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Friday, January 12, 2018 by Joseph Caterine

Commission struggles with perplexing conditional use permit

CodeNEXT may make the current Land Development Code seem outdated, but there are still buildings around the city that have yet to be registered with the city. In these cases, something as simple as changing a building’s use can carry extraordinary implications. At the Jan. 9 Planning Commission meeting, commissioners debated whether a request for a conditional use permit to expand a Zilker neighborhood preschool was as innocuous as it sounded, or if granting it would spell complications down the road.

Didactica Preschool at 1507 Hether St. has recently experienced growth in its student enrollment, and to accommodate the greater numbers the school has proposed to convert the use of a single-family structure on the property to also provide day care services.

During the course of case manager Nikki Hoelter’s presentation, Commissioner Trinity White spotted an anomaly on the site plan: an unmarked white “blob” next to the current home of Didactica. Hoelter explained that staff had concluded that it could be an unpermitted building.

In fact, the property that sits at the corner of Hether and South Lamar Boulevard contains several buildings with various uses, none of which have a site plan registered with the city. Therefore, Hoelter said, approving the conditional use permit would in effect also approve a site plan for the entire 2.25-acre property.

As for the mysterious “blob,” Development Services Department reviewer Natalia Rodriguez said that because no building was being demolished or added as part of the request, staff typically went by what was written on the application.

“Essentially it becomes a code violation,” Rodriguez said. “We as staff do not go out and start looking for code violations. We honestly kind of hope that the neighborhood or (whoever) starts calling 311.”

A 30 percent parking reduction was included as part of staff’s recommendation, bringing the required total down to 75 spaces. There are currently 79 shared by the buildings on the lot. Hoelter acknowledged that due to the property not having a previous site plan, it took extra time for reviewers to investigate each of the buildings’ uses and calculate the corresponding parking requirements.

Chair Stephen Oliver expressed concern that the confusion about the exact number of required spaces could come to haunt the owner in the future. “Someone may say, ‘It was short,” Oliver said. “We’ve approved CUPs that had 90 more parking spaces in the parking lot that were never striped. Then it became a problem the next time a tenant wanted to go do something, because the site plan said all those spaces were there, and they weren’t.”

On the other hand, Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart said that she felt dwelling on these peripheral issues was overcomplicating the matter. “We’re constantly talking about making life easier for families in Austin,” Hart said. “I think it would be inexcusable to deny this great in-neighborhood option for education.”

Commissioner Patricia Seeger said she would support approval, but she encouraged someone to call in the unpermitted building to bring it up to code. White said that was not good enough, and she asked Gabriela Macias, the director of the preschool, to go on the record that she would go through the proper channels to obtain the necessary permits and certificates. “Yes, we will,” Macias said.

What Macias did not explain was that she was married to one of the owners of the property, Atticus Macias. Hoelter told the Monitor that staff had not been aware of this connection until the time of the hearing, but she said that it would not have changed the way staff had reviewed the case or their recommendation.

The commission voted to approve staff’s recommendation 9-2-1, with the condition that the applicant add a footnote to explain the white “blob” on the site plan. Commissioners Nuria Zaragoza and Karen McGraw dissented, and Commissioner Fayez Kazi abstained.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

Planning and Development Review: The Planning and Development Review Department is responsible for Austin's city planning, preservation, and design. The department also provides development review and inspection services for the city.

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