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Then There's This: Density in the Floodplain

Ignoring staff warnings, Council approves variance for office tower

By Amy Smith, Fri., June 27, 2014

The proposed Park PUD at 801 Barton Springs Rd.
The proposed Park PUD at 801 Barton Springs Rd.

"I've done lots of floodplain variances but I don't know if I've done one while it's raining," city Floodplain Administrator Kevin Shunk said half-jokingly as he began laying out his recommendation against granting a floodplain variance to a proposed office development on Barton Springs Road.

Indeed, a vigorous rainstorm was blowing across the city on this June 12 night as a "severe weather" warning scrolled across the bottom of the Channel 6 screen during the live broadcast of a City Council meeting that wouldn't end until 3:30am. The proposed floodplain variance item had come up comparatively early – 11pm.

The folks still present – in what was by now a considerably smaller crowd of community activists – were there to speak on two other hot-button items – granny flats and commercial appraisals, so most of the floodplain discussion was between staff and Council, and testimony was from the developer's agent and the property owner wanting to develop the site at 801 Barton Springs Rd., currently home to an assortment of food trailers.

Lest We Forget

A little more than three years ago, this particular mixed-used project, known as the Park PUD, was one of the more controversial issues of the day. You remember the Park PUD, don't you? This hotly contested planned unit development came before Council in January 2011, and won final approval in March of that year on a 6-1 vote. The project was widely opposed by nearby residents and members of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association because the landowner/developer, Texas American Resources, was seeking PUD zoning in order to surpass the 60-foot height limit and extend the building to 96 feet. Time was when PUD zoning was mostly requested on 10-acre suburban-style tracts, but now it's viewed as a "tool" for building more onto a smaller footprint in the urban core. This particular property, the former site of the Filling Station restaurant, is flanked on either side by the larger Austin Energy headquarters, built in 1988, and an office building. To the north are Palmer Auditorium and the Long Center; the Bouldin Creek neighborhood is to the south.

Back in 2011, city staff recommended against PUD zoning because the proposed height didn't conform to the Bouldin Creek Neigh­bor­hood Plan, which Council adopted in 2002, and was effectively trashed with the approval of the Park PUD nine years later. Staff members weren't the only ones objecting to the PUD; the Planning Commission had unanimously voted against it as well. The Council vote was 6-1, with Council Member Laura Morrison dissenting. (She wouldn't be joined on the dais by friend and sister dissenter Kathie Tovo until the summer of that year.)

Fast forward to June 12 of this year, and we see Council again rejecting staff's recommendation on the PUD project, this time voting 5-2 (Morrison and Tovo). Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole came close to casting a dissenting vote – in fact, she made the first motion to deny the variance, but she withdrew it after she was satisfied that the building and parking garage were sufficiently elevated above the floodplain.

Ah, yes, the floodplain. We're learning more about floodplains as we grow and prosper – and flood – so it's completely baffling how Council can selectively tune out expert advice from staff on where not to build a 96-foot tower that fails to meet the safe-access requirement in the event of a flood.

Equally mystifying is how the mayor and Council can convince themselves that this particular project is worth the variance because, well, because it's an office building, people won't be living there, and floods usually happen at night; and if it floods in the daytime, they can ride out the storm in the safety of the building (God forbid anyone have a heart attack, because there's no safe access for emergency vehicles); and the food trailers that are on site now aren't required to have floodplain variances and they could cause even more damage downstream if they get swept away by floodwaters. That is true, but what do the food trailers have to do with the Park PUD variance?

Morrison asked Shunk, the floodplain administrator, if he would be less concerned about safety if Park PUD scaled down its size. "I would be," he said, "but I can't say what that size would be." He went on: "This is a lot of density in the floodplain. We have a lot of rules in the city and a lot of master plans and Imagine Austin, that promote density, certainly in this area. But promoting that density in the floodplain, from a flood-risk perspective, isn't the best idea."

Morrison agreed and recalled that when Council approved the 2011 PUD zoning, it was with the idea that the building would have safe access next door to the property, but that plan never materialized. "To me, it seems to make sense to either find safe access or scale it back to something that doesn't have the extra density."

Developer agent Ron Thrower argued that safe access would be an issue no matter what gets built on the property – even if it's just a bathroom.

And with that, the Council flushed all the flood-risk warnings down the drain, and granted approval.

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