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BoA puts South Austin project on hold

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Plans for a mixed-use development in South Austin hit a snag at the Board of Adjustment last week, where a request for a compatibility waiver was met with skepticism and a postponement.

PSW Real Estate is planning to build more than 47,000 square feet of condominiums and about 7,000 square feet of office space on the 1.26 acre lot at 900 South First St. The project was at the Planning Commission in May, where developers were seeking a compatibility waiver that would allow the side-yard setback to be reduced from 25 to 15 feet. The Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve that waiver. (See Austin Monitor, May 30.)

However, the Planning Commission cannot waive height restrictions in cases of compatibility standards, so developers also had to visit the Board of Adjustment.

Without the variance from the Board of Adjustment to reduce the setback and allow another story, the project might not happen. PSW Real Estate project manager Ross Wilson estimated that if the company complied with the compatibility standards, it would lose 6,000 square feet.

“You may not be able to get as much on there as you want,” said Board Member Michael Von Ohlen. “The money numbers may not work as well as you want, or as well as anybody would want. You can build something on there that will meet all the requirements and the zoning requirements that we have. It just may not be the way that you want.”

Wilson argued that the building that triggered an analysis of compatibility standards, 908 South First St., was a tattoo parlor when the project began, and the company designed the project with that understanding. He said the compatibility standards were applied in error.

“This was clearly a commercial use. Now the land use may be changing, and we’re eight or nine months into the design and review process with the city of Austin,” said Wilson.

Leslie Moore, who owns the property at 908 South First St., told board members the building was currently for lease as a residence, and compatibility standards should apply.

There is currently no neighborhood support for the project. Several neighbors spoke in opposition to the variance, expressing concerns that they didn’t have a sense of the project as a whole and were only learning about it in small pieces.

“My biggest concern is that what was shown there is just a portion of their overall project,” said Moore. “I have trouble supporting something without knowing the implications. This is almost a five-acre tract. What they are showing there is just a portion of that. I would like to know what else is going on with that other project. They have compartmentalized it into two separate projects.”

Board members voted unanimously to postpone the case in order to allow neighbors to address the project as a whole with developers.

That said, Von Ohlen noted it was hard to support variances for a “clean slate” project that will be built on an empty lot unless there is neighborhood approval.

After the vote, Wilson asked for specifics on when compatibility determinations are made.

“As far as this board is concerned, it’s what is now,” said Board Member Bryan King. “Not what you thought it was. We have to deal with what it is now, and it’s an SF-3 (single family) use now … regardless of what it was back then, or when you applied or whatever. You are here today, so we deal with what is here today.”

Board Chair Jeff Jack added that if the ordinance needed clarification, that was something that could be done through City Council or the CodeNEXT Land Development Code revision currently underway.

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