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Council OKs divisive affordable-housing apartment complex

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite a valid petition and an outcry of neighborhood opposition, the Austin City Council moved forward with a divisive Montopolis rezoning last week, making way for a 252-unit affordable housing community.        

 

The California-based Cesar Chavez Foundation would own and manage the planned Estancia del Rio apartments, which officials with the nonprofit organization said will have 80 percent of the units set at 60 percent the city’s mean family income, and the remaining 20 percent at 50 percent of the mean family income. The community also plans to offer free after-school tutoring for children who live there.

 

The arguments have been heated on both sides of the rezoning and the proposed apartment development at 1700 1/2 Frontier Valley Drive near East Riverside Drive.

 

Neighbors who opposed the project asked Council to disregard the Montopolis Neighborhood Planning Contact Team’s vote to recommend the rezoning of the 10.65-acre parcel from commercial to mixed-use. Complaints about the Oct. 4 meeting, in particular, flooded the city. Both sides have alleged misconduct, which led to a Planning Commission resolution about Planning Contact Teams’ conduct (See In Fact Daily Oct. 11, 2011.)

 

A valid petition against the rezoning stood at just over 30 percent of the property owners within 200 feet of the project, but the Council’s 7-0 vote was enough to pass the project on all three readings. The city requires that if at least 20 percent of the nearby property owners sign a valid petition, but the petition can be overturned by a supermajority vote by City Council (at least 6 out of 7 members) to approve a rezoning.

 

For the most part, City Council focused on issues of connectivity in the development, centering on the placement of right-of-way for a collector street and whether the gates that will surround the development could be removed. The answer was no.

 

Council Member Kathie Tovo said that she was “very sorry” that the issue had become so divisive for the neighborhood, but explained Council was asked to make a land use decision, and the zoning change was compatible. She stressed her commitment to affordable housing throughout Austin.

 

“This is a very good development, a very high quality affordable housing development for this tract of land, and I think it’s one deserving of our support,” said Tovo.

 

Developing more affordable housing was the hot topic among residents. Some opponents objected to concentrating affordable housing in their neighborhood. But those in favor of the rezoning pointed to the loss of affordability in the larger Riverside Corridor in recent years,  and across the city.

 

Council Member Laura Morrison said the city was on a path to put affordable housing throughout the city. But that did not preclude more affordable housing in Montopolis.

 

Opponents also focused on the lack of density on the lot, and objected to its lack of compliance with the not-yet-passed East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan, which is scheduled to go before Council in November.

 

Frontera Montana Homeowners Association and Arbor Condominiums expressed opposition to the project. The neighbors who opposed the rezoning requested a postponement of the case until December. But Council denied the request unanimously.

 

Susana Almanza, who is the chair of the Montopolis Neighborhood Planning Contact Team,  presented a long list of organizations that supported the rezoning. “These are the organizations that represent the Montopolis community,” Almanza said. “Those are newcomers, and they do have a voice. But we have people who have been there decades.” 

 

“Here is a group of residents that live in one little section,” Almanza said. “They live there, they are new to the community, and now they are fighting the affordable housing. I think it’s a real irony, because the Montopolis community supported that subdivision and now, here, we are trying to bring some affordable housing, and we’ve got opposition from the people who are living in affordable housing.”

 

Amelia Lopez with the Austin design and engineering firm MWM Design Group explained that there were state tax credits at stake that the developers would use to secure financing. She said the development team had voluntarily returned to the Planning Commission and the neighborhood with a modified request for less-intense zoning, putting off their original City Council date. She said there was little more that could be worked out.

 

“We’ve worked very, very closely with the neighborhood groups that were supporting and opposing this project. We’ve responded favorably to practically everything they’ve asked us to do, and every time we have there have been more requests. We are out of what we can do. We’ve given everything we possibly can,” said Lopez.

 

Lopez said that she didn’t anticipate a return to Council to complete the project, though this does not necessarily mean an end to the community’s divisions.

 

“I realize there are a lot of issues surrounding this, and I’m not just going to let these issues sit  here tonight and not be worked on moving forward,” said Council Member Mike Martinez. “We clearly have some controversy with neighbors. We have some conflicts with how history has played out in this part of our community and I don’t think these issues are going to go away.”

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