Photo by Jo Clifton
Monday, September 28, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Large complex on S. First to replace Mercury Hall

Despite protests from neighbors and a valid petition against the zoning change, City Council voted 9-2 on Sept. 17 to rezone a 0.847-acre lot at 3504 S. First St. to allow for construction of a three-story apartment complex, a five-story complex and a five-story parking garage. The complex will sit on the site currently occupied by Mercury Hall and the newly zoned parking lot next door.

Nine members of Council agreed the property should be zoned for vertical mixed use, allowing the structures that neighbors in nearby condominiums believe will hover over their properties and lower their property values. But a change of use of the property was likely inevitable. In 2019, the owners of the popular event venue announced that they planned to close in June 2021, citing high property taxes as the reason.

Council members Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool voted against the zoning change, but Council Member Kathie Tovo, who frequently declines to vote against valid petitions, joined the majority to give Merc Properties Ltd. the votes it needed for three readings.

Council Member Pio Renteria announced that he was in support of the zoning change for the South First Street property, which is in his district. Renteria noted that the property owners had promised to offer 10 percent of the units to people earning 60 percent of the median family income. “I know how desperately we need housing,” especially affordable units, he said.

Planner Kate Clark with the Planning and Zoning Department told the Austin Monitor via email, “This rezoning case did not include any affordable housing as a part or condition of the rezoning. The rezoning request that was approved by City Council on Sept. 17 was to CS-MU-V-CO. By rezoning the property to include the vertical mixed-use overlay district (V), the owner may apply for a waiver at the time of site plan to certain site development standards in exchange for providing affordable housing for 10 percent of the units at 80 percent MFI.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan made the motion to approve the zoning. He said, “I really hope the larger community is paying attention. We have a very different conversation when we are talking about building more housing in East Austin and it is an important and valuable conversation. And here we are with a zoning case that builds more housing in West Austin. So this is the time, this is the time to say, yes, we are going to build. We are not just going to put housing in East Austin. We are really going to do it in an equitable way, and part of a very difficult challenge of building new housing in a city is that sometimes – some might argue more often than not – you have to build up.”

But neighbors who addressed Council and wrote letters were pretty much united in their opposition to the zoning change, in particular the increased height. Marshall Davis, president of Galindo Elementary Neighborhood Association, told Council he and his neighbors “do not feel the proposed project is compatible with the neighborhood.”

Davis said, “This is not a simple case. There is a major topographical difference between the two properties.” One piece of property is 59 feet higher than the corner of South First and Cardinal Lane.

“A 60-foot parking garage on that location would tower 119 feet above South First and Cardinal,” he continued. “We met with the developers through the Zoom process but have not been offered any variance or any changes to what they have proposed, a three-story and five-story luxury apartment building and a five-story parking garage.”

Attorney Richard Suttle explained that the project would include the nearly 3 acres next door to where Mercury Hall is now, and about 1.5 acres across Cardinal Lane designated to be part of a pocket park as part of the project. He also explained that the property owners would take great care in preserving trees at the back of the property adjacent to the Cardinal Lane Condominiums.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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