “It’s going to be a precedent of a monolithic block facing south. And it’s going to be really tall.”

Suttle disagreed, saying he thought the textures on the facade would read from a distance, but admitted that the project was a “hard puzzle piece.”

McLean & Howard, LLP attorney Jeff Howard spoke on behalf of his client, who owns the property next door. That property is currently occupied by the Hideout, which is a theater and coffee shop.

“Where are the community benefits? asked Howard. “There are community burdens. We are going to have a large building that is going to block views, light. We’re going to have a blank wall that is going to be out of proportion with this lot. We are going to overwhelm parking downtown, and overwhelm Seventh Street in terms of traffic. It’s going to make redevelopment of all the adjacent property very difficult… and it’s going to overburden this already-burdened alley.”

Suttle said that, as far as he could tell, Howard and his client just didn’t want the building to be built.

Hideout co-owner Jessica Arjet said that they were concerned that demolition of the building next door to the theater, which they share a wall with, could cause problems with their building. The Hideout asked for a structural engineer.

“If they could just plop a hotel down next to us with no construction, we would be 100 percent behind it,” said Arjet.

“He’s very nice saying that if the wall falls down they will fix it, but we have a business that runs. And we want our business to run. If the wall falls down, I don’t know how long it will take to fix it. Our business will probably go away,” said Arjet.

Many improv actors also spoke against the project, and worried that it could threaten the theater, either due to noise from construction or the collapse of the wall.

“It’s a big building, but it’s a big building that our Council policy has proscribed. The Council has said that 25:1 is the FAR cap downtown and we don’t want you building parking,” said Suttle. “Nobody wants to harm that theater.”

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