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Thursday, January 15, 2015 by Kara Nuzback

Neighbors rally against eastside hotel proposal

Developers seeking a variance to turn an old warehouse on Red Bluff Road into a hotel were met with opposition from neighbors, who say the property owners should build within zoning laws to maintain the area along the Colorado River.

At the Planning Commission on Tuesday night, Daniel Woodroffe, president of landscape architecture firm DWG, asked the commission to approve three variance requests to allow the owner, Red Bluff Partners LLC, to build on both the primary and secondary setbacks of the property at 4701 Red Bluff Road and exceed the limit on impervious cover within the secondary setback.

Ultimately, Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the secondary setback variances, but were divided regarding the developer’s ability to build on the primary setback. After an initial vote that was evenly split, they denied that variance in a second vote. The second vote was held at the request of the developer, who wanted to be sure that he could appeal the decision to City Council.

Commissioners James Nortey, Richard Hatfield, and Brian Roark voted in favor of the variance. Chair Danette Chimenti and Commissioners Alfonso Hernandez, Jean Stevens, Nuria Zaragoza and Lesley Varghese voted against. Commissioner Stephen Oliver was absent.

The riverfront site currently houses a blue warehouse, built in 1984. The city issued a building permit for the site one year before the waterfront overlay went into effect in 1985, said city staffer Michael Simmons-Smith.

The owners intend to build a 53,000-square-foot, 35-foot-tall hotel on the river parcel and a triangle parcel across the street that is not along the river. The variance requests concerned only the riverfront parcel, which Woodroffe said would contain 50 of the hotel rooms.

Woodroffe said that while the new structure would intrude on primary setbacks for the property, it would be less of an intrusion than the existing warehouse.

“We want to pull away from the bluff,” he said.

Although the hotel would exceed the allowed 30 percent limit on impervious cover, it would still be a 50 percent reduction of the existing impervious cover, he added.

Several property owners showed up to oppose the hotel. David Moriaty, who said he’s lived on Red Bluff Road since the 1970s, was the first to testify against the variances, saying the setbacks were established to prevent commercialization along the riverfront.

“This is not a Red Bluff problem. This is a City of Austin problem,” Moriaty said.“We have to decide whether we’re going to destroy this riverfront overlay right now.”

Moriaty added that the property owners bought the lot knowing the zoning restrictions.

Anna Bradley, an employee of the city’s Economic Development Department, lives next door to the property. She said she has spent the last two years restoring her home, which was built in 1951. She said other property owners on the road worked within the constraints of the zoning code and therefore the developers should, too, especially in regard to the primary setback.

Gina Grande, a member of the River Bluff Neighborhood Association, also opposed the variances. She said the overlay is meant to protect the area from development, and the builder has made no effort to adhere to zoning restrictions in its design. She said approval of the variances would set a dangerous precedent for the waterfront.

Daniel Llanes, chair of River Bluff Neighborhood Association, said the association opposes the variance to build on the primary setback, but won’t protest the variances to build on the secondary setback.

Varghese noted that the developer’s proposal was an improvement to the current condition of the property.

“I would hate to leave the neighborhood worse off than it would be with this development,” she said.

Rosa Santis was the only member of the neighborhood association who spoke in favor of all three variances. She said the builder is willing to clean up the area that is now “ugly” and contaminating the river.

“It will create a lot of work for many members of the community that are not present here,” Santis said. “This is a solid project for the whole community.”

Attorney Chris Bradford, representing the property owners, said in his rebuttal that it would be impossible to build anything on the property within the setbacks.

“The fact is, every square inch of this site is either within the primary or secondary setback,” he said.

Also during rebuttal, Woodroffe said the hotel plan is fully compliant with the River Bluff Neighborhood plan.

Llanes argued that the neighborhood favored residential zoning along the waterfront. “This is East Austin,” he said. “We’re in the process of transition.”

Though commissioners voted unanimously to approve the variances regarding secondary setback, they remained decidedly split on allowing the developer to build within the primary setback.

Nortey indicated he was in favor of all three variances, saying, “This is a net benefit both to the city and the neighborhood.”

Roark also favored the variances, saying the minimal encroachment on the primary setback was worth the positive impact the proposed hotel would have on the neighborhood.

Chimenti agreed that it was impossible to stay out of the secondary setback, but, she said, “I think they have a buildable project staying out of the primary setback.”

Woodroffe said that in exchange for the variances, the owners plan to make the hotel environmentally friendly and ensure the establishment has no negative impact on the waterfront. “Setting what we hope to be precedent in the most positive of ways,” he said.

The builders would remove a parking lot on the riverfront parcel, and all parking for the hotel would be located in a garage on the triangle parcel, Woodroffe said. He added that the builders would remove no trees and the development would include shaded pedestrian sidewalks.

Project engineer Ricardo De Camps said the owners would install rain gardens on the property.

“We are 100 percent committed to water quality,” he said.

The Waterfront Advisory Board recommended approval of all three variances at its Nov. 10 meeting.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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