Three True Tales of Urban Infill

Believe It, or Not...

by Suzy Banks

As one who is charmed almost totally by the serendipitous, a designed city sounds as appealing as military barracks. Or Lakeway. The utopian designs for garden cities of the turn of the century, the megastructure concepts where the entire city is one huge building, or the rhetoric of inner city renewal doesn't address the nitty-gritty details that those of us plowing around down here have as concerns: walking the dog, having room for a swing set or a garden, avoiding traffic jams, getting a good night's sleep, drinking coffee at a sidewalk cafe. You can lecture people all day about how dependent urban vitality is on an adequate concentration of people. You can tell them that in the 1950s, the density of then livable cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh was more than 12,000 people per square mile, and that these troubled burgs have now dwindled to 6,000 people per square mile. But they will only nod politely at these dry facts. What they want to know is where can they build a house they can call home or a restaurant people can call a home away from home.

What stands in the way of many homebuilders' and renovators' dreams is a wall of land-use regulations and building codes that, rather than encouraging and assisting infill and compact living, instead seem to frustrate even the most noble efforts. The city's Land Development Code, for instance, regulates land use, but since it was based on a suburban ideal, many of the regulations just don't fit Austin anymore, especially within the central city. In addition, the National Building Code, which sets standards for structures, was written in such specific detail that it's hard to apply it to specific projects. In response, city planners, inspectors, and builders are beginning to follow the "spirit of the code." Leniency and flexibility in "interpreting" the code is far more expedient than coming to blows.

Homebuilders can do nothing to change the way the National Building Code works, but the Land Development Code can, and will, be changed on a local level. "The movement is afoot to build a compact city," stresses city inspector Robin Camp, who visits ongoing projects to see that code regulations are met. "If so, the land development code will have to be altered to allow higher densities. We really should be able to build more duplexes and cut up our existing buildings and lots to create more living spaces. I look at these condos in my neighborhood, Hyde Park, and think, sure they changed the density, but they also changed the character of the neighborhood in a way that building a little garage apartment wouldn't."

Efforts are underway to revise the cumbersome, anti-infill land use regulations (see above story by Alex de Marban), but it may be years before real relief is felt by the average homebuilder, or renovator. In the meantime, what follows are the stories of people attempting to build and renovate in the central city, and the astounding variety of solutions the human element brings to the sometimes didactic theories of urban infill. Mondo Canine for
Condo Canines If anyone's to blame for Kay and Mark Lawley's 17-month odyssey into the often frustrating and occasionally frightening world of urban infill, it would be their two boxers, Buck and Elvis. They lived in a condo with one boxer and the trio was quite happy. When the second boxer entered their lives, the notion of "yard" became increasingly important. They found a little house in Tarrytown the dogs approved of, and decided to buy it and fix it up. The initial plans called for much of the existing house to remain, but skewed walls, rotten plumbing, and shaky wiring mandated that it be demolished. But once the old house was torn down, the Lawleys found themselves in possession of an "illegal city lot." It seemed that 50 years ago, a developer platted their block for five houses. After he'd completed the first one, he realized there was no way he could squeeze four more houses in there, so he redivided the land into four lots, making the correction on the titles, but not on the city plat. The city asserted that it was the homeowners' responsibility to embark on the "amended plat process" and correct the discrepancy before the city would issue a building permit or provide utility service. Three months and thousands of dollars later, after the entire block had been surveyed at their expense, they were back in action. "If I had known our house was on an illegal city lot, we never would've tackled this project," says Kay.

Kay, who, through default, became more of a general contractor during construction than the general contractor himself, never could see the reasoning behind some of the code requirements or their overly strict interpretation by building inspectors. "A lot of the city codes seem crazy. Who dreams these things up?" she asks. "Like if somebody falls down in my house because the railing is too high or something, it's not like they're going to sue the city; they'd sue me, right?"

The devil's definitely in the details when it comes to building codes. It wasn't any major code violations that wore the Lawleys down, but the constant niggling minutiae: no more than a four-inch gap between railing spindles, ostensibly so a baby can't get its head stuck; the hand railing that's required for more than two or three steps; having to put electrical outlets where they didn't care to have them; and the hand rail that had to run along the outside curved wall of the stairway at a precise and constant height from the steps or landing.

"The costly snags usually are the handrails and guard rails, how the stairs are constructed," says inspector Robin Camp, who also brings her training as an architect to her job. "But the handrails really do bother me. I know they're difficult and expensive. I wish that people would think them out more, which is probably, partially, the designer coming out in me. Why not plan the handrails so they're designed nicely and enhance the stairs, rather than throw on some wooden thing, afterthought?"

She offers the heartening perspective, however, that at least half of the inspectors she works with aren't looking to the letter of the code, but the spirit of the code. "The new inspectors' attitude is `What is the intent of the code, what are we trying to do here, and what's the situation.' We really are more of a service to the customer, the builder, the homeowner; we're a safety check for them," says Camp.

Camp advises homeowners to educate themselves as much as possible before construction begins. "The thing is to not be afraid to ask questions and be patient. You might have ask six different people to find out what you need," she suggests. "Our code specialist, Carl, can answer a lot of questions before people get involved in something to head off trouble."

I figured the Lawleys must have a great sense of humor to have survived their troubles without ending up in divorce court. "There's nothing funny about it," Kay says, in a mock growl. "Maybe some day we'll be able to look back at it and laugh..." She sighs. "But right now we're still too close to it."

How did they survive? "We consumed a lot of alcohol," she explains, noting that her neighbor wishes they had saved all the beer bottle caps in a big bucket to document the phenomena. Besides an astute architect and the cool house they now own, understanding neighbors may be the only fair hand the Lawley's were dealt during this game. Just down the street from their house are yard signs reading "Boycott Large Houses on Small Lots," but the Lawleys and their project were welcomed in the neighborhood. "I think they saw us working so hard on the house, and Chris Lewis, the architect, did such a wonderful job designing the house to fit in, we had neighbors bringing us coolers of beer [of course] and sandwiches and helping us lay sod," says Kay.

Juggling Buildings

Chris Lewis, the Lawleys' architect, has a number of urban infill projects in his portfolio, although he says it's not a specialty: "I'll take whatever I can get." So far he's gotten, among others: Bertram's, Güero's, the exterior of the Coffee Plantation, and, with Dick Clark Architects, the late 612 West and the Bitter End, which is where we had lunch just down the street from his office. Chris says the city is fairly flexible when it comes to converting downtown warehouse space into restaurants or offices, but when he tackled the redesign of the historic Central Feed Building on South Congress for the new Güero's Restaurant, the juggling lessons began.

First he juggled cars. Parking requirements are a deal-crusher to many commercial infill projects, and the site offered only a few spaces in front and on a side street. The solution seemed to lay next door, where an old house was wasting away on the site of what could be an ideal parking lot.

But the house, despite the fact it wasn't a very good example of Victorian architecture, or any architecture for that matter, was designated a historic building. (Ironically, the feed store, constructed in 1895 and blessed with a rich and colorful past, wasn't.) The old house couldn't be torn down and the feed store, which was in sad shape, couldn't be restored unless it was commercially viable. It would seem the two were destined to rot together.

So, Chris decided to juggle buildings. "We went in front of the landmark commission and told them what we wanted to do was buy both pieces of property, relocate the house to a residential neighborhood and restore it, develop the land where it was into a parking lot, so that we could do a new restaurant in the feed store and restore that building," says Chris. "Through a lot of negotiating, what they ended up doing was giving us permission to move the house if we agreed to accept historic zoning on the feed store."

Now all he had to juggle were the requirements of the building code, the fun-and-funky elements his client wanted, and the requirements of historic zoning, which he says "basically means you can't do anything to the outside of the building without getting permission from the landmark commission, whether it's paint or windows or new openings or signage or colors."

The awning over the restaurant's front door became emblematic of these sometimes conflicting requirements: Chris the Architect desperately wanted to design a new awning, more appropriate to the building and more structurally sound, but even if he had gotten the approval of the landmark commission, once he tore off the "existing, non-conforming" awning, city code wouldn't have allowed him to hang a new one over a city sidewalk. "It turns out that suited the owner just fine because he liked the funky character of it, it works well with his business, plus he didn't have to spend a bunch of money tearing it off and redoing it," says Chris.

He thinks the planning and development process is "better now than it was in the sense there's more cooperation," but he finds the clashes between regulations like city code or environmental requirements or ADA (American Disabilities Act) guidelines "still quite frustrating." He's anxious to see implementation of the team approach to dealing with site plans that he's been hearing about for years, where "every project would be assigned a team leader within the city and there would be these periodic group meetings, where they would get together and, in one fell swoop, work it all out. That would be ideal," he says.

Alice Glasco, assistant director of development at the city, says, "All you have to do is ask." But who and where and what do you ask for? Glasco encourages prospective developers -- and this includes the little guy remodeling his house -- to come into the Development Assistance Center (499-6370) where you can pick up packets which detail "process" assessment and "project" assessment. These two formal assessments provide a written review of your preliminary plans by city staff from the different disciplines that would affect your project, from site plan review to zoning to building inspections, a process which takes one to three weeks. You can also request an informal review, which is a meeting with a person from every department your project would involve, gathered in one room, answering your questions and offering suggestions.

"We love to do this," insists Glasco, "And you know why? Because we believe in a partnership. The more involved and educated the property owner -- the person paying the bills -- becomes, the more smoothly the process will flow."

Home Birth

Because Scott Trainer wanted a unique inner-city lot to build on, he was, in a way, intentionally looking for trouble, having adopted a friend's philosophy which said: When considering lots in established neighborhoods, unique and problematic go hand in hand. "All the lots with a view or special character that are easy to build on are already taken," Scott says. He was prepared to tackle a challenging building site because he felt that great design could spring from those challenges. He was also prepared to tackle much of the work himself -- drawing up the plans for the house, doing the footwork, serving as the general contractor. (Have I mentioned yet that Scott's an engineer?)

What he wasn't prepared for was the price of inner city lots, which ranged from $45,000-75,000. During his search, he kept coming back to a lot overlooking Barton Springs Road. If he needed challenging problems to get his creative juices flowing, this one would flood him. Only a small percentage of the lot was buildable, but if he went high enough he would have a panoramic view of downtown. And even though it was a city lot, it was on a private street, which meant the city didn't have to provide utilities to it.

It had remained unbuildable until the previous owner had it rezoned as a one-lot subdivision, whose restrictive covenants assigned responsibility for bringing in services to the developer. This meant that if Scott bought the lot and built a house, he would have to pay for bringing water, wastewater, and gas mains to the site, a $20,000 proposition. He spent two months at the city planning department, cajoling, offering alternatives, and pointing out the environmental degradation the slope below his home site -- a fragile area -- would suffer if he was forced to install the two required manholes there. (I did tell you he's an engineer, didn't I?)

After six months, when he felt like the project could be accomplished at a price he could swallow and he had drawn up his own plans for a three-story home tucked in behind the live oaks and had secured financing, he sat down at the closing table with the owner of the lot, pleased as an engineer with all his ducks in a row can be, and then watched as the deal collapsed over a $500 discrepancy. The owner of the lot stormed out of the room. Scott sat at the table, with his papers and months of research piled in front of him, just blinking. He agreed to eat the $500 and the owner returned to the table several days later.

Things began to run more smoothly. Bringing the service to the house turned out to be easier than expected (being the owner, engineer, and contractor on the project helped considerably), although Scott lost a few years off his life when he looked over one day to see his neighbor, a 90-year-old woman, flailing around on her side in one of the trenches. (Her lawyer walked around the property the next day, but that was the last Scott heard about it.)

Like the Lawleys, Scott ran into code snags with his railings and staircase, a three-story, open design of metal and wood that gives toddlers' parents the vapors and a white-knuckled grip on their offspring's wrist during visits. Scott paid strict attention to the four-inch span allowed between the spindles in the railings, but he was stalled on his stair treads, which had open backs six inches wide. His building inspector, "a nice guy named John," said Scott was going to have to close those in, once again citing the old "so a baby can't get its head stuck in there" rationale. Scott was pondering just how atrocious a little strip of metal welded on the back of each tread would look, when he asked John if he could look at the code book. After studying it for a while, Scott said, "But the way I interpret this is that six inches is okay on the back of stair steps." John looked at the book, looked up at Scott and said, "Okay." And that was that.

"I think building this house was the male equivalent of giving birth," said Scott. "You go through similar emotional stages, like in the beginning you're in love with the idea, and then you start going through something like morning sickness when you start the project and things aren't working out exactly as planned, and then towards the end, there's real pain. But finally, when all the workers are gone, you say `Aahhh' and step back to admire your creation."

There's still available land around Scott's house where other infill projects could be developed, but he prepared for "the inevitable" by putting his back in that direction and opening his views to the east and the city skyline. The owner of the lot adjacent to Scott recently paid him the ultimate compliment by asking to buy his plans so he could build a house just like his next door.

Scott respectfully declined. n

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle