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East Cesar Chavez VMU zoning elicits outcry

Thursday, August 13, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

East Austin residents and grassroots activists complained bitterly to Council last week about a proposed zoning change to seven properties in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood. The change would grant several commercial and commercial mixed use lots a Vertical Mixed Use overlay.


Members of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Contact Team clashed with their regular adversaries aligned with El Concilio. Council unanimously approved the overlay.


Gavino Fernandez and Daniel Perez invoked East Austin’s Hispanic roots, Chicano pride and a history of zoning sleights against minorities while protesting this latest of zoning decisions. Fernandez, and more recently Perez, have been vocal leaders for opponents of any council changes to land management in East Austin.


The VMU changes would essentially waive floor-to-area ratio requirements for the lots and allow them to apply for urban density incentives, said planner George Adams. Two of the lots are along IH-35 frontage and the others along East Cesar Chavez, and west of Comal Street.


However, Fernandez and other opposing citizens were critical that such changes profited only large development corporations while raising neighborhood taxes to unbearable heights. “Many of these people are on fixed incomes,” Fernandez said. The failure of Rainey Street was also mentioned again. Fernandez says the neighborhood bought into the concept that they could profit from CDB zoning only to see high land values force residents out while only wealthy developments by Lady Bird Lake profited.


Perez used a different tack in his arguments, at one point looking Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez in the eye and questioning his commitment to the community. “You need to take a walk through the barrio and talk to the people the way I do every day…You moved out of the barrio but everyone wants to know what’s up with you… Remember, you’re Chicano too. Show your pride.” Martinez refused to engage with Perez and remained silent. The arguments and rhetoric continued to devolve, with Marcos de Leon offering the greatest hyperbole, comparing the zoning change to “ethnic cleansing.”


Sabino and Laurie Renteria, both members of the Neighborhood Planning Contact Team, countered any claims that the neighborhood hadn’t been engaged in the process, saying they had been hosting meetings every Wednesday at the same location.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell said, “I’m well known not to be a slave of VMU, however, if any of these properties were currently zoned residential I wouldn’t be supporting this.” He also corrected some perceptions voiced by opponents, “it’s not a blanket approval up and down a major street or corridor.”  Martinez moved for approval on all three hearings and Council Member Chris Riley seconded.

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