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Cultural center variance goes before Board of Adjustment for a third time

Wednesday, July 10, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

When the Board of Adjustment voted last month to deny the reconsideration of a case and let their original judgment for a variance at 810½ San Marcos St. stand, it turns out that the vote negated their original vote of approval.

Board Chair William Burkhardt explained to the Austin Monitor that last month’s vote on the case “was basically an invalid vote.” To remedy that, he consulted with city legal staff and determined that the case needed to be heard again, so it was re-added to the agenda of the July 8 meeting. “I just wanted everybody to be clear,” he said.

In a by-the-book effort to re-extend to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas the variance that they originally received in May, the board voted to rescind last month’s denial and reopen the public hearing on the case.

By reopening a case, the board is not required to vote in the same manner as it did in May, which board members warned the Daughters of the Republic of Texas could be the case.

“The reason we are in this situation has to do with notifications,” explained Burkhardt, as much to the public as to the commissioners, several of whom were not sitting on the board when the original case was heard.

Last month, the case came before the board for a reconsideration because members of the Guadalupe Association for an Improved Neighborhood, where the property is located, said they had not received official notification of the hearing and were therefore unable to attend and offer their testimony.

At the July 8 hearing, Mark Rogers, the executive director of the neighborhood association, told the board he had not received a notification for the meeting.

City staff from the Development Services Department said that they checked with the vendors who send out notifications for hearings, and all were mailed to the correct addresses.

“We cannot explain why someone did not receive notice,” said Donna Galati with Development Services.

The variance request up for debate for the third time was to allow an increase in building height from 40 to 50 feet for the construction of a cultural center at 810½ San Marcos St.

Bryan Lym, who was representing the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, explained that although the Neighborhood Conservation Combining District allows for a 60-foot height, due to nuances in the NCCD and restrictions in the topography of the lot, the height of the building that is permitted on the property is 27 feet. A typical single-family home is allowed 32 feet.

The NCCD provides guidance on building height in order to prevent blocking the view of the Historic French Legation by taking the average of the building heights on the street directly east of San Marcos Street and defining that average as the maximum height a developer can construct on San Marcos Street. However, that height is allowed from a base elevation. In the case of 810½ San Marcos St., that base elevation is 10 feet below the actual grade on the property.

To compensate for this higher site topography, Lym explained that the applicant is requesting a variance to build up to 50 feet. In reality, however, the building will only rise 37 feet from the ground.

Rogers explained that other buildings on San Marcos Street were able to comply with the restrictions imposed by the NCCD by excavating and placing part of the structure below ground. “The owners of 810½ San Marcos can do the same. Yes, it costs more than building at grade, but that is not grounds for a hardship,” he said.

Board Member Michael Von Ohlen felt strongly about the impracticality of an excavation solution.

“A lot of city staff that establish this type of protocol have never been in the business and have never been in the field,” he said. “I can’t understand how or why any commonsense contractor would be expected to shoot 10 feet below grade.”

For a second time, the board voted to approve the variance, but limited the height of the building to 37 feet and three stories.

Commissioners Rahm McDaniel and Veronica Rivera were absent, with Kelly Blume and Denisse Hudock sitting in as alternates.

Rendering by Lym Miller Architecture via the city of Austin.

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