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Planning Commission OKs apartment project near East Riverside

Tuesday, September 25, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Austin’s Planning Commission gave a nod to rezone land near East Riverside Drive for a 252-unit multifamily affordable housing project, but residents are divided over whether the city’s ambitious plan to redevelop the East Riverside corridor will displace affordable housing in the area.


The Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team offered a letter of support for rezoning the 10.65-acre parcel from commercial to mixed-use to make way for the La Estancia Del Rio apartment project on Frontier Valley Drive, something that would have been unlikely even a year ago.


The proposed project would be owned and managed by the nonprofit Cesar Chavez Foundation, which was created by family members of the late civil rights leader and United Farm Workers founder. The foundation’s website says “more than 4,300 units of high-quality affordable multi-family housing have been built or renovated and are being professionally managed” in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.


Susana Almanza of the neighborhood contact team provided letters of support from a long list of neighborhood groups and People in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER), a group that advocates for environmental, social and justice issues. Almanza is the longtime leader of that group.


Opposing that point-of-view were almost two dozen individual homeowners, many of whom did not testify, but came to the meeting to complain about too many apartment units in the neighborhood and the resulting stress the project would put on the drainage system. Lobbyist Ron Thrower, who represented the property owner to the west of the proposed apartment project, also was on hand to protest the proposal’s lack of roadway connectivity.


Planning Commissioner Danette Chimenti, who has spearheaded the East Riverside Corridor Project, said she understands how development incentives might mean the demolition of many of the affordable units along the corridor as upscale apartments are built.


“The corridor plan, as I have seen it, has a lot of extra entitlements to encourage building and to get community benefits,” Chimenti said. “There are going to be an awful lot of affordable apartment complexes all along the East Riverside corridor that are going to be displaced and that’s going to displace a lot of folks.”


The developers of La Estancia Del Rio, who are seeking low-income housing tax credits to finance the project, are aiming to set rents so that they are affordable for families earning 50 percent to 60 percent of area’s median family income.


Steve Helms said the nonprofit foundation would put units on the ground for 94 cents a square foot. Units across the street were built at 81 cents a square foot. And upscale construction just to the west was being built at up to $1.80 per square foot.


“We think that the developers of those properties might disagree, but we think our properties are pretty comparable in quality to what they’re building,” Helms said, responding to questions about affordability.


Homeowner Stefan Wray, who opposed the rezoning, posted a map that showed the vast majority of subsidized housing in Austin is east of Interstate 35. Wray pointed to more than 1,000 affordable units within a one-mile radius of the proposed project on Frontier Valley, pointing to Fairway Village, Grove Place, Riverside Meadows, Santora Villages and Town Vista apartments.


“You could say we have more than our share,” Wray said.


Pam Thompson, who said the floodplain issues of Montopolis Road pose problems, followed Wray. She said “our little creeks” were incapable of handling the runoff from another project on Frontier Valley. 


Thrower argued that additional roadway connectivity was need on the project, which used 10 of 17 available acres.


Agent Amelia Lopez, who represented the foundation, offered concessions on the idea of a connector street. She also pointed out the plan was filed before the corridor plan was completed and prior to new connectivity requirements. Lopez offered 25 feet and then, pressed by ex-officio member Jeff Jack, offered up 37.5 feet, which could provide half of a dedicated roadway.


City Planner Lee Heckman and transportation reviewer Shandrian Jarvias cautioned the commissioners against putting requirements into the zoning vote. Jarvis said the density and number of units at La Estancia Del Rio were not sufficient to trigger a traffic impact study. Because of that, requirements like right-of-way dedications and traffic signals could not be on the table.


Lopez had offered a restrictive covenant for the right of way dedication. But Commissioner Stephen Oliver mused that even that might not be necessary after the city’s commercial design standards were applied to the property in the site-plan process, which is still ahead.


Oliver, whose specialty is urban design, was not happy to see a fence and gates on the property. It didn’t say “new urbanism” to him or capture the new corridor’s vision. Almanza of the neighborhood contact team countered that any number of apartment complexes along the corridor were gated, and she wasn’t convinced it would limit connectivity.


The only logical place to properly space connector streets would be to bisect the property, Thrower told the commission. However, Howard Lazarus, director of the city’s Public Works Department, cautioned commissioners against making a motion based on what could or might happen in the transportation plan on what might still lack funding.


An initial motion by Richard Hatfield on the zoning and future land use map, and seconded by new Commissioner Myron Smith, was reworked to exclude any discussion of the restrictive covenant. Instead, the motion was strictly the staff recommendation of CS-MU-CO-NP, which would use MF-3 development standards. That motion passed on a vote of 7-0-1, with James Nortey abstaining and Alfonso Hernandez absent.


Austin City Council is scheduled to hear zoning case on Thursday, though the In Fact Daily hears that will likely be postponed.

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