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Despite community concerns, Planning Commission approves Pershing House permit

Friday, January 27, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

The Planning Commission’s decision to approve a conditional use permit to the Pershing House, a private club on East Fifth Street, caused a stir on Tuesday.

Activist Gavino Fernandez Jr. asked the commission to deny the request for a club or lodge use at 2415 East Fifth St., filed by venture capitalist and property owner Kip McClanahan. Staff members previously recommended its approval.

Richard Suttle, the agent for the applicant, argued that the use should be granted based on the fact that the club will exist within a building already on the property. “I can go get a restaurant, a hotel,” he said, “and not ever have to do a stop by (the Planning Commission).”

However, Burke Edwards, an investor in the property who spoke in favor of the change, admitted that the owner had considered building a hotel on the site but that it was not economically feasible because of inadequate parking availability. “So we backed way off of anything like that and said, ‘Let’s just make something cool,'” he said.

Fernandez argued that this request was another case of “spot zoning” and that it contradicted the neighborhood’s plans to CS-MU-CO (General Commercial Mixed Use Conditional Overlay). He went on to say that the only reason the applicant filed a request for a permit was because residents west of the club had started complaining.

“This is a money venture at the expense of our quality of life,” he said. “I feel like the lone Indian at Standing Rock, because we are losing our land.”

Fernandez pointed to how another rezoning case near the Heritage neighborhood in Central Austin had been denied earlier in the night and implied that there was a double standard in terms of the commission’s decision-making. “This is also residential neighborhood,” he said.

Commissioner Trinity White talked about her experience with lodges back in her home state of Rhode Island. “All you have to do is walk in, say hello to the bartender, sign the book, and then anybody who wants to come in can come,” she said. “How will the Pershing House specifically define what a guest is?”

“If you want to put conditions on that, we’d be happy to have them,” Suttle replied.

“It may be beautiful and lovely and everyone wants to go there,” Commissioner Karen McGraw said, “but I don’t know what prevents the whole compound from having a big event.”

Commissioner James Shieh returned to the idea that a restaurant or hotel could easily be built by a new owner with the current zoning. “We’re preserving a part of East Austin,” he said. “We’re repurposing it. What’s the alternative?”

“I’m happy to preserve a piece of Austin, but not without conditions,” Commissioner Tom Nuckols replied.

Nuckols made a motion to approve the staff members’ recommendation, seconded by Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza, with the conditions that hours of operation end at midnight Sunday through Thursday and at 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, as well as a noise limit of 75 decibels at any adjacent residential property line.

The motion passed 10-1, with McGraw dissenting. Vice Chair Fayez Kazi and Commissioner Chito Vela were absent.

As he left City Council chambers, Fernandez said, “This is a racist commission.”

Shaun Jordan, who had spoken in favor of the conditional use, responded to Fernandez: “I’ve lived here for 10 years; it’s not your neighborhood.”

The yelling between the two continued outside, and a City Hall security guard was forced to intervene.

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