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Council: Keep San Antonio Street property at 60 feet

Friday, April 15, 2016 by Jo Clifton

With only seven of its members voting, City Council on Thursday unanimously endorsed Downtown Mixed-Use zoning (DMU) for a property on the west side of downtown but refused to grant the 90-foot height requested by the applicant and recommended by the Planning Commission.

Instead, Council voted on first reading only for a 60-foot height limitation on two tracts at 1204 San Antonio St. and 1205 Nueces St. for property owned by the Texas Association of Counties. Staff had recommended the 60-foot height in accordance with the Downtown Austin Plan, which was adopted in 2011.

The staff report says, “The Northwest District (of downtown) has a significant number of Historic Landmark structures. Limiting the height to 60 ft. will better complement the historic character of the district.”

Alice Glasco, who represented the property owner, said that if her clients were granted the additional height, they would be able to save money by building aboveground parking. Without the additional height, however, they would be forced to build expensive underground parking.

With the 90 feet, Glasco said, her clients could “volunteer” that 10 percent of the building’s gross square footage be dedicated to nonprofit organizations. Those organizations would pay only 50 percent of rental rates normally charged in the central business district for at least 10 years, according to Glasco.

Glasco had a letter from the Austin Creative Alliance, which advocates for the arts and for artists in the community. It said, “It is not the business of the Austin Creative Alliance to speak for or against any particular land development project. However, we do believe it is appropriate to voice our support for trading gains for the arts in exchange for increased entitlements for new developments.

“In particular, we would like to enter into an agreement with the property owner at 1204 San Antonio and 1205 Nueces Street in downtown Austin to help find first floor tenants in space that would be reserved for arts nonprofit(s) at a discounted rental cost under the restrictive covenant as part of a density bonus agreement. We understand that the density bonus applies to 1204 San Antonio Street as recommended by the Planning Commission.” The letter was signed by Austin Creative Alliance CEO John P. Riedie.

Although the city has a program allowing density bonuses in exchange for lower rents for residential properties, it is not clear whether it can make such an ad hoc agreement, because there is no ordinance or program for business rental space. It may seem too much like “contract zoning.”

Glasco also said that the county group would provide shower facilities for those in the building to encourage biking and walking to work.

Mayor Steve Adler and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo both recused themselves from the vote because of their interests in nearby properties. Tovo said her husband’s office is nearby, and Adler’s former law firm is also close to the subject properties.

Their recusal left Council Member Ann Kitchen in charge. Council Member Sheri Gallo left the dais to go to a funeral, according to a city spokesman. Council Member Ellen Troxclair was also off the dais. She told the Austin Monitor that she had a meeting outside the office and expected to be back before the vote on the item, but she didn’t make it.

Council Member Greg Casar made the motion to approve DMU at 60 feet but directed staff to look closely at Glasco’s offer so that Council could fully understand it before making a final decision.

Glasco told the Monitor after the hearing that her clients could not afford to lower rents unless they have the additional height of 90 feet. She said her clients are already allowed to build to 60 feet with their current General Office zoning (GO), but even if they don’t get the 90 feet they are requesting, they need the DMU designation in order to increase the floor-to-area ratio they are seeking.

If they do not get the 90 feet, they will build underground parking but not be able to afford the community benefit for the Austin Creative Alliance, she said.

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