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Planners endorse rezoning for ‘model project’ with affordable housing units

Thursday, May 30, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

A unique project that promises to retain affordable housing in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood won the full support of the Planning Commission on Tuesday night, which endorsed the rezoning for the Oak Creek Village project at 2324 Wilson Street.


Commissioner Danette Chimenti said that the project sets a great precedent in the city, creating what she said could be a “model project” for Austin.


“This kind of thing is what we need in Austin, if we are going to maintain any level of deeper affordability in Austin,” said Chimenti. “This is precisely the kind of project that we need.”


The owner of the property, 2007 Travis Heights LP, was seeking a zoning change from MF-3 to MF-6. They agreed to limit the height to 60 feet, impervious cover to 70 percent and restrict vehicle access to West Oltorf and South First streets. They will also limit the total number of units to 486. This number has been reduced from the original 580 units after a compromise with the neighborhood.


In return for the upzoning, the developers have agreed to retain all 173 affordable units that are currently on the property, despite the fact that a Housing and Urban Development contract that mandates affordability is set to expire. For the past 40 years, the property has been home to residents who earn less than 50 percent of the local Median Family Income, as part of a HUD program. The property is just one of those that were part of the first wave of HUD contracts in Austin that are now set to expire.


Under the terms of a private covenant with the current tenants, the developer will also commit to relocating tenants while construction takes place (if necessary) and agree to retain the affordable units for the next 35 years. The remainder of the units, Phase II of the plan, will be market-rate condominiums.


In March, City Council unanimously voted to approve contingent funding for the project in the amount of $2 million. That money is dependent on the project receiving tax benefits from the state. That process is underway, though zoning for the project must be in place by an August deadline.


Though the city cannot legally require private restrictive covenants, the Planning Commission “strongly recommended” that one be in place with the tenants’ association before City Council approved the zoning. They also instructed the developers to continue to work towards a compromise with the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association.


The Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association has remained neutral on the development, though they have held several meetings on the topic. Several neighbors spoke at the meeting.


Attorney John Donisi explained that they had voluntarily approached the neighborhood with a private restrictive covenant that would not allow developers to utilize any of the entitlements from the upzoning unless they provided 173 affordable units on the tract for the next 35 years.


“If someone is a tenant in the Oak Creek Village today, in good standing, they will be a tenant in the Oak Creek Village Apartments upon the completion of the redevelopment,” said Donisi.


Koreena Malone spoke on behalf of the Oak Creek tenants, in support of the rezoning. She explained that after negotiations, she believed the result would be beneficial to residents, and would allow them to keep their community intact. She assured the commission that there would be a bond in place to help ensure the covenant is honored.


Kurt Cadena-Mitchell who is a leader with Austin Interfaith, also spoke in favor of the rezoning. He explained that the plan would prevent the displacement of more than 600 residents, noting that a staggering 15 percent of Travis Heights Elementary School students live in Oak Creek.


“We really do think that this development could be a model for what developers could do with increased entitlements,” said Cadena-Mitchell. “This has been a lot of negotiation to get a good deal, and we think there should be more like them.”


Kevin Lewis, who is a member of the neighborhood association worried that the increased zoning would set a precedent for interior streets in the neighborhood. He cited several traffic and traffic safety concerns that remained outstanding.


“Ultimately, everything may not be doable, and no development is perfect, but it’s not wrong to ask for it to be better,” said Lewis.


The Planning Commission endorsed the Oak Creek Village rezoning on an 8-0 vote, with Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez absent.

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