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Planning Commission backs development on former East Austin tank farm

Monday, June 3, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission has thrown its unanimous support behind a proposed Planned Unit Development (PUD) which promises to revitalize what was once toxic land in East Austin. Not everyone in the neighborhood agrees, however.


When complete, the thinkEAST PUD will cover just less than 25 acres at 1141 Shady Lane and 5300 Jain Lane, converting what was once a fuel and hazardous materials tank farm to a mixed use development.


In all, the project entails a maximum of 444 multifamily units, 37,400 square feet of retail and office space, 118,800 square feet of live-work studio spaces, 62,400 square feet of creative studios and two or more civic facilities totaling 4,800 square feet.


In terms of community benefits, developers will offer nine acres of open space, including 1.3 acres of parkland dedication, on-site hike and bike trails, and will comply with three-star green building requirements, among other things.


The developer has also obtained SMART housing certification for the project. Summers explained that the affordability in the project was a two-step process. With a public partner, 332 units at 30 to 60 percent  Median Family Income or below. Without a public partner, 10 percent of those units would be offered at 60 percent MFI and 10 percent at 80 MFI, with both commitments for 10 years.


Commissioner Danette Chimenti said that she agreed the project was an example of what a PUD should be.


Developer Robert Summers told the commission that they had been working on the project for more than 18 months, and said the people who were speaking in opposition to it were “latecomers to the process.”


“We never heard word one from any of these folks until they hopped up before we came and talked to y’all about the postponement a couple weeks ago,” said Summers. “We have worked with the neighborhood representatives through the contact team for well over 18 months. We have the neighborhood support unequivocally on this project.”


Daniel Llanes, who is a member of the Govalle/ Johnson Terrace Neighborhood Planning Contact Team, explained that they had been working with developers for almost two years.


“We have been part and parcel of the plan,” said Llanes. “Our concern is the adverse effects of gentrification on this traditionally Latino and African-American low-income neighborhood… This is a low-income neighborhood. To object to low-income housing in a low-income neighborhood is a little odd for me. This project, singularly, is a model project for us.”


Alex Zankitch spoke against the development, and claimed that the Neighborhood Planning Contact Team had never bothered to come speak with those who lived nearby. He said that he wanted to see the land retain its current single-family zoning. He told the commission that he was offended about being labeled a “johnny-come-lately” when he wasn’t told about the development in the first place.


David Castronovo, who shares a residence with Zankitch, was more blunt.


“There’s plenty of property around Austin for affordable housing. There shouldn’t be 100 percent in this neighborhood. I don’t think the developer would want it in their neighborhood, and, frankly, I don’t think you would either,” said Castronovo.


Zankitch argued that the PUD is not actually on the site of the old tank farm. Though a map provided by Summers showed that the development is not on the tank farm entirely, he called the claim “demonstrably, factually false and preposterous.” He went on to say that it was an insult to all of the residents impacted by the environmental crimes, the activists that fought against them, and people who had worked to clean up their contamination.


Susana Almanza of PODER noted that out of 52 acres of tank farm, this was the only tract whose owners agreed to clean up the land to residential standards.


Summers told the commission that it was clear that those who oppose the project are investors, and five of the seven emails written in opposition to the PUD came from their tenants.


“He’s an investor, and he believes that affordable housing in his neighborhood is bad for his investment,” said Summers. “What they are saying is an anathema to the entire discussion we’ve had… about the need for affordable housing. It’s beyond belief to hear it.”


The Planning Commission voted 8-0 to support the zoning change. Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez was absent.


“We have been diligently working, and we believe this will be a win-win situation for the entire neighborhood. It’s going to increase property values, and certainly make a terrible sour lemon into a wonderful lemonade,” said Llanes.

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