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Planning Commission recommends rezoning Delta Kappa Gamma building to make way for tower

Monday, February 1, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Paving the way for a proposed 31-story residential tower on the site of the historic Delta Kappa Gamma building at 416 W. 12th St., the Planning Commission voted 11-0-1 last Tuesday to recommend the requested Downtown Mixed-Use (DMU) zoning.

The circa-1959 midcentury-modern building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, serves as the headquarters for Delta Kappa Gamma International, a nonprofit that supports women educators worldwide. But burdened by the aging building’s maintenance costs, the organization hopes to cash out and move elsewhere. Developer Stratus Properties plans to demolish the building and construct a residential tower.

Multiple DKG members spoke at the meeting and urged the commission to recommend the requested zoning change. Local preservation groups decried the proposed demolition. While commissioners said they appreciated the historic building, they were swayed by the nonprofit’s pleas and the opportunity to provide much-needed housing downtown along a major transit corridor.

“This is our opportunity to allow them to continue to grow … and take full advantage of this property that is a great location for a lot of homes,” Commissioner Greg Anderson said.

Council will get the final say on the DMU zoning, which limits buildings to  a height of 120 feet. If Council approves the zoning change, applicant Michael Whellan said he will apply for a Downtown Density Bonus, which allows more height in exchange for adherence to Great Streets guidelines, Austin Energy Green Building standards and Urban Design guidelines. 

Plans for the tower show design elements that mimic midcentury-modern style and a “commemorative garden space” as further homage to the original structure. Plans are still preliminary, Whellan cautioned.

As part of the density bonus program, the developer would likely pay into the Affordable Housing Trust Fund instead of including designated affordable units in the building. Whellan estimated the fee-in-lieu would amount to $500,000. Commissioners noted that the project would also increase the city’s tax base. “There’s just a tremendous amount of value investing in this,” Anderson said.

The Planning Commission did consider zoning the site historic at its Tuesday meeting, but voted 3-8-1 against, allowing the DMU vote to move forward. Planning staff had recommended the historic zoning – as well as DMU zoning with a conditional overlay of 60 feet – in order to preserve the building.

The Historic Landmark Commission tried to save the building late last year – against the owner’s wishes – by pushing for historic zoning. A spot on the National Register does not preclude demolition, but historic zoning by the city would. To grant such zoning, a supermajority on the Historic Landmark Commission or the Planning Commission had to vote in favor followed by a Council supermajority vote in favor. 

But the HLC couldn’t get the votes. In December, it voted 8-0-2 in favor of historic zoning, just shy of a supermajority. After the vote, HLC Chair Terri Myers allowed one abstainer to switch votes, creating a supermajority. Her efforts, however, were in violation of Robert’s Rules of Order, so the original vote counted. Council, therefore, will not be able to vote on historic zoning.

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