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Angry neighbors welcome Council to zoning

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council heard its first zoning case on Thursday night. The hours-long battle between neighborhood and development interests on Burnet Road was, most likely, an accurate welcome to the process.

In the end, plans for a multifamily project at 8528 Burnet Road continue to crawl forward.

The developer, C.J. Sackman of Sackman Enterprises, is asking for a change to MF-6 multifamily zoning from the current General Commercial Services (CS) zoning. He has agreed to conditions that limit the height of the building to 60 feet, which is what is allowed under the current zoning. He also agreed to limit the number of units to 225, and the floor-to-area ratio to 2:1, which translates to about 244,000 square feet.

Council members voted 7-4 in favor of that change and those conditions on first reading. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen and Ora Houston voted in opposition. The project is in District 7 — Pool’s district.

Pool said she had been working on the case with the neighborhood and developer for some time. She said that, though the neighborhood was not anti-density, residents were worried that allowing MF-6 zoning would lead to “unlimited density” on Burnet Road that the corridor could not handle.

Pool said that though neighbors would agree to MF-4 zoning, the developer would rather walk away than accept MF-4 zoning, which would cut the developable area by half.

Pool then made a motion to deny the zoning on first reading, before the public hearing had taken place. Later, after both sides had spoken, she moved to grant MF-4 on first reading only. But a substitute motion by Council Member Pio Renteria for the more intense MF-6 zoning ultimately prevailed.

The case was a chance for some Council Members to weigh in on a zoning case for the first time.

Council Member Sheri Gallo said that she wanted to be sensitive to neighborhood concerns, but didn’t understand their reasoning. In particular, she expressed confusion about why the neighborhood would rather have commercial zoning on the land rather than residential, when it had potential to increase density and traffic without adding housing.

“There are a lot of young professionals that are moving to that area that like the ability to walk to restaurants. And that area is certainly expanding and growing in that direction,” said Gallo.

Renteria said he was a big supporter of density and that people shouldn’t be afraid of it, because it increased pedestrians, safety and local businesses.

Though the switch to MF-6 would technically be a downzoning from the current Commercial Services (CS), neighbors still opposed it. Most of their complaints centered on increased density and the accompanying traffic.

Kevin Weir spoke in opposition to the zoning on behalf of the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Association. He told Council that the zoning was also opposed by groups “up and down the Burnet Road corridor,” including the Wooten Neighborhood Executive Committee and the Allandale Neighborhood Association.

Weir said that they were not obstructionist or anti-development, but the area already had twice the density of most of Austin, and they just wanted a say in what was built.

During the discussion, there was a lot of back and forth about whether the project was near transit or not. It is less thanabout a quarter-mile from a rapid transit bus stop, and directly across the street from in front of the No. 3 bus. Some neighbors argued that wasn’t close enough to be practical.

Sackman pointed out that his project would generate 8,000 less trips per day than if the land was built out as an office or car dealership, as would be allowed by the current zoning. He also disagreed with the idea that the project was far from transit.

“I’m from New York. We walk six minutes to get somewhere,” said Sackman. “Some mentality is going to have to change with these new options, to get people out of their cars. I think providing the infrastructure and density around these transportation options is how we start that trend and how we optimize all the money that’s been spent on these bus transit lines.”

During the hearing, Council members also heard from Mike Gordon and his wife, Loretta Gordon, who have owned and operated Gordon Automotive on the site for the past 50 years. Loretta Gordon explained that over the last four years, the taxes on the land have risen from $20,000 to $43,000 annually, forcing them to sell.

Loretta Gordon expressed disbelief that the neighborhood was opposed to the project.

“Burnet Road is a high-density road. It has a bike lane, mass transit … you even have a lighted crosswalk,” she said. “There’s more people moving into that area, and they are making it more conducive to live there. You are talking about 300 people that are coming to move into the area. And I, for the life of me, can’t figure out how that would be a detriment to neighborhoods that aren’t even close by.”

Council will consider the case again, when it returns for second and third readings. Though the developer and neighbors will have time to come to an agreement before then, it was clear that a majority of Council considered the rezoning within the realm of reason.

This story has been corrected to more accurately reflect the location of both bus stops.

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