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Council to delay Red Bluff Hotel variance hearing

Thursday, May 14, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Although City Council members are scheduled to hear an appeal today on a variance granted by the Planning Commission to allow construction of a new hotel on Red Bluff Road in East Austin, staff will likely seek a postponement to do some research. The variance allows construction within the primary setback described in the Waterfront Overlay.

The Planning Commission granted three variances for the construction of the Red Bluff Hotel on a site above the Colorado River that currently hosts warehouses. The city issued permits for those buildings in 1984, before enactment of the Waterfront Overlay.

At Tuesday’s work session, several Council members and Mayor Steve Adler indicated that they wanted to know which variances the city has granted since it enacted the Waterfront Overlay. Adler made a point of saying he did not want staff to have to do a lot of additional work. However, he did ask the question, so staff will have to try to answer it.

City Zoning case manager Jerry Rusthoven indicated Wednesday that the matter would come back to Council on May 21.

Assistant Director of Planning and Development Review George Adams said he was not aware of any variances granted for commercial uses since enactment of the Waterfront Overlay. However, he said, he did know there have been some variances for residential structures. Adams or a staff member will have to search city records to check for variances.

Even though staff has recommended the variance and the commission endorsed it, Daniel Llanes of the Govalle/Johnston Terrace neighborhood contact team filed an appeal, saying that construction of the hotel is not consistent with the goals of the 1985 Town Lake Corridor Study.

The property is in District 3, represented by Council Member Pio Renteria. Renteria seemed enthusiastic about the project and other economic development projects in the area.

One reason for that is the condition of the land along the river. “We should be really concerned about that river, because Guerrero Park is one of the sections that have been eroded. … We really need to look at that section of the river. … It looks trashy. All those little businesses down there are just dumping their trash right off the cliff,” Renteria said.

Despite that, Renteria added, it is a beautiful area. “I played there when I was a kid. That place has been neglected for so long. … There is a lot of potential there to have this place developed. We’re looking at having a world-class tennis court down the way on the other side of Montopolis in a few years.”

Renteria said he has talked to neighborhood residents, and “they are really on board” with this project. He also envisioned a trail along the river in conjunction with the hotel.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo made clear that she believes the developer should comply with current regulations and not seek to build in the primary setback. “Most of their project could be built (without the variance),” she said.

Council Member Greg Casar said, “I think the difficulty is to know whether or not, if we don’t grant this variance, there is still enough market force for somebody to say, ‘You know what, I’m actually going to remodel the warehouse. I’m going to build it in the site package.’ How much more inconvenient is it — that’s the goal for us to know.”

Richard Suttle of Armbrust & Brown represents the hotel developer. He noted that his client could legally remodel the current structures without a variance. Suttle said the developer’s proposal to scrap the warehouse and start from scratch would mean there would be only 16 percent impervious cover within the primary setback. Currently there is 40 percent impervious cover there.

If Council overturns the variance, Suttle said, “My client will really have to weigh whether he is better off just (using) the building he has.”

The developer has agreed to a long list of requirements recommended by the Planning Commission. Those include complying with current City of Austin requirements for water quality — not simply paying a fee in lieu of mitigation. In addition, he promised to limit the height of the hotel to 25 feet within the primary setback and to employ bioengineered erosion control structures to stabilize the bluff.

There is also the possibility that the developer will assist the city in repairing a damaged drainage pipe within an adjacent property.


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