Monday, October 27, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Congress hotel closer to Council approval

It has been a long, slow road, but a proposed Congress Avenue hotel passed its first official City Council hurdle in October.

Council members unanimously approved a rezoning that will allow for a change to the building’s street setback on first reading, with instructions to work on an agreement with the hotel’s neighbors. The case will return Nov. 6.

The Finley Company, represented by Armbrust and Brown attorney Richard Suttle, is seeking a zoning change from CBD to CBD-CURE in order to build a hotel at 619 and 621 Congress Ave. The proposed hotel will consist of 450 rooms and 5,400 square feet of restaurant use on the downtown lot, which is just over one-quarter acre. The hotel will have no on-site parking, and is not required to under city code.

Developers are asking to reduce the setback from 60 feet to 40 feet, which Suttle noted was typical for the east side of Congress Avenue. In fact, lawmakers codified the setback during the last session of the Texas Legislature, according to Suttle. The city has approved similar setback reductions in the past for the Frost Tower and Marriott Hotel in the past. The setback on the west side remains more rigid.

Council Member Kathie Tovo said she would like to see a more detailed explanation of the proposed valet system before there was a final decision on the case. Though she voted for the project on first reading, she said developers “had a lot more work to do to convince us this plan is going to work.”

Tovo also brought up whether hotels should be included in the city’s density bonus program. They currently are not.

Suttle noted that his clients had waited until the city finalized the parking requirements and density bonus programs before bringing the project to the city, and had brought the project forward under those terms.

Council Member Chris Riley had no problem supporting the setback change, which he said was “very typical.” However, Riley did sympathize with concerns coming from the Hideout Theatre and Coffee House, which is located next door to the proposed hotel.

“I am especially concerned with impacts on the Hideout,” said Riley. “Being that close to construction on that scale can be very problematic. Anyone who has been living downtown lately knows that. I really hope we can work out something to address their concerns … I know there is a lot of anxiety at the Hideout. I would be anxious if I were in their shoes.”

Roy Janik, one of the owners of the Hideout Theatre, said the construction had the potential to disrupt his theater’s operation. He explained that the venue had to shut down for the Republic of Texas biker rally one weekend every year because of noise, which was fine, but the prospect of shutting down the theater during the duration of construction would not work.

Suttle said he was in the process of working with the Hideout Theatre on a compromise concerning construction noise, but noted that was an agreement between two private parties. He told Council that trying to reach an agreement with the theater had been “difficult.” As a result, he could not promise that an agreement will be in place when the case returns to Council.

McLean Howard attorney Jeff Howard represented the owner of 617 Congress Ave., whose family has owned the building that houses the Hideout for about 130 years.

“This is a very, very, very important block on a very, very, very important street,” said Howard. “While it may not be the tallest building in the city, this will be the most intensive, dense building in the history of this city.”

Howard also pointed out that the hotel would have no on-site parking and, potentially, no loading docks.

“It’s two hotels, numerous bars, lounges and restaurants, all on a lot that is smaller than two city residential lots. It is truly unprecedented,” said Howard.

Howard criticized the south facade, which he called a “30-story blank wall,” and summed up the community benefits as “three trees, an expanded sidewalk that will be taken up by cafe space, and three valet parking spaces to handle 4,700 trips.” He contrasted that with what he dubbed “community burdens.” Those burdens, as explained by Howard, were a 33-story building that would block views and light, increase traffic problems and increase stress on an already busy alley. He also said construction of the project would be a threat to the Hideout.

Suttle said the criticism of the south wall was the “one that stings the most.”

Suttle said the wall was a fire code requirement. He explained that a notched wall would have windows. Developers also plan to vary the material of the wall to ensure it wasn’t “blank.”

Suttle pointed out that, in addition to the wall being a fire code requirement, there was nothing preventing the neighboring property from building right in front of the wall, anyway.

Suttle said that issues about the alley and loading dock would be worked through during the site plan process, though he did say the hotel would be limiting meeting and event space in order to accommodate the parking arrangement and lack of a loading dock.

Judging by Council’s commentary, questions remain about the parking situation at the hotel. The hotel will depend entirely on three valet spaces.

When asked whether the hotel could operate with just three valet spaces, Suttle said that developers were “wagering about $75 million that it will work, and that they can make it work right.”

There is currently a valid petition against the hotel, which stands at 24.81 percent, meaning that at least 6 Council members will have to vote to approve the change. Suttle explained that 16.7 percent of that is from the hotel across the street from the project.

Suttle said that when he asked about the opposition at that hotel, he was told, “There are too many hotels being built downtown, and we don’t want another one.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Armbrust & Brown: law practice based in Austin. Armbrust & Brown has donated to the Capital of Texas Media Foundation.

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Congress Avenue: Congress Avenue is the central-most road in downtown Austin. It runs from the Texas State Capitol to Lady Bird Lake, where it turns into South Congress Avenue. It is also a historic district first listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

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