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Industrial lofts raise odd questions at commission

Thursday, October 9, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

A proposal to build mixed-use lofts in a South Austin industrial park found strange alliances and opposition at the Planning Commission last week, when neighbors supported a change to their neighborhood plan, but staff warned against an influx of residential use in one of the last industrial parks in the area.

Currently, the 9.4 acre tract at 113 Industrial Boulevard contains several industrial warehouses and buildings. Access to the land is through a 40-foot easement to Congress Avenue, a driveway to Industrial Boulevard, and a railroad spur right of way to Willow Springs Road.

The developer, GFD Holdings, would like to change the future land use designation from Industry to Mixed Use. That, and a zoning change, would allow the firm to build a 43,000 square foot shopping center, 400 apartments, a boutique hotel with about 80 rooms, a 5,000 square foot music venue and a parking garage.

Commissioners voted 7-0-1 to recommend the change. Commissioner Jean Stevens abstained, and Commissioner Richard Hatfield was absent.

“The zoning change doesn’t significantly remove or reduce industrial uses. It just adds a residential use,” said Commissioner James Nortey. “While the design is very, very impressive, we aren’t making a decision based on the design. It’s based on the zoning and uses. To me, looking at the future growth in the area … it makes sense to have residential uses.”

Commissioner Stephen Oliver agreed, saying, “Places do change, areas do need new life. Nothing ever stays the same.”

Staff did not support the zoning change because it is not compatible with the surrounding land use, which is heavy commercial and industrial. The compatibility concerns went both ways. Early morning hours, heavy truck use and other industrial hazards could present issues for residents of the area. But staff also had concerns about the impact of development on the industrial park.

“There are dwindling, fewer areas within the city limits for industrial uses, and we are pushing them out, with these cases, into the ETJ,” said Maureen Meredith, who works for the city’s Planning and Development Review Department. “This area is used by citizens. It’s easily (reached), it has good access, and as we get these zoning changes that are huge chunks of land requesting to be changed from industrial to other uses, we are losing this important element within the center city.”

Meredith said the neighborhood plan explicitly states that the neighborhood wants to preserve industrial uses along St. Elmo, and that she was confused why staff was being challenged on its attempt to follow the neighborhood’s wishes.

Commissioners Stephen Oliver and Leslie Varghese pointed out that there were areas in the country where people lived in the midst of industrial uses by choice.

Attorney Jeff Howard of McLean Howard agreed, and reminded commissioners that redevelopment frequently happens in central cities.

“Warehouses become lofts, brownfields become apartment buildings. This is how we regenerate. This is how we redevelop. It happens all the time. It happens every day,” said Howard. “It’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

“Nobody is being pushed out,” Howard continued. “The reality is, if this zoning case is approved, there will still be dozens and dozens of industrial tracts in this area. They are very small tracts. They are not suitable for redevelopment … but there is only one Congress Avenue. And it is indisputably and incontrovertibly designated a corridor for just this type of development.”

Robert Palmerton, who owns a number of nearby industrial buildings, agreed with staff’s recommendation. He warned that there weren’t many industrial areas left in the city and said that the proposed development would lead to an “unbelievable” traffic bottleneck and cause problems for workers nearby.

“Austin is well-known for being a high-tech town,” said Palmerton. “But not everyone is going to write software or develop apps. Some of us are going to be electricians, carpenters and plumbers. This area supports the trades and supports many jobs … If we allow this precedent to get started, we can slowly get pushed out of the neighborhood, and this could affect thousands of jobs. I’m afraid that if residents start to protest about the noise, or the chemicals a company uses, everyone will quickly forget who was here first.”

The South Congress Combined Neighborhood Contact Team voted to support the change to the neighborhood plan. But not all neighbors agreed.

Marta del Gato spoke on behalf of Voz de San Elmo, who is against the project and for the preservation of the neighborhood plan. She said the majority of people she was speaking for lived in nearby Foundation Communities housing.


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