PUD Proposal Wins Few Friends

Developers of proposed condo seek a zoning change to allow a height of 96 feet at Riverside and Lamar project

The Bridges on the Park Condominium Association opposes the proposed height of 96 feet for a condo project developers want to build on the site of the Taco Cabana at South Lamar and Riverside.
The Bridges on the Park Condominium Association opposes the proposed height of 96 feet for a condo project developers want to build on the site of the Taco Cabana at South Lamar and Riverside. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Add two more opponents to a proposed condo development at Riverside and South Lamar. So far the project has failed to attract the support of any city boards.

Instead, the Environmental Board and Waterfront Planning Advisory Board have joined vocal opponents of the rezoning, which include the Zilker Neighborhood Assoc­i­a­tion, Save Town Lake, the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, and the Bridges on the Park Condominium Assoc­i­ation. Though the proposed Planned Unit Devel­op­ment has the support of the Down­town Austin Alliance, it's unclear how much weight the usually influential group has in an area that is not, strictly speaking, Downtown. The proposal was set for consideration at Tuesday's Planning Commission meeting, but the item was postponed.

Though developers of the project at 211 S. Lamar, the current site of a Taco Cabana, have stressed the community benefits their project will provide and the attributes of Planned Unit Development zoning over the existing zoning, the community thus far remains unconvinced.

If completed as planned, the building will include up to 175 upscale condominiums, plus ground-floor retail. As for community benefits, the project developers promise to save otherwise-threatened trees, install water-quality controls, and provide rent-free space to the Parks and Recreation Department, plus hidden parking, a public plaza, and space for a bike-share program.

In return, the PUD zoning, which has traditionally been reserved for larger projects, will allow developers to build to 96 feet instead of the currently allowed maximum of 60 feet.

Last month, the Environmental Board was the first to officially weigh in on the project. Anticipating a rush of upcoming PUD cases in the future, Chair Mary Gay Max­well laid down the law in an impassioned speech about the board's role, declaring that board members would not evaluate the zoning, only the environmental benefits of the project. And on a vote of 4-2, members rejected the proposed environmental treatments. The board was asked to rate the "superiority" of the environmental features that were offered. "In the end, I give this a 'B,' which doesn't sound exceptional to me," said board member Robin Gary, who voted no, along with Maxwell, Marisa Perales, and Jenni­fer Walker. Board members Bob Anderson and Mary Ann Neely endorsed the proposed environmental features.

The board was joined in its opposition by the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board, which on Monday voted 4-1 against the zoning change, with Eric Schultz voting yes, Tyler Zickert abstaining, and Vice Chair Robert Pilgrim recusing himself from voting. Tasked with preserving the character of the waterfront, the board repeatedly cited concerns about the facade, which they feared would create more of a "canyon" effect than the desired "valley" effect around the lake. Though Chair Brooke Bailey acknowledged that the developers "weren't really worried about [the board's] vote," she nonetheless took the opportunity to share her opinion on the project. "It is all about profit for one developer. It has nothing to do with anybody else in the city," Bailey said.

The city boards' actions come amidst firm opposition from the Zilker and Bouldin Creek NAs and stringent demands from the only residential neighbors within 200 feet of the proposed site – the Bridges on the Park Condominium Association. In a letter dated April 5, Bridges' attorney, James E. Cousar, said the group would be willing to withdraw its opposition to the project if the height of the building were limited to 75 feet and 10-foot setbacks around the perimeter of the project maintained, among other things.

Attorney-lobbyist Steve Drenner, who represents the would-be developers of the site, says those terms are not anything the developers are going to agree to. "It continues to be somewhat frustrating," said Drenner. "In exchange for their agreeing to support 15 additional feet of height, rather than what we have requested at 26 feet, they have basically asked for setbacks that don't exist under code. That's not acceptable." Drenner has asked that the city support the proposal as is, without Bridges' conditions. After 14 months of negotiations, Drenner has said that he isn't sure the neighboring residents can be satisfied.

Sushma Jasti Smith, who serves on the Bridges on the Park board, questions Drenner's definition of "negotiations." She explains that they have been given a series of take-it-or-leave-it presentations that lack information they have asked for repeatedly. Nonetheless, says Smith, they remain open to discussion with the developer, though they are "no longer satisfied with the promise of information."

The case is scheduled to go to City Coun­cil on April 25.

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