City Staff Recommends Historic Zoning for Westgate Towers

According to a City of Austin Zoning Change Review Sheet dated September 24, 2012, City Staff has recommended that the zoning change (from CBD to CBD-H) recently requested by the Westgate Condominium Association for the Westgate Tower be granted.

The Westgate Tower is the closest residential tower to the Texas State Capitol, and many consider it the only pure mid-century modern building in downtown Austin.

City Staff summarizes the qualifications of the Westgate that merit the change:

“The Westgate Tower is an excellent example of the New Formalism approach to modern architecture, is the only building in Austin designed by internationally-known architect Edward Durell Stone, and has served as a model for continued mixed-use growth in the city, combining residential, commercial, and social uses in the same building.”

westgate tower

The review sheet goes over, in detail, the historical significance of the Westgate Tower. Some of interesting tid-bits:

  • The Westgate was named for its location just West of the State Capitol grounds
  • Westgate Tower opened its doors in 1966
  • Westgate Tower’s contemporaries are the Cambridge Tower and Penthouse Apartments, both also built in the 1960’s
  • Westgate Tower was the first high-rise building that was significantly taller than anything else in Austin, except the Capitol Dome
  • The Westgate Tower was the 2nd home of the Headliners Club (after the Driskill)

Landmarking a building has become controversial in Austin as some tax payers believe the system is being exploited. The issue has even made it into Austin Monthly founder Mike Levy’s infamous blind-copy email campaigns.

From local developer Rick Hardin (via Mike Levy): “So what is the historic “protection” for? Moreover what is “historic’ about this building? If the answer is some notable folks lived or worked there, most all older buildings downtown qualify. If Austin is to be even handed, take ALL buildings over 50 years old and give them the same tax break. “Landmark” designation is arbitrary, all older properties face the same maintenance challenges and expenses; why should just some get a tax break?”

See current listings at the Westgate Tower.

New Downtown Restrictions to Limit Lakeside Skyscrapers

The most contentious Austin zoning battles relate to development close to Ladybird Lake. The prime downtown lake is considered one of the city's most important natural assets. As a result, the City has been closely examining proposals to protect the lake from future development. Essentially, the City Council would like to limit the height of development on sites directly adjacent to the lake.

Essentially, the City has two goals: first, to control development around the lake. Second, to ensure access to the lake. The appropriate policy action becomes complicated with an important hypothetical: where there are gaps in the hike and bike trail, should the city provide height variances in exchange for trail extension or improved public access to the lake? It's this very real example that been the focus of City Council debate.

Last night, after much discussion, the Council gave the second of three required approvals that limit building heights around the lake to either 60 or 96 feet depending on location. To address the above example the council decided that developers could be allowed to exceed 96 feet "if they can prove doing so would be substantially better for the community." This is a fair compromise that will provide the City with the appropriate zoning tools to protect the lake in the future.

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It's Back: 800 West Applies for Height Variance

Last September, Fortis Development proposed a 250-foot, 200-unit, 25-story tower on 8th street and West Avenue near downtown. Since the area is currently zoned for buildings no taller than 60 feet, the project required a zoning variance or zoning change.

This week, the developers continued to press their case to the ciry for the zoning change, proving that the project is very much alive. As part of the process, the architects have presented four design options for the city to evaluate. all design have public parks in the back facing shoal creek. In the future, a trail will run alongside the creek connecting the building directly to the hike and bike trails and Ladybird Lake.

As we have reported, this decision may be a tough one for the city council: they need to decide on the boundaries of Austin's high-rise downtown. In the projects favor, it is within two blocks of the Nokonah at 9th and Lamar, CLB's proposed 33-story super tower on 7th and Rio Grande, and another project on 6th and West. As the developer points out, it is one of very few downtown blocks free of capital view corridor restrictions.

Here are the details on the proposed project:

- 200 condos in a single 25-story tower
- Lot size is 1.2 Acres
- Proposed building size is 25 stories totalling 130,605 square feet
- The project would include 143 parking spaces
- Planned amenities include a sun deck, gardens, and public trails connecting the building to the Shpal Creek greenbelt

Here are additional details from the Austin Chronicle:

Another test of council will concerning building heights in western Downtown: The zoning case for 800 West Ave., a 1.2-acre Shoal Creek-front site at the corner of Eighth Street, returned to council for a final vote at press time. Last fall, Cypress Real Estate Advisors sought an upgrade to Central Business District zoning to build a 250-foot condo tower, to be designed by Muñoz + Albin Architec­ture and Planning. (The contested 33-story 7Rio condo tower, at nearby Seventh and Rio Grande – now on hold – won CBD from council last year.) When 800 West Ave. came before council in November, members instead approved, on first reading, Downtown Mixed Use Condi­tional Over­lay zoning, which limits height to 120 feet. But according to unhappy project neighbor Ben Procter, retiring Council Member Betty Dunkerley then encouraged a developer-friendly "pass" on height-limiting compatibility standards triggered by nearby residences – a perk of CBD, not DMU. Definitive development guidelines for this peri­pheral urban district, rich in historic homes, are due later this year in the Downtown Austin Plan.

City Staff Recommends Trammell Crow Proposal for Green Water Treatment Site

This week the city staff recommended Trammell Crow's proposal for redevelopment of the Green Water Treatment plant tract in downtown Austin. Trammell Crow and it's partner Constructive Ventures, which has been involved in the development of Spring and BartonPlace, proposed the most ambitious plan for the site with the tallest buildings, the most parking, and the biggest diversity of uses.

While the staff’s recommendation is not biding, it is a strong endorsement for the project and makes Trammwll Crow the clear front runner for this important project. Here are some details of their proposal:

- The Trammell Crow proposal calls for a 350,000-square-foot hotel and a 250-unit senior assisted living facility in addition to condos, apartments, offices and retail space.

- Five public squares could accommodate as many as 2,700 people.

- The proposal includes 5,200 parking spaces

- The proposal includes an Austin Car Share program, bicycle bays, and electric refueling stations

- The proposal offers to make 25 percent of its rental units affordable--defined at 80 percent of the city's median family income--and offered to make a donation to the city's affordable housing fund for every condo it sells, estimating that total donations could reach $2.5 million.

Here are renderings from the Trammell Crow Proposal:

Nestled between Whole Foods, Ladybird Lake, Seaholm, Austin Music Hall, and the 2nd Street District is the City's oldest sewage treatment plant - the Thomas C. Green Water Treatment Plant - which began purifying water from Ladybird lake in 1925. The plant covers 6 acres across 4 city blocks. In addition to using a key tract of land to process water using 1920's technology, the plant also serves to disrupt the natural grid of the city -- it stops second street at its west end and blocks Nueces and Rio Grande from reaching Cesar Chavez.

The Green site offers an incredible development opportunity. With four downtown blocks, it is a huge chunk of land. The location is perfect -- it is on the lake and adjacent to both the hot second street district and the future Seaholm multi-use development. The site is free of Capital View Corridor restrictions, although portions of the site close to the lake are limited to 45 feet in height.

Here is a summary from the Statesman:

After sorting through five partnerships' proposals for developing the Green Water Treatment Plant site, city staff members on Thursday recommended Austin go with Trammell Crow, which proposed the biggest and tallest buildings with the most uses.Staff members ranked Stratus Properties second, followed by Forest City, Catellus and Simmons Vedder.The site is five city-owned blocks roughly bounded by the Seaholm Power Plant and San Antonio, Fourth and Cesar Chavez streets.The recommendation is based largely on financial information the city has declined to release. The information won't be released until the city has signed a deal with the selected developer, a process that could take more than a year after the City Council makes a choice June 18.The staff recommendation is not binding."We now have a couple weeks as a council to continue to get a bit of public feedback while, more importantly, drilling down through the staff analysis, asking questions of staff and ultimately coming up with our decision in two weeks," Mayor Will Wynn said.

Surprise Compromise Saves Riverside Condo Project

While the city continues to approve many variances to large downtown projects, there has remained one downtown Austin zoning request request that seems truly sacred: building in the protected zone around Lady Bird Lake. While long-standing rules prohibit construction within 200 feet of the former Town Lake, a new project may soon be built 50 feet closer to the lake than current rules allow.

CWS Riverside Austin Condo Project Rendering

In a new compromise with community groups, CWS Partners intends to build a scaled-down 8-story project 150 feet from the lake instead of the three 17-story apartment and condo towers with more than 800 units that had previously been proposed. With the support of community groups and a commitment to extend the popular hike and bike trails through the site, the new proposal should fare well as it works it's way through the standard zoning approval process. This is a productive compromise for both sides and a positive sign for the condo market. With the national housing market in such a weakened state, it is a strong endorsement of the market to see developers work so hard to bring a new project to market.

The proposed CWS project is to built on land currently occupied by long-standing apartments built much closer to the lake. Prior to the release of the current rules in the 1980s (they were revised in 1999), buildings could legally be built much much closer to the shore (as close as 25 feet). CWS prior position was that without their requested variance, they would build two 17-story towers within the legal setbacks and simply remodeling the existing apartments into town homes -- a legitimate exception to the setback requirements.

Here is a summary from the Statesman:

In a precedent-setting compromise, developers have agreed to reduce the size of a controversial high-rise residential project on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake and donate land to extend the hike-and-bike trail across the site.In exchange, neighborhood and community groups that had mobilized against the project have made concessions that will allow the project to go forward.The deal reached this week ends a nearly two-year standoff between CWS Capital Partners LLC and the South River City Citizens and Save Town Lake, which had fought to block the project on East Riverside Drive, saying it would violate limits on waterfront development.Austin-based CWS had proposed to build three towers up to 200 feet high and to build within 80 feet of the lake.Under the compromise, the buildings will be no more than 96 feet high, and the project would be set back a minimum of 150 feet from the lakeshore. . . CWS will bring the revised project back before city officials for approvals. With the new agreement, the company will donate 1.5 acres for parkland and extend the hike-and-bike trail, which now stops at the western edge of the site.Miller said it will take four to six months to work through the city approval process and that construction could begin in 2009.

Seaholm Rezoning Under Way

Over the next decade, the redevelopment of the Seaholm power plant and Green Sewage Treatment Plant will forever transform Austin's downtown. By reclaiming a dozen blocks in the core of downtown between Lamar and San Antonio, 1st and 3rd streets, these projects will provide a multi-use urban district that connects the second street district to Whole Foods.

With the development of retail, cultural institutions, office, hotels, and condo units, these developments are likely to shift the center of gravity for downtown Austin further to the West. In fact, the Seaholm development, with the redeveloped shell of the mammoth art deco power plant at its core, may become the new heart of downtown. The Second Street district, which now forms the Western edge of the downtown core, will be much more central once development reclaims the blocks to the West.

Downtown Austin Map Seaholm Green Condo Development

Here is a summary from the Statesman:

The city is taking the first steps toward redeveloping two of its high-profile downtown properties by rezoning them.The City Council will vote tonight on rezoning the Seaholm Power Plant site in preparation for a mixed-use project that will include 80 condos, a 160-room hotel, 100,000 square feet of office space and up to 60,000 square feet of retail.The city wants to rezone the property to allow building heights of up to 393 feet. The height is now capped at 120 feet.The City Council could also approve a resolution to begin the process of rezoning the site of the Green Water Treatment Plant.No plans for that site have been formed, but the city intends to release requests for proposals from developers early next year.

Density Bonuses: A New Urban Planning Model for Austin?

A movement is developing in Austin to link downtown zoning variances to "voluntary" contributions to community programs. While a density bonus sounds like a special gift to developers who meet the city's stated goal of a dense vertical downtown, in reality, it is the opposite. Density bonuses essentially charge developers for variances -- if they want to build taller, they need to pay for the privilege.

Here is a summary from the Austin Chronicle:

The incentives are the "bonus." For a developer, adding density is gaining additional project entitlements and additional value – more square feet, building floors (height), condo units, retail or office space to lease or sell. Zoning code limits the size of buildings; for example, in the Central Business District, entitlements are limited to an 8-1 floor-to-area ratio, or FAR. To reward developers whose projects advance urban planning and community goals, the city would grant them bonus entitlements in exchange for voluntary developer-funded community benefits – say, funding for affordable housing, parks, walkable streetscapes, and space for small, local businesses.

The thing that makes this a tough issue is the value judgment that it places on density: it assumes that high density projects are bad, and that developers should pay for the right to build bigger projects. The problem is that the Mayor and City Council's actions suggest that they believe the opposite to be true: they have worked hard to encourage high density projects for downtown.

The problem with density bonuses is that they don't seem to be supported by logic. The bonuses penalize dense projects, but do not prohibit them. If you believe that density is good, as much of our local elected officials seem to, then it doesn't make sense to put obstacles in place that will limit density. If you believe density is bad and that the current zoning rules are good, then it might make more sense to simply enforce the zoning rules and limit variances as opposed to allowing developers to pay for something which may not make sense for the city.

As we recently reported, Austin is not a dense city. While people disagree on whether they want tall buildings in Austin, density does have measurable benefits. For example, increased density is better for the environment, it enables mass transportation, and it provides for a vibrant downtown core with more residents and workers per square block. The alternative to density is suburban sprawl which has significant social costs. Additionally, dense projects provide significant tax revenue that can be used to fund important services. A large downtown condo project might contribute $50 million per year in property taxes which can pay for a wide variety of services. That revenue stream seems much more valuable than the hundreds of thousands of dollars in density bonuses currently being proposed by planners. (For more on the benefits of density, read this article).

In fact, the push for density bonuses is not really about density as much as it is about affordable housing. With rapid downtown condo development targeted toward high-end buyers and East Austin development replacing more affordable options, there is a growing consensus that action needs to be taken to ensure a diverse city center. The City wants to make sure that there will be affordable options for central Austin living. Unfortunately, the City's past efforts to achive this goal have not really worked. It's important to note that density is not the challenge to affordability. It makes perfect sense for the city to encourage bith density and affordable housing as important social goals.

When it comes to affordable housing, the big issue is cost. It is expensive to develop affordable housing when land and construction costs are skyrocketing. What the City likes about density bonuses is that they allow the city to tax large-scale projects to fund affordable housing. As reported by the Chronicle, this quid-pro-quo has not been a secret:

Last year, the City Council directed the Design Commission to recommend density bonus options. In the past several years, Downtown high-rise developers had been negotiating ad hoc exchanges of community benefits for neighborhood, commission, and council support of the variances needed to exceed existing entitlements. One early adopter was Constructive Ventures. On its Spring condominiums, the developer pledged to give $250,000 total for an affordable-housing fund and for park improvements along nearby Shoal Creek. This effectively countered Old West Aus­tin Neighborhood Association opposition; Spring received variances at council to build a slender 400-foot tower on land zoned Downtown mixed use (which sets a 120-foot height limit). That $250,000 was also the magic figure for the variance-seeking CLB Partners condo tower, T. Stacy & Associates condo tower, and Gables Park Plaza; the Novare/Andrew Urban Downtown post office projects got additional height for $200,000. (Austin has probably been leaving money on the table; by contrast, the density models suggested at right would generate millions in value for the community.)But everyone involved in all that one-off deal-making – including City Council – found the negotiations exhausting, time-consuming, random, and potentially inequitable. So council members began to push for a standard density-bonus policy.

As this debate evolves into policy, stakeholders will have to decide what is truly important for the downtown Austin. The recent report from the City's density bonus task force has expanded the debate by encouraging not just requirements for variances but also incentives for meeting other urban planning goals. If projects hide the parking garage or include a cultural institution or non-profit, they would be eligible for incentives. Certainly, it makes sense for the city to use every tool that they have to achieve their urban planning objectives. But the risk of density bonuses is clear: blocking variances is one of the city's only sticks, making it tempting for officials to penalize projects that would bring beneficial density in order to achieve other important objectives. If developers opt for lower density projects because the required concessions are too expensive, everybody will lose.

City Approves Plan for Second Downtown

The Austin City Council today approved the first phase of a plan to create a second "downtown" urban center in the region of north Austin near Braker and Mopac -- essentially the area surrounding the domain. As we have reported in the past, between now and 2015, one developer alone plans to build 50 new buildings with heights ranging from 2-26 stories (as tall as 310 feet). When complete, The Domain will form a second Austin "downtown" with as many as 82,000 residents and 50,000 daytime workers. To put these numbers in context, Mayor Will Wynn has working hard towards a big goal: getting 25,000 people to live in the real downtown by 2015, the same timeframe.

Here is the summary from the Austin Business Journal:

Austin's City Council gave final approval of phase 1 of the North Burnet/Gateway master land use plan, which will create a so-called second downtown in the area around the Domain luxury shopping center by 2035.The North Burnet/Gateway plan's vision is to ultimately create clusters of dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in the 2,300-acre area north of U.S. 183 bounded by Walnut Creek, Metric Boulevard, Braker Lane and MoPac Expressway.The final plan will allow developers to build denser than anywhere outside of downtown, as high as 15 stories or 180 feet, and up to 30 stories or 360 feet in areas closest to planned commuter rail stops.Phase 1 immediately designates a zoning overlay district in the area to allow vertical mixed uses and other urban design elements, and to preclude interim development not in concert with the plan.A draft plan of Phase 2 -- outlining ordinances implementing the plan -- is expected in six months, says Molly Scarbrough, a city senior planner. Final approval for the entire plan is expected in a year.

Second Austin Downtown at Domain by 2035

As we have reported in the past, developers and the city have announced ambitious plans for the second phase of the Domain: the new mini-city rising off Mopac just north of 183. Between now and 2015, one developer alone plans to build 50, yes FIFTY, new buildings with heights ranging from 2-26 stories (as tall as 310 feet). When complete, The Domain will form a second Austin "downtown" with as many as 82,000 residents and 50,000 daytime workers. To put these numbers in context, Mayor Will Wynn has working hard towards a big goal: getting 25,000 people to live in the real downtown by 2015, the same timeframe.

The Domain capitalizes on a an ongoing trend in large scale development: Pleaseantville-like mini-cities that blend ground-floor retail with rental, condo and commercial properties on the upper floors. The goal is to create a disneyesque main street development that becomes a destination for retail and entertainment while making the development an attractive place to live and work. Envision multiple city blocks with street-side parking (and plenty of garages).

Today, the City of Austin took a step forward by approving phase 1 of a master plan for the area which will officially strive to create a second downtown on a 2,300 acre parcel adjacent to the domain by 2035.

Domain Future Development Austin

Here is the summary from the Austin Business Journal:

City Council preliminarily approved phase 1 of the North Burnet/Gateway master landuse plan, which will create a so-called second downtown in the area around the Domain luxury shopping center by 2035.Final approval by City Council for Phase 1 is expected on Nov. 1.The North Burnet/Gateway plan's vision is to ultimately create clusters of dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods in the 2,300-acre area north of U.S. 183 bounded by Walnut Creek, Metric Boulevard, Braker Lane and MoPac Expressway.The final plan will allow developers to build denser than anywhere outside of downtown and as high as 15 stories or 180 feet, and up to 30 stories or 360 feet in areas closest to planned commuter rail stops.Phase 1 immediately designates a zoning overlay district in the area to allow vertical mixed uses and other urban design elements, and to preclude interim development not in concert with the plan.

The initial Domain site consists of 57 acres and stands on the former site of Century Oaks Park, a multi-purpose recreational facility for IBM employees and their families. The park was so named for the century-old trees contained within. The land was purchased from IBM, and demolition of the park began in 2004.

Additional land for The Domain is being reclaimed from vacant IBM manufacturing and administrative buildings, as well as driveways and parking lots that were once part of the original IBM campus.

The developers were granted tax subsidies in 2003 from the City of Austin and Travis County. Total developer compensation from taxpayer money over the life of the agreement could reach $60 million. The developer keeps 80 percent of the city's sales tax for the first five years and 50 percent for the next 15 years. Plus, 25 percent of the property tax is rebated back to the developer for the entire 20-year period. The city of Austin expects to take in about $40 million in sales and property taxes over the 20 years of the incentive agreement.

Riverside Condo Proposal Rejected by Planning Commission

When it comes to Austin condo zoning, there is one holy grail: there will be no exceptions to the current zoning rules which prohibit new construction within 200 feet of the shore of Lady Bird Lake. This simple rule, however, made for a difficult decision for the Planning Commission and the City Council.

CWS Capital Partners has purchased a plot of land with existing buildings that sit as close as 20 feet from the lake. Under current rules, they can redevelop these buildings, but they can not build new structures within the 200 foot easement. So, CWS asked the city for what seemed like a fair compromise: they would demolish the buildings close to the lake and extend the hike and bike trail by 1/3 of a mile in exchange for permission to build their towers 150 feet from the lake. Virtually political forces agreed that it was bad idea to allow any exception to the 200 foot rule -- the likely fear being that it would set a precedent for other developers.

Here is the summary from the Austin Business Journal:

The city's planning commission unanimously rejected California-based CWS Capital Partners' plans to build three highrise condo buildings as close as 150 feet from the shore of Lady Bird Lake.CWS had requested a variance to the Waterfront Overlay Ordinance that prohibits CWS from building within 200 feet of the lakeshore. In exchange for being granted the variance, CWS proposed to donate nearly 2 acres of waterfront parkland and extend the hike-and-bike trail by one-third of a mile along Riverside Drive.CWS can appeal the decision to the City Council, but CWS attorney Richard Suttle says the company will likely not appeal, given that four council members have already publicly expressed their opposition to the variance.If the variance request remains denied, CWS plans to build two highrises -- one 200 feet, the other 120 feet -- and redevelop dozens of apartments that sit as close as 20 feet from the lake shore to sell them as townhomes. Those apartments pre-date the 200-foot rule.

New Project: 8th & West Tower

Between the credit crisis, skyrocketing construction costs, and the slowing real estate market, we didn't expect to see anymore downtown condo projects for a while. Today, however, we were surprised to learn of another downtown condo project announcement.

Austin's Fortis development today announced a new 20-story 200-unit condo tower to be developed on West avenue between 8th and 9th. While virtually no other details have been announced, the public details are enough to generate public opposition to the project. As the project is in a low rise area just north of sixth street, the project pushes the frontier of high-rise development.

fortis development west 8th 9th condo

The issue is that the location is zoned for buildings as tall as 60 feet -- far less than the 250 foot height of the proposed condo tower. This decision may be a tough one for the city council: they need to decide on the boundaries of Austin's high-rise downtown. In the projects favor, it is within two blocks of the Nokonah at 9th and Lamar, CLB's proposed 33-story super tower on 7th and Rio Grande, and another project on 6th and West. As the developer points out, it is one of very few downtown blocks free of capital view corridor restrictions.

Here is the summary from the Statesman:

A new condo high-rise is being proposed on West Avenue between Eighth and Ninth streets, but residents in the neighborhood on the western edge of downtown have registered their opposition.David Cox, president of Austin-based Fortis Development, is seeking a zoning change to build a tower of up to 250 feet, or about 20 stories, in an area where office zoning now caps height at 60 feet. The project would have about 200 condominiums plus retail space.The zoning request is scheduled to go before the city's Planning Commission on Tuesday, and the City Council would have the final say.If all goes as planned, the project would break ground in the fourth quarter of 2008, said Cox, who also is a vice president with Cypress Real Estate Advisors Inc., which has provided some financing for Fortis, his new development venture.

We'll post additional details and a full profile when we receive them!

21c Museum & Condos Takes a Step Forward

The 21c Museum & Condos moved a step closer to reality this week. The project, a 44-story tower which will combine a museum, hotel, and condos in a very attractive structure on Third and Brazos, received approval from the Austin Design Commission. Next, the Austin Planning Commission will review the project on September 11 before it's final review by the City Council. Given the buildings strong support, it seems to be well positioned for approval.

Here is the summary from the Statesman:

"The 21c museum, hotel and condo development slated for Third and Brazos streets will reach 44 stories into the Austin skyline, making it a dominant presence in the area of downtown east of Congress Avenue. The $200 million project will include 209 condos along with an upscale, 230-room hotel and contemporary art museum. The Design Commission voted unanimously on Monday to support the project, which has already garnered the approval of the city's Downtown Commission and support from the Downtown Austin Alliance."

The building is expected to begin construction in January and to be completed in 2010. The sales center is expected to open later this month.

Fight over Riverside Lakefront Towers Continues

While zoning variances seem easy to come by for most downtown condo projects looking for increased density or height, there is one request that remains sacred: building in the protected zone around Lady Bird Lake. Long-standing rules prohibit construction within 200 feet of the former Town Lake.

This is a problem for CWS Capital Partners which is trying to build three 17-story apartment and condo towers with 715 units on the south bank of Lady Bird Lake between Congress Avenue and I-35. The project has requested a variance to build 50 feet closer to the lake than current rules allow. The project has faced significant opposition and lost a crucial vote last week.

Here is the summary from the Statesman:

A developer seeking city approval to build three high-rises 50 feet closer to the shores of Lady Bird Lake than city rules allow struck out at the city’s Parks and Recreation Board meeting last night when board members recommended that the city should deny its request.Board members voted 5-4 against CWS Capital Partners’ request for a variance that would allow it to build 150 feet from the shore. The board’s vote will serve as a recommendation to the Planning Commission, which could hear the case as soon as September.More than 70 people attended Tuesday night’s meeting including many nearby neighbors and lake enthusiasts lobbying against the variance for the property located at 222 and 300 E. Riverside Drive.Board chair Linda Guerrero was one of the members who voted to deny the request.“There was an overwhelming concern regarding the project, and the citizens seemed to want to preserve the waterfront overlay (the current rules) overwhelmingly,” she said.

While CWS had been requesting a 150 foot variance, this was a major concession as their original plans called for an 80-foot setback. The project is built on land currently occupied by long-standing apartments built much closer to the lake. Prior to the release of the current rules in the 1980s (they were revised in 1999), buildings could legally be built much much closer to the shore (as close as 25 feet). If CWS does not receive approval for the current variance request, they have proposed building two 17-story towers with the legal setbacks and simply remodeling the existing apartments into town homes -- a legitimate exception to the setback requirements.

While it might make sense to replace old townhouses that are close to the lake with new buildings 150 feet from the lake, the political debate has focused on the integrity of the regulations. The lake is the crown jewel of Austin and the council has taken a "no exceptions" approach to preserve the integrity of the green space surrounding the lake. While it is easy to focus on the setback, an equally important goal of many residents is to extend the hike and bike trails to the east. In fact, one public interest group endorsed the 150 foot version of the CWS proposal.

While the zoning issues are settled for now, it does not seem like the city will get everything it wants: a 200 foot setback, demolition of the old apartments, and an extension of the hike and bike trails to the east. Hopefully CWS will take up the slack, striking the right balance between their development needs and the public interest.

Town Lake Condo Projects Fuel Opposition

A new group, "" has been formed and has initiated legal action against the city to fight variances for a variety of condo projects on the banks of Town Lake. Essentially, they want to make sure that the city does not grant variances to allow new projects to build closer to the lake than current ordinances allow. Here is the summary from the Statesman:

An Austin citizens group has asked a judge to temporarily stop the city from granting exceptions to an ordinance that limits development along Town Lake in the latest battle over dense development in and near downtown. The outcome could have ramifications for future development along the lake, where developers have proposed more than 1 million square feet of residential projects. Some of those projects are seeking exceptions to an ordinance that restricts how close developers can build to the shore and how tall the buildings can be. contends that a 1999 rewrite of the city's waterfront development rules omitted key provisions, including height limits and the right of citizens to appeal when variances are granted. . . .SaveTownLake's specific target is a proposed three-tower condominium project that CWS Capital Partners LLC plans on Riverside Drive east of Congress. The developers want a variance to build part of the project closer to the lake than the existing ordinance allows.

It's hard to argue against protecting the banks of the lake . . . .as downtown becomes more and more dense, the urban experience will be greatly enhanced by the park-like experience of Town Lake. The issue, however, is more complex. A number of projects -- especially those East of I-35 on the south shore, have proposed trading variances for extension of the hike and bike trail and permanent easements providing public access to the shore. For example, Star Riverside. This is clearly in the city's best interest.

Changes to the Capital View Corridor

The Capital View Corridor is a unique Austin phenomenon. As part of the downtown master plan, the city has set aside a number of corridors where development is severely restricted. The corridor essentially requires all buildings to be short so that they don't block views of the capital from a number of predetermined angles. With 30 such corridors, the result severely limits downtown growth (read our previous posting on this)

In order to increase downtown density, a city council advisory board is recommending changes to the corridors. Here is the summary of today's news from the Statesman:

Of the 30 city views of the Capitol evaluated by an Austin City Council advisory board, a dozen are being recommended for change.The Downtown Commission characterizes the changes as mostly technical in nature, accommodating the reality of already restricted views because of development or other obstructions. . . In fact, enacting any recommendations in the report would require approval by the City Council or the Legislature, depending on which corridor it is. . . Boyt noted that the commission is proposing to keep 18 view corridors intact and that of the dozen with recommended changes, only three are substantive: deleting or modifying a view corridor that includes Wooldridge Park to allow for redevelopment of nearby lots; adjusting the northern boundary of a view corridor from the MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) bridge, a change that might allow taller developments along West Fifth and Sixth streets; and realigning the view from Interstate 35 between East Seventh and 10th streets, to remove three blocks where the view is obstructed by buildings and where the view is perpendicular to traffic on I-35.

Given the broad scope of the corridors and their effect on downtown development (do we really need 30 corridors to provide views of the capital), the significant changes proposed to two corridors seems quite reasonable. The challenges to getting these through the council and, if needed, the legislature, may be significant.

Barton Springs Project Proposed

While it's technically out of the downtown radius, Texas American Resources is proposing a 14-story mixed-use project on Barton Springs Rd. between 1st and Lamar and directly across from the Long Center. The building would include 24 condo units atop 86,000 feet of office space and a ground floor restaurant. The site is the former location of the iconic Filling Station restaurant which closed in 2004.


Planning Commission Denies Riverside Variances

Ever since the Hyatt hotel was built on the south shore of Town Lake, neighborhood groups have mobilized to limit development south of the lake. This week, in a marathon planning commission that lasted until 2:30AM, the commission recommended that the city counsel deny variances for two high profile "South Lake" projects. Read More...

Affordable Housing Task Force

Over the last year, a city-sponsored Affordable Housing Incentives Task Force has been discussing ways to encourage the development of afordable housing units as part of large scale development projects. The city wants more affordable downtown units, but State law doesn't allow the city to place affordability requirements on new developments. The purpose of the task force is to create incentives that make it attractive for developers to include these units.

Last week, the Task Force delivered its recommendations to the Austin City Council, Planning Commission and the Community Development Commission. After seven months of work and twenty meetings, the task force reached consensus on incentive policies to encourage developers to provide affordable housing.

Like most policies, there is a carrot and a stick. The carrot provides for expedited review, fee waivers, and zoning variances that allow for greater height or density if affordable units are included. The stick is a fee -- as much as $10 per SF -- that applies to project area in excess of standard zoning density requirements when variances are granted for projects that do not include affordable units. As the City Council has already been applying similar rules in some zoning discussions, the incentives seem likely to be put into effect.

"Hyatt Towers" Approved

Today, the Austin City Council approved a project that will include two towers, each approximately 20 floors, adjacent to the Hyatt on the south shore of Town Lake. The project, to be developed by Fairfield Residential of Grand Prarie, shows how much the attitudes towards development has changed over the last few decades. Read More...

How many buildings fit downtown?

Last June, the Austin Chronicle published a fascinating analysis of potential downtown development. The main point is simple: it is getting very difficult to assemble a downtown parcel large enough for a major project. The number of viable sites is rapidly dwindling. The mayor has set a goal of 25,000 residents downtown by 2015 -- 20,000 more than exist downtown today. While their may be enough downtown parcels to get there with very dense development, downtown capacity is very limited by the following factors: