Tuesday, September 15, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Environmental Commission recommends increased impervious cover in waterfront overlay

Historically, it is rare for the Environmental Commission to recommend a variance to increase impervious cover in a waterfront overlay. Lately, however, the redevelopment of old, heavily covered lots has the commissioners opting for the lesser of two evils and making compromises for improved water quality in exchange for higher levels of impervious cover than modern code regulations allow.

On Sept. 2, the commission voted unanimously to recommend a variance to allow up to 70 percent impervious cover for the property at 1010 Clermont Ave. While this is a greater percentage of impervious cover than the 40 percent permitted in a waterfront overlay, it’s less than the 90 percent impervious cover a developer is normally entitled to on a commercial lot.

Waterfront overlays are intended to promote a “harmonious” transition between downtown development and the parkland that surrounds the water, while also protecting the environment.

Currently, the 11,000-square-foot corner lot is the parking lot of a former used car dealer and features 81 percent impervious cover. Under the requested variance, the developer will reduce the total amount of impervious cover by at least 10 percent and also add water quality measures to the property.

Hank Marley, an environmental reviewer with the Development Services Department, told commissioners the applicant agreed to provide on-site water quality treatment instead of paying a fee-in-lieu. The result is that the proposed project provides greater environmental quality than what is currently feasible on the paved-over site. James Schissler, the agent representing the property owner, said the site will be developed with a rain garden, landscaping, porous pavement, and water management techniques aimed at reducing storm runoff and pollutants.

The landscaping includes 10 trees, which Marley said will be integrated into the 0.26-acre lot. Austin Energy does not permit the planting of trees in a 25-foot utility easement that runs along the edge of the property, limiting the amount of vegetation the developer will be able to squeeze into the site.

This variance is not the only one the developers are seeking. Earlier in August, the Board of Adjustment recommended another variance to further reduce the number of required parking spaces from 15 to 11 after the city had already reduced the parking requirements on the lot by 30 percent.

Despite reduced parking and plans for a 5,820-square-foot office building, Schissler told the Environmental Commission that the unusual triangular shape of the lot, coupled with the utility easement, “severely restricts” the developable portions of the lot. He also said compatibility height restrictions that limit the building to 40 feet rather than 60 feet prevent underground parking that may have offered an alternative to reducing the impervious cover.

With such constraints, Watershed Protection Department staff offered their support for the variance. “I believe that the proposed project provides greater environmental protection,” Environmental Officer Chris Herrington wrote in a letter to the commission.

The Environmental Commission agreed that approving this variance will increase the overall environmental quality on the site and unanimously extended their recommendation.

Commissioners Andrew Creel and Wendy Gordon were absent.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

Waterfront Overlay: Development regulations for the Waterfront Overlay District were established in 1989, and extends from Lady Bird Lake into its near tributaries. The purpose of the overlay is to promote a "harmonious" transition between downtown development and the parkland that surrounds the water.

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