City code changes make revisions necessary, Georgetown officials say

City of Georgetown officials are hoping that by protecting the downtown's past, economic development projects will bring new life into the city's center.

On Aug. 14, City Council could approve the second reading of an ordinance updating the Downtown Design Guidelines that were adopted by council in 2001. The guidelines establish the character of the Downtown and Old Town Historic overlay districts—an area with many historic commercial and residential buildings.

"In the '90s there was the real need for not just preservation but the guidance for new development," Georgetown Historic District Planner Robbie Wyler said. "Georgetown realized it was losing its historic integrity; it was losing its historic neighborhoods. So a group of individuals got together and created this preservation plan."

City Council created the Historic and Architecture Review Commission, or HARC, in 2001 to review plans for any changes to buildings, sites and signs in the historic overlay districts and issue certificates of design compliance.

"We needed somebody to kind of oversee, to review, to take action on these certificates of design compliance," Wyler said. "A lot of [developers] see HARC as a roadblock or may dislike HARC because it's something slowing them down from getting from point A to point B, but a lot of it is people who come in wanting to do their project their way without realizing that Georgetown does have standards."

Since 2001, however, when the design standards were first adopted, updates and changes to the city's codes necessitated updates to the guidelines, Wyler said. City staff and HARC members began the updating process with consultants Winter & Co. in 2008, and hosted several meetings and discussions with stakeholders and community members to garner feedback.

Included in the changes were updates to the section on signage, residential guidelines for Old Town, and information about outdoor dining and furniture, Wyler said. The demolition guidelines were also expanded.

Who is HARC?

The HARC board is made up of seven members specializing in various areas and appointed by City Council to two-year terms.

"We are appointed and report to the City Council; we are not elected officials," HARC Chairwoman Dee Rapp said. "What the City Council is trying to achieve there is that broad base. There's a formula for what the board is supposed to be made up of: business owners, landscapers, contractors, architects—people who have a vested interest in the growth of Georgetown and a basic knowledge because it is the [HARC]."

The board's interpretations of the guidelines can cause some frustration for developers and architects, said Georgetown architect Bryant Boyd, who served on the committee that created the guidelines.

"For the most part they've done a fantastic job," he said. "I think one of the things I find a little frustrating is sometimes the commission will utilize the precedent as the only thing that can be built, and from a new development standpoint, that's nearly impossible."

Wyler said HARC reviews about 50 certificates of design compliance a year, and sometimes plans must be brought back.

"We are responsible to the master plan, the design guidelines and the [Unified Development Code]. That is the basis for all our decisions," Rapp said.

Controversial decision

On June 28, HARC denied a certificate of design compliance and height requirement exception to Hat Creek Burger Co. for its proposed restaurant at 405 S. Austin Ave.

The decision came after months of discussion about the project. The City Council voted 4–3 June 26 to approve a special-use permit for the restaurant's proposed drive-thru. Despite a recommendation of approval from city staff, HARC denied the application.

HARC cited several design guidelines and aspects of the Downtown Master Plan in its motion to deny to project approval, including the size of the parking area compared with the size of the building, the location of the proposed building on the property and the location of the building's primary entrance.

Hat Creek Burger Co. developer John Kiltz said the company has until Aug. 17 to determine if they will appeal HARC's decision to City Council or if they will rework their design to bring back to HARC.

"We're still digesting [the motion from HARC]," he said. "The list of findings and conclusions was overwhelming—the items they've asked us to respond to—and we are still determining how we will move forward."

Although there was not a lot of support for the Hat Creek project from members of the public, some in the community supported it.

"That was very frustrating to watch," Boyd said. "People will use different interpretations of the design guidelines."