by BRAD ROLLINS
Offering a nearly unanimous blessing for what could be the tallest building between Austin and San Antonio, San Marcos planning commissioners on Tuesday voted to recommend approval of Casey Development Ltd.’s request to stretch his proposed Concho Commons high-rise to a full 15 floors.
San Antonio developer Darren Casey holds a long-term ground lease on a 1.7-acre vacant tract bound by two major thoroughfares and planted between Texas State University and the city’s lively downtown retail and entertainment district. Since 2008, city officials have approved entitlements for a succession of ever-larger proposed developments culminating in Casey’s current plan for a high-rise with 15,800 square feet of retail and restaurant space topped by 326 living units with 766 bedrooms.
In areas of the Central Business District zoned as urban centers — the highest level of density under the SmartCode development ordinance adopted in 2011 — developers can, by right, build up to five stories. They also have the option of requesting a “height warrant” to build higher as Casey did in 2012 and again this year. If developer’s current vision for the property materializes, the building would almost certainly surpass the 11-floor, 150-foot J.C. Kellum Building — currently the tallest in San Marcos — and the seven-floor, 120-foot Landmark Lofts — currently the tallest in New Braunfels.
“I don’t have a problem with the height. I’d rather build this downtown” than in residential areas, planning commissioner Travis Kelsey said. “The more density we put on that side of the university in downtown, the less we’re putting in someone’s neighborhood.”
Under terms negotiated by city staff in exchange for a recommendation for approval, Casey agreed to screen an electricity transformer that would have otherwise blighted the streetscape; install a “jellyfish” water quality system designed to treat runoff at levels higher than required by municipal codes; and meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standards for energy conservation and environmental sustainability.
The height warrant would expire if Casey does not begin construction — as evidenced by securing a site preparation permit from the city — within two years of the measure’s approval by the city council. The deadline to start site work would affect only the warrant granting Casey permission to build the top two floors of Concho Commons; he is already legally entitled to build up to 13 floors under a height warrant approved by planning commissioners in October 2012.
“I’m only voting in favor of this because of the two-year [deadline]… I have no interest in voting on open-ended height warrants that go with the land — that never expire — for projects that may never get built,” said planning commissioner Angie Ramirez, who made the motion to grant Casey’s request.
The planning commission voted 6-1 to recommend approval of Casey’s warrant to build 15 floors. Curtis Seebeck cast the only vote against approval; newly appointed planning commissioner Jim Garber has not yet been seated and planning commissioner Amy Stanfield was absent.
Seebeck noted that the city council created a planned development district in 2008 that permitted Casey to build three floors comprised of 37,000 square feet of retail and office space. The next year, the development agreement was amended to add two more floors as well as 39 residential units. The 2012 iteration of Concho Commons jumped to 13 floors with 17,000 square feet of retail space and 310 living units with a total of 584 beds.
“This thing started out in 2008 as a three-story building. Here we are eight years later with a 15-story building. In a year, are we going to be asking for 17 stories and, in another year, we’ll go on up to 20? Where does it stop?” Seebeck said.
Casey intends to have the building completed in time for tenants to move in sometime in 2017, Dripping Springs architect Dan Alexander told commissioners. Doing so will require city council approval in January, he said.
“To allow that time frame to work, we need to be underway right now so we’re already moving forward” said Alexander, who works for the Pasadena, Calif.-based Jacobs engineering and architecture firm.
Casey’s latest application for a height warrant does not specify how tall the building will rise from street level. Under the 13-floor plan, Concho Commons was envisioned to be 128 feet tall, consultants working for Casey said at the time. The addition of two additional floors — typically 12- to 14-feet in height — would seem certain to push it over 150 feet.
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