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Decision on floodplain variance on hold

Monday, March 16, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Sam Kumar, owner of Journeyman Austin Holdings Inc., came to City Council last week requesting a floodplain variance to allow parking in both the 100-year floodplain and the 25-year floodplain at his building at 1000 N. Lamar Blvd. Kevin Shunk, the city’s floodplain administrator, strenuously objected to the new variance and walked Council through the history of flooding at the 10th and Lamar location.

“There is a history of flooding on this property,” most recently during the 2015 Memorial Day flood, Shunk said. He noted that there was a high-water mark in the old Travis County service center building that previously occupied the location, showing water at 44 inches deep. Shunk showed Council photos of floods at the same intersection from 2001 and 1981.

Although Kumar was granted a variance in 2016, it only allowed for parking on the second and third levels of the building, not the ground floor. However, when he bought the property from Travis County, the Austin Monitor reported that he told commissioners he intended to have ground-floor parking.

The 0.33-acre property lies entirely within the floodplain of Shoal Creek, and Kumar received a citation from the city’s Code Department last year for allowing tenants to park on the ground floor within the floodplain. He could not argue that they were parking there without his knowledge because he had striped it for parking.

Originally, Kumar did not intend to have so many tenants. However, he told Council that his plans changed because there was a 30 percent increase in the cost of construction of the building. As a result, he got two new tenants and his own company has expanded, resulting in a need for more parking. “These 25 spaces are not going away,” he said. If Council denies the request, people who work in the building will either have to park in the street or at the Goodwill across the street.

Several Council members had questions about the need for the parking, and Council Member Leslie Pool declared she would definitely not vote for the variance. She said she was “disappointed” that the owner was coming back to Council after having received a variance in 2016 that specifically excluded ground-floor parking.

Shunk told Council that during flooding events, the entire ground floor would be flooded. The property has a steel fence around the ground floor to prevent cars from floating away when flooded. However, flooding can cause cars to leak caustic fluids into the floodwaters, which then flow downstream, poisoning fish and damaging the ecosystem.

Council members Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen had numerous questions.

After hearing from Shunk, Kumar and his representative, Alice Glasco, Council took citizen communication and went to lunch. When Council members returned, Glasco requested that they postpone a vote on the variance until April 23, to give her client a chance to reassess the situation, “given some of the questions and comments you raised this morning.” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who was in charge of the meeting at that point, readily agreed.

Ted Siff, president of the Old Austin Neighborhood Association, wrote to Council on behalf of his neighborhood, supporting the variance. One of the major points of his letter was that if the building’s tenants could not park on the ground floor, they would park on the street, which would be a burden to the neighborhood.

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