Tyler Buckler, principal at Cielo Property Group, left the City of Austin’s Planning Commission this week without an answer to his request to build a 90-foot office tower next to the Plaza Saltillo Station in East Austin.
Buckler’s company acquired six single family residential lots over the past year to cobble together a half block tract at the northeast corner of Comal and East Fourth Streets. Using the project name 4 East, Cielo submitted an application in July to amend the transit-oriented district neighborhood plan, and asked to include a Central Urban Redevelopment modifier, or CURE, to allow an increase in height from 40 feet to 90 feet.
The Plaza Saltillo TOD’s density bonus program already allows an increase to 60 feet, if the developer provides onsite affordable housing or the payment of what’s called a fee-in-lieu. Since Cielo wants to limit the building’s uses to offices with ground-level restaurants and retail, the fee-in-lieu option was preferred. At 60 feet, the fee-in-lieu would work out to about $351,384, but at 90 feet with 155,000 square feet of leasable area, the fee would be more than $900,000.
City senior planner Heather Chaffin, the project’s case manager, told commissioners the staff recommendation was to support an alternate rezoning that would limit the building’s height to 75 feet. Chaffin acknowledged that the lots in question were zoned as single-family, but added it would be misleading to assert that the project would occur at the sacrifice of single-family housing, since everything around it is or will soon be high-density development, courtesy of the ongoing development on the eastern side of town.
The neighborhood where Cielo’s project is located is eligible to apply for a CURE modifier to get the building to 90 feet, but staff also pointed out there is a trend to retire the CURE altogether, and the Austin City Council recently directed staff to study the prospect of eliminating its use in the Plaza Saltillo TOD.
This concerned Commissioner Trinity White, who thought that was something that should be taken into consideration, but Chairman Steven Oliver disagreed.
“If we had to run every meeting, every night as to what might be going on Thursdays (at City Council), it would be a form of pinball that I don’t think we could handle,” Oliver said.
Cielo’s proposition drew unanimous opposition from the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team. The team spokesperson, Susan Benz, said the tallest buildings in the TOD were intended to be placed along Interstate 35, with heights gradually stepping down from there. The Cielo project is eight blocks east of the interstate. Using CURE zoning at that distance from the freeway would set a precedent for development that would gentrify East Cesar Chavez Street, turning it into “Downtown East,” Benz said.
Buckler argued that the concept fit perfectly within the framework of Imagine Austin concepts for sustainable growth. The office tower would provide a high density commercial component that would fit neatly into the surrounding high density residential.
It is surrounded to the east by the Eastside Station apartment homes, to the north by Saltillo Lofts and The Arnold, and to the southwest Cielo will soon build The Foundry, a mixed-use project with retail and some residential. Immediately to the south, the city is supporting the redevelopment of the Chalmers Courts public housing to include higher density. Finally, Endeavor Real Estate Group has its Plaza Saltillo mixed-use development on the fast-track west of the rail station.
Buckler said he was including a three-level underground parking garage with the minimum allowable numbers of spaces. This aspect of the design takes into consideration the close proximity of the rail station and the east-west bike lane that goes through the alley behind the proposed tower. Buckler added that the ideal project would be six stories tall with a ground floor height of 20 feet and slab-to-slab heights above that of 14 feet each being the most marketable.
Commissioner Greg Anderson led the faction favoring the tower, but admitted 90 feet was probably not in the cards. He pointed out that the proposed building was directly next to the train station, exactly where the highest-density TOD development is supposed to be.
“If we can’t put a 75-foot building next to a train station, where in Austin is it going to fit?”
— Greg Anderson, Commissioner
Commissioner Karen McGraw led the opposition, but her motion to deny the project failed. Buckler agreed to an amendment reducing the height to 72 feet, but that motion also failed.
“There is no recommendation,” Oliver said in conclusion. “It goes to (City) Council without our opinion.”