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A ‘dire need’ for student housing convinces Board of Adjustment to approve variance

Monday, November 19, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

This month the Board of Adjustment approved a variance request for a multifamily unit located just behind the Drag, after postponing it in September for being “ugly.”

At its Nov. 8 meeting, the Board of Adjustment reevaluated whether the lot at 2713 Hemphill Park, which is 237 square feet smaller than the required 8,000 square feet for Multifamily Residence-High Density (MF-5) zoning, should be granted a variance for development.

The board members acknowledged the need for more student housing in the area. However, the need did not guarantee enthusiasm for this particular project, which includes street-level parking and a three-story building constructed above.

“There is a dire need for housing,” said Chair William Burkhardt. “It’s not great, but it’s a reasonable request.”

Burkhardt also expressed reservations about the orientation of the building. “What I truly dislike about your project is that it’s perpendicular to the street,” he said.

The design was created with input from the North University neighborhood, according to Debbie Outlaw, the owner of the property.

Mary Ingle, past president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council who was speaking on behalf of the North University neighborhood, said that “there are other lots on the street with identical square footage” and therefore it is not valid to claim unusually small lot size as a hardship. However, Gregg Andrulis, who was representing the applicant on the project, noted that the nine adjacent MF-5 lots of substandard size already have apartment buildings.

While Ingle claimed that the North University neighborhood is a conglomeration of single-family residences, Outlaw explained that the characterization of this area as a neighborhood in the traditional sense is “a misappropriation of what it actually is. This is a student housing corridor.”

Indeed, after pulling up Google Street View, Burkhardt noted that “This (area) looks extremely built out.”

“It doesn’t look like this would be deleterious to this particular stretch of street,” he concluded.

Other board members expressed their sympathies that a difference of 227 square feet prevented the project from simply being developed in an area that is desperate for student housing and unlikely to be redeveloped as a single-family lot.

However, Board Member Don Leighton-Burwell said that although the surrounding undersized properties that are zoned MF-5 are developed, this was not the original intention for granting the lots a high-density zoning designation.

“The notion that every single lot was entitled to have the use of MF-5 that it was zoned for was not that every lot would get developed with multifamily,” he said. He said that the idea was that people would aggregate lots and develop a larger building instead of multiple smaller MF-5 structures.

After all was said and done, the board members agreed that having more housing for students close to campus trumped the lack of a couple hundred square feet. The board approved the variance with Leighton-Burwell dissenting. Board Member Melissa Hawthorne was absent.

“If it’s not in the interest of public interest, I don’t know what is,” said Board Member Rahm McDaniel.

Rendering by Architectural2, courtesy of the city of Austin.

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