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Split Council rejects high-dollar condos in low-income neighborhood

Monday, March 24, 2014 by Kara Nuzback

In a 4-3 vote, the Austin City Council narrowly denied a zoning change to allow for condos on a plot of land at 600 Kemp St., a small road that runs perpendicular to Montopolis Drive.


Council Members Laura Morrison, Mike Martinez, Bill Spelman and Kathie Tovo voted against the new zoning.


Before the March 20 vote, several residents of the Montopolis neighborhood testified the proposed development would open the flood gates to gentrification in one of the city’s last affordable areas.


The zoning change – from SF-3 to SF-6 ­­– would have allowed property owners Joe and Jackie Stafford to develop the 5.4-acre plot into a 45-unit condominium complex with privately-maintained roads and pedestrian lighting.


Ron Thrower, of Thrower Design Land Planners, said although the development would be in the style of condominiums, the units would be single-family, stand-alone structures. The units would cost between $200,000 and $250,000 each, he said.


“We would certainly agree to no gate on the property,” Thrower said.


Thrower said the zoning change was consistent with the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan and the Imagine Austin Plan.


Thrower said he expected the majority of the condos would be owner-occupied. If council did not approve the zoning change, he said, the Staffords would build duplexes on the land, which would likely be renter-occupied, and the grounds would not be privately maintained.


City staff recommended the plan, but the Planning Commission voted 5-0 to oppose the project at its Feb. 11 meeting.


Florence Ponziano spoke in favor of the zoning change, saying it would diversify the neighborhood. Ponziano operates Florence’s Comfort House at 515 Kemp St., which provides services for underprivileged children in the area.


Kemp Street residents Georgia Steen and Regis Conti testified separately that they initially signed a petition to oppose the development, but had since changed their minds.


Neighborhood resident Susana Almanza testified against the project, saying it would open the flood gates to gentrification in Montopolis and drive residents out of the community who have lived there for generations. “This is a low-income, working-class community,” she said. Almanza is a likely candidate for Council in the fall.


Almanza said threatening to build duplexes was the developer’s attempt to pull the wool over people’s eyes. “The developer does not want duplexes. There’s no money,” she said. “They’re not in the market for renting; they’re in the market for selling.”


Almanza said the developer has attempted to buy the support of neighbors on Kemp Street. She said the proposed development is not consistent with the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan, adopted in 2001, and the Montopolis Neighborhood Contact Team has already voted to oppose the project.


Anjelica Noyola, president of the Montopolis-Ponca Neighborhood Association, said she worried the proposed development would invite higher property taxes and more traffic, which could pose a danger to children in the neighborhood.


“This is a community of families,” she said. “We would like to continue to promote that versus an overrun of young, single hipsters more concerned about how fast they can get to downtown from Montopolis.”


Noyola said, “This developer does not respect our community.”


Andrew Dobbs, who resides at East Oltorf Street and South Pleasant Valley Road, said the Southeast area is one of the few affordable places to live in Austin. “It’s one of the only places in the city where you can work for a grassroots nonprofit and take the bus to work,” he said.


Dobbs warned council against creating a city like San Francisco or an area like Manhattan, where diversity has been pushed out by the high cost of living.


“You have the power to stop a problem tonight,” he said.


Morrison made the motion to oppose the zoning change. She said Montopolis was at the tipping point of becoming gentrified, and Council should do what it could to maintain the character of the neighborhood. “There’s only so much we can do,” she said.


Martinez said residents opposed a 45-unit condominium, but were open to the idea of building more affordable homes on Kemp Street. “Why won’t you negotiate more with the neighbors?” Martinez asked Thrower.


Thrower said Stafford specializes in condo-style developments. “My client firmly believes this project is a good product for the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s going to look and smell just like single-family.”


Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Member Chris Riley cast the dissenting votes, supporting the zoning change.


Leffingwell said the proposal was a matter of zoning and had nothing to do with diversity or cost of living. “I have not seen a case made that SF-6 should be denied,” he said.


Riley said the plan was consistent with the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan and the Imagine Austin goals. He said every neighborhood in the city is expected to embrace a diversity of housing, and Montopolis is not an exception.


Cole said zoning is not a tool to protect the neighborhood from becoming gentrified. “I think gentrification is bigger than that,” she said.

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