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Planning Commission OKs new Foundation Communities residence

Thursday, January 27, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Walter Moreau of Foundation Communities could not have found a friendlier audience than the Planning Commission this week for his new single-room occupancy project in South Austin.


Moreau faced some opposition from neighboring homeowners, but his track record as a responsible landlord made his trip to the Planning Commission a rather painless one. This was in sharp contrast to the Marshall Apartments, another affordable housing project planned for central east Austin that faced passionate opposition.


In fact, the most significant objection the commission could lodge about the proposed Foundation Communities project was that it would be helpful to address the drainage issues on the property, a point that was raised by engineer and Commissioner Dave Anderson. Concerns about the height of the property from neighbors were even somewhat moot, given that the project is a conversion and not new construction.


The project, which will shift zoning from GR-NP to GR-MU-NP, would convert the Suburban Lodge hotel on Interstate 35 at Oltorf into a 123-room single-room occupancy project with 20 units of permanent supportive housing.


Not everyone was pleased with the project. Homeowner and potential future neighbor Cynthia Maceca-Gilbert outlined her concerns to the commission: the height of the existing hotel, which overlooks her yard; the eyesore the hotel has become to the neighborhood, which struggles to maintain property values; and the fact that single-room occupancy, affordable housing seems disproportionately placed on the east side of IH-35.


“We get stuck with everything,” Maceca-Gilbert said. “We are low income and low opportunity and high crime, and they’re going to come in and put in subsidized housing? We’re already fighting with crime on a daily basis. It is really disheartening, and I think it keeps east Austin low income.”


Commissioners, especially Danette Chimenti and Saundra Kirk, tried to soften the blow.


“I would highly encourage you to go and visit one of his communities,” Chimenti told Maceca-Gilbert. “I’m very familiar with Foundation Communities and also the neighbors and the reaction from the neighborhoods, and, really, in every single one of those projects, it’s improved the neighborhood.”


Jacqueline White, who owns two duplexes in the area, signed up as neutral during the zoning hearing. She told commissioners that her main concern was the inclusion of a proper fence and a decent tree line to separate homeowners from the property. She also wanted regular meetings with Foundation Communities in order to discuss any potential problems that might arise on the property.


One resident at the hotel actually took a bb gun and shot out the windows in her tenant’s duplex, White said. That led to Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez asking Moreau how thoroughly he screens his tenants.


“We set aside 20 apartments for folks who have been homeless,” Moreau said. “That’s not necessarily re-entry or rehab. It’s the homeless definition the city uses. People with certain serious offenses are not allowed on the property. With other infractions, we might have some flexibility.”


The goal would be to purchase and renovate for opening next spring. The new Arbor Terrace, Moreau told the commission, would provide 120 affordable units with an average rent under $400 a month. Residents at the project would have to make under $25,000 per year. The typical split in residents at these properties is half working people and half seniors or veterans, Moreau said.


Apartments would be leased on an annual basis to avoid heavy tenant turnover, and about $2 million would be spent on site renovations, including landscaping between the project and its neighbors.


“These projects are locally owned and managed, and we’ve never sold one,” Moreau said. “Our goal is to be lifetime owners of our communities.”


Residents will have to come and go through a front desk that will be staffed around the clock at a secured entrance. Like other Terrace communities, guests will have to be checked in and provide a photo ID to staff members.


Members of city staff, who also intend to come up with a neighborhood plan amendment, negotiated a number of concessions from Moreau: a maximum of 123 units in the project, an eight-foot fence between the property and its neighbors, and no outdoor entertainment. Details of fencing, landscaping, and trees will be worked out in a covenant with the neighborhood.


The zoning change passed unanimously, 6-0, with commissioners Jay Reddy and Kathryne Tovo and Chair Dave Sullivan absent.

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