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BoA ponders historically zoned multifamily

Thursday, March 14, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

For the owner of 608 Elmwood Place in the Hancock neighborhood, perhaps the third time in front of the Board of Adjustment will be the charm.

After being postponed last month to allow for more discussion with the neighborhood about the proposed multifamily project, the board once again postponed the project in the face of continued opposition from the neighbors and uncertainty from board members as to whether this substandard lot could handle six units.

“We’ve met twice,” explained Mary Ingle, a longtime member of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, at the March 11 meeting of the Board of Adjustment. She said the neighbors asked “if the property owner would be open to a compromise and the answer was no.”

Backup material, however, tells a different story. The original request shows a request for four separate variances, including decreasing the minimum lot size, width, side street setback and minimum site area. At Monday’s meeting, Leah Bojo of the Drenner Group had changed that to a request for two variances from the land development code: a reduction of the minimum lot size from 8,000 square feet to 6,929 square feet and a reduction of the side street setback from 15 feet to 0 feet. She cited cooperation with the neighborhood requests as a catalyst for the change.

To accommodate fewer variance requests, the project dropped down to six units from seven and an eighth parking slot was added to the property.

At the same time, Bojo noted that the entire street in the area is zoned multifamily and has been since the 1960s. The house next door to 608 has actually been zoned multifamily since 1948, according to Ingle.

Noting the long history of multifamily, Bojo argued that the intent of city planners was always to have density in the area. Board Member Don Leighton-Burwell disagreed, saying that the intent was not for each individual lot to be developed into multifamily. “The idea is that people would aggregate these lots,” he said.

In fact, several properties along Elmwood Place, including house numbers 601 and 603 as well as 607 and 609, were combined to create bigger lots that accommodate multifamily units with 15-foot setbacks.

The required minimum lot size to develop a multifamily unit is 8,000 square feet, and the property in question is a corner lot of 7,113 square feet. That means that in addition to a front setback, there is also a side setback. With the current restrictions on the usable area, Bojo said, “We can’t do anything on the property as it is today.”

Board Member Ada Corral wondered if there has been any discussion about bringing the setback between the desired zero lot line and the required 15 feet. As it stands, the current structure encroached five and a half feet into the setback, and Bojo said that the owner was willing to consider maintaining the status quo and restricting the proposed structure to where the house already is.

While board members agreed that aggregating the lot with another would be an ideal solution, they also acknowledged that it was an impossible one.  They even indicated to Bojo that they would be willing to consider some encroachment into the setback, but “the fact that it’s right up to the zero lot line setback … that one kind of tipped the scale for me,” explained Board Member Bryan King.

The board unanimously postponed the hearing for another month in order for the owner to return to the neighborhood and discuss a compromise that would allow for reasonable setbacks along the street. Board members Rahm McDaniel, Christopher Covo and Brooke Bailey were absent.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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