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Planning Commission struggles with latest Plaza Saltillo rezoning

Thursday, July 15, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission, unable to accept a height increase for an office project in the Plaza Saltillo area amidst concerns about the building’s design, sent the case to Council without a recommendation Tuesday. 

The office project will replace Fair Market, an event space, and take up the southern half of the block bordered by Waller, East Fifth and East Sixth streets. The developer plans a six-story building, but needs a height variance from 60 to 85 feet to do so. 

If the request is granted, the project will participate in the Plaza Saltillo TOD Station Area Plan’s density bonus program, leveraging between $900,000 and $1 million toward affordable housing within a half mile of the site. If not, the building will likely be built anyway, with five stories and no money toward affordable housing. City staffers support the height increase.

Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson captured the prevailing view of commissioners: “This is both an easy case and a hard case. It’s easy in that, if I look at where should we put another office building, it’s across the street from Metro Rail and the Lance Armstrong Bikeway and a block from I-35.” The hard part, Thompson said, was figuring out how to handle the perceived shortcomings of the project itself.

Commissioners aired three main concerns about the project related to parking, affordable housing fees and a pocket park that will be built in conjunction with the office building.

First, some commissioners thought the building proposed far too much parking for a transit-oriented area. Up to five underground levels are planned, said Richard Suttle, agent for the applicant. “As we transition to our new city with transit and all, parking is still a necessary evil,” he said, adding that without enough parking, lenders and investors are less likely to finance the project. Even so, he said the project will still try to minimize parking, as “it’s generally not cost-effective to build.”

Commissioners also thought that the potential affordable housing fees were meager.

“A million bucks doesn’t go very far, especially today,” Commissioner James Shieh said. Suttle said it would be complicated to offer more money than the city-mandated $12 per square foot of bonus area. “The (city of Austin) Law Department gets very anxious when we try to offer more. So what we tried to do was offer development of the park as part of a community benefit, as opposed to just leaving it a sloped hill that really people can’t enjoy.”

As for the park, commissioners worried that people would perceive it as a space for outdoor restaurant seating instead of public use. Suttle insisted the space would not be “commandeered by the restaurants.” Rather, he said, it would be “a gathering spot for everybody.” 

To give the developer time to consider the commission’s input and come back with a tweaked proposal, Shieh motioned to postpone the case for two weeks. “We are so close to coming up with a plan to make this a great development,” he said. 

Shieh’s motion, however, failed. Thompson then motioned to forward the case to Council without a recommendation. That motion passed 7-1.

At the same meeting, the commission recommended on consent a similar height increase – from 60 to 90 feet – for Centro East, a proposed mixed-use project only a few blocks away. 

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