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Council postpones decision on former Austin State School property

Friday, April 18, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

With only six City Council members on the dais, the vote on a contentious West  Austin zoning case was a draw Thursday night, pushing off further a decision that has been years in the making.


Developers are asking for Multifamily (MF-2) zoning on their parcel at 3215 Exposition Boulevard. Staff is recommending a lesser zoning – Single Family (SF-6). Council Members Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo and Mike Martinez voted in favor of that lesser zoning. Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole was absent.


Seeing another split Council in the future, Council Member Bill Spelman proposed a postponement until May 1. That option received unanimous support.


The land was formerly part of the Austin State School. Because the land was owned by the state, most of the two-acre tract remains unzoned. Because of this, the valid petition process doesn’t apply. Regardless, neighbors both in support of and opposed to the zoning showed up in force.


Developers are proposing housing on the site for residents 55 years and older. Though they are asking for a more intense zoning, they are also willing to abide by a 75-foot setback from the road, limit their entrance to one on Exposition Boulevard, and provide 10 percent of the units at 80 percent of the Median Family Income. They have also promised to place most, if not all, of the parking below ground. This is something that they say they cannot do with lesser zoning.


Husch Blackwell attorney Jerry Harris told Council that the price of the units would depend on how many were constructed. If the project is limited to 20 units, the prices would range from $1 to $1.5 million, and if they are allowed to build 34 units the prices would most likely shift to a range of $450,000 to $1 million dollars.


“It has been a hard case,” said Morrison. “What do we do about a piece of land that really needs to be part of a much-larger thought process about what the land use is going to be, because it’s really part of a larger piece…I’m concerned that putting a MF (zoning) there will serve as a precedent. I think that it will dictate moving forward with MF all along Exposition for the overall picture, and I don’t think that’s appropriate.”


“I’m very concerned when I hear we have to put ever single unit every place that we have a chance to put it. That’s not the way that I believe we should grow in this town. There’s plenty of room to put plenty of places for people to live,” said Morrison.


Many of those who spoke in opposition to the more-intense zoning expressed concern that it could set a precedent for the rest of the State School property which is about 95 acres.


“This zoning sets the tone for that whole tract,” said the West Austin Neighborhood Group’s Blake Tollett, who explained that the neighborhood association’s board of directors had voted to support staff’s recommendation.


“I can almost tell you that what’s on this tract is not going to be very significant to what happens on the State School tract,” said Harris, who was representing the applicant. “(That’s a) 95-acre tract that can be master-planned like Mueller and other projects if it ever happens. I think it’s very speculative to try and put that too much on this 2.1-acre tract.”


Many people spoke in support of the project, and the more intense zoning. One of those people, Frank Herren, said the project was “exactly what Imagine Austin calls for.”


“Exposition is not a predominately single-family neighborhood that needs preserving. It’s a major, commercialized thoroughfare,” said Herren. “Imagine Austin directs that our new citywide policy is to be more compact and connected, and to attain more density and a wider variety of housing options throughout the city. That’s exactly what this project will accomplish on a small scale. To resist this project, because it is the least impactful parcel, is to essentially exempt Tarrytown from Imagine Austin.”

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