A city review panel asked townhome developers in the River Road Historic District near Brackenridge Park to return to the drawing board again.
However, the Historic and Design Review Commission indicated Austin-based MNO Investments’ Oaks at River Road, 335 Trail St., could eventually see approval if additional modifications are made to the controversial project, including height reduction.
On Nov. 18, MNO approached HDRC seeking a certificate of appropriateness for another tailored concept to the blueprint. The company has been trying for two years to obtain the go-ahead to build.
“The major changes we have made since we were approved (by HDRC) in December 2019 include changes to massing, tree preservation, lot coverage, parking and we are protecting the acequia,” MNO partner David Morin said.
The 2019 approval subsequently was overturned by the Board of Adjustment in February 2020 and sent back to HDRC, with a stipulation the developers needed to reduce the planned 24 units.
Developers said they’ve repeatedly reconfigured the project, scaled it down and eliminated square footage. The newest layout cut the total number of units to 21, and jettisoned three-story units facing Trail on the 1-acre, vacant lot.
Now, five two-story units could line the street.
MNO also condensed the structure from 58,740 square feet to less than 50,000, and tossed front-facing parking garages. There are also plans to save a heritage oak tree on the property.
HDRC did consider giving the design conceptual approval so long as developers limit the height of two interior residential buildings to two stories or shorter. The motion failed in a 5-5 tie.
Later, HDRC unanimously voted to give MNO more time to see whether the developer could further refine their proposed multiunit living space to a design acceptable to the panel and neighbors alike.
Morin added the latest iteration softened the massing of the roofs, and there would be a mix of two-, two-and-a-half, and three-story units.
Commissioner Matt Bowman said the lastest design showed improvement, but some questions such as the three-story height of two interior structures remain.
“There’s enough direction here, in my opinion, to get us close to that, but not enough information to make that decision final and to make that approval,” he added.
“Weight of the obligation is on the (property) owner … and it gives him the opportunity to contemplate the chances,” Commissioner Gabriel Velasquez said. “I hope the applicant will decide whether they really want the project there or not.”
The proposed development has been contested by several residents for its size and the potential impact on traffic, drainage, a nearby acequia and the 18th-century Zambrano homestead.
Many neighbors also argue the proposed multistory condos look out of place next to single-family houses built before 1950.
Morin said he and his colleagues have tried working with the River Road Neighborhood Association and others to address concerns.
Yet, several neighbors told HDRC little has changed in MNO’s overall scheme.
Robert Buchanan said the fresh design fails to comply with the city’s Unified Development Code and fire regulations.
Trail is a dead-end street, and critics say the turnaround isn’t big enough to park a fire engine in case of an emergency.
“This issue must be resolved before any certificate of appropriateness is granted,” he added.
Another said the project still looks too grandiose and incompatible.
“The scale and massing of this proposed project continue to be an issue,” David Schmidt said. He added there is progress, but not enough.
Morin repeated prior MNO arguments, saying the townhouses would be a transition between existing single-family homes and adjacent commercial/office development, and they’d help revive the neighborhood.
He said supportive residents “see this project as a really positive benefit for them.”
Morin added the development would comply with a number of stipulations provided by city staff, which recommended approval of a resubmission waiver and a certificate of appropriateness.
During the November session, HDRC did unanimously grant MNO a waiver of the one-year waiting period to reappear before the commission, needed after the Board of Adjustment voted last year to repeal the HDRC ruling.