Condo Clash

The Gotham Has Neighbors Up in Arms

Gary Hyatt, Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association
Gary Hyatt, Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association (Photo By Jana Birchum)

When you hear the word Gotham, do you think of bats? You might be tempted to, but don't. It was mere coincidence that the name Gotham, the 12-story condominium developer Randall Davis has proposed for 200 South Congress, brings to mind Austin's rodent mascots. Quite the contrary. On a reconnaissance trip to the property, Davis was said to have inquired about the origin of the pungent odor wafting from under the bridge. Informed that it was guano from Austin's famed Mexican Freetail bat colony, Davis' reaction was, "How do we get rid of 'em?"

Davis says his remarks were taken out of context, and that he was talking about the implications for a planned swimming pool in light of a million bats living next door. He now plans to build a landscaped buffer instead of a pool. Davis says as far as he's concerned, the bats can stay.

While Austin has not exactly welcomed Davis with open arms, the Houston native is an urban housing celebrity in that city for his leading role in the residential rebirth of downtown. He pioneered the now-booming loft scene and renovated the historic Rice Hotel, which has since become a social and political hub. In the last year and a half, he has opened two neoclassical condo projects in Houston resembling the one he proposes to build here. He is naming the proposed Gotham project after a building he recently completed in Houston's River Oaks neighborhood.

Davis is justly proud of his accomplishments. "In Houston, downtown was dead until I proved that people wanted to live there," he said. "When I started, there were nine restaurants and bars downtown. Now there are 38." (He noted, however, that in Austin the situation is reversed -- the restaurants have come first, and what's lacking is the housing to go with them.) But for all his success in Houston, the crack about the bats -- however misinterpreted -- was a sure sign that Davis didn't know what he was getting into when he decided to install his Gotham building smack in the heart of the city.

And while Davis is facing opposition on his project, residential developer Gables Inc. is also meeting resistance on the north shore of Town Lake (see "Sand Beach Battle," p.28), where Gables wants to build an apartment complex on property west of Seaholm, where the Cedar Door now sits. These projects are not likely to be the last to provoke battles along Town Lake, where the Smart Growth argument is more likely to dissolve into development vs. preservation controversies. At least that's how the public comment portion of this week's City Council meeting could play out, as the Gotham is scheduled for consideration today (Thursday, Sept. 30). The Gables Sand Beach project, meanwhile, is still making its way through the city's development review process.

An Idea Is Born

It was the Smart Growth conference, held here last December, that attracted Davis to Austin. There's no question that Davis correctly identified -- and identified with -- the support of city leaders for downtown housing. And he wanted to get involved. "I felt like the city of Austin came out and endorsed urban housing for downtown," says Davis. "If that's Austin's attitude, and I can bring a quality product -- it's important for Austin to have housing."

Davis originally set his sights on the old Stephen F. Austin Hotel at Seventh and Congress, which is now being rehabilitated to its former luxury status by Highgate Holdings Inc. "I had the backup contract on the Stephen F. Austin. I was very disappointed, because I wanted to do an urban loft renovation there," he said. When that fell through, Davis found the "world-class site" at 200 South Congress. "Where else in the world can you look at the water and have a view of the Capitol and downtown?" Davis asks.

Hardly anywhere -- and that's just the problem, say neighborhood and South Austin activists, who believe those views belong to all of Austin, not just future owners of the 56 Gotham condos. Opposition groups -- including the Austin Neighborhoods Council, the South River City Citizens, and the South Congress Improvement Project -- argue that Gotham transgresses both the letter and the spirit of the Town Lake Corridor Study and subsequent Waterfront Overlay District ordinance adopted by the city in 1986.

Both documents aimed to preserve the park-like character of the hike-and-bike trail through a variety of means including height limits, setbacks, and floor area ratios.

The disturbing part was that, despite what some of those involved in lobbying for the documents believe, the Waterfront Overlay does not contain height limitations. The omission was discovered during the "plain English rewrite" of the city's Land Development Code, completed this February, which was intended to clean up the code by eliminating duplications, clarifying ambiguities, and the like.

A memo from city attorney Andy Martin disputed that the Waterfront Overlay contained height limits. The 35- to 60-foot limits, which some interpreted as height limits, were instead height "bonuses" that allowed increases above the height allowed by a given zoning category. But because of ambiguities regarding where the bonuses could apply, they were removed in the course of the rewrite. Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell, who oversees the city's land development regulations, says she will revisit the issue, and that height limits and bonuses could be reinstated in the code.

This confusion, meanwhile, left Gotham unencumbered by the Waterfront Overlay, and by extension, the oversight authority of the Parks Board. The Planning Commission approved the project in a 6-2 vote earlier this summer, with Robin Cravey and Jean Mather dissenting. Davis says he understands city staff to be solidly in support of his project.

The zoning category Gotham is requesting, which was proposed by city staff, is LI-PDA (light industrial/planned development area), a little-used category that would free the development from the restrictions of even the most dense residential zoning category, MF-6. The multi-family category allows a maximum height of 90 feet, requires setbacks of 15 feet from side streets (in this case, Congress Avenue), and allows a maximum of 70% lot coverage. The Gotham would stand 120 feet high, have zero setback from Congress (though the lakeside setback would be generous, at 250 feet), and would cover 80% of its 80-foot wide lot. The developer's representatives say that adhering to MF-6 standards would make his project financially prohibitive. The property is currently zoned LI, which carries a height restriction of 60 feet.

Davis argues that since his building would be shorter than the 150-foot-tall Hyatt next door, the Gotham is not too tall for its location. But southside residents argue that the Hyatt's precedent is one to be avoided, not repeated. As Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association President Gary Hyatt says: "The Hyatt was supposedly going to be the last big project allowed on the lake." Hyatt believes all of Austin should be concerned about another big building on Town Lake. "It's not a South Austin problem, it's a city problem. That was the original battle to preserve Town Lake Park -- to preserve it for everybody."

The Gotham's neighbors to the south, Doris and Willard Finklestein, the owners of the building containing the Your Living Room furniture store, have registered their opposition with the city, though Gotham's other neighbors, the Hyatt and the Austin American-Statesman, declined to join in the effort. (If either had done so, the Finklestein's petition would have become a "valid petition" of opposition, which takes a vote of six council members to overturn. The Statesman is the landowner most closely implicated in the case, as its parking lies just across the bridge from the Gotham site -- and like the asphalt acres at Palmer Auditorium, the parking lot could be a prime spot for future development.)

In a letter to the city, the Finklesteins' lawyer, Jim Johnson of Graves, Dougherty, Hearon and Moody, cites problems with access to the property, and alleges that the PDA is not a valid zoning instrument -- that it was designed for industrial uses in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction. More than one Gotham opponent has threatened legal action should the PDA be approved; one of these individuals is former Austin Neighborhoods Council president Jeff Jack, who noted: "We could have that property tied up legally longer than it need be if we went back and tried to design a project that met the code."

Code or no code, it's up to the City Council's discretion to award LI-PDA designation or not, and to determine any limits that they might want to attach. Though opponents are busy building a case, consisting largely of the intent of the Town Lake Corridor Study and Waterfront Overlay, said a lawyer close to the case, the council is constrained by neither of these. "It's simply a matter of who can count to four votes," the lawyer said.

No Law Against Bad Taste

All this zoning mumbo jumbo can obscure the fact that some people oppose the Gotham simply because they don't like the way it looks. In Austin politics, it is not unheard of for neighborhoods to decide they don't like a project, and later decide why not, after the fact. Traffic safety can suddenly become the line in the sand, when the more pressing reason for opposition may be something that no zoning restriction can keep out.

Gotham opponents insist their cause is not reactionary. "I don't think there should be an "ugly ordinance'; I don't think there should be any dictate about architectural style," says Jack, himself an architect. He emphasized that the Austin Neighborhoods Council's opposition to this project is based on the building's height and lack of setback, and therefore its hindrance in the view corridors along the lake and Congress Avenue.

"But," Jack adds, "if we're going to be a world- class city, we need architecture that respects the indigenous nature of Central Texas. A building that may be appropriate for Houston isn't necessarily appropriate for Austin." (Davis says that at least 56 Austinites must like the building, since the condos are already sold-out, pending council approval.)

Though prominent Austin architects agreed that compatibility with local styles is an important standard in downtown architecture, none would go on the record regarding Gotham's compatibility with its surroundings. One chagrined architect would only venture, "It may be appropriate for one man's pocketbook, but it's not appropriate for this city." The architect nonetheless praised Davis for several of his Houston buildings.

The Gotham sits at the fulcrum of the conflict between the values of Old Austin and those of New Austin. Though this City Council has presided over several projects in which the two happily coexist, in the case of the Gotham, they threaten to collide. On the one hand, Davis is right in step with the high-density, urban-infill times. And in Houston, his achievements extend beyond providing housing. His Rice Hotel has 25,000 square feet of ground floor retail, of the kind coveted by downtown Austin's growing population: Urban Grocery, the first grocery store in downtown Houston, along with Amy's Ice Cream, Jamba Juice, Liberty Noodle, Sambuca, the State Bar of Texas, and a day spa. Furthermore, Davis plans for the Gotham to be the kind of place where residents can park their cars -- and leave them -- to walk to work and nearby entertainment venues. In Houston, Davis has successfully done buildings with fewer parking spaces than residential units.

On the other hand, opponents charge that in the Gotham's size, configuration, and design, it threatens to undermine the vision of the Town Lake that has been nurtured by Austinites since the time Lady Bird Johnson, among others, achieved the preservation of the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail. "For a meager investment of units, we're sacrificing our vision of the Town Lake corridor," says Jack.

Design compatibility as a qualification for new development was considered valid to the framers of the Town Lake Corridor Study, which was a public consensus project designed to shape the future of the area around Town Lake. Among their concerns were the promotion of development that complemented the corridor, and the prevention of the dreaded "concrete canyon" effect -- a rim of tall buildings surrounding the river.

According to Ray Reece, chairman of the Town Lake Task Force that completed the Town Lake Corridor Study, Gotham's scale is beyond the scope of what the lake could handle. "I don't remember any consideration of height above 90 feet," he says. "There was a tremendous struggle over that issue -- some task force members thought [even] that was excessive. Even then we were talking about the desirability of denser population [downtown, although] most of that thinking applied to the north shore." Of the Gotham's size, Reece says, "My view is that would be out of the question in terms of the deliberation of this task force. That was the kind of thing we were trying to avoid."

For his part, Davis seems confounded and pained by the controversy, as anyone who is not aware of the difference in culture between the two cities might naturally be. Though he's a developer with 20 years' experience, those years were all in Houston, where they don't even have zoning laws. (His successful Houston Gotham building towers over several quaint little restaurants on Shepherd Drive, on the perimeter of swishy River Oaks.) It's no kind of training ground for the hothouse land-use environment that is Austin.

Despite opposition, Davis remains committed to his vision -- so much so that he's not afraid to plead for it: "I am a downtown housing pioneer. -- I could make a lot more money building 200-unit apartment projects in the suburbs, [but] somebody had to go and do the hard stuff," he says. "I don't know if I can convey how much I want to do this building." end story

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