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Popular infill project stalls at BoA

Thursday, June 18, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Time invested, neighborhood support and a convoluted city code won’t get you a variance at the Board of Adjustment. But they might buy you a little time.

James Schoenbaum is the owner and manager of the proposed development at 614 and 618 Blanco St. His company, Arbol Lindo, LLC, purchased the property in July 2013. He hopes to move forward with his project, “The Stonewall,” which will be six duplexes, or 12 units, on 1.26 acres. Schoenbaum explained to the board that the zoning on the lot would allow about 40 units, but that he doesn’t believe that is “correct or right for the neighborhood.”

Schoenbaum characterized his situation as a unique problem attached to a “unicorn property.” He explained that his development proposal has been approved by the Historic Landmark Commission and endorsed by the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association. However, city staff determined that the Castle Hill local historic district ordinance does not allow the property to exercise a historic landmark compatibility exemption and requires the property to comply with city compatibility standards.

“We thought we had designed to code all along,” said Schoenbaum. “We believed when we were designing it that it did not require a variance. We believed that we had the historic exemption.”

The variances Schoenbaum is seeking would reduce the side setback from 25 feet to 5 and the front setback from 25 to 15, and increase the allowed building height to 36 feet. As all of those requirements were put in place because of nearby single-family homes, the variances essentially reinstate the compatibility exemption.

Board members did not seem inclined to support the variances, but they voted unanimously in favor of a postponement in the hopes of allowing the developer more time to work out a compromise with the one neighbor who opposes the project.

Though they didn’t vote in favor of the variance, many of the board members expressed sympathy for the process Schoenbaum had been put through. Board Member Ricardo DeCamps said there is a “clear issue with our development process” and told the developer that it was a shame that despite his due diligence and attempt to build to code, he had had to go through an 18-month process and a site-plan review before the need for a variance was made clear.

“I really think it’s unfortunate that there are so many portions of the code that are so difficult and contradict each other,” said DeCamps.

Schoenbaum explained that having to comply with compatibility standards and historic guidelines that were in direct conflict with each other, while preserving and using the historic wall and iron gate on the property as required by state law, presented a hardship.

Chair Jeff Jack disagreed, saying that city code could not be a hardship (according to city code). He said that he had seen situations like this before, where the city had not caught an issue until the end of the process, but it was not cause for a variance.

Jack suggested the developer modify the historic landmark district instead.

Board Member Melissa Hawthorne suggested that the lots could be re-subdivided, which would allow the project to proceed as is.

Board Member Sallie Burchett pointed out that the larger compatibility setback is, ironically, making new development less compatible with the surrounding neighborhood character. She said the designed project represents missing middle housing stock in Austin and that the compatibility buffer “would be misapplied” in this case.

Neighbors of the project stayed late into the evening to show their support for the Stonewall.

Paul Seals, chair of OWANA’s steering committee, spoke in favor of the variances and told the board that his organization supports the variances “overwhelmingly.” He said the project had been designed with neighborhood input and stressed that it was designed to be compatible with the area.

Laura Kelso, who helped spearhead the creation of the Castle Hill Local Historic District in 2010, suggested that the provision to remove compatibility exemptions for landmarks could be attributed to inexperience in writing design standards.

“We had no way to anticipate a project like the Stonewall coming along and being faced with this particular challenge,” said Kelso. “Had we known that would be the case, we never would have included (that provision). The great irony would be that this type of development — that we’ve hoped for in our historic district — is shot down because of the compatibility standards.”

Of the property’s two adjacent neighbors, one supports the variance and one opposes it.

Ann Manassero, who opposes the variance, owns the house next door, which she told the board is an investment property that she hopes to retire to someday.

She said that when she purchased the house, she had expected that anything built on the adjacent empty lot would be required to comply with compatibility standards.

Manassero said that she had met with Schoenbaum and expressed concern that the windows on her home that face the proposed development would soon be opposite a stone wall or other windows. She said Schoenbaum assured her that the windows would be offset from her own.

However, Manassero said, she was later alarmed to see plans that showed an “enclosed porch looking right into (her) property” as well as several windows along that property line.

Additionally, said Manassero, the new duplexes will “absolutely dwarf” her property by exceeding height limitations by 6 feet.

Though Manassero said she had largely been left out of the design process, Schoenbaum pointed out that there have been many public meetings she could have attended, but she had not provided input until this point.

Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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