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Commission supports rezoning former Eastside grocery for new use

Wednesday, November 2, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Swayed by neighborhood support, the Planning Commission last week rejected a staff recommendation, voting 6-0 to recommend an East Austin zoning change from Single-Family 3 to General Office-Mixed Use.


The property, located at 2315 East Eighth Street, was formerly Gamboa Grocery and has stood vacant for the past year. Owner Rick Wallen purchased the property hoping to move his business from its current location on East Seventh Street. He is requesting a change from SF-3 -NP to GO-MU-CO-NP.


Planner Clark Patterson told the commission that the zoning change was not in accordance with the Future Land Use Map. “It should also be noted that the applicant has requested the highest, most intense office district,” said Patterson, who said that staff felt there was a lesser category of office zoning that would be more appropriate for the location.


“There’s no other use for this property. It’s not a residence,” said David Thomas, president of Blackshear – Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association. “It looks like a store; it is a store. If somebody bought that property for investment, it might be torn down. And there’s no guarantee that whatever is put there would better enhance the neighborhood than this does. We’ve taken all that into consideration… We did hash this stuff out and we think it’s the best use, given that we would like to see that place remain what it is, with its appearance.”


One local resident says things have changed since Wallen purchased the property.


“That corner has been very, very dark and scary for the entire time that I have been in the neighborhood. It has been abandoned to communities of people living in there, I don’t believe paying rent,” said Tanya Jones, who grew up in East Austin and has lived in the neighborhood for eight years. Jones described hearing gunshots from the house, and a stabbing that took place there three years ago. “The park was just more like a graveyard. Kids weren’t there, there were big kids smoking and doing drugs.”


“Since Rick (Wallen) has come in, I see kids playing there. It’s like a little ray of sunshine in our neighborhood. A very dark corner has been brightened,” said Jones.


Speaking against the zoning change was another neighbor Juan Valera, who cited concerns that the change would make parking in the neighborhood worse.


“GO is a very intensive use to be right smack-dab in the middle of a single-family neighborhood,” said Commissioner Danette Chimenti, who asked whether it would be possible to reduce the site development standards similarly as to how the uses had been limited.


“This is a difficult case for me because I am concerned about the commercial encroachment, and I am very concerned about commercial encroachment in general into established neighborhoods. So, I really hate to see a project where you’ve got that,” said Commissioner Danette  Chimenti. “On the other hand, this is a project that has neighborhood support and neighborhood plan team support. It sounds like it is going to be a really positive thing for the neighborhood.”


The agent for the applicant, Jim Bennett, explained that the zoning change was requested in order for the building’s owner to operate a recreational machine leasing business, which city staff classifies as “business support services,” and requires general office zoning.


The zoning change would also permit off-site parking and the designation of some of the building’s space as an art gallery that will host community meetings.


Wallen explained to the commission that his business itself was mostly performed off-site, and could probably be classified as Neighborhood Office. However, changes like opening up the playground to the neighborhood and potentially restoring a shack in the backyard for community tool storage would not be permitted under this use.


Wallen told the commission that the only plan to change the building would be to make it ADA-compliant, the rest would be restored.


Ultimately, the commission voted 6-0 to approve the zoning change, with Commissioners Dave Anderson, Richard Hatfield and Jean Stevens absent. They stipulated that use be limited to art gallery, business support services, religious assembly and residential, and that site standards comply with Neighborhood Office standards.


“I did read something in the backup about how there is a concern that East Austin has traditionally been zoned or allowed to have so many different uses in the neighborhood. I know that we’re backing out a lot of those uses. One of the most positive things that has come out of probably the last decade is that a lot of the industrial uses are coming out of East Austin,” said Commissioner Saundra Kirk.


“With this site, however, what I see as the deciding factor is that the original community use was not at all uncommon, as east Austin developed. And that was there were always corner groceries,” said Kirk, who added that she was impressed with the preservation of the building and support of the neighborhood. “I think this is really an honorable mixed use.”

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