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Board of Adjustment denies sign variance, says it came too early in development process

Friday, July 24, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

The north MoPac Expressway by the old Hewlett Packard campus may not appear to be very scenic at first glance. Yet this section of highway is identified as a Scenic Roadway under city regulations, so all road signs must adhere to the corresponding regulations.

In the future, the site at 14231 Tandem Blvd. will become a master-planned, mixed-use commercial and retail site called the Austin Continuum, that will span four tracts of land. The majority of the lots are currently undeveloped and covered in tree canopy, according to Joe Bucher, who was representing the property owners at the Board of Adjustment’s July 13 meeting.

The tree cover combined with the rolling topography was a driving factor behind Bucher’s sign variance request to increase the maximum sign area from 64 square feet to 247.87 square feet and raise the sign height from 12 to 30 feet.

However, board members disagreed that enlarging the sign will help patrons find their way to the sprawling site, and voted to deny the variance request.

“I don’t recall any kind of wayfinding problem with the current signage,” said Board Member Rahm McDaniel, who used to work at the corporate campus at that address.

Even if the sign was permitted at the requested size, several board members noted it is not likely it will assist drivers exiting MoPac to more easily access the site. “People on MoPac, unless you have a sign that is way out there before that exit, they’re going to drive right past it. They’re going to have to loop around anyhow,” Board Member Michael Von Ohlen said.

Board Member alternate Kelly Blume agreed, saying, “I don’t think you’re solving a problem here. I don’t really see the need for the variance given how people would actually drive in the area.”

Although there are three entrances into the property, Bucher told the board that the developers are working to make the main entrance off of Tandem Boulevard. He said their ability to direct drivers on this route is limited, since the current sign “fades into the landscape.”

Bucher explained that the proposed sign design is not only bigger than what regulations permit, it’s designed to be sculptural in nature and attract attention. Such an eye-catching guide is necessary to increase visibility, he said, and compete with the surrounding landscape.

Board Member Melissa Hawthorne asked if there were any solidified plans for the site that would illuminate the location of future buildings along the MoPac access road. She explained that there may be an opportunity for the developer to add wall signs on the buildings that are larger than what code permits for a free-standing sign. She noted that without this information she felt at a “disadvantage” when considering a variance for an entry sign.

Without additional information about the future designs, the board voted 10-1 to deny the variance. Hawthorne voted against the motion.

Von Ohlen told the applicant that this denial is not a final ruling for the entire site and that there will be other opportunities to introduce wayfinding signage. “They’ll have another opportunity to bite at the apple once they develop those other lots,” he said.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin, showing how a proposed sign would appear from MoPac.

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