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Parking requirements jam up decision at the Board of Adjustment

Monday, August 17, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

In Austin, the subject of parking has a way of striking a nerve. So when a proposal for an office project at 43 N. Interstate 35 came before the Board of Adjustment on Aug. 10, board members struggled to come to a consensus as to whether reduced parking constituted enough parking.

James Schissler, representing the property owner, asked the board to grant a variance request to reduce the number of required parking spaces from 15 to 11. The city had already reduced the parking requirements on the lot by 30 percent for being located in the urban core and having a shower area included in the design plans.

Even with prior reductions in parking requirements and a difference in opinion as to whether 11 spaces were sufficient, the board voted unanimously to approve the variance.

Schissler told the board that the 5,820-square-foot office building will be leased to tenants, so he was unable to predict the number of employees who will work in the building. However, he noted that having fewer parking spaces on the site will likely not pose as much of an issue as it has historically.

“I suspect the occupancy rates are going to go down as you go through the new occupancy requirements from the pandemic,” he said, referring to the increase in remote working habits.

The applicant’s view was not supported by all board members.

“Eleven spaces is not sufficient in my experience for a project of this size,” Chair Don Leighton-Burwell said. While on the dais, he performed a rough calculation for the probable number of employees, using a ratio of 1 person per 100 square feet of office space. His calculations suggested there will be around 60 employees working in the building at a future date. With the possibility of approximately five employees per parking space, he called the proposal “way under-parked” and said the overflow of cars will likely become a burden on nearby streets and businesses.

However, other board members acknowledged that the site’s triangular shape and proximity to other parking structures made a parking reduction less onerous for future tenants. Board Member Melissa Hawthorne pointed out that she works nearby and knows of several parking structures where the building owners can potentially lease spaces to make up the shortfall.

Board Member Michael Von Ohlen said the number of parking spaces will dictate the type and size of business leasing the space. The zoning on the property prohibits over 30 uses, including medical offices, general retail sales, consumer convenience services, restaurants, software development and all automotive related uses. These limitations on use, Schissler told board members, will result in a low-traffic office building.

He added that the location of the site in a waterfront overlay makes the reduction in parking spaces a necessity. In a waterfront overlay, the impervious cover permitted on a site is reduced. Technically, he said, the site allows for two more spaces, but due to limitations on the amount of impervious cover, the engineers cannot easily work those spots into the site plan.

In lieu of providing the additional spots, Schissler explained that the property owners will install an 11-foot-wide, shared-use path with a five-foot buffer from the highway access road to encourage cycling. There will also be showers in the building to encourage workers to take their bikes to work.

Board members commended the amenities that the building owners are planning to add to encourage car-free transport. However, many still expressed uncertainty as to whether future employees will take advantage of these alternatives. Although the vote to approve the variance was unanimous, several board members expressed their reluctance to approve the request.

By allowing the reduction in parking, Chair Leighton-Burwell said, “We’re doing a disservice to the immediate neighbors.”

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