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Developer envisions 700-unit student apartment that wraps around historic Kenney House

Thursday, October 4, 2018 by Jack Craver

A developer seeking to build a 700-unit, 17-story apartment building targeting students on West 22nd Street can’t proceed with the project unless City Council agrees to remove historic zoning from part of an adjacent property, known as the Kenney House.

Developer Mike McHone is asking for the city to remove the historic zoning not from the house itself, but from its adjacent parking lot. Doing so will enable him to build the apartment complex around the house.

McHone is also pouring $1 million of renovations into the Kenney House and has found a coffee shop that wants to operate on the site.

The project “is surprisingly sensitive and respectful of the historic building,” said Emily Little, a longtime preservation architect of Clayton & Little, a local architectural firm, at the Sept. 25 meeting of the Planning Commission.

“The tower is all glass wrapping around the historic building … so people on all sides will be able to see it,” explained Little.

The only objection at that meeting came from Commissioner Karen McGraw, who contended that the new building would “overwhelm” the Kenney House and deprive it of its historical context. She noted that all four corner properties at the intersection of West 22nd and Rio Grande streets include historic houses but that “none of them have really large buildings adjacent to them.”

“I don’t see how this is at all respectful of this house,” said McGraw. “The historic houses no longer have context.”

Little pushed back, saying that the project was breathing life into the historic property, both by being home to a local business and by featuring prominently in the design of the student apartment. All of the areas in the new apartment, such as the study rooms and lounges, will look onto the old house.

“We have a vital, active use. People will be encouraged to not only look at the historic house but be in and around it. I think it’s a win-win,” said Little.

While nobody showed up at the Planning Commission meeting to speak against the project, Betsy Greenberg, a member of the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee as well as a member of the Zoning and Platting Commission, asked via email for the case to be postponed, saying that CANPAC had yet to meet with the developer on the matter.

McHone said that he had sent materials about the project to CANPAC months ago and hadn’t heard back. He said he would be happy to meet with the group but stressed that he needed to get the project going as soon as possible.

Commissioner Tracy Witte wondered how the city could be assured that McHone would in fact pursue the project as described if it granted him the desired zoning first. He replied that he had already submitted the site plan for the project to the city’s Development Services Department for review.

The commission rejected the request for postponement, 7-3, with McGraw, Witte and Commissioner Todd Shaw in dissent.

Commissioner Greg Anderson said that the 700 units of student housing were desperately needed. The surrounding area, he said, probably needed “10,000 more homes.”

There was only one thing that Anderson didn’t like, however. But that was the fault not of McHone, but rather the city of Austin.

“The thing I am really offended by is the number of parking stalls,” he said. “The young people of today don’t want parking to this rate. So we’re going to build $6 million to $10 million of parking. We’re trying to say we don’t want traffic, we don’t want cars, but we’re incentivizing cars by requiring these parking spaces.”

The commission approved the rezoning 9-1, with only McGraw in dissent.

The case now goes to Council for final approval.

Photo by Daderot [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons.

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