Why Variances Can Be Good

So there’s been a bit of talk lately about the Grayco Development along Lakeshore. Save Town Lake is against it because they believe that the 40′ height limit should be absolute. Chris Reilly (one of our new council members) has weighed in on why he supports it. His argument is that they are only asking for a height variance and they are offering a massive number of incentives to the city in return (public plazas, preserving trees, park improvements, sidewalks, etc).

I’ve become somewhat pessimistic about development in Austin. It seems that these initial offers are generally their best offer, and they tend to get to build what they want in the end. The Northcross debacle is just one of many where we were going to get something pretty nice from the developers, but in the end the city is quite a bit poorer and we’re getting a generic Walmart. As far as initial offers go, this is a great one, and is completely in keeping with the ideals of the new East Riverside plan. But while the pro/anti development track is a pretty common argument, I don’t really want to address it in this case.

I also don’t want to address it in the sense of ugly vs. nice developments. One of the things that being on a Neighborhood Association Board convinced me of is that you cannot create rules to avoid ugly. You can create rules for well-kept. You can create rules to effectively use space, but you can’t avoid ugly.

That said, I wanted to compare the two properties that are side by side. The Grayco Development and the Amli development next door. You can view a map at the Chronicle’s writeup on the issue. I want to compare them simply from a lakefront utilization perspective.

Here’s a view of the where the Grayco development will be from across the lake. It will be behind the second tree line (per the variance agreement those trees stay). There’s an existing two story apartment complex there. You’ll need to expand the picture and look very closely to see it.

Here’s a view of the area from the actual hike and bike trail. It’s taken from right next to the water fountain which is halfway between Lakeshore Boulevard and the closest the Hike and Bike trail gets to the water.

Next look at the Amli complex. This is a project that did not request a variance and is within waterfront overlay height limits:

That large concrete building is a parking garage. Don’t get me wrong. I actually like the Amili development. Looking at the way it integrates with Riverside you can imagine how Riverside is going to become a nice strollable boulevard of shops and apartments, rather than a bunch of run down strip malls:

But is “Save Town Lake” right to contend that the Grayco development is some sort of monstrosity that will destroy the spirit of the lake? That development is going to be behind the treeline. It’s going to have a lot of units, which means more people who can enjoy the lake, and it’s going to preserve the Hike and Bike trail (something the Amli development is not extending, you still get to run by it on the sidewalk). There will be a plaza to engage the public and bike routes and sidewalks through the development to make getting from Riverside to the Trail easier.

Is a parking garage really the best utilization of a waterfront view? Shouldn’t people be enjoying the view instead of a concrete wall? Shouldn’t we encourage developers to seek variances when following the rules would lead to something that is obviously not the best utilization of a site?

I think we need to take variances to get what we really want. Keep the views for the people. Keep density in the East Riverside area and bring in new commercial development to a historically under-served community.