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Housing, not retail, on the way for East Austin

Tuesday, November 4, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

A fight for more retail space proved unsuccessful at the Planning Commission last week, where commissioners unanimously approved a conditional use permit that will allow an affordable housing project to be built despite the neighborhood’s wishes.

“It may not be perfect … But you can’t always get perfection, especially when you are trying to build an affordable housing project like this,” said Armbrust and Brown attorney Richard Suttle, who was representing the developer.

Builder David Knoll with Ryan Companies US Inc spoke in favor of the Conditional Use Permit. He explained that they would be building the project with the help of 4 percent low-income tax credits and plan to build 91 one-bedroom apartments, 171 two-bedroom and 28 three-bedroom apartments. Knoll said that all of the proposed apartments would be for those earning 60 percent Area Median Income, or AMI, which is $30,000 per year for a single person or $40,000 for a family of three.

Developers were required to get a conditional use permit from the Planning Commission in order to build a multifamily affordable housing project on the 21 acres at 5605 Springdale Road. The city added a conditional overlay to the property that required a conditional use permit for multifamily housing when the property was rezoned seven years ago, at the request of the neighborhood.

Neighbors hoped to leverage that condition to bring more retail to the area.

DeWayne Lofton, president of the Pecan Springs neighborhood association and a candidate for City Council, spoke on behalf of the neighborhood, which voted against the project. He said the proposed development wasn’t “entirely bad” but asked commissioners to condition their support on the inclusion of ground-floor retail.

“If any of you guys are familiar with that area, you know it is a retail desert,” said Lofton. “There is nothing over there. Every single service we need, we have to drive out of the neighborhood.”

Knoll said they had met with the neighborhood on several occasions, but “couldn’t get where they wanted us to be.” Developers do plan to build a cafe in the complex. Neighbors worry that the proposed cafe in the leasing office, which will be open during business hours, is destined to fail.

Lofton explained that the neighborhood asked developers of multifamily projects to include a community benefit, and they wanted that benefit to be retail. He said that other parts of the city routinely required retail as a condition of multifamily development, and his neighborhood needed it more than other areas.

“The communication simply broke down because they weren’t able to give us retail,” said Lofton. “What they have offered us is not anything close to what we would consider acceptable.”

Lofton said that the area was a “low income dumping ground” and the neighborhood wanted to see higher quality development, and more home ownership.

Suttle pointed out that the proposed coffee shop was about 1,000 square feet of community area that could be used for meetings and gatherings. He explained that more extensive retail space could throw parking requirements “out of whack” and, ultimately, threaten the ability to finance the project.

Commissioner Stephen Oliver asked about the “reluctance to provide a little bit more than extremely token retail.”

“It’s token retail, it is,” said Suttle.

“We’re not in the retail business. We’re in the affordable housing business,” said Suttle. “It’s not appropriate, I don’t think, from a land use standpoint. We’re right in the middle of a block. We’re surrounded by green space … there’s not adequate sidewalks. It’s not an area that you want to be drawing people to outside of being able to get there and live there.”

When asked whether it would be possible to build space that could be transformed into retail if the neighborhood changed, Suttle said because of the financing involved with deep affordable housing, the prospect made him uncomfortable.

Commissioners voted 8-0 to approve the conditional use permit, with Commissioner Brian Roark absent.

“I really sympathize with the neighborhood. The retail that they want in this area isn’t there yet, but I don’t see it happening in this project,” said Oliver.

Commissioner Lesley Varghese pointed out that Austin was facing a housing shortage, and questioned whether the housing might not meet a need in the neighborhood. Lofton acknowledged that there was a citywide need for affordable housing, but explained that the neighborhood did not want to see multifamily housing built.

“It’s not something that people want,” said Lofton. “Could the argument be made that it might serve some folks? Absolutely. But that same argument could be made in any part of Austin.”

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