Thursday, January 14, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Planning Commission grants variance for ‘innovative’ office proposal

The Planning Commission on Tuesday approved an environmental variance for an office project at 1514 W. Koenig Lane, but not before working through the details of city environmental requirements that make developing the site tricky.

Applicant Joel Levine plans to expand his law offices, currently located across the street, but needs a code variance to do so because the site sits in the Hancock Branch of Shoal Creek’s critical water quality zone – new construction is largely forbidden – as well as its 25-year floodplain. 

Both city staffers and the Environmental Commission disapproved of the variance, arguing that the new building would harm water quality more than the current single-family home. 

The proposed 4,073-square-foot office building and parking lot would cover 70 percent of the site – the maximum allowed – up from the current impervious cover of 35 percent. To avoid the floodplain, the offices would sit above the parking. With shower facilities, off-site parking and its location in the urban core, the building would only have 10 parking spaces instead of the 15 required by code. 

To minimize water quality impacts, the plan calls for runoff from the roof to funnel into collection tanks. The runoff from the parking lot would flow into a permeable area on the side of the lot. The applicant also plans to build a carport over three parking spaces to increase the amount of water diverted to the cisterns.

“We are greatly exceeding environmental requirements here,” said Katie Kam, the civil engineer for the project. “We’re treating much more (water), so that we are somewhere between the lot being completely undeveloped and the existing condition.”

Kam also argued that the proposed office is appropriate for the area since most of the nearby buildings on Koenig have similar impervious cover and are of similar use. Many are single-family homes that have been converted into offices, though some are still residences.  

Commissioner James Shieh called this stretch of Koenig “a weird part of town.” The single-family homes that line the busy road are out of place, he said, and the water quality restrictions limit more appropriate development, such as larger commercial spaces. 

The commission voted unanimously to approve the variance, with the conditions that the building decrease the water pollutant load on the site and treat runoff from the roof and carport through the use of cisterns as indicated on the plan provided to the commission. 

Shieh applauded the way the site plan adapts to the complex restrictions, and condemned the rigidity of the current code. “I appreciate innovation, and a lot of our code does not allow innovative ideas to address different things,” he said.

The variance request now heads to City Council.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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