Thursday, March 26, 2015 by Kara Nuzback

Swede Hill residents ward off condo proposal

The Swede Hill Neighborhood Association scored a victory at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting when commissioners denied a developer’s zoning change request to allow him to build condominiums in the historic neighborhood.

It was the second night in a row that the plan was a topic of discussion at City Hall. In February, after hearing about the proposed condominium development, neighbors fought to have all five of the houses on the developer’s site preserved as historic. On Monday, the Historic Landmark Commission voted unanimously in favor of historic zoning for one of the homes – the Stasswender House at 811 East 16th St.

Owner WJP Swede Hill, LLC did not oppose the preservation of the imminently historic Stasswender House at the Historic Landmark Commission, but did oppose a change in zoning for the other homes.

On Tuesday, developer Wes Peoples brought forward a plan to turn it into office space, and to tear down the three four multicolored homes at 908 E. 15th St., 807 E. 16th St. 807 1/2 E. 16th St., and 1506 Waller St. in order to build a 22-unit condominium complex.

Peter Cesaro, representing Peoples, said the properties abut Interstate 35; a limited office, mixed-use (LO-MU) zoning designation for the Stasswender House and condominium complex for the surrounding properties would provide a buffer between the highway and the neighborhood. Cesaro told the Commission that the condos would provide affordable housing to workers and students at the medical school and hospital located directly across I-35.

Peoples told the Commission the condos would likely cost $200,000-$250,000. “We’re trying to provide (residents) with some housing that’s more affordable than what’s out there today,” he said.

City staffer Heather Chaffin said the city did not support LO-MU for the Stasswender House, but instead favored the Historic Landmark Commission’s recommendation to designate the house historic with mixed multifamily and commercial zoning that would allow condominiums on the other sites.

Many residents of Swede Hill attended the meeting, several of whom spoke in opposition to Peoples’ request. Neighborhood association secretary Louisa Brinsmade said Peoples another developer made the same zoning request in 2008, and the city denied it for reasons that are still valid.

Brinsmade said the properties lie within the last four blocks of the original Swede Hill Neighborhood, settled in the 1800s. Swede Hill has accepted density on its periphery, but Peoples’ request would eat at the area’s historic core.

“Our neighborhood is but two blocks wide,” she said. “We are pretty much in peril if you give away this block.”

Neighborhood association vice president Paula Reckson, who also spoke for the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods, said the parcel of land has no direct access to I-35 and therefore does not need a buffer. The requested density is inappropriate for the established, older neighborhood, she added.

Bill Minor, Swede Hill Neighborhood Association president, said that with the area’s proximity to the University of Texas, it is already congested, and parking is a problem that would only get worse with higher density.

Swede Hill resident Rob Seidenberg added, “We’ve seen this type of erosion all over our city. What good comes from this rezoning?”

In his rebuttal, Cesaro reiterated that Peoples’ plan would incorporate the Stasswender House as a historic site, and the condominiums would be restricted to a 22-unit, energy-efficient complex. “There is already dense zoning in this neighborhood,” he said.

Commissioner James Nortey made the motion to designate the Stasswender House a single-family historic site and deny the remaining zoning changes. The motion passed 5-3, with Chair Danette Chimenti and Commissioners Jean Stevens, Stephen Oliver and Nuria Zaragoza voting in favor.

Commissioners Alfonso Hernandez, Brian Roark and Richard Hatfield voted against the motion.

This story has been corrected since its original publication.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

Swede Hill: Swede Hill neighborhood was once a former Swedish enclave just east of downtown. The neighborhood's boundaries are IH-35 to the west, Comal Street to the east, Martin Luther King Boulevard to the north and 12th Street to the south.

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