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Planners look at big picture and deny rezoning

Friday, February 20, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

After taking a look at the impact of similar businesses nearby, the Planning Commission shot down a South Austin rezoning request at its last meeting.

The 0.85 acre lot is located at 4102 and 4200 Manchaca Road. Owner Mitchell Whiddon is asking for a change from the current zoning, which is a combination of Limited Office – Mixed Use and Single-Family (SF-3). He would like Limited Retail – Mixed Use (LR-MU) instead, in order to open a restaurant.

Planning Commissioners voted 6-1 to recommend denial of the rezoning, with Commissioner Richard Hatfield voting in opposition. Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez was absent, and one position is vacant on the commission.

Commissioner James Nortey explained his vote by drawing it back to the “compact and connected” tenet of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan. He said that although they had ample opportunities to work on the “compact” part of the plan, opportunities for “connected” were more scarce.

“Unfortunately, my concern is that, if we were to approve staff’s recommendation, we’ll get ‘compact and congested,’ which isn’t Imagine Austin,” said Nortey.

Planning and Development Review Department staff recommends the zoning change, because it is similar to the zoning for nearby Radio Coffee & Beer, Dan’s Hamburgers and a tire shop. Neighbors told commissioners that they were opposed to the rezoning for similar reasons, and explained that the popularity of the two restaurants has transformed their neighborhood for the worse.

Resident David Roach brought a whiteboard to the meeting. On it, he had drawn a diagram of the traffic problems already caused by Dan’s on Manchaca. Roach explained that people sit in traffic to make a left turn, causing a “major choke point.” The recent opening of Radio Coffee & Beer has only exacerbated the problem, he said, and has also added parking problems on Gathright Cove.

Sondra Cherico, who lives on the Gathright Cove cul-du-sac, said it was impossible to turn left out of her street onto Manchaca Road, and it was becoming hard to even turn right. She worried about the safety implications of additional nearby businesses, whose patrons increasingly park on her street.

“If we need emergency vehicles, we are going to be in trouble,” said Cherico. “It’s going to be terrible if we need an ambulance or fire truck or something.”

Cherico said that an office on the lot would not present a problem.

Currently, there are two houses on the property. Whiddon said that his intention was to continue to use one house as his office and repurpose the other house as a restaurant, which would be subject to limitations on size, hours and outdoor uses under LR-MU zoning.

Whiddon told the commission that he agreed with all of the neighbors, but Radio Coffee & Beer and Dan’s Hamburgers had nothing to do with his property.

“These are things that are out of my control, and I had nothing to do with,” said Whiddon, who attempted to assure the commission that his plan would involve parking on his site, and his site only.

“I feel like I am unjustly vilified … because of other businesses that are in the area,” said Whiddon. “I want to be a great neighbor.”

Whiddon pointed out that he was a neighbor, too, and went through similar hassles because of Dan’s and Radio Coffee & Beer. He said that if he could, he would prohibit parking on Gathright entirely.

Whiddon said he had room for “way beyond” what was required in terms of parking. He explained that he had mapped out a plan for 61 spaces, which is enough when combined with the urban designation, Car2Go spaces and bike racks.

Jim Bennett, who was representing Whiddon, stressed the appropriateness of the zoning for the area.

“We don’t think that this is an intrusion for a property on Manchaca Road, which is a major thoroughfare in South Austin,” said Bennett.

The restaurant would be next to a residence, but Bennett said there would be space between the two. Parking for the proposed restaurant would comply with city code and be located more than 25 feet from the house. Additionally, Whiddon has agreed to pare down the three driveways to Manchaca Road to a single driveway and limit access to Gathright Cove.

Commissioner Stephen Oliver praised Whiddon’s parking plan, but pointed out that the neighborhood was concerned about traffic flow as well. He said he struggled with the case, because although he didn’t see the one change in use as a problem, it was important to look at the aggregate impact of redevelopment in the area.

“We’ve got a lot of suburban behavior in an urban setting,” said Oliver. “Regardless of what you do there, there is a problem. I don’t know if there is an immediate solution.”

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