Thursday, February 26, 2015 by Kara Nuzback

Planning Commission OKs Red Bluff Hotel variance

The Planning Commission approved a variance Tuesday that allows the developer of a proposed hotel on Red Bluff Road to build within the primary setbacks of the property, much to the dismay of neighboring residents.

Commissioners had previously approved two of the three variances requested by the property owner, Red Bluff Partners LLC, at a Jan. 15 meeting, unanimously voting to allow the developer to build on the secondary setback of 4701 Red Bluff Road and exceed the limit on impervious cover within the secondary setback.

However, the commission had been divided on the third variance, which would allow the owner to build on the primary setback. It rescinded a split vote Feb. 10 and agreed to hear the variance request again, ultimately approving it Tuesday.

The riverfront site currently houses a blue warehouse, built in 1984. The owner intends to build a 35-foot-tall hotel on the parcel along the Colorado River.

Armbrust & Brown attorney Richard Suttle, representing Red Bluff, said the existing warehouse is already built within 40 percent of the primary setback, and his client can legally remodel that structure without a variance. Suttle said the developer’s proposal to scrap the warehouse and start from scratch would mean less of the new structure — only 16 percent — would be built within the primary setback.

“Can you get a better project by allowing a variance to the primary than not?” he asked.

Commissioner James Nortey asked Suttle why the property owner needs the variance instead of simply building outside the primary setback.

“It’s purely selfish,” Suttle said. Building within the primary setback makes more economic sense, he explained.

Suttle added that many of the nearby residential structures built within the last 20 years infringe upon primary setbacks without a variance to do so.

Residents surrounding the property were united in their message to the commission: Approval of the variance would set a precedent and open the doors for more developers to encroach on the fragile area surrounding the Colorado River.

River Bluff Neighborhood Association Chair Daniel Llanes said that since 1998, seven new property owners built homes between the Longhorn Dam and the Montopolis Bridge. “Every single one of them has built outside the primary setback,” he said.

Llanes said the entire neighborhood agrees that it does not want the developer to build in the primary setback. “They could create a beautiful project without going into the primary setback,” he said.

Llanes also noted that the developer owns a larger, triangular parcel across the street that it plans to incorporate into the hotel, where it could make up for lost rooms on the riverside parcel.

“This stretch of the river is unique,” Llanes said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Commissioner Brian Roark said it was unrealistic to think the developer would agree to build outside the primary setback when it has a legal right to remodel the existing building. “They’re grandfathered in the primary setback,” Roark said.

“Our main concern is setting precedents,” Llanes said. “There are people waiting in the wings to also ask for setback [variances].”

Resident Gina Grande echoed Llanes regarding the issue of setting a precedent that will lead developers to believe it’s permissible to build within the primary setbacks along the river. “The debate is not about getting a better project,” she said. “They’ve gotten the secondary variances, and they knew what they were buying.”

Resident Michael Bayer expressed disbelief that the developer would remodel the existing warehouse, which, he said, is rife with issues, including erosion of the foundation.

Bayer asked the commission to deny the variance and challenge Red Bluff to work within the rules and remodel the existing structure.

Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez said by approving the variance, the commission would actually set a precedent that developers have to shrink existing primary setback encroachments.

“I still don’t understand the opposition,” Hernandez said.

Bayer countered, “To us, it’s about density on the river.”

Anna Bradley, an employee of the city’s Economic Development Department, lives next door to the property. She said a variance to build within the primary setback would shrink the buffer between her house and the hotel, creating noise and light that would affect her quality of life.

Bradley also said there is a broken drainage culvert eroding both her property and the hotel’s property, and asked the commission to tie its repair to any variance.

Austin resident David King said the city bends to threats from developers too often. “If you say yes to this, we’re going to have more and more of these deals,” he said.

Nortey asked the applicants if they would agree to several conditions in exchange for approval of the variance. Daniel Woodroffe, president of landscape architecture firm DWG, quickly agreed.

Commissioner Richard Hatfield made a motion to approve the variance, and Commissioner Stephen Oliver seconded the motion.

Nortey added an amendment to the motion, requiring the property owner to fully comply with the neighborhood plan; limit impervious cover within the primary setback to 16 percent, with 9 percent accounting for building space and 7 percent accounting for deck space; commit to 100 percent improved water quality at no fee to the city; remove on-site parking; impose a two-story, 25-foot height limit for the part of the structure located within the primary setback; fully comply with all goals in the Town Lake Corridor study; and work with the city and Bradley to fix the broken drainage culvert.

Commissioners approved the motion 7-1, with Chair Danette Chimenti dissenting. One commission seat is currently vacant.

 

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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.

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.

Colorado River: The 862-mile long Colorado River (of Texas) runs right through the middle of Austin, where it has been dammed to form Lady Bird Lake (once known as "Town Lake" and Lake Austin.

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