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Photo by city of Austin. Rendering of the proposed tower.

DKG house one step closer to high rise

Monday, May 10, 2021 by Jo Clifton

City Council has granted preliminary approval for Downtown Mixed-Use zoning for the Delta Kappa Gamma house at 12th and San Antonio streets, allowing construction of a 375-foot residential tower. The motion to approve DMU at the requested height got only six votes at last week’s meeting, not the seven needed for all three readings, so attorney Michael Whellan and his team will have to come back for second and third reading.

Council Member Alison Alter abstained from the vote, saying she needed more information. Council Member Kathie Tovo did not participate, because she had recused herself. And due to a “serious family emergency,” Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison did not return to the virtual dais after the dinner break, according to Mayor Steve Adler.

Whellan pointed out that part of the DKG site is already zoned for Downtown Mixed-Use with no height limit. Adding the rest of the site to that category would make the site eligible for the downtown density bonus program and function as a transit-supported project in the future, he said. In addition, he pointed out that the Planning Commission has agreed to the applicant’s request.

The midcentury-modern building is on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as the headquarters for the educational nonprofit Delta Kappa Gamma International. The Historic Landmark Commission could not muster enough votes to recommend it for historic status. Members of DKG say they can no longer stay in the building because of increased maintenance costs and hope to sell the property and relocate.

If Council decided not to grant the DMU zoning and height requested by the developer, Stratus Properties, the city would lose out on funding for permanent supportive housing and the project would no longer have a Great Streets requirement. In addition to the $500,000 Stratus would pay if it received the requested height, Whellan promised the company would also donate $200,000 to the city to help alleviate homelessness.

Although neighbors had originally signed a valid petition objecting to the zoning, several had withdrawn their names by Thursday, making the petition irrelevant to the vote. Assistant Director of Planning and Zoning Jerry Rusthoven told Council that staffers had recommended a 60-foot height limit in accordance with the Downtown Austin plan. Whellan pointed out that new city policies are in contradiction to the heights set forth in the plan.

Rusthoven told Council that the applicant and the neighborhood had also reached an agreement on some additional restrictions in the conditional overlay, including prohibitions on liquor sales, bail bond services, pawn shop services and outdoor entertainment, and to limit cocktail lounge to no more than 2,500 feet.

Blake Tollett, who owns property at 601 and 603 West 12th Street, urged Council to grant DMU zoning but limit the height to 60 feet. Developers plan to build a five-story parking garage, he said, which is unlikely to encourage residents to use the nearby mass transit. Tollett also indicated that he was concerned about the precedent the high-rise zoning might set for properties further north across San Antonio Street that are currently recommended for DMU at 60 feet, rather than higher.

Adler and Council members Ann Kitchen, Paige Ellis, Vanessa Fuentes, Pio Renteria, and Greg Casar indicated that they were ready to vote for the DMU zoning on all three readings. However, Council Member Leslie Pool was only prepared to vote for the change on first reading, leaving the case one vote shy of the votes needed for final passage. So the case will return.

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