While zoning variances seem easy to come by for most downtown condo projects looking for increased density or height, there is one request that remains sacred: building in the protected zone around Lady Bird Lake. Long-standing rules prohibit construction within 200 feet of the former Town Lake.
This is a problem for CWS Capital Partners which is trying to build three 17-story apartment and condo towers with 715 units on the south bank of Lady Bird Lake between Congress Avenue and I-35. The project has requested a variance to build 50 feet closer to the lake than current rules allow. The project has faced significant opposition and lost a crucial vote last week.
Here is the summary from the Statesman:
A developer seeking city approval to build three high-rises 50 feet closer to the shores of Lady Bird Lake than city rules allow struck out at the city’s Parks and Recreation Board meeting last night when board members recommended that the city should deny its request.Board members voted 5-4 against CWS Capital Partners’ request for a variance that would allow it to build 150 feet from the shore. The board’s vote will serve as a recommendation to the Planning Commission, which could hear the case as soon as September.More than 70 people attended Tuesday night’s meeting including many nearby neighbors and lake enthusiasts lobbying against the variance for the property located at 222 and 300 E. Riverside Drive.Board chair Linda Guerrero was one of the members who voted to deny the request.“There was an overwhelming concern regarding the project, and the citizens seemed to want to preserve the waterfront overlay (the current rules) overwhelmingly,” she said.
While CWS had been requesting a 150 foot variance, this was a major concession as their original plans called for an 80-foot setback. The project is built on land currently occupied by long-standing apartments built much closer to the lake. Prior to the release of the current rules in the 1980s (they were revised in 1999), buildings could legally be built much much closer to the shore (as close as 25 feet). If CWS does not receive approval for the current variance request, they have proposed building two 17-story towers with the legal setbacks and simply remodeling the existing apartments into town homes — a legitimate exception to the setback requirements.
While it might make sense to replace old townhouses that are close to the lake with new buildings 150 feet from the lake, the political debate has focused on the integrity of the regulations. The lake is the crown jewel of Austin and the council has taken a “no exceptions” approach to preserve the integrity of the green space surrounding the lake. While it is easy to focus on the setback, an equally important goal of many residents is to extend the hike and bike trails to the east. In fact, one public interest group endorsed the 150 foot version of the CWS proposal.
While the zoning issues are settled for now, it does not seem like the city will get everything it wants: a 200 foot setback, demolition of the old apartments, and an extension of the hike and bike trails to the east. Hopefully CWS will take up the slack, striking the right balance between their development needs and the public interest.