East Cesar Chavez Hotel Fails at Planning Commission

Jun 11, 2015

From the Austin Monitor:

Residents opposed to a proposed 65-room boutique hotel at 1207 East Cesar Chavez St. told the Planning Commission on Tuesday night that they do not want to see their neighborhood become “another Rainey Street.” At the meeting, several residents held signs that read, “Don’t Rain-ey on our Chavez … No East Side Hotel.”

Commissioners agreed that the hotel should not go up in East Austin, and a motion to approve a conditional use permit failed (Commissioner Richard Hatfield created the motion, but none of the other four commissioners present seconded it).

Commissioners James Nortey and James Shieh, however, cautioned both the supporters and opponents who packed Council chambers — at times jeering at those on the dais — that there will be growth in the area, and now is the neighborhood’s chance to have a say in what that growth will look like.

“Compared to what could happen, in some ways you can look at it (like) this is also the best opportunity for the neighborhood to engage what actually happens on that,” said Shieh. “As a conditional use permit, you have an option to start working with a developer to craft what’s there.”

That conditional use permit requirement for hotels is part of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan that was adopted by Council in 1999. The hotel’s developers, Bree Carrico and Brian Carrico, said they used this neighborhood plan as a guide, referring to the part of the plan classifying East Cesar Chavez as one of two main commercial corridors.

Bree Carrico told commissioners at the meeting that her and her husband’s hotel would be committed to the neighborhood from groundbreaking to opening day, offering a minimum of $15 per hour to construction workers and using and selling local goods.

“Guests will wake up on a bed made in East Austin,” she said. “They’ll look at art on the wall made a few blocks away and sip coffee that was roasted four blocks away.”

But while both she and Nortey cited the fact that the neighborhood plan designates East Cesar Chavez as a hub of commerce, residents opposed to the plan brought up the issue of continuity: A plan ratified nearly two decades ago doesn’t represent the present goals of a community, they said.

Neighbors said that while they are not opposed to a hotel going up on East Cesar Chavez, they are against the proposed size of this one. Many cited the Heywood Hotel, a seven-room hotel at 1609 East Cesar Chavez, as a more preferable development. But Carrico and her lawyer, Steve Drenner, said reducing the number of rooms is not economically feasible.

Many neighbors spoke about East Cesar Chavez as a thoroughfare that needs to be saved from encroaching development from 4th, 5th and 6th streets. And there was also the ever-present fear that the street could become another Rainey Street.

“This hotel, because of its size, would be a giant leap towards this type of entertainment district,” said Jose Valera, a former candidate for City Council who spoke on behalf of neighbors against the hotel.

Supporters characterized it as the lesser of development ills: While a midsize hotel would bring more traffic to the street, the traffic would not be during peak hours, as it would be if an apartment building went up.

“I’m afraid of what the alternatives are,” said Susan Benz, a former member of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team. “It could be a medical office building. It could be an apartment building. I think this is a good project.”

Benz also said the Carricos had been thoughtful and spent months compromising with neighborhood requests. “They were patient, they listened, they did everything they possibly could,” she said.

But while Commissioners Brian Roark, Nortey and Shieh said they appreciated what appeared to be sincerity on behalf of the developers, they could not support a project out of line with the wants of neighbors.

Commissioners voted 4-1 to deny the conditional use permit – but this vote failed as well, because the nine-member commission needs a quorum of five. Without a vote to approve, however, the permit was rejected regardless.

Nortey closed with words of caution for the neighborhood.

“I do think the neighborhood has a major problem,” Nortey said. “Not necessarily of its own doing, but to have a 1999 neighborhood plan, knowing that in 2015, Austin is a very different city.”

The developers have the option of appealing to city staff. That appeal, if it were to happen, would be placed on Council’s agenda.