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Thursday, July 13, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

St. Johns ‘project of change’ gets needed break

After months of compromise, the Board of Adjustment has opted to let a St. Johns work/live project live, despite lingering concerns from neighbors about entering into a new era of transportation-oriented development.

In order to build a two-story, five-unit multifamily project at 608 W. St. Johns Ave., developers were asking to reduce the east setback from 15 feet to 8 feet on one stretch and 5 feet on another and to reduce the setback on the west property line from 15 feet to 5 feet. On July 10, board members voted unanimously to approve the variance, with alternate Kelly Blume sitting in for absent Board Member Michael Von Ohlen.

Because of the narrow lot and the fact that the concept of “transit-oriented developments” and “live/work” designations are fairly new to the city, the property was in the unique position of the avant garde. Without the variances from the board, the project would not be able to achieve the purpose of the zoning.

Board Member Don Leighton-Burwell said, while he could not have supported the original three-story project, he appreciated where it was after compromise with the neighborhood.

“The scale of this would be allowed as a single-family house, the 5-foot setbacks would be allowed as a single-family house,” he noted. “The variance is required because of the zoning category, not so much the building itself.”

He continued, “These first projects are always the ones that have to do the most bloodletting. … It’s a shame that they couldn’t have acquired more property so that variances weren’t required.”

Asking for the variance was Stephen Oliver, who is an architect in addition to his service as chair of the Planning Commission. It was the fourth time the request was before the board, and Oliver explained that the current project is the result of “significant change” to the interior of the project. As a result, units will now be accessed through a front porch. He explained they had also worked with the neighborhood to come to an agreement on fencing and landscaping for the property.

He told the board that his goal was to “make a live/work property actually occur on a live/work-zoned property.”

Neighbor James Clary spoke in opposition to the variance request.

“For us, the neighbors, the neighborhood and the single-family residents, it’s a matter of quality of life,” he said. He explained the property he shares with his daughter is just north on West Odell Street and the property adjacent to them has recently been redeveloped with a two-story duplex. “We’ve experienced firsthand what it means to the quality of life to have a two-story building next door.”

Clary said he was also concerned about the precedent the development would set, and the impact of “a two-story building looking into (single-family) lots from all sides.”

Marsha Howard, who is also a neighbor of the project, commended Oliver for working with the neighborhood, but remained concerned about a “domino effect.”

“It’s difficult, these transitions,” she said.

Oliver said he appreciated those concerns, particularly as it pertained to building along an area that has been designated as a pedestrian activity corridor within the transit-oriented development under the city’s comprehensive plan. Because the plan is relatively new, the area has only started to be developed under that criteria recently.

“It’s difficult to figure out how to solve these small, narrow sites. I think everybody has scratched their head a little bit about what is the best way to set this precedent, and we have significantly altered the scope of this project to make sure that we are responding to what is envisioned as … the community character of St. Johns,“ said Oliver. “This is not out of tune.”

Oliver said that they had been sensitive to “setting the stage” for the future vision of the neighborhood without ignoring its current condition. He explained that, because single-family is prohibited on the property because of the live/work zoning, whatever is built there will require a variance.

“I’m disappointed that they are still voicing opposition to this despite the favorable comments that we have received in the meetings,” he said. “But we understand this is a difficult process for everyone to work through and to understand, ‘My gosh, this is a real project of change next to me.’”

Board Member Rahm McDaniel was less restrained in his reaction to the opposition.

“I guess I’m not fully on board with the ‘parade of horribles’ of having apartments in my neighborhood. When you are talking about West St. Johns, which is a street with a yellow line down the middle of it that connects I-35 with Lamar … I’m having a hard time understanding why multifamily is so deleterious to the character of an area that has a lot of renters in it,” he said.

McDaniel pointed out that, at the moment, Mayor Steve Adler is actively working to form a task force on gentrification “at the same time we sort of worry about how the prospect of ‘people who live in apartments’ might destroy the quality of life for people in single-family homes,” he said. “I guess I’m not that worried about that particular domino.”

Diagram courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Board of Adjustment: The city's Board of Adjustment is a quasi-judicial body that decides on variances, special exceptions and can issue interpretations of code.

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