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Council backs affordable housing project despite lack of transit options

Tuesday, December 13, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Developers who hope to take part in the city’s S.M.A.R.T. housing program for a development near Wells Branch won a zoning change from the Austin City Council last week.


The proposed development at 15433 FM 1325 is within Austin city limits, though the surrounding land is not. Council approved the change on all three readings in a vote of 6-1, with Council Member Chris Riley voting against.


Council passed the change with conditions that compatibility standards would be applied to the property, as if the adjacent property was within city limits. Additionally, the change from interim rural residence (I-RR) to MF-3-CO limited density to MF-1 standards, the most restrictive multifamily density in the city.


Plans call for 243 units on 14.71 acres, 194 are at 60 percent Average Median Income, and 49 are at 50 percent AMI, making the development 100 percent affordable housing. Developers intend to develop the land as a tax-credit process.


“I would very much like to be able to support this project,” said Riley. “We obviously need more affordable housing in Austin. But I’m afraid that under the current conditions discussed tonight, I just can’t bring myself to do it.”


“This clearly would not be considered S.M.A.R.T. housing, as the city defines it, because it lacks the “T,” the connection to transit. And I am frankly sorry to see tax-credit dollars being devoted to a project like this that will leave residents in affordable housing stranded unless they are willing and able to incur the expense of an automobile. I just think it’s poor policy,” said Riley.


The site was initially on a Capital Metro route, which was terminated earlier this year because of low ridership “We are working with Metro to try to get that route reinstated,” said Nikelle Meade of Brown McCarroll LLP.


Meade said that while CapMetro currently did not think that construction of the development would increase ridership enough to justify reinstating the route, the conversation was ongoing.


The area lacks a network of sidewalks, making for a dangerous walk along the 55 mph FM 1325 to get to the Howard Station transit center, which is 1.5 miles away.


“We will try to negotiate with the property owners that are adjacent to us to at least have a pedestrian path at the rear of the development… so that, basically, we connect to the neighborhood. There is a complete sidewalk grid once you get into that neighborhood- it’s just not on Burnet Road,” said Meade. “I talked to the neighbors tonight, and I think there is actually going to be some opposition to that.”


When questioned by Riley about the feasibility of constructing about six-tenths of a mile of sidewalk themselves to make the walk safer and completely paved, Meade explained that the lack of right-of-way could make the process cost prohibitive.


Negotiating with the adjacent neighbors may well prove difficult. They spoke against the development, as well as producing a petition which, as they are not residents of Austin, did not carry as much weight as it might have.


Adjacent neighbor Kelly Landry summed up the neighbors’ position, saying, and “Multi-family housing of any kind is unsuitable for this property, because of the presence of two high-voltage transmission lines, the lack of safe vehicle access for residents and firefighters, and the impact to already overcrowded schools.”


Neighbors instead requested the property be zoned commercial along the frontage and single-family for the remainder.


Questions about the estimated number of students that will live in the development, and a dispute about whether Wells Branch Elementary was below or above capacity didn’t sit well with Council Member Kathie Tovo, who lamented that the city did not have a protocol with Round Rock Independent School District like the one with AISD.


“Just as a message to all of us, I think we need to move forward in making sure we have an Educational Impact Statement that works well for all of the eight districts within our city limits,” said Tovo. “I intend to bring forward a resolution, if that’s what necessary, to get that process going.”


Neighbors’ concerns about building near power lines didn’t lead to much after it was explained by the applicant and representatives of Austin Energy that that would be addressed later in the development process.


Despite neighbors’ concerns, City Council ultimately voted to increase the affordable housing stock in the city, even if it was imperfect.


“I realize the “T” deficiency, but also realize how hard it is to come by tax credits… how hard it is to get enough affordable housing. We’re still many thousands of units short. I don’t feel like we can pass up this opportunity to get this project completed,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

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