When It's Time to Turn the Rules Inside Out

The Boarding House on Seventh

by Suzy Banks

My friend Mary Leigh DeJernett has dreamed of building unique accommodations for weary but well-heeled travelers to Austin. After months and months spent chasing what turned out to be a dead-end proposition on a piece of property on Town Lake, she finally hooked up with Kati Killam, who owns two and a half empty lots behind Sweetish Hill Bakery on W. Sixth. The duo hopes to develop the lots into a compound of extended-stay lodgings, weaving the buildings up the slope and around the huge trees on the lot. I thought, with all the variances and code requirements they would be facing, theirs would be an interesting journey to observe. I tried to disengaged myself, put on my objective reporter's hat, and observe the process.

I first wormed my way into a meeting they had at Sweetish Hill one morning early in the planning stages of their project with Simon Atkinson, a principal in Urban Design Associates and professor of architecture and planning at the University of Texas. Ideas and enthusiasm were flying around the table faster than espresso steam. Everyone stared at the preliminary site plan that architect Paul Lamb had drawn up; it was no more than a series of boxes sketched on the plat of the property, but from this skeletal rendering, the people at the table could envision the intricate landscaping they planned, the atmosphere of the courtyard, the balconies and patios, the uniqueness of every room.

Later, we walked to the lot where DeJernett and Killam marched off set-backs and tried to catch a view from the top of the property.

"How high can we go? Do you think we could see the river?" "We've got to make sure we can save this tree." "We'll have to do something to clean up this alley and the dumpster situation."

The next meeting I witnessed was slightly more pragmatic. Alice Glasco, assistant director of development with the city, had gathered together staff members from nearly all the other pertinent departments to discuss this rather complicated project with Killam and De Jernett. I was expecting some sort of adversarial atmosphere, but I couldn't have been more wrong. It seemed that everyone -- from Steve King, who handled the engineering review, to Monty Lowell in plumbing, to Dan Garcia, plan review coordinator with code book in hand -- saw this meeting as a way to streamline what can often be a cumbersome process, with applicants ping-ponging from department to department trying to get all their questions answered about everything from storm water management to fire code. This team answered questions, they debated different approaches, they offered solutions. And once again, it seemed genuine enthusiasm was in the air.

Then, on November 27, I attended my first city board of adjustments meeting. For the cottage compound approach to work for this piece of property, Killam and DeJernett asked for a handful of variances: a five-foot setback in certain sections of the side yard rather than the required 25 feet, a five-foot rear yard setback instead of a 10-foot, and 15 rather than 21 parking spaces. For the first hour and a half of the public hearing, the five-member board voted on a dozen modest requests from other parties, like reducing the number of off-street parking spaces required for a mobile home sales lot or increasing the impervious cover allowed from 55% to 57% for a development that will reuse the Bergstrom housing. When the Killam/De Jernett request finally came before the board, the air once again filled with, yes, enthusiasm, but something else, too. Tension, excitement, conviction, and... oh, what's that?... fear? Enthusiasm and pragmatism: a frightening combination.

Attorney Richard Suttle (often cited in these pages as the attorney for Freeport-McMoRan and their subsidiary, FM Properties), presented the case, showing the board two models of what might be built on the property. One model called for cottages of residential scale scattered across the slope (which would require at least some of the variances), and the other for a long, monolithic structure -- let's just call it ugly -- down the middle of the property which the applicants contended would be allowed under existing code.

Then Atkinson, who coincidentally owns property across the alley, made an appeal for the project saying that "what we'd like to do in a sense is turn the scheme inside out.

"We're not asking you this evening to be building continuous walls that are five feet off the property line; we're asking not to produce a large slab-like building, but to work very carefully with a feeling of the texture of the neighborhood," he said. "I know a lot of people talk about the concept of compact city; we believe in it very strongly. This is going to bring the very highest standards of design to the neighborhood."

Evidently some members of the neighborhood didn't agree, however. Jim Cousar IV, an attorney who said he was representing "myself, my family, the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, and a number of other neighbors on the street" (although the neighbors directly across Seventh Street from the property spoke in favor of the variances and the project), said, "We think it's irresponsible of a developer to come down here and basically threaten to blackmail the neighborhood and the board." Then, he passed out copies of the standards that the board of adjustments is "fortunately" required to use and proceeded to describe those standards to the very board members who are supposed to have been using them. He talked about compatibility standards, the steep slope of the residential streets, and traffic congestion in the alley, and raised the question as to whether a "residential-type hotel" was even a legal use of the property.

As soon as the word "blackmail" was used, however, the confrontation moved from the relatively calm arena of variances and traffic problems into the frantic level of emotions and character attacks. As other neighborhood residents who opposed the variances saw their time to speak being consumed, the anxiety level rose to the point that some of them couldn't keep their seats and roved the room, circling the microphone. The three others who spoke in opposition to the variance were understandably concerned with parking and traffic congestion; the area around West Sixth and Blanco can get jammed up as it is.

Richard McCown, representing his aunt who lives "down the hill from this monstrosity," brought up his concerns about possible flooding, citing Killam's lots as "the only part that's undeveloped that provides permeability for the water to sink into the ground." He counts on these vacant lots to save his aunt's home, the Pecan Square Annex, and other neighbors from flood waters. Amy Orum, an adjacent property owner whose single family home sits five feet from the property line, fears a loss of privacy if one of the project's guest cottages is also located five feet from the property line.

Once the opposition spoke its piece and the applicant concluded the two-minute rebuttal, the board, admitting "that this is one of the more complex issues that has come before us," wisely took a 10-minute break. Maybe they were hoping that tempers would subside. Maybe they needed to slam down a cold brew or call in the security guards before they announced their decision.

During the break, the opposing camps huddled on either side of the small conference room. People would tentatively approach the architects' models on the table. Two neighbors with divergent views tried to amiably discuss the merits and drawbacks of the "little village":

"I think it's just gorgeous."

"It's a beautiful thing. Just not five feet from my house."

"But your house is five feet from it. Which is wrong."

"Yeah, but my house is there already."

"Yeah, I know, but I wish it weren't. It's one of the ugliest houses in the neighborhood."

"It won't be when it's repainted."

"Well, it's still ugly. It's horrible. We were just horrified when those houses were built..."

The board re-adjourned and voted a continuance so they could digest the last-minute information that was turned in to them and clear up any legal questions. Their decision will announced at the December 11 meeting, when the battle continues for a livable, compact city filled with people who don't always agree. On anything.

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