Wednesday, July 18, 2018 by Ryan Young

Board of Adjustment fights over North Loop parking space

Parking was a major sticking point at the July 9 Board of Adjustment meeting, where board members tackled the lack of parking at one particular North Loop property, exposing a rift in Austin’s current transportation thinking.

Lauren and Joe Cunningham are seeking to turn a derelict building at 101 E. North Loop into a cooperative space for artists, musicians and architects called The Commune. According to Lauren Cunningham, the site was home to Mrs. Johnson’s Bakery until 1975, after which it has been on-again, off-again occupied by various owners. Currently, the graffiti-covered building is disused, serving as shelter for the homeless and parking for broken-down cars.

But there is a major issue with the Cunninghams’ vision. Their property has five parking spaces – one of which is designated for disabled users – while current city codes require at least seven general-purpose spaces. So Lauren Cunningham got up in front of the Board of Adjustment to ask for a variance that would allow her rehabilitated space to open with just four.

“We would like to emphasize that no square footage has been added since the original construction in the 50s, and it has never had more than five parking spaces,” she said. “We are simply asking to use the building as it has stood for 67 years.”

Cunningham said that to make up the parking deficit, the business had entered into an agreement with its neighbor, Phara’s Mediterranean restaurant, to share parking spaces. That would give it eight more spaces for a grand total of 12, which should be plenty, so long as Phara’s is willing to share.

Board Member Don Leighton-Burwell was not convinced. “So 12 spaces, you think, is adequate for this facility?” he asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” Cunningham said. “Due to the nature of the business, we don’t expect these people to be here at all times.” Cunningham also said the business would offer a discount to customers who live nearby, which would encourage them to walk, bike or take buses to The Commune.

According to the variance application, the discount would be 10 percent off for residents within a 2-mile radius. The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s No. 7, a frequent transit line that runs every 15 minutes, is within a quarter-mile walk of 101 E. North Loop. North Loop Boulevard itself has sidewalks and side-running bike lanes.

“As an architect, if I was using a facility like this, I would probably be driving there,” Leighton-Burwell said. He added that the site plan seemed to anticipate just 16 visitors, which he said was not a “very robust day, conceivably, at a facility like this.” (Cunningham had said the ultimate capacity of The Commune would be 34 members.)

Board Member Brooke Bailey agreed. “To think that people are just going to walk or take buses, I think is a little outside the realm,” she said. “Usually you have plans, you have models, you have fabric samples … it’s either raining or 110 degrees hot. So I have to take issue with that.”

Leighton-Burwell also took a shot at CodeNEXT, the ongoing overhaul of Austin’s Land Development Code: “This is the trend with CodeNEXT and the current thought that somehow people in Austin don’t drive anymore – but my actual experience on the ground is that people are still driving significantly.”

Under the current CodeNEXT draft, some areas of Austin would be upzoned and allowed to construct less parking under the expectation that residents would be more inclined to use alternative transportation, such as public transit, walking or biking, in denser environments. Critics say such a policy would only lead to more traffic congestion on neighborhood streets.

Leighton-Burwell also said properties that are “under-parked” become a “burden” to surrounding businesses and neighborhoods, because if their customers can’t park on-site, they will simply park next door – and he thought The Commune was “grossly under-parked.”

Cunningham said their project had gotten “overwhelming support” from neighbors. Their variance application includes a letter of support from the North Loop Neighborhood Association.

Leighton-Burwell said the workshop proposal was “great” and that “this sort of thing is needed,” but he seemed to think that providing parking on this parcel was more important. One minute later, he said, “I’m wondering if the highest and best use – since this (property) has had a problematic history to keep anyone in it, and I’m guessing it’s partly because of inadequate parking – might be tearing the building down and creating a parking lot to better serve the other businesses around it.”

Cunningham, taken aback, responded, “We just spent a lot of money on this building. That’s not an option.”

In the end, the board granted the variance. The vote was 9-2, with Leighton-Burwell and Board Member Bryan King opposing.

Photo from Google Maps.

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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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