Naked City

Güero's Development: too much of a good thing

The site plan for the proposed redevelopment of the 
1400 block of South Congress Avenue
The site plan for the proposed redevelopment of the 1400 block of South Congress Avenue

In the enduring saga of South Congress Avenue, where urbanization, gentrification, and neighborhood character are frequently at battle, more neighborhood qualms have arisen after Güero's restaurant owner Rob Lippincott, along with developers Stan Biderman and Abe Zimmerman, unveiled plans for the nearly total redevelopment of the avenue's 1400 block. The sweeping plans include residential, restaurant, office, and retail components, designed by Austin's Dick Clark Architecture, but two proposed structures are of acute concern to surrounding Travis Heights and Bouldin Creek residents. First, a five-story, mixed-use commercial/condominium structure, the height of which would require a neighborhood vote to waive its zoning height restrictions, has caused rumblings. But creating more articulated apprehension is the traffic impact of the development's 300-plus vehicle parking garage and its effects on the residential vicinity.

The problem, according to Travis Heights neighbor Rad Tollett, who lives about 100 yards from Güero's, is the proposed parking garage's entrance and exit onto the very residential Eva Street (between Elizabeth and Gibson). Due to the street layout, he said, "traffic will trickle into the adjacent neighborhood rather than feed directly to South Congress. … Homeowners adjacent to the parking garage can anticipate an estimated 1,000 daily entrances and exits being made directly in front of their properties, inevitably causing property values to plummet." The solution, said Tollett, is to use the alley, located directly behind Güero's and one block closer to South Congress, to feed garage traffic more directly to and from South Congress. In the development plans, the alley is currently designated as a pedestrian zone, creating a kind of outdoor mall.

Jeff Kalikstein, whose Eva Street home is directly adjacent to the proposed garage entrance, said traffic is a big concern, agreeing with Tollett that garage users should be diverted away from the neighborhood. He plans to raise these concerns at the public meeting Lippincott and the developers are holding to present the designs to neighbors. Kalikstein, like many neighbors, said he likes the plans in general, adding that he had hoped the used car lot next to his house (currently Capital Car Credit) would someday be improved upon, but that he worries about increased traffic volumes – recently a hot topic thanks to South Congress' popular monthly merchant-sponsored parties. "I can deal with First Thursday once a month, but I don't want it once a day."

"While the neighborhood association supports mixed use projects like this on major streets, our initial review of the project plans raises concerns about the impact on homes next to and near the development," said Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association President Cory Walton in an e-mailed statement. "We look forward to learning more about the project." The statement continues: "The project is the first of its kind in the changing South Congress Avenue district, where funky homegrown shops are rapidly giving way to trendy restaurants and boutiques. A future phase would replace the building now housing Eco-Wise and Vulcan Video with an additional retail-office condominium." At the meeting, Bouldin creek residents will ask developers to explain how the project in its current configuration benefits the neighborhood and why they should support the variances and waivers the design would require.

"I'm not against the development, I embrace it, it's good for city density and Envision Central Texas' urban infill goals," Tollett said, "but forcing something on a neighborhood that its infrastructure is not able to accommodate unnecessarily harms the existing core of Austin neighborhoods."

In designing the development, Lippincott said, "We really did try to adhere to the neighborhood [zoning] plans." Since revealing the designs to the BCNA, where he first learned of residents' unease over the garage, he said his team has been working to alleviate residential traffic. "We're sensitive to the requests on Eva Street, and we're trying to figure out ways to access the garage through the alley."

Lippincott confirmed that the historic post office now home to local businesses Eco-Wise, Vulcan Video, and Service Menswear will in fact be demolished eventually to make way for more condominiums. "I really do, in my heart, hope [these three businesses] stay in the deal with us," he said. "The last thing I want is to get rid of them."

He will be on hand, accompanied by project developers and architects, tonight (Thursday), 6:30pm at Güero's Taco Bar, 1412 S. Congress, to present neighbors with project plans and to hear public input about the redevelopment.

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