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Complex sign proposal boggles board

Tuesday, August 26, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

A complex sign plan for a well-known, if obscured, development in North Central Austin overwhelmed the Sign Review Board at its most recent meeting.

Though the board understood the need for better signage at 6406 IH-35 North, members asked for more time to look over the complex request, voting unanimously to postpone the case until their next meeting.

“I’m a little bit overwhelmed by this, by the size of the site, and the multitude of variables in play,” said Board Member Bryan King.

Commissioner Sallie Burchett said she would like to hear from city staff about the proposal.

“I feel like it’s a major rewrite of the code, rather than just a variance,” said Burchett. “I want to be friendly to the business community. But I don’t want to rewrite the sign ordinance.”

The development is one of a handful bordered by Middle Fiskville Road, I-35 and FM 2222. It is located directly across from the Highland Mall/ Austin Community College redevelopment. The nearby elevated interstate, flyover and trees obscure the development and have led to a vacancy rate higher than 50 percent. Developers hope to remedy that, in part, by increasing the visibility of signage for their project.

“It is a tricky space to find. I do understand the purpose of the signs,” said Board Member Michael Von Ohlen, who added that, despite that difficulty, some of the request for increased height in the plan might be excessive.

Husch Blackwell attorney Nikelle Meade was representing 35 Austin Partners, Ltd., who plan to develop “The Linc” as a “planned, large-scale development intended to be a destination within the Airport Corridor.” That development will involve a number of uses; project developers explained that those uses would have unique needs for signage.

Meade said she understood the complexity of the project and the need to spend more time on the case, and appreciated the board’s input in the meantime.

To that end, the developers sought permission to erect a “network of signs” and proposed a comprehensive sign plan detailing permitted and prohibited signs. The list has 17 types of signs, from iconic signs to sandwich boards. They are asking to increase the number of permitted signs from three to 12.

“It’s very complicated to understand what is applicable in each one of these locations that you have on the map,” said Chair Jeff Jack. “But my big concern is speculative variance requests. I understand the idea of trying to provide flexibility for future tenants, but I’m very reluctant to support a variance on a speculative basis that may give you rights that you don’t really need in the future.”

“If you do get a tenant that needs it,” Jack continued, “I think the appropriate thing is to come back for a specific variance for that particular tenant.”

King said he appreciated the “funky, Austin, weird, local” intent of the plan, but pointed out that locations like South Congress and Barton Springs Road didn’t need large signs to generate traffic.

Board Member Ricardo De Camps said that he knew the area well, and thought the variances might be justified because the physical barriers of on-ramps and freeway made it very difficult to see what was in the development.

“South Congress doesn’t have any physical hardships of visibility,” De Camps said. “Everything is pretty close. You can see down South Congress for a good quarter-mile.”

The project has the support of the Highland Neighborhood Association.

In a letter expressing his support, president Alex Schmitz wrote, “We have seen the center decline over the years, in part because of the changed landscape of highway infrastructure surrounding it. It has become buried in the adjacent highway. For this reason, many tenants either have failed at the center or have relocated to other properties. Updated, visible signage will help tenants like the ones we have lost be seen on the site.”

With more changes imminent for the area, Jack wondered about what approving the sign changes could mean for that development, specifically where the line was between giving people direction and permitting advertising.

“I am concerned that we set a precedent of the kind of light intensity – particularly night light – that we have in this area of town. If we do it here, then the next property will ask for it, and the next property after that will ask for it,” said Jack. “Where does it end? It ends looking more like Las Vegas than it does Austin.”

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