Tuesday, August 27, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Board of Adjustment seeks more information, postpones adaptive reuse project

In an effort to create market-rate affordable housing in North Austin, a developer is attempting to reuse the existing 281 units of the Austin Suites Motel at 8300 N. Interstate 35.

In order to accomplish this goal, the developer came to the Board of Adjustment seeking a variance to decrease the minimum site area requirement from 210,800 square feet to 130,680 square feet.

“These are going to be market-rate units that are going to be at a much lower income point,” said the Drenner Group’s Leah Bojo, who was representing the applicant. She explained that since the building already has the amenities needed for a multifamily residence, the unit lease rates will not increase dramatically.

Comparing the project to new-build multifamily complexes, she said typically when developers “make it nicer, which is what usually happens, it makes the rents go up.”

Although the conversion of the extended-stay hotel will spruce things up, since the developer isn’t building from the ground up, they intend to pass the cost savings on to the tenants. In order to ensure that the units remain affordable, Bojo said as part of the variance the developer is willing to guarantee that 50 percent of the units will be leased at 60 percent of the median family income (MFI). “The affordable units would be locked in at that rate for 40 years,” she said.

The variance request to reduce the required site area came about because as part of the adaptive reuse project, Artesia 2018 Investments  LLC, the developer, plans to keep the footprint and layout of the building identical to as it is now. However, because the site operates as an extended-stay hotel, the units are smaller than minimum site area requirements allow for.

The minimum site area is 800 square feet for an efficiency dwelling unit; 1,000 square feet for a one-bedroom dwelling unit; and 1,200 square feet for a dwelling unit with two or more bedrooms. In the plans presented by Bojo, the adapted building would contain 134 one-bedroom apartments, 23 two-bedroom units and one three-bedroom unit.

Several of the board members expressed concern at reducing the size of the units, saying that the reduced footprint could also reduce the quality of life. Unlike a motel, Board Member Don Leighton-Burwell said that when these units are leased as permanent multifamily housing, more space will be required because “it’s not a transient situation.” Board Member Darryl Pruett said that site area requirements are a health and safety issue.

Other board members saw things in a different light.

“I think minimum lot requirements in this city are stupid,” said Commissioner Rahm McDaniel, who explained that requiring increased sizes contributes to a loss of affordability.

Colin Brothers, the owner of the property, explained that the site is already operating as a pseudo-apartment complex. He said currently there are 50 tenants in the hotel.

When it comes to how a unit of that size would function in reality, Board Member Jessica Cohen remarked, “It’s not that bad. That’s where I live now.” She said she shares 300 square feet with her daughter and two cats.

If the variance is not granted, Brothers explained that the project would still go forward but that only 163 units would be entitled to a certificate of occupancy and therefore 55 would need to be locked and left uninhabited. That, Bojo said, “is a magnet for bad behavior, frankly.”

Board Member William Hodge had pointed out that the property already has a history of structural code violations and police calls. Leighton-Burwell referred to the current site as “derelict.”

To better understand what the conversion of the property would entail as well as how a variance would help the developer fix the existing code deficiencies, the commission unanimously voted to postpone the case until Sept. 9. Board members Ada Corral and Michael Von Ohlen were absent.

Photo by Google Maps.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

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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