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City seeks community input on ambitious Colony Park plan

Wednesday, July 25, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Undertaking its biggest project ever, the Austin Housing Finance Corp. is beginning work to create a 208-acre mixed-use, mixed-income master-planned community in the Colony Park neighborhood in East Austin.


The city announced a $3 million three-year federal planning grant at the beginning of the year, widely considered a coup for Austin. A creation of the Obama administration, the Housing and Urban Development sustainable planning grant was intended to cross city departments, from affordable housing to transportation to economic development, to create a plan for a piece of land the city bought and has left fallow for well more than a decade.


Now it’s a matter of getting the local neighborhood association on board.


The Colony Park Sustainable Community, like many other major property developments in the city, has started out with a strong dose of mistrust. Last week, even before a community liaison was on board for the project, a petition began circulating to oppose the project.


Presently, the City is engaged in ‘benign neglect’ with no intention of stopping the implementation of the Sustainable Community Challenge Grant over the objections of the neighborhood association,” according to a statement on long-time community activist Melvin Wrenn’s Facebook page. “The neighborhood association submitted a ‘Position Statement’ that was completely ignored.”


Eastside residents have long lamented the overabundance of vouchers and subsidies on properties east of the interstate, while also criticizing the city for ongoing gentrification and high property tax bills.


In this case, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Assistant Director Rebecca Giello and Manager Kelly Nichols want to correct some of the information circulating about the Colony Park project, which is located east of U.S. Highway 183 between Johnny Morris Road and Decker Lane.


First is the definition of affordable housing. Affordable housing in the Colony Park plan means affordable to a family at 80 percent of the median family income. It does not necessarily mean new subsidies or vouchers for the neighborhood.


“Part of the clarification we need to get out there is that affordable does not necessarily mean subsidized,” Giello said. “We’ve driven the neighborhood out there, and we recognize there is a lot of substandard stock in the area, a lot of houses with absentee landlords, owners who live in other states. We hear that from residents, and that’s not what we’re trying to do here.”


What the city will do is either develop property or find a partner to develop property with affordable price points. Those price points are not dissimilar to many homes in the area. City officials, however, have agreed to back down on the amount of affordable housing in the project after the neighborhood raised concerns about the issue.


Originally, the proposal was 40 percent affordable housing. After the Colony Park Neighborhood Association raised concerns, the city went back to HUD to ask if it was tied to that figure. HUD said “no.” And both Giello and Nichols agree that 25 percent would be more feasible and attainable. It’s a similar percentage of affordable housing as found at Mueller, the mixed-use development on the site of Austin’s old airport.


“What we are committed to is to simply live up to the integrity of the values we set forth in our grant proposal,” Giello said. “Affordable housing is only one aspect of a six-point framework we presented. As the framework is developed over the next year or so, we look forward to developing a vision of the project with the community.”


That the master plan for the new community is such an issue contains some irony because the 250-acre parcel was once slated for a mobile home park. The city purchased the property more than a decade ago after hearing community outrage over those plans. The city has since held the property. And held it. And held it.


Now a federal grant has afforded the city the chance to take three years and $3 million to plan a project that address key core priorities of the Obama administration: a plan that leverages investments to create a mixed-use mixed-income community with a strong business anchor, good transportation options and a recognition of the values and goals of the surrounding community.


Another point that Giello wants to make is that Colony Park is not Mueller, except in the broadest terms of workability and affordability. But, like Mueller, the city wants a significant business anchor for the project.


“When we say mixed-use sustainable community, no doubt Mueller offers an essential demonstration of that,” Giello said. “You can see it, you can touch it, you can walk it. But we’re not looking for the Colony Park master plan or vision to replicate Mueller. We are not walking around telling people that we are going to create another mini-Mueller.”


Already, as a sign of its commitment to the project, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development has proposed Colony Park’s first major street project as part of the city’s proposed 2012 bond issue. The road project, and the master plan, would be used to attract a major business anchor to the area.


The city has scheduled an Imagine Austin workshop in Colony Park tonight that is likely to touch upon the future planning effort on the 208-acre Colony Park parcel. The meeting is at Overton Elementary School, 7201 Colony Park Loop, at 5:30pm.


On Aug. 2, the city has scheduled a public meeting for Colony Park residents to interact with the finalists up for the project’s engagement liaison, whom the city will hire to conduct outreach and facilitate communications between parties engaged in Colony Park. Nichols said the goal is to use that input, and other criteria, to score finalists and send a recommendation to Council in August for the contract.


For more info on the workshop and the Colony Park Sustainable Community Initiative, see the website:

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